Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Family History and Cultural Evolution

kcofrinsha's picture

Erik, the protagonist in The Sorrows of an American by Siri Hustvedt, spends time researching and thinking about his family history after his father dies.  Erik attempts to learn about his father's life and in the process realizes that there is much that will never be known about his family history.  Erik, as well as his family andfriends, struggle with the things they cannot know about their family historyand in the process bring the people of the past into the present.

     Erik reads his father's journals after his death.  He realizes that it is not his father, but the self his father portrayed in his journals that is present, however, this presence becomes an important part of his life. The journal is very straightforward.  He describes how "One winter in the early 1930s we ranout of wood.  Not enough had been put up in the first place.  If one must burn green wood, ash and maple will serve you best" (8).  After reading this passage Erik believes that "Between Not enough had been put up in the first place andash and maple will serve you best was a story untold" (8).  These stories that exist between the linesof Lars's diary will never be known. They were a part of his internal self that left this world with him.  A whole life is reduced to afew lines of writing per day.  The father who exists in Erik's life says little and explains nothing.  He narrates his life as a series offacts and events.  Lars's words are woven in with Erik's.  Both men are speaking to us and yet Lars's words have a sense of the unknowable.  The way that Erik tries to explain what he sees and feels fully is a sharp contrast to his father's short descriptions of events and the feelings and thoughts that are missing.

     Erik has memories of his grandfather, but he discovers more while reading his father's diary.  Erik's grandfather is often mentioned and like his father, a person begins to be constructed.  One of Erik's first impressions of his grandfather was when he was a child and he went into his grandfather'sroom.  He describes the roomscontents but also says: "I think I had a dim idea of the man's solitary existence and of something lost-but I didn't know what" (9).  Erik does not have journals or a memoir from his grandfather.  Instead, hisknowledge of his grandfather is based on his own memories and the memories his father recorded.  Erik does nothave any lines from