Sunday, February 03, 2008

Digging into Groton Digging into Me

Today, a brief genealogical foray slid into an hours-long expedition culminating in Groton, Suffolk, a minor town once lorded over by Bury St. Edmunds, and currently the site of the remains of a twelfth-century fortification. Why should this matter? Because without Groton, there'd be no me. Thanks to the discovery of my mother's name on the Doggett Family genealogical site, I traced my ancestry back, at least in one line, to my great-great-great-great-great-great- great-great-great-great-great grandfather, Richard Doggett (d. c. 1540), whose wealth from the cloth trade and land made him the richest member of the village of Groton in the early sixteenth century. Would that some of his money had made its way to me!

To my horror, I learned that my great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather, Benjamin Doggett (d. 1723 in Lancaster County, Virginia) owned slaves, a woman named Criss, and two men, Mingo and Tom. I also learned that my self-trumpeting over being the first member of my family to graduate college now needs modification, because I've just trapdoored myself by several centuries. Benjamin Doggett, father to the above Benjamin, entered St. John's College, Cambridge, in 1654/5, and his cousin Thomas matriculated from Queen's College in 1640. If the statute of limitations are still good, perhaps I can recommend my nephews for legacy admissions?

The point of all this? I don't know yet. I just found it an amusing coincidence that in a week in which I'm teaching the Wife of Bath I discover not just another enormously wealthy dealer in cloths, but the clothmaker as a version of myself. To be sure, Richard Doggett lived a century and some change after the Wife, and on the other side of the country...and he wasn't fictional: still, I felt some connection, as if my time, my memory, had been brushed by the inhabitants of an England that I had thought had been safely just an object of study, present only in the pleasures of playing with texts and the occasional, and perhaps feigned, horror at past catastrophes. Does the genetic path from late medieval Groton to this Brooklyn medievalist materialize these pleasures and griefs, render them something more than professional play? I don't know. I can say, however, that I'm another clerk distracted by a master of "clooth makyng." Let's hope I don't need a Griselda to set my head aright!

(photo from here. thank you!)


Anonymous said...

I've always thought family history was a wonderfully fun way of understanding one's own links to the past. It can be both exhilirating and heartbreaking. Regarding your status as the first member of your family to graduate from college, however, that may still stand. Many of the young men who attended Cambridge colleges back in the early centuries did not bother to graduate; they might matriculate (which is done nowadays upon arrival, though maybe back then some of them needed a short stay to get to that point) but it was not about taking a degree; it was about making contacts and gaining a little experience, rather like 'finishing school', before moving on, perhaps to the Inns of Court, or perhaps back to the management of one's estates. No doubt you would still be recognised as a descendant of an Old Member of the colleges in question though. We have long memories here.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I enjoy tracing ancestry for the very reasons you make clear here, Karl: a connectedness via genetic descent (no matter how distant or diffuse) is an invitation to place ourselves in times and expanses of which we'd otherwise ave to consign ourselves to be excluded observers. Knowing that an ancestor walked upon some ground gives us the license to participate in a place's history, if even from afar. How fascinating to find an ancient Karl in Groton! Though I'm not sure what this ancient Karl does: de-individualize you by replicating you throughout time (one recurrence of a figure who keeps coming back), or supremely individualize you because it is YOU after all who keep coming back.

Karl Steel said...

Thanks, Sylvia, for the note on early Cambridge. Very interesting! an invitation to place ourselves in times and expanses of which we'd otherwise ave to consign ourselves to be excluded observers

But it's also an invitation I'm not sure I should accept. After all, there's a strong identitarian charge to doing genealogy that, as a good poststructuralist, I should resist. I'm glad, then, to think of the discovery of the 'ancient Karl' as you suggest it, Groton digging into me as I dig into Groton, each--and here the standard D&G tropes rush in--disaggregating and reclustering the other. I also like to think of my own Norwegian name as a kind of return of the repressed for Suffolk.

But genealogical investigation is also, as too many people know, an invitation to frustration and, from that frustration, an invitation to meditate on who gets mourned, and who gets recorded, for what purposes--birth registers as surveillance, for instance. I think also of Benjamin,
"There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another. A historical materialist therefore dissociates himself from it as far as possible. He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain."
Given Criss, Mingo, and Tom, given that my (Christian) ancestors were recorded and persisted in an England that had suffered ethnic cleansing a few centuries prior to the emergence of Richard Doggett, am I not also a record of barbarism?