My Ancestors

I HAVE just received the gift of an impressive parchment bearing in fine script a record of the long line of ancestors responsible, each in part, for my appearance on earth. The modern genealogical chart mercifully does not take the form of the biological ancestral tree from the lower branches of which apes unpleasantly leap. Instead it bears a striking resemblance to the Ptolemaic system of the universe, concentric circles and radiating lines, with one’s self instead of the terrestrial orb occupying the strategic position at the centre. Round about me as a focus are ranged, tier upon tier, those lesser luminaries, my progenitors.

When I study the parchment and meditate upon that converging multitude of forbears, noble and peasant, proud and humble, living their little span of life and passing on, links in the chain whose obvious purpose was the filling of that central circle, I am at once modestly overcome and agreeably flattered. Only a carping critic could take exception to such a series: statesmen, governors, Quakers, Shakers, a few witches and a judge or two to condemn them, and a large amount of royal blood. What families those old kings must have had to supply every American who can afford to set up a family tree direct ancestors among the rulers of the earth! Even where royalty is not definitely indicated, suspicion points that way. My chart confidently says, ‘Line probably noble.’ Of course. Why not? For the sake of the nobleness in other men, sleeping but never dead, I must cultivate my own.

I make rapid calculations. If my blood is so royal, am I not essentially royal myself ? If I assume that I have four quarts of blood, my computations give me two teaspoonfuls of royal blood, three of noble, and the balance just blood. But if one drop of Negro blood makes a man a Negro, do not two teaspoonfuls of the regal essence entitle me to wear the purple? I feel satisfied in my own mind that they do, but when I think how difficult it would be to get the idea over to my barber or the elevator boy I feel as if I must confine the expression of my conviction to putting out the cat with the hauteur of a Plantagenet.

My ancestors must have married off their boys and girls uncommonly well. There is not a serf, a defaulter, or a garbage-collector in the entire tree. There were a few agriculturists among the number, but an explanatory item draws attention to the fact that they were primarily ministers of the gospel, and merely tilled the soil on the side.

I looked in vain for a suggestion of the gallows. Who would not be proud of a pirate or two among his ancestors, or a bandit, say of the period of Robin Hood? But my ancestors seem to have been of a uniformly moral and tractable type. It is hard to accept gratefully so docile a background. Think of the ignominy of inheriting a germ plasm containing not even a single gamete from a man radical enough to get jailed or deported or hung!

In that impeccable series of exemplary parents, devout churchmen, righteous citizens, there is nothing inspiring prior to my coming. Is there upon me an obligation to work out, in my one incarnation, the law of compensation for all the tame lambs who were my predecessors? Must I pay the arrears of lost opportunity, of wasted initiative, of passive acquiescence, in one life of wild defiance? It would be a task of Sisyphus. Perhaps a Lenin could do it, but not a plain American who loves his home and obeys the traffic regulations.

My one comfort lies in the blanks that occur here and there in the penumbra of my chart. Nothing apparently could be learned about those obscure but necessary links. Does that simply mean nothing good? Has history drawn a smoke screen to hide them? Are they unhonored and unsung because of deeds of daring, so reckless as to incite others to dangerous emulation, or merely because of lives of utter inanity?

I like to think that those unrecorded ancestors expiated the virtues of the family line by deeds of darkness; that they wiped out generations of stodgy living by breathing the air of lawless adventure. Never to have been a lawbreaker in certain periods of the history of the race is never to have had an idea, never to have displayed so much courage and imagination as a rabbit. I fill the blanks with ancestors of my own choosing: Eric the Ruthless; the Rebel of the Roanoke; Peter the Pirate of the North; and, possibly, the Sleuth of the Slums. My ancestresses I leave as they are. A female pirate’s life would be hard and in the main unrewarding, so I will let the ladies sin vicariously through their sons.

My children look at the chart with lacklustre eyes. ‘It’s the bee’s knees,’ they observe, irrelevantly it seems to me, ‘to have such a tediously Nordic bunch of ancestors. Thank Heaven we’ve got some real sports on Mother’s side. Poor old Dad, that’s where you lose out, having only half as many chances to be brilliant by way of heredity as we have.’ The younger generation wins as usual; this time by being entitled to two charts where we have but one.

Professor Haldane of Cambridge predicts that it is within the realm of possibility that new members of our human society will be eventually produced by ectogenesis, and that in one hundred and fifty years from now perhaps less than thirty per cent of children will be born of women. What a bracing new trend it will give to genealogical study! We shall no longer be interested to carry our lines back to semisavage feudal lords, but shall claim to belong to test-tube series 124, pure Anglo-Saxon culture, or to the product of Laboratory WXZ, Alpine-Mediterranean cross, or shall ascribe our superiority to the experimental admixture of a dash of Semitic for ability, of Celtic for wit, with a Teutonic base for survival value. We may even assert a right to the good things of the earth on the basis of having been developed in the chosen solution. We shall have at any rate the solid satisfaction of finding our qualities no longer dependent upon chance, but scientifically predictable like those of our fellows, the Luther Burbank potato and raspberry.