In my preface I said that I feel the need for closure when I write something descriptive and with the Nomlaki ethnography I hit on Maurice Opler’s then new idea that every culture has central themes. I want to play with this idea here with respect to my own cultural background.
The most prominent one is the complete absence of any religious beliefs or practices and, aside from my mother’s rather childish anti-religious posturing, not even the mention of them. Thus there is no set of dogma and, along with that, no personification of any moral authority; all moral imperatives were internalized as such. At the same time it was very strongly and deeply internalized; there was no equivocation about the morality; it stood, so to speak, to reason.
On my father’s side, the central themes seem to have been conscientious performance of duty, for which you will be rewarded — on earth, not in heaven. Max Goldschmidt’s myth was also that absolute honesty was essential and while I did not imbibe that myth directly, the virtues of work, diligence, and honesty were to be on display to me in my father’s behavior and demeanor.
Finally, there seems to have been a recognition that all people are worthy. I think this was implicit in Opa Rochs’s liberalism as well as his interest in folk culture, and certainly this was being transmitted by my mother. This attitude that all people are of social worth is clearly an anticipation of the anthropologists’ cultural relativism.
Archive for August, 2009
In my preface I said that I feel the need for closure when I write something descriptive and with the Nomlaki ethnography I hit on Maurice Opler’s then new idea that every culture has central themes. I want to play with this idea here with respect to my own cultural background.
Hermann and Gretchen were married in 1904. After a luxurious honeymoon in Mexico visiting with papa’s former business associates, they bought a house at 315 Adams Street, on the fringes of the prosperous German neighborhood not far from the house mother had grown up in.1 This was my place of birth, and was home for each of us children until we successively left for college and the pursuit of our careers, and mother’s home until she sold it in 1962. Papa had died in 1938. Built in the 1880s, it fit the mold of the German American community, a broad front porch with a gingerbread banister, behind which were floor-to-ceiling windows, true brick construction in the front part, Germanic, substantial, but not fancy or, for that matter, not really adequate for a family of five. Its best feature was a lot 110` x 120` that extended to the street behind, which was back alley to us but not to the residents there. The well-heeled newlyweds furnished it with a heavy “mission style” dining room set, an 8-piece bird’s eye maple bedroom set, glass-fronted bookshelves with Das Grosse Brockhaus, the collected works of Shakespeare along with modern books in the parlor we always called the library. There was bric-a-brac from Germany that included miniature busts of literary figures and, in the dining room, some oils on wood painted by a Mexican artist. The front part had a kind of Germanic Victorian (shouldn’t it be called Bismarckian?) elegance that deteriorated as one moved to the back. When I was a boy the Mission-style sideboard contained the remnants of the refinement with which it had once been filled, such as fine German hand-painted fish plates and platters, and the matching glass Schrank that held elegant tinted long-stemmed Bohemian (Czechoslovakian) wine glasses and gold-inlaid liquor glasses and carafe.
These artifacts speak of middle-class opulence with a German accent that was long gone by the time I was a sentient member of the ménage. They bespeak entertaining the families of the old L.U.C. crowd and new business associates. There was a gardener-butler of English descent who probably also doubled as syce. Old Balderson was the hero of one of my mother’s stories; one that amused us as children but now tells me as much about mother as it does about papa. One day she came home to find a big pile of dirt right in front of the front door. Mother called him and said something that would now be rendered as “What the hell goes here?” to which he replied, “Well, ma’am, the master will find something to complain about when he comes home and he might as well be done with it right away.”
This prosperous life was interrupted by the death at birth of their first child in 1906. They went on what was always referred to as a second honeymoon, which netted more grainy fading pictures of Mexican scenes and friends in the family album. The boy had been named Hans, as in Hansel and Gretel and my sister, Dorothea, after Hermann and Dorothea (though always called Thea), born in1908, bespeaking both their Germanic and their literary slant. Arthur, who had the nickname, Buntz1, the etymology of which is unknown, was born in 1910, just as a disaster befell. A large shipment of coffee from Mexico that had been signed off on in error was waylaid by insurgents during the Diaz uprising in that year and the loss was devastating. This was followed with another tragedy, coincident with my birth in 1913, the fire of an uninsured lumber mill in Louisiana; a loss that apparently was the final blow to papa’s San Antonio business venture, for soon afterward they rented out the house and moved to Fredericksburg, where we remained until 1918. I never heard papa mention these matters once, having learned them only from mother. She once told me how the loss in Mexico happened. As it was in revolutionary times, I thought it just one of those things that happen, but it seems that she had signed off on the bill of lading herself, and she assured me most insistently that papa had insisted that she do that. I can’t entirely rid myself of the feeling that “methinks the lady doth protest too much.” We will never know and inasmuch as I now find that this loss was, to me, a blessing, however well it was disguised, there are no recriminations in my heart.
