Books, Families, and Family Trees | Page 67 | Newberry

Books, Families, and Family Trees

            Upton Sinclair did not approve of genealogy.

            This does not surprise me so very much.  For one thing, a lot of people don’t think much of genealogy, and for another, there doesn’t seem to have been all that much Upton Sinclair DID approve of.

            In a book called Money Writes!, Sinclair snarls at fascist and materialistic influences in the literature of the 1930s.  In the chapter where he attacks the work of James Branch Cabell, something else I wasn’t surprised to learn he didn’t like, he takes a sideswipe at Cabell for having made a living as a genealogist, one who searches out or invents, he says, lavish ancestries for the wealthy.  He is really upset with Cabell’s attitudes toward free love, which he feels contributed to the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases among college youth, but it is his genealogical attitude that interested me.  (How books affect the sex lives of college students is a whole nother blog…or possibly a 28-part PBS miniseries.  If Ken Burns has nothing better to do, he might give it some thought.)

             I have always been grateful to genealogists for keeping stories alive.  The stories don’t have to be earth-shattering: in fact, if they were, they probably wouldn’t need a genealogist to preserve them.  What reminded me of this was a fine old dictionary by that fine old dictionary-maker, Dr. Samuel Johnson.  It’s in decent shape, barring the fact that the covers are getting loose with age, a not uncommon state for a leatherbound book from 1760.  A previous owner, one James Cornish, wrote his name on the title-page a quarter of a millennium ago.  If he made other notes, I haven’t found them.

             On the principle that somebody buying this masterpiece in 1760 must have been an interesting chap, I did a bit of Google work, to no avail.  James Cornish is not a very uncommon name, and despite all my attempts to add a few bucks to the price of the dictionary by indetifying him as Sam Johnson’s accountant or bookie, I could turn up nothing.  Subsequent owners had put a bookplate on the book, really digging it into the inside of the cover.  These were a Miss Cornish and a Miss Sarah Cornish of Blackmore Hall.  I know how this works: Miss Cornish would have been the older sister and Miss Sarah her junior partner.  Looking up Blackmore Hall, I find it is now a social and athletic club whose website says nothing at all about dictionaries.  This left me with one Sarah Cornish, who had an older sister and a father or grandfather named James.

            The WorldWideWeb has been a boon to genealogists: there are all sorts of ancestors out there.  I must inform you that, at least as far as the genealogists are telling, neither Miss Sarah (1796-1850) nor her older sister Esther (1795-1861) is anybody’s ancestors.  They died “without issue” as the phrase runs.  (There were other brothers and sisters, so don’t fret about the Cornish family.)  They did, however, have a father, a grandfather, AND a great-grandfather named James.  Father James (1768-1837) was a writer of the genteel 19th century sort—he left some impressive manuscript work but didn’t publish much—and he inherited Blackmore Hall on the death of another relative.

            His father was Dr. James Cornish, M.D.  (1743-1828) who practiced and published, but not out of Blackmore Hall.  Of the three Jameses, I like him best as the man who wrote his name on the title page of this dictionary.  The idea of a future doctor and author of a pamphlet exculpating Devonshire cider from causing endemic colic buying Sam Johnson’s dictionary when he was 17 or 18 thrills me.  But more likely it was his father James, the Collector of Customs at Teignmouth (1722-1785) who bought the book and passed it down through the generations.  There’s a picture of his with his family on one website, and though the genealogists do not say which person in the picture is which James, it’s entertaining to think I have looked upon the face (or a digital scan of a photograph of an engraving of a painting of the face) of the person who picked up this book 250 years ago and decided to add it to his library.

             In the end, this adds nothing to the value of the book, and what Upton Sinclair would have made of my search I’m not sure.  But I think I’m glad he’s not alive and blogging.


I'm a great fan of Daphne Du Maurier. Indeed only last year I marched arnuod the countryside trying to get a glimpse of Menabilly (managed to see one chimney pot). But we have to accept that the ability of her name to draw visitors will decline as the years progress. Unless of course, someone re-films Rebecca or Jamaica Inn. Sad but true.

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