Neil Genzlinger's New York Times column on tonight's premiere of "Who Do You Think You Are?" warns potential family historians not to get their hopes up.
Some of us may take the genealogical plunge expecting cool family stories like the ones the celebrities get, only to find that we’ve been ordinary and uninteresting since we were living in caves.
My own tree, for instance, shows that, on my father’s side, Great-Grandpa Fred and Great-Grandma Elisa came to the United States from Germany on the same ship, the Noordland, in June 1889, apparently meeting onboard, down in steerage. That’s nice, but more legacy-conscious ancestors would have instead survived the Johnstown flood, smashed a Champagne bottle at the opening of the Eiffel Tower or refereed the legendary 75-round bare-knuckle fight between John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain, all of which took place that same year. [Link, via]I can't tell which premise the writer bases his argument on: Does he believe that celebrities have more "interesting" ancestries than the rest of us? Or does he think that the celebrities featured on WDYTYA were chosen because their ancestors were not "ordinary"?
I've researched a few celebrities' genealogies over the years, and the conclusion I've drawn is that they are fairly representative of the population at large. Sure, there are some whose careers were founded on the careers of their ancestors (I'm looking at you, Drew Barrymore), but most sprang from stock as "ordinary and uninteresting" as that which gave rise to Neil Genzlinger. If the celebrities appearing on the show have interesting ancestors, it's only because every celebrity has interesting ancestors.
Of course, judgments of "interestingness" are subjective, and snobbery has had a place in genealogy from the start. But the vast majority of committed genealogists—the genealogists I know and whose writing and company I enjoy—are as pleased to find a turnip farmer in their tree as to find a king. If information on the turnip farmer's life is scanty, it's because it was never recorded. It's not because that information was not worth recording.
In place of Genzlinger's warning, I'll offer my own: If you intend to become a genealogist, leave your snobbishness behind. It will only get in the way of appreciating the lives of your dead ancestors and your living cousins.