The response to the second disaster was a move to the little town of Fredericksburg, a community that had been settled in the ‘fifties, I think by peasants, lying some 80 miles west of San Antonio, a distance that was a full day’s trip even then because of the terrain and the roads, though now it is an hour’s drive. Fredericksburg is a story in itself, a cultural enclave that seems to have been taken from Europe peasant by peasant, like Hearst castles were taken brick by brick. Though now but an hour’s drive and a tourist attraction, it was then a remote village of German peasantry, a full day’s travel from San Antonio, in which most businesses as well as the schools, were conducted in German. Whether this move had been made, as my brother says, for papa’s health (Fredericksburg is in the cooler “hill country”) or because he needed work, or both, I don’t know. He went as a wholesaler of grocery supplies, a kind of internal importer, I presume, and moved into an old stone mansion that could have been the set for The Addams Family. I arrived as a child in arms and left at five and have few memories of life there, but it served as a rich source of family stories. The tone of these memories is one of pleasant bemusement at the local peasantry, I think it was a relatively happy time for them, who, being more urbane and more educated than the natives, took on leadership roles from the outset. There was the story of papa’s Solomonic solution of a troublesome local issue. There were two moieties in Fredericksburg, die Oberstadt and die Unterstadt, each with its own public services, including the very essential water wagon to wet down the broad, dusty main street. The town square with the post office was neutral territory and neither moiety would operate its water wagon on it (to universal discomfort). Papa, the neutral, supplied the solution: alternating days.
But the favorite story gave us a quote from Lena, mother’s peasant Dienstmẩdchen, who replied to mother’s asking if she had had a good time at the party, saying: “Ach ja, Ich war die shaenste und die shmartzte und konnt auch die beste tanze” (I was the prettiest and the smartest and could also dance the best). Forever after, when any of us came home feeling satisfied with some social or academic performance, we would quote Lena. Then there was Buntz’s brag that he spoke three languages, English, German and “Katolisch,” referring to the local Bauerndeutsch. The subliminal message is one of class superiority without disdain for the less educated. Mother, the only woman with a college degree having children in school, was immediately elected president of the PTA, and initiated an institution that remains today. Fredericksburg was known to world travelers since early in the 19th century for having the best food anywhere in the Texas culinary desert. Mother established a project for the school girls to record the recipes of their German peasant mothers. It was not an easy task, as the women never considered measured amounts, but used handfuls, pinches, bunches and the like so the girls had to stop them to measure the amount. They took to the task and the Fredericksburg Cookbook was born. Mother was honored at the 50th anniversary, when a new edition was published, along with a facsimile of the original. It is now something for the tourists to buy.
I don’t know why we left Fredericksburg. We had moved out of the big house some time before, perhaps as an economy measure or because an earlier effort to move had aborted. I don’t think mother and papa were unhappy there for they reminisced about Fredericksburg with pleasure and visited there frequently. Perhaps they saw no future for them there. Earlier plans to move back had been frustrated because papa was an “enemy alien,” never having finished his citizenship application, and this forbade them from living within a mile of the arsenal. A re-measurement at 315 determined that the bedroom was beyond the one-mile line and the refusal was rescinded. A tale of misplaced wartime fanaticism. The anti-German propaganda during the war was atrocious, as I could see when I leafed through the scrapbook my father had masochistically made, and Tex says in his oral history that he had nightmares over the fear of the knock on the door. I did not have such memories.
All of what has been said so far is background – my cultural heritage. Those first five years of my life in Fredericksburg are really as mythical to me as my great grandmother’s vilification of the “blackbirds” or my grandfather’s Horatio Alger beginning. I have very little memory of Fredericksburg, just fleeting scenes cut into my mind: when I found the dog our neighbor had poisoned; the hot afternoon we chased after a plane people thought was coming down, the nightmare that drove me into my parents’ bedroom and a vague scene or two at the Charles Addams house. That is why I have included this section with my ancestral beginnings rather than with the life that I knew after we got back to San Antonio.
