Writing a Legacy-Memoir, Part 1

Robert D. SutherlandRobert D. Sutherland‘s published books include two novels and a scholarly work, Language and Lewis Carroll (1970), a definitive study ascertaining the degree to which the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking-Glass, The Hunting of the Snark, and Symbolic Logic was self-consciously a nineteenth-century philologist exploring linguistic concerns in his fictions for humorous effect.

The first novel, Sticklewort and Feverfew (1980), was written for children, adolescents, and adults. It works simultaneousy on multiple levels, and was pilot-tested with all age groups at every stage of its nine-year composition. Robert illustrated it with 74 fully rendered pencil drawings, teaching himself to draw in the process. The book received the 1981 Friends of American Writers Juvenile Book Merit Award for author/illustrator.

The second novel, The Farringford Cadenza (2007), explores the consequences of illusion and self-delusion, the many faces of deceit, and people’s ethical responsibilities with regard to art and cultural values. As a vehicle for accomplishing these aims, the book takes the form of a suspenseful, humorous literary mystery which subtly skews generic conventions to continually surprise readers with reversals of their assumptions and expectations.

In addition to his books, Robert has published poetry, short fiction, articles on literature, education, and small-press publishing, and essays on political issues.

A legacy-memoir is an autobiographical record that one writes for one’s descendants. Other types of personal memoir are usually written for publication, with potentially the entire reading public as their audience. Typically, they’re designed to describe or demonstrate one’s importance as a player in major events, or to provide humorous or titillating anecdote, or to explain oneself, or justify one’s actions (to “have the last word”), or (in the case of celebrities) to please one’s fans and make money. In contrast to this, the purpose of legacy-memoirs is to provide to the niche audience of the author’s descendants reference materials regarding family history, and, in so doing, acquaint subsequent generations with the life, thoughts, and experiences of a far-sighted forebear.

The value in writing such a work (besides supplying family reference material) is to give your descendants an awareness of who you were as their ancestor, an understanding of how life was lived when you were living it, information regarding what you found to be important, interpretations of major events you lived through (which they may know of only through their study of history), and reasons why they should find all of this worth knowing.

A legacy-memoir is a gift to the future, a reaching out to generations of one’s own family yet unborn, sending a message to your great-great-great grandchildren (and beyond) that you care for them, wish to participate in their lives by sharing yours, and hope thereby that they will be able to see how theirs and yours, though different, are yet similar. Your descendants are the ultimate “niche audience”: not much money to be made there! And, as you hopefully launch your gift into the void, you have no certainty that any of those descendants will ever read your words, will want to read your words, or will appreciate or have a response to your feelings if they do. A legacy-memoir is thus both an act of faith and a labor of love.

Legacy-memoirs are edited to accomplish certain specific objectives. In this, they are akin to projects in oral history, which bring skillful interviewers to people “who were there” to glean their memories, impressions, and opinions while they are still present to record them. Everyone has a lifetime of experiences, memories, stories to tell. Everyone, if so inclined, and with the time and leisure to do it, can create a legacy-memoir. If individuals can’t write it themselves, they can dictate it and have it transcribed.

An archival-quality, acid-free, print-on-paper book that can be passed on from generation to generation is a useful, permanent, and portable format to serve as default and backup (who can say what technologies will have evolved by your great-great grandchild’s day?). Magnetic tape is currently obsolescent; here in 2012, digital CD formats, and computer PDF files are available for storage and reading—but what will be the case in 2280? It will be your descendants’ responsibility to continually update the text for retrievability in the technology current to them. Your responsibility—if you wish to leave them a legacy-memoir—is to write it.

I am currently writing a legacy-memoir for my descendants. What gave me the idea to do so, and why I think it’s important to leave a personal record, is the joy and enlightenment I experienced in discovering a group of writings by my great-grandfather, Robert John Sutherland (1838-1921), of which my immediate family was unaware. These writings (a text of over 61,000 words) are currently in the possession of my second cousin, Catherine Muir Butterfield, who inherited them from her grandmother Catherine Sutherland Semple, who was Robert John’s Sticklewort and Feverfewdaughter and my father’s aunt. The writings are contained in a scrapbook as a series of newspaper clippings; I borrowed this scrapbook, transcribed the clippings, and published them in 1999 as The Observations of Ulysses or, Notes by an Occasional Correspondent, being Dispatches Sent to THE EVENING STAR, a Newspaper in Dunedin, New Zealand by Robert John Sutherland, of Keokuk, Iowa from March, 1881 to January, 1883. Robert John was an astute observer, highly opinionated, well-read, and an excellent writer inclined to ironic humor. I learned much history from editing his dispatches and found him to be an interesting and engaging man.

About 1848, Robert John emigrated from Thurso, Scotland and settled in Carleton Place, Ontario, in Canada; from there he moved as a young man to northern Illinois to study; in 1861, he enlisted in the Union army to fight in the Civil War. In 1865, as an aide to Brigadier General Joseph B. West, he was present when the last Confederate generals surrendered in New Orleans. After the war he married and lived in Keokuk, iowa for many years, working for a railroad that ultimately merged with the Rock Island line. He became an American citizen in 1886.

Some years before, his brother had moved to New Zealand in the wake of an Australian gold rush. In 1881, this brother suggested that Robert John write dispatches to the Dunedin newspaper discussing current issues and events in the United States. From 1881 to 1883 Robert John did this, using the pseudonym Ulysses; the brother sent the newspapers to Iowa as they were published, and Robert John’s articles wound up as clippings in his scrapbook.

My great-grandfather reported on a broad range of topics, among them American grain and wool production (with tables of statistics), the latest international trade agreements, the legal controversy over Mormon polygamy, the Chinese Exclusion Act (that terminated Chinese immigration, a law he eloquently opposed), the introduction of refrigeration for shipping meat by sea from New Zealand, the closing of the U. S. government’s program for homesteading on public lands, the assassination of President Garfield (whom he supported), the trial of Garfield’s assassin Guiteau, and his personal opinion that Garfield’s successor Chester Arthur was a political hack. He saw the building of the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railroad as a scam perpetrated by big business interests against the Canadian people. Of Oscar Wilde’s visit to America in 1883, he said “The Southern States have Oscar Wilde this summer as a substitute for the yellow fever. He is now in Texas. From either infliction ‘Good Lord deliver us’ say I.”

As I edited the old boy’s dispatches one hundred and sixteen years after he wrote them, I found all of this fascinating. Eye-witness commentary on history unfolding! Getting to know a striking and formidable personality whose genes I carry! It was then I began to see the value of legacy-memoirs for those with interest in the past and eyes to see.

To be continued tomorrow…