- Kentucky Clay: Eleven Generations of a Southern Dynasty
- Chicago Review Press, 256 pp.
As Mary Wiltenburg wrote in the Christian Science Monitor, “The number of people publishing their family histories has lately reached a high not seen since the ancestry craze of the late 19th century, when old-money heirs and social climbers raced to claim impressive pedigrees and secure their place in high society – or at least the DAR.”
Wiltenburg’s calling it an “ancestry craze” is all the more true today than when she wrote this four years ago. As families continue to scatter, it may be that the desire to reconstruct the virtual family out of the imaginatively reconstructed and/or genealogically scientific past reflects a natural compensative impulse. The population in the U.S. has continued to add years to the life span, and free time plus female computer savvy and new software have facilitated the genealogical search: statistics show that most of the ancestor hunters out there tracking in the electronic field are women of a certain age.
In turn, as desk-top publishing has grown more common, family history publishing has developed from the amateurish, local and self-celebrative to books of broader historical interest expected to contribute new information—letters, diaries, lists of names and events recorded in family Bibles—to American history and other fields of scholarship.
The offerings are also expected to perform in the wider marketplace. Only one example is Jane Brox’s Five Thousand Days Like This One, an American Family History (1999), which was of sufficient general interest to be reviewed in the mainstream press including the Washington Post, Boston Globe, and Publishers Weekly.
It’s out of the niche and into the Walmart and, as a sales phenomenon, all the more impressive in consideration of the general collapse of other trade book publishing. The latest wrinkle is a rash of books explaining how to publish a family history, with titles like To Our Children’s Children, Preserving Family Histories for Generations to Come; You can Write Your Family History; Scrapbooking Your Family History, and so on.
This is the background for Kentucky Clay, Eleven Generations of a Southern Dynasty by Katherine Bateman, who has a Ph.D. in art history from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and has taught art history at Berea College in Kentucky and at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her family had illustrious early American connections: Whig leader Henry Clay (1777-1852), a golden-tongued, old-style senator from Kentucky, famous for saying, “I’d rather be right than president,” was a cousin of Bateman’s ancestor Cassius Marcellus Clay.
The cousins Henry and Cassius took opposing sides on abolition, however, and their stories, as Bateman tells it, are fascinating. Henry was a slaveholder rumored to have nasty overseers whereas at age seventeen Cassius, a student at Yale University, freed the dozens of slaves he inherited along with his father’s Kentucky plantation. Later Cassius published an anti-slavery newspaper that was hounded out of the state and had to be published in Cincinnati. Under President Abraham Lincoln, he served as America’s ambassador to the court of the Russian czars. Remaining in St. Petersburg a decade, he became involved with a Russian ballerina and, using a Bowie knife, fought a duel with her aristocratic husband.
Bateman’s approach to her family’s history is first of all deeply felt and deeply personal. Her store of anecdotes and recollections, particularly of a grandmother pregnant seven months who roller-skated down ante-bellum sidewalks, can be captivating. As a writing style, it can occasionally produce overly-embellished moments: “The silence floats towards the table’s foot, still one conversation and then the next, until the daughters and the sons sitting at the far end of that long family table realize that all talk has stopped but theirs and the silence becomes complete. When Mary gasps…” and so on for twenty-three more breathless words until the end of the paragraph, by which time I too was gasping.
As she explains in her introduction, “In the South, stories are the effervescence of conversation, and no stories are more gripping to an audience—relatives and stranger alike—than those about family.” More than most similar works, Kentucky Clay is based upon accounts handed down as family lore (as she would learn, these accounts were not always accurate and, not surprisingly, were sometimes censored when they involved purportedly shameful escapades).
As she also goes on to explain, in the north old money matters whereas in southern states, it’s old names that count because “‘the family’ means ‘the bloodline….. In the North, the Midwest, and the West I imagine generations of children have never heard of good breeding outside a barnyard or a racetrack. In the South good breeding and family bloodlines are common topics at the dinner table.”
Such contrasts are both her strong and weak points; in a book addressed to the general public, this apparent vaunting of Old-South upper-crust particularity begs misreading. As a reader interested in American history, I am fascinated by her account of a great-great’s stealing three Native American children and popping them into his house as slaves; the children and grandchildren of these same slaves then successfully sued for their freedom, and granddaddy was convicted in 1773 by a North Carolina court with a jury.
Good for them and for the court.
At the end of her quest to learn about her ancestors she achieves clarity. “By following the Clays—and the Cecils and Wittens and the Burns and the Batemans who married into the family—across Virginia and into Kentucky, I learned about a wide swath of American history.”