I have treated the Rochs family story as if it were clan history, believing that its mythic value was more important to my development than the facts themselves. My father’s taciturnity with respect to his more prominent social background makes such a line of reasoning tenuous with respect to his side — but the facts are of interest and they still have relevance to uncovering the domestic culture of the household I grew up in. Papa was as taciturn about his background as my mother had been exuberant and most of what I know came through her or have learned later in life. I don’t know why this silence but I suspect that his youth had been unhappy and, by the time I knew him, his own career was a great disappointment. It may also be in part that he did not want to continue the stigma of being Jewish, inasmuch as he had been baptized as a Christian and had none of the public aspects of Judaic culture. There were no yarmulkes or mezuzahs, bar mitzvahs nor visits to the temple, and only much later did I learn that such artifacts existed. I do think some of the covert attributes of Judaic culture were there, such as the imperative for being successful and respect for learning, and were part of my cultural heritage. It is not that papa denied this Jewish background, for there is no ambiguity about this heritage in the fragment of memoir that he wrote, which I saw only after Tex died, which Tex had himself never seen.1 It is a fascinating, beautifully written 18 pages that demonstrates an erudite, sentimental German, with words in German, Spanish, Latin and some French and references to current literature and 19th century music. It also reveals a man who is painfully aware of not having fulfilled what he thinks his parents wanted of him, and certainly not what he wanted to have become. This I had been aware of, yet it was painful to read and feel his pain.
Mother had never met any of his family until she visited Germany in 1929, long after all of papa’s generation were dead and only some nieces remained. I met these first cousins when in Germany in 1954 and was delighted to learn of kindred whose nobility was inspiring. One was the widow of a World War I casualty and the other her old maid sister, the daughters of a medical doctor. Descendants of apostate Jews, they were involved in the underground during the Hitler era until they were arrested by the Polizei. The officer recognized the name of Preetorius and discovered that these were the daughters of the doctor who had saved his life as a child. He let them go with the admonishment that he could not do it a second time. Much later, I met another member of my paternal clan, a second cousin whose father had immigrated to Belgium and taken on the hyphenated name of Goldschmidt-Clermont. This cousin Paul was an engineer with special professional interests in welding. He had been a member of a group of men who were secretly planning for the social welfare protection for Belgian youths who had been taken off to Germany by the Nazis. What was to become of them when they were to return after the war? There is a plaque on the church in the village where they met in Paul’s summer home to hammer out post-occupation policies without Nazi knowledge – it was not on his house because his wife did not want the place to be a museum. Because of my father’s silence about his background, these stories had no direct influence on my psyche as a youth. They do give me a sense of pride now, bespeaking an old family tradition of moral probity and social conscience.
Some of the Goldschmidt ancestry is discussed in papa’s memoirs. He gives genealogical data that starts with the recognition of knowing nothing prior to his grandparents’ generation, saying he supposes their parents had been “itinerant Jewish trades people, socially and politically beyond the pale of the law.” His grandfather was Hyem or Heyman, born in 1802 and married to Jeannette Hernsheim, the daughter of a well-to-do family from Alzey, a small town near Mainz. Papa describes them as struggling with a small lumberyard in this small town, failing to note that his grandmother belonged to a large and prosperous family that had become Protestant. They had eight sons, among whom my grandfather Max was the eldest. I have a lovely pastel portrait on paper painted in 1837 when he was but three years old, done by an accomplished artist, I judge, and not by an itinerant amateur. I dare not take it from its frame, as it is badly cracked, but a carefully left window in back gives dates and other information. Papa also tells of his father’s description of a rather idyllic childhood, with classical music and reading Goethe and other classics aloud in the parlor or garden, depending on the season. All this does not square with the neediness that inspires the grandparental Horatio Alger myth that follows.
According to papa’s document, after finishing his schooling, his father went to seek his fortune, vowing to help his impoverished parents educate his young siblings, and landed his first miserable apprenticeship as a result of an incident that seems stolen directly out of Horatio Alger. It goes like this: walking away after being rudely dismissed by the distant relative from whom he was seeking employment, he stooped to pick up a pen he saw on the floor and put it on a nearby desk. This display of virtue led the bluntly dismissive relative to reconsider, and gave Grandfather Max his first miserable apprenticeship. After similar acts of virtue and gentle derring do, he got to Monterrey, Mexico, where he was taken on as the leader of an itinerant trading convoy in the backwoods of northern Mexico by other distant relatives. His rise over the next fifteen years in the business world was spectacular and he turned over a thriving corporation of which he was sole owner to some of his brothers and returned to Germany to retire as a wealthy man. He had, earlier, returned to Germany and picked up a bride belonging to the very large and prosperous and aformentioned Hernsheim family and my father was the middle of their three children, born in Mexico. Max and his bride were cousins, for papa’s maternal grandmother was also a Hernsheim.
Let us look briefly at these double ancestors. Papa lists and identifies most of this ancestry; it is studded with enough prominent names of the day to make a boy want to brag about his background, had he only known it. Papa starts with a Mendez who he identifies as “an immensely wealthy banker in Amsterdam and Frankfurt am Main” who married “a Venetian girl of an old family” named de Texeira. Among the 18 children she bore was a daughter named Sophie who married a Jurist in Mainz named Ludwig Hernsheim, whose daughter, Julia was papa’s mother. Ludwig also had a sister named Jeannette who had married Max’s mother, as already noted. As I was not told these stories as a child but learned them only after I had spent a lifetime examining social behavior, they do not form part of my mythology and I find them useful only in illuminating the man who was my father, who was so enigmatic to me and who I will later discuss in some detail.
