This is week is the second of our conversations with Joseph Amato, Professor Emeritus of History at Southwest State University in Marshall, Minnesota, who has been aptly termed “an academic maverick of the first order.” Last week, we discussed Amato’s refreshing perspective on local history. This week, we turn to Amato’s approach to family history.
Here’s how Amato begins the preface to his book Jacob’s Well, both a history of his family and a rethinking of the discipline of family history:
Family is the well of self. It makes childhoods, imprints memories, and offers models for a lifetime. Doing family history is a way to investigate its powers, to take control of personal history. It provides a distinct type of self-knowledge, which is timely and even indispensable in this age of abstractions, ideological battles, and mass culture…
For Amato, family history becomes an exploration of one’s own consciousness and personhood. It’s not collecting names of your great-grandfathers, chronicling how rich your family once was, or how poor your family once was. It is the means that history offers us–uniquely different from what philosophy or theology or literature offers–by which we are able to understand our soul.