Family History Quotes

In the Jewish cemetery of Brody, Ukraine.

I collect quotes that get at the heart of what it is to do family history research. Here are some of my favorites:

The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
— George Eliot, Middlemarch

To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.  For what is the worth of human life, unless it be woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?
— Marcus Tullius Cicero

Ardent Italian, how is it you keep
bringing our ancestors back to life;
and let them speak to this dead century
in its haze of tedium?
And, language of our fathers
silent so long, how is it
we hear you loud and clear and often now?
— Giacomo Leopardi, To Angelo Mai, On His Finding the Manuscript of Cicero’s De re publica (translated by Jonathan Galassi)

If you project yourself into the mass of things, if you look for things, if you search, you will, by the very act of searching, make something happen that would not otherwise have happened.
— Daniel Mendelsohn, The Lost

A lifetime’s study will not make accessible to us more than a fragment of our own ancestral past, let alone the aeons before our race was formed. But that fragment we must thoroughly possess and hand on.
— A. S. Byatt, Possession

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.
— Maya Angelou

Tell me, and I’ll forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I’ll understand.
— Chinese proverb

If a story is not about the hearer he will not listen. A great lasting story is about everyone or it will not last. The strange and foreign is not interesting — only the deeply personal and familiar.
— John Steinbeck, East of Eden

You define yourself, or you are defined.
— Saul Bellow

The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life, in general, so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it — this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience, and they occur in country and in town, and in the most differing stages of education.
— Henry James, The Art of Fiction

Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely…What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts.
— Ta-Nehisi Coates

Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again.
— Henri Cartier-Bresson

But questions, I’ve learned since, can be like ocean currents. Wade in a little too far and they can carry you away.
— Donovan Hohn, Moby-Duck

The distinction between our family histories and what we call History, with its pompous capital letter, makes no sense. It is strictly the same thing. We do not have, on one side, world leaders with their authority and their televised speeches, and on the other side the backwash of daily life, short-lived hope and anger, the anonymous tears, unknown people whose names rust at the bottom of a memorial to the deceased or in some countryside cemetery. There is only one freedom, one finitude, one tragedy that makes the past our greatest resource and the basin of poison in which our heart bathes.
Ivan Jablonka

All historians generalize from particulars. And often, if you look at a historian’s footnotes, the number of examples of specific cases is very, very small. As we do our family trees, we add specificity to the raw data from which historians can generalize. So when you do your family tree and Margaret Cho does hers, and … Wanda Sykes and John Legend … we’re adding to the database that scholars can then draw from to generalize about the complexity of the American experience. And that’s the contribution that family trees make to broader scholarship.
Henry Louis Gates

These are difficult texts to read, the mixture of fact and romance, or information and disinformation, liable to induce feelings of panic in anyone looking for facts.
― Mary-Kay Wilmers, The Eitingons

I’ve always found this story unbelievable.  It’s the five-mile-walk-to-school-uphill-both-ways story that your grandfather tells to make you feel weak and lazy.  In [my] family, it’s the cornerstone of a religion… I sometimes think a family is no more than a collection of such stories, a chronicle that locks you down like the safety bar that crosses your lap before the roller-coaster leave the platform, without which you would fly away in the turns.
― Rich Cohen, Sweet and Low

Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them.
— George Eliot, Adam Bede

No disrespect to these great names. The fault is ours, not theirs.  They mean us to use them for sign-posts, and are not to blame if in our weakness we mistake the sign-posts for the destination.
— E. M. Forster, Howards End

If to remember is to be human, then remembering more means being more human.
Ed Cooke

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
— William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

Without any imagination, this is all a pile of rubbish.
Jens Notroff

We are our stories.
— My father (amongst others)

The more written, the more seems to remain to be written; and the night cometh.
— Thomas Hardy, introduction to Tess of the d’Urbervilles

I’m a streetlight, chillin’ in the heat
I illuminate the stories of the people in the street
Some have happy endings; some are bittersweet
But I know them all and that’s what makes my life complete
And if not me, who keeps our legacies?
— Lin-Manuel Miranda, In the Heights (listen)

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