Meanwhile, Julia had two brothers, who were both prominent pioneers in South Seas exploration. I have in my files a manuscript copy of a memoir written by the younger brother, Eduard, whose tale also has a bit of Horatio Alger in it.1 I learned by happy accident that it has, along with other papers, been published in English.2 On the first page he says: “My parents had joined the Protestant church and my father was one of the foundation members of the first Lutheran congregation in Mainz, a Catholic town.” It was in speaking of this at a symposium on Boas that I learned from Paula Rubel and Arthur Rosman, who were participants, of the English version. (I had mentioned this ancestry to demonstrate my personal awareness of the dynamics of the apostate Jewish culture for I was saying that to understand the special genius of Boas, you had to appreciate this cultural background. Having done research in Melanesia, Paula and Arthur had a copy of the book.) Papa, of course, knew about this Christian involvement; indeed, I have learned from some of Tex’s reminiscences that papa was himself christened as a Lutheran and therefore the family was heavily assimilated to Christianity. Significantly, papa says his father wanted to name him after his grandfather with the traditional Jewish Hyem but was dissuaded by his Lutheran-Jewish wife and accepted the phonetically similar German, Hermann.
Eduard’s older brother, Fritz, came out to the South Seas and served as German consul in Jaluit and wrote, and illustrated with hand-tinted steel engravings, a beautiful little book about the culture of the Micronesian islands.1 Both brothers retired with wealth and proselytized for the development of colonies in the South Pacific, resulting in The Bismarck Archipelago getting that name. In Eduard’s memoir there are some off-hand comments about the Goldschmidt who married their cousin, along with fascinating discussions of the trade with the natives as well as the rivalry among the traders. The bit that both interested and appalled me was that tobacco was introduced to make up for the disinterest the natives had developed in trading for the redundant pots and trinkets. Eduard set up schools to teach the Islanders how to smoke to instill a motive for producing more copra. That game started a lot sooner than I realized and to an anthropologist this is a little like finding a horse thief in the family tree.
Max Goldschmidt had brought his family back to Germany when papa was about four years old and so he was raised in Germany and went through Gymnasium. He had an unhappy childhood and felt he was an unwanted child, for he had been sent, for reasons I don’t know, to live with Tante Binche in Darmstadt and later, when in Gymnasium, was overshadowed by a younger brother who apparently excelled in academic studies and later become a doctor. Papa claimed to have been an indifferent student but he was well educated in the then excellent German Gymnasium. He had mastery of four languages and his fluency in writing English — the third language he had mastered – is impressive. His self-effacing remarks seem as exaggerated as his flowery descriptions of his father’s exploits. At any rate, while his brother, Eduard, became a successful doctor, papa went into business in emulation of his father. He started several enterprises both in Germany and in Mexico, none of which seemed to have taken hold despite his apparent nepotistic advantages. His last move in the entrepreneurial world was to come to San Antonio at the age of 35 or 36 to establish an importing enterprise.
There are some interesting parallels between the Rochs and Goldschmidt clans. One is the odd religious symmetry. Just as mother had come from an apostate Lutheran family, so my father had come from an apostate Jewish family. But while mother flaunted her anti-religious sentiments, my father’s attitude could be summarized in his one comment on the matter “everybody’s religion is his own business.” I remember no instance in which he expressed anything about what he himself believed. There were neither religious artifacts from either side in our home nor any visit to a church, unless you count a few abortive efforts to go to the Unitarian church for the sake of socialization. The fragment of papa’s memoir speaks of the Jewish past but makes no reference to the conversion, which I learned about from his uncle’s memoir, nor of his own baptism – but then his memoir stops short at the time of his birth. I did not find it surprising that he could not face the ignominies he felt about his childhood.
Another parallel of interest is that they each had an involvement with what one might call the edges of anthropology: Opa Rochs with his philology doctorate; my father’s uncles Franz and Eduard Hernsheim in their involvement with the South Seas, as well as his father’s pioneering involvement in Mexico and my father’s continuing fondness for things Mexican. There was a tradition of cultural relativism on both sides.
