Welcome to our guest blogger – Walter Struve from the Information Services team.
At what point do we see family histories as part of broader histories, both national and trans-national, with an ability to add detail, depth and meaning to these broader histories? Similarly, at what point can family historians turn to academic historians for inspiration as well as basic questions such as: what is history actually for, and what is one aiming to do when one undertakes historical work?
A Melbourne historian, Graeme Davison, has provided very useful background for some reflection on this. Two of his books in particular stand out. The first, published back in 2000, is a set of reflections on ‘The use and abuse of Australian history’, with one chapter devoted entirely to family history. The second, published in 2015, is a family history called ‘Lost relations: fortunes of my family in Australia’s golden age’, a work described by one reviewer as ‘a quiet masterpiece’.
I have lately been leafing through them. The chapter on family history in the first book, a chapter that had first appeared in a shorter version in 1994, gives the best survey of the subject, from an Australian perspective I have yet come across.
Next to the USA, he writes, Australia appears to have the highest (per capita) number of family historians. Why? In the USA there were three big waves: the first came after the American Civil War, the second came in the 1930s, and the third in the 1970s and 1980s.
Is there something ‘objective’ about family history that offers reassurance to us? Could it be, as Davison suggests, a ‘last refuge of scientific history’? Family historians, he writes, ‘are often formidable historical technicians, experts on the “how” of history’.
In earlier times, family history was the preserve of established families, such as great pastoralist families. Two such histories, Judith Wright’s Generations of Men, and Mary Durack’s Kings in Grass Castles, appeared in 1959. Judith Wright told the story of pastoral pioneers in New England and Queensland, and Mary Durack told of pioneers in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. In 1981, Judith Wright took her history a step further, in The Cry of the Dead, and now tackled ‘head-on’ the question of European invasion: ‘The union of land and lineage that she celebrated in her own forebears’ history is now relocated to the Aborigines they dispossessed’, Davison noted.
Germaine Greer’s Daddy, we hardly knew you (1991) is an example of something quite different, a case of tracking down a story of ‘a man without a past’. For Germaine Greer, the endless sleuthing – ‘slowly, along faint trails and up dead-ends’ – was an act of making peace with ‘that unknown father who preceded, and perhaps co-existed with, the father of painful memory’.
Davison’s many examples reveal how family histories do add to a wider, deeper picture of a nation. The art and craft, and dogged determination, of family history can be far more important than any of us may dare to admit.
Source: Graeme Davison, The Use and Abuse of Australian History, Allen & Unwin, 2000.