by Jenny White
My friend and colleague Corky White likes to regale me with family legends, some of which are quite dramatic in both human and historic terms. They form a stark contrast to my own family history, much of which is unknown, and the part that is known consists of Bavarian peasants all the way down. At some point my grandparents moved from the Old Mill Valley to a regional city and their offspring spread themselves wide across the class spectrum and, in our case, across the globe. My uncle once put together a shallow genealogy, showing where family members were born, toiled, reproduced, and died. There are personal sagas involved in all this – my grandmother met my grandfather when they worked on the same farm, she as housemaid, he as stable boy. He stole up the stairs at night. My mother brought me with her on an ocean liner that docked in New York, where neither of us had ever been. But these are not family legends, they are not even stories people tell each other. They’re too personal, or too uninteresting to other family members who, after all, are living their own complicated stories.
What’s the difference between people who trace genealogies and families like Corky’s that collect legends? As legend has it, Corky’s grandfather, Mark Isaacs, was Abel to his elder brother’s Cain. Cain was Sir Rufus Isaacs, Marquess of Reading, Viceroy to India, who was implicated in the 1912 Marconi scandal in England. Somehow Sir Rufus put the family shame on Mark, who was expunged from the family and given a choice of Canada or Australia, where criminals were sent. If you google Marconi Scandal, you find a third Isaacs brother mentioned who actually managed the Marconi Company, but not the youngest brother, Mark aka Abel. Corky’s legend diverges from the historical narrative because legends privilege those parts of the story that have psychological saliency for the group that owns the legends. What do people learn or gain from performing these narratives at the dinner table, in the car, to children and friends?