Amusingly, my wife Gale’s family shows the same predilections. Her father was mustered out of the army at the close of the Spanish-American war while in the Philippines and stayed to become a lawyer and later a judge there. Her mother had gone to the Islands as one of a group of teachers organized by Colonel Barrows to introduce American educational practice into the Filipino schools. They married there and Gale was born there and they left only after her father was passed over for Governor of the Islands when Taft was defeated by Wilson in 1912. Gale added, with understandable pride, that her father tried to apply native laws to cases he tried as a circuit judge in the Philippines.
The Freie Presse was a daily with a circulation extending widely through the Middle West; Tex said it was the first daily newspaper ever published in San Antonio. Whether or not this is the case, it was an influential one and its editor became a prominent member of the large German community in San Antonio society despite his low pay and the poverty in which the family lived.
The German immigrant community in 19th century America was both numerically large and culturally significant. It was large and prosperous in San Antonio, as attested to by the quality of the houses in an area that is now a tourist attraction known as “the King William Street Area.” It was also liberal, or at least free-thinking and friendly to education, and so Opa was universally addressed as “Herr Doktor,” a title then limited to members of the medical profession. He served on both the school and library boards and was fully integrated into this affluent middle-class society. He was often asked to give funeral orations for prominent German men who were non-believers and, like my female ancestor, did not want a preacher talking over their lifeless remains. A number of the more opulent artifacts in my parents’ house (notably a locked silver casket designed for sugar that I knew as mother’s jewelry box) had come as gifts for these services.
Not only was Opa an atheist, he was also a political liberal. I suppose one could get a measure of this by looking up his editorials, but it seems too much work. One story is enough. Opa would write long editorials condemning patent medicines in issues where the back page was an advertisement for Lydia Pinkham’s, probably the most widely used such nostrum of doubtful worth at the time. Little wonder that the relationship between the editor and the publisher of die Freie Presse was not entirely cordial and that his salary remained meager. Only after some years could the family leave their house in the slum-ish La Valita area and move to a modest house on the fringe of the King William Street, still there when I was a boy.
We have had cultural amnesia about the important role the German immigrants of the 19th century and their liberal and intellectual persuasion. That intellectual role probably was eroded by the virulent anti-German propaganda during the first World War and was disappeared entirely with the emergence of Hitler — to the extent that mother broke with many of her old high school friends in the thirties. (Mother was visiting in Mexico City when Roosevelt died and was shocked to see the large German community in Mexico celebrating at his death.) I had evidence of this change in San Antonio when I brought Gale for her first visit in 1945. I took her to meet Omi Groos, the living matriarch of the pioneers who started the Groos National Bank. She was holding court, laying luxuriously in her bed, a beautiful old woman on the eve of her hundredth birthday surrounded by well-upholstered Burghers of my mother’s generation who looked as if they had walked out of the pages of Buddenbrooks. She had been a regular customer on my Saturday Evening Post route every Thursday, a fondly remembered beacon of pleasure in that dreary enterprise, for without fail there would be a piece of cake or cookie, delicious to my 8-year-old palate despite the fact it was left over from Sunday’s dinner. But now I had just finished the Arvin-Dinuba study (of which more later) and was happy to explain the social issues of corporate farming and the plight of the small farmer. As we left, Gale and I looked at each other and laughed, for Omi Groos, two years before her death from old age, was the only one there who dug what we were saying. She knew about such problems as they had existed in Germany a century earlier. But the attitudes had been different when these now well-upholstered Burghers were my mother’s friends attending the German-American school on South Alamo Street in the same buildings – though by then no longer German-American — where I went to junior high some thirty years later.
Gretchen Rochs fit into and thrived in this social environment and her fondest remembrances seem to have been of her association with some half dozen other girls from the neighborhood who went to the same school and at some early age created a secret society called L. U. C. that lasted through their schooling and remained a cherished memory for my mother when we were children. Their children were among our friends and we addressed the parents as Onkel and Tante, in German custom. So far as I can tell, none of us quasi-cousins ever learned the meaning of those initials despite our whining efforts to elicit it when we were kids. Some of these girls belonged to the Groos household, the banker family that owned the grandest of the King William street houses. In high school, one L. U. C. son was a close friend of Tex and much later, as President of that bank, he handled my mother’s meager estate when she died.
I find significance in the fact that I never once heard mother express any sense of distress at her relative poverty, despite the wide disparity in economic condition. If she suffered any social discrimination from the poor circumstances of the Rochs family, it never appeared in any of her enthusiastic talk about her girlhood. The intellectual standing of Dr. Rochs was quite enough to give her a sense of equality. It is also of interest that, despite the poverty, my mother was the only one to go off to college. The value of education lay deep in our tradition. Things must have been pretty difficult, for mother had to drop out for a year because of a lack of funds, spending it as a teacher in the small town of Victoria, Texas, and running into trouble for singing a song, known to all German Americans as “The Dutch Company.” The blasphemy, not the nationalism, was at issue.
