Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The reliable or unreliable narrator of family history

Researching family history is highly involved with use and understanding of narrative discourse. We often discuss the reliability or unreliability of the narratives (stories, biographies, notes, etc.) that we read as we conduct our research.

I am reminded of Seymour Chatman's communication model, which describes the relationship between narrator and narratee (who is actually a part of the "story" in a sense, and beyond to the implied reader (intended but not necessarily personally known by the teller) and the real reader, as addressed by the real author and the implied author. Without getting into the intricacies of the model, and without trying to aim for perfect application of the concepts, I would like to consider the interesting aspect of reliabilty in the telling of stories.
I  like to be very open-minded about clues, because I know that I will double-check every lead that I find. I can reject anything later, but I'd like to have a good look at it first. And I enjoy finding illogical stories almost as much as I enjoy putting a family tree together step by step, logically.

I recently came across a public family tree online that had some information that looked helpful. I hadn't seen anyone else who had that connection. My first clue that I might be dealing with an unreliable narrator came when I saw that the Revolutionary War service papers were from Virginia, and attached to a man from New England. It wasn't time to reject the information, but time to be a little more cautious. I then saw that the son was born several years after the father died. Then I knew that the tree owner was of the habit of attaching information to a name, without verifying that the information or checking to see if there might be other men of the same name. So I knew that this was an unreliable narrator, as created by the real author of the tree, and that the stories told would not be helpful to me. The owner of this family tree was very eager to prove that the ancestor had served in the war, and was probably a little too eager to do so, missing some truth in the process of writing the tale.

There are many reasons that we have unreliable narrators to inform us about family history. Some are working hard, but are not checking their information; some are attached to what they hope will be the truth. Some are working with good information that seems logical, but it may not be the best information. I think of all of genealogical research as the result of the best work that has been done at the moment, and any of it may be adjusted, improved, or reversed with better information.

There can be unreliable narrators at any time--now and in the past, and the stories of people real and fictional can be told and retold. The burden is on the reader to decide whether to enjoy the story for what it seems to be, or to question the narration and double check the details of the content. If your informer appears to be attached to a narrative rather than to facts, that is lovely, but will not help you build or expand your family tree.

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