17 January 2012


     I was listening to recitations of Walt Whitman's poetry on YouTube the other evening, so naturally, I began musing about family history. Naturally? Well, I'll explain that connection in a bit. (What doesn't get my obsessed mind thinking about family history?).
     I thought about the television commercial where a man relates how he discovered that his family lived near the Wright brothers. Today, most of our celebrity sightings are on film, television, and computers. We attend rock concerts in big stadiums where we watch the stars singing on big screens because they are small figures on a faraway stage--same for most sporting events and political rallies. But back in the day, shows and concerts and speeches were often more limited gatherings. Celebrities were more accessible to the common man, at least better seen with one's own eyes.
     What celebrities or political figures might your ancestors have met? Did a grandfather fight for Irish independence with Michael Collins? Perhaps a great grandmother met Synge or Yeats at an Abbey Theatre performance? Watched a Buffalo Bill Wild West Show? Heard Lincoln speak?
     As if you don't have enough research to do, here is another idea to keep you busy: research the entertainment venues of your ancestors' times and locations. Read the old newspapers to see what shows were in town and what celebrities or political figures might be visiting nearby. Even if you never find evidence of your ancestor's attending a rally or a show, you will have a clearer vision of their lives. You will get an idea of their dinner conversation. You can imagine what the ladies gossiped about over the fence while hanging laundry.
Walt Whitman tomb
Harleigh Cemetery, Camden, NJ
     I had never thought of a possible connection between my ancestors and the poet Walt Whitman until the other night.  Both Whitman and my Magee ancestors resided in Camden, New Jersey, in the 1880's. They did not live too far from each other in the downtown section of that small city across the river from Philadelphia.  I never made the connection because I figured, well, surely they traveled in different social circles. But then I remembered that my great grandfather's sister, Margaret T. Magee, was a teacher and school principal who loved poetry. On my bookshelves are great great Aunt Margaret's volumes of poetry by Keats and Byron. Somehow, they survived being handed down through the years. I like to think they survived because they were so beloved by her. Would Margaret have been interested in the eccentric poet that lived a few streets away? Whitman was in his declining years, but still famous and controversial. What did she, obviously a fan of the Romantics, think of Whitman's free verse and his celebration of the common man? Did he visit her school? Did she attend his readings? I'll never know, but what fun I had imagining Margaret and  me, together, listening to Whitman's poetry the other evening!