The sense of social equality remained for us children a generation later despite the continuing economic disparity and the fact that our social lives ran in different circles. When Onkel Franz invited friends to listen to Caruso and Teribaldi on his new Superheterodyne (as I remember the name) phonograph he would include my father and in my youth from time to time we would be sent a venison joint or a brace of quail in remembrance of papa’s help in importing wine from Germany. I don’t mean that we were unaware of the difference in our circumstances or that we were not envious of their access to certain advantages, but we never felt demeaned. I am sure that Thea must have felt the deprivation when her best friend, a Groos descendant, made her debut and participated in the prestigious Tournament of Roses parade, but if there were any tears or tantrums by the 16-year-old girl, they never reached my ears. In contrast, there were anger and tears aplenty when she could not be sent to college after high school and had to take her first years in a local Catholic community college.
` Mother took great pleasure in recounting the terror she inspired in these friends when they were girls by challenging God to do better than so miserable a show of loud, Texas-scale thunderstorms and for similar blasphemies. She met her first (and, I suspect only) love on a streetcar outing that was one form of social life in the “Nifty Nineties.” The girls met in one another’s house, had picnics and other parties and remained friends — though gradually grew apart as their life styles changed with marriage.
Opa Rochs and his wife went back to Germany in 1909, when his brother died. I do not know whether this final departure was in response to an ultimate break with the publisher, with whom relations had always been difficult, from worsening financial straights and the desire to set claim to what remained of the Gamm fortune, (which was respectable until eaten away by the inflation that followed World War I) or out of concern for the welfare of his aging parents or all of the above. He was gone before I was born and therefore is more myth than reality, though he lived until 1931.
One more myth, the truth of which is attested to by a fine photo portrait of Herr Doktor Rochs, that gives us the sense of irony that suffuses all life stories. He was at the local Bierstube when he became discomfited by a strange man who kept staring at him. Finally the stranger apologized and introduced himself as a painter and said that he had been commissioned to do a painting of The Last Supper and would like to have Opa sit for him as he had the perfect head of Saint Peter. Opa agreed, but ultimately the artist had to leave and so he had a professional photographer take this picture. So it happens that somewhere, if it was not destroyed in the war, the image of this devout atheist is seen having dinner with Jesus Christ and the other apostles.
The Rochs Side
I never set eyes on the single most significant clan ancestor in my life: Dr. Arthur Rochs, my mother’s father. He took on a mythic quality in my mind. Other cultures might well have said that his soul had entered my body. It did in fact, if you accept my idea of a secular soul. My mother was the most important influence on me and he was the most important on her; the continuity is clear. It didn’t hurt that when I was a small boy all the people would exclaim that I looked just like Doktor Rochs – to the extent that my first, and by no means worst, pun on record is saying that even the chickens said “doc, doc, doctor Rochs.” (In the guttural German it sounds much more like chickens: “duk, duk, dukter ruks.”)
My mother talked often and with great affection about her father but if her mother ever appeared in conversation at all, it was in a subsidiary role, as when telling of her father’s dislike of that newfangled instrument, the telephone, and justifying this dislike by claiming that his wife was always yakking on it. Or the time when Teddy Roosevelt, then organizing the Rough Riders, came on a street car in which she and some friends were riding and they carried on in German about his appearance. As he was getting off he stopped and bowed to them, saying, “Guten Tag meine Damen, ihr Rede hat mir sehr vergnügt.” (Good day, my ladies, your talk gave me great satisfaction.) Henrietta Rochs appears to have been a good German Hausfrau obedient to her husband’s wishes, with no education and a lot of superstitions. Mother seems to have inherited her good German cooking for my body but nothing to pass on to my soul; Oma Rochs is a blank page.
Let me see what my life owes to the grandfather I never saw. He was born in the 1857, earned a doctorate in philology from Halle with a dissertation on the Romance of the Violet (a German counterpart to the Romance of the Rose), and came to the United States, ending up in San Antonio as editor of Die Freie Presse für Texas.
Of course Opa Rochs did not spring out of nothing. He was the grandson of Paul Gamm, a German manufacturer — of soap, I believe — whose portrait, painted when he was a prosperous Burgher in his thirties, hangs on my wall.1 As the story goes, he had a daughter who was something of a termagant or otherwise not readily marriageable, for whom this prosperous nouveau-riche acquired an army officer husband (and status) in hierarchy-minded 19th century Germany. The story is embellished with the tale that when this young bride brought home a replica of a statue of the Kaiser, her snobbish young husband pooh-poohed it as a piece of kitsch. Miffed, she replied that she had bought it with her own money. He refused to talk to her for weeks and they never again spoke of vulgar money matters. There must have been reconciliation, for she produced two sons, both of whom received university educations. The son, Paul, sensibly followed a practical course and ended up with the title of Engeneur and became a Stadtsbaurad, while the son, Arthur, pursued a discipline for which there was no possible practical use. This ancient event was echoed in 1934 or thereabout in my papa’s response to the announcement that I had decided to be an anthropologist with the exclamation, “Ach, sohne brotlose Kunst!” (Such a breadless art!) .
This bartered bride lived on until 1929. My remembrances of her are connected with a sense of envy when my brother received an intriguing looking package covered with German stamps; an envy that soon dissipated when it was opened to reveal a dismal gray thing in Gothic print, a prayer book or New Testament sent by this pious old woman for a confirmation that never took place. My brother and sister had been baptized as Lutherans when they were babies, I presume in order to retain a claim on such heritance as might remain in the estate of the prosperous Paul Gamm. By the time I came along, either the heritage or the hope of sharing it had dwindled and I was not subjected to such klimbim, as Opa called such religious nonsense. On the other hand, I had been circumcised. Because of some urinal obstruction, my mother explained, but I later teased her for hedging her bets, with one son baptized and the other circumcised.
There is one other legend that belongs to the Rochs background. Tex has it associated with the Gamm grandmother, but since she was seen in other contexts to have been devout, this may be mistaken. From my perspective it matters not; I am more interested in the implicit message in these myths than in such historic niceties. So whether it was Marie Gamm or her mother, the story is that when she was on her death bed and the priests were called in to perform the last rites, she raised herself up and wagged a wizened finger at them, shouting, “Get out of here! I have done without you blackbirds all my life and I can die without you.”
About the time Opa Rochs earned his doctorate around 1880 he apparently knocked up Henrietta Rohrmann (or so my mother believed, though she didn’t put it in this way) a Catholic girl of no social standing, and married her. This must have been a triple whammy in the Rochs household, a university degree in a totally unprofitable area of knowledge, a liberal and anti-clerical outlook and an illegitimate child and Catholic bride in the home of a social climbing Protestant Burgher’s daughter and a ne’er-do-well snobbish father of upper class pretensions. It was not a ménage that was well suited to a poetry-writing intellectual pursuing knowledge of no possible use, burdened with a superstitious Catholic bride and a daughter of doubtful legitimacy. They were apparently urged to leave and after some abortive effort to make it in France, were given money with which they embarked for the United States (when the product of their earlier indiscretion was about three) with $5,000 in pocket. (That is the explicit sum as I learned it, Tex has it more inflated, but at any rate, it is just figurative.) The story goes on to say that on board ship was a man of great charm who had some land in Florida that, as it happens, could be had for $5,000 and so Doktor Rochs und Frau ended up in the United States penniless. Somehow (one may presume either by pre-arrangement or through acquaintances) he came to be a reporter or free-lance stringer, sending dispatches to Germany. He ultimately arrived at the New Orleans Cotton Exhibition, There he was sought out by the publisher of Die Freie Presse für Texas and invited to be its editor and the young family settled in San Antonio in 1884, soon to be joined by a baby son, Paul Arthur. That is how my mother came to have an American education.
What’s past is prologue — Shakespeare
I began this account of my personal history after I submitted the final version of The Bridge to Humanity to Oxford Press and am writing this preface after finishing the first six chapters; that is, during the first half of 2005, in my 93rd year. It has long been on my mind to write one, but never seemed to have merited priority and even now I have turned to it more as occupational therapy than out of a great urge. Yet I am getting caught in the challenge and the confrontations it raises. As I see Bridge as my culminating work, regarding it with great pride, euphoria, and the satisfaction of feeling that I have finally answered the question that has haunted me since childhood, I have lost the focus on the future that has always spurred me on and am willing to explore the past. I have come to feel that all my past was but prologue to that work.
While this is an autobiography and therefore contains all I remember that is amusing or revealing about my life and work, the subtext in it is what I find compelling and that I am pursuing. This subtext is to solve the central enigma about my life. It is this: How did I manage to parlay a mediocre education, a moderate IQ, lousy work habits and very little self-confidence into one of the most successful anthropological careers in the 20th century? I don’t mean merely successful in having had a good job, making a living and holding offices, things that have been gratifying and that others might reasonably envy, but in having had an impact on anthropological thought that has even extended beyond the narrow confines of my own profession. Now as I await public judgment of my book and if it proves that my own assessment is not mere hubris, which is that it will enter into the canon of social thought, then the enigma is a conundrum indeed.
The Biography of a Theory is an effort to show how my ideas grew out of my background and were gradually filled out over time. There was no Eureka! moment, no epiphany. It was a slow process not unlike evolution. As they appeared in my consciousness, each element seemed to have already been there. While most of it was in my thinking before I began teaching, the last elements were not conceptualized until well after I had retired. Much of it I credit with being part of my cultural heritage. I credit some to the intellectual openness that characterized my up-bringing; the absence of doctrine, whether holy writ or secular premise. I early came to realize that I had an advantage over most “free thinkers” because I did not have to fight my way out of any parental convictions. I have more recently broadened this to saying I never had to “learn to think outside the box” because I had never been in a box. And perhaps this is also why I have never attached myself to a guru, either in person or in the form of an ism. But all this is speculation.
Transforming my personal history into an essay in social causation is characteristic of my mental processes — the urge to see whatever is being looked at in terms of some broader epistemological framework. When I was editor of the American Anthropologist, I announced that I wanted only articles in which data were presented to demonstrate some broader theoretical principles or theoretical essays only if they were grounded in data. When I finished my essentially descriptive Nomlaki ethnography, I had a closing paragraph that tied it into the idea of cultural themes — anything to give me a sense of closure.
Though Bridge, as I will refer to my book here, is hardly a how-to book, it does try to show how humans come to behave as they do, and if this is the case, then it is reasonable to look at my history in the light of my theories. In this sense Biography of a Theory can be viewed as a case history and in the degree to how well it works, as a kind of validation, making it a kind of infinite regress – a biography to illustrate the theory it is biographizing.
This demand I have put on myself – a demand that I cannot disregard – in turn puts a demand upon me to be as accurate, as penetrating, as objective and as honest as I can be, even where I must reveal things about myself that I might rather leave buried. This is made easier by two facts; the first is that I am writing it so late in my life that there are none living who might be embarrassed by what I say and nothing so harmful that it would be hurtful to their progeny; the second is that, while my life has not been exemplary or without actions that others would regard as sinful or simply wrong, nothing I have to reveal is unlawful or so disreputable as to cause any ripples. In fact, my difficulty in writing this book is, rather, in feeling that there is insufficient excitement in it to hold an audience. The things that I would rather not reveal are those that tarnish my self-image – and it is self-image that is central to every person. In final analysis, however, this is your problem, for I am writing this for my own gratification. I have had diverse involvements in the course of my career and almost every one has resulted in publication, which means that the substance of these activities need not be discussed, but merely the personal side of these events of my life and, where relevant, on how they contributed to my theoretical outlook. In fact, it is this consistent ability to find something worthwhile to say, at least to the extent that it found its way directly into print, that has made me feel that the seeds of my theoretical outlook lay deep in my psyche long before they were articulated. The document that follows will give evidence of this.
What we will be looking at is how my cultural background set the stage for the outlook I developed, how my domestic life shaped the underpinnings of my developing view of the world as well as energizing me for the tasks I was to perform, and how my more formal education was free of coercion, if otherwise insufficiently demanding, to allow me to follow my own path through the thicket of knowledge. Then we will go to the more mature years, where there was a kind of interplay between developing theories and research experience. There will of necessity be many by-ways – some because they are essential to my life history and others merely because they amuse me to pursue.
One thing I can say with confidence: no-one who knew me when I was young would ever have guessed I would accomplish what I have managed to do – least of all, me. Certainly not my family, not even my mother whose love I never doubted, not my high school teachers nor anyone at the University of Texas from which I got two degrees, not even Jane, who loved me perhaps as no one else ever has. The one possible exception is my professor there, George Engerrand, who said I was lazy in a good way. Most would have agreed with my then brother-in-law, Kingsley Davis, who later had an eminent career in sociology, who advised, “don’t go on to graduate school, you don’t have the ability to make it,” though others might have found a gentler way to say it. I am certain that it was not in the spirit of defiance – of “I’ll show `em.” Rather, it was wanting to prove it to myself.
One might make a case for a teleological explanation; that “I was cut out for it” in popular parlance, or a “higher force,” but I will have none of it. To be sure, I once planned to start this work by noting that even before I was born, I managed to overcome two obstacles; one when half of me had to breach the barrier to the goal of finding the other half, the second shortly after they got together, a parental wish to do me in before I saw the light of day. When they went to get rid of my intrusion, the doctor, sensing my mother’s discomfort, said, “Gretchen, you don’t want to go through with this, do you?” Of course, this story would have given the same misdirection that Zoedora, the goddess I had postulated as a literary device and had to discard, would have had, so it was better hidden here. The story is important to me in that I was told of these events as a youth by a Victorian-age mother who could be open with me about intimate matters pertaining both to her and to myself. It is this no-bullshit quality that I think is significant. I will try to live up to it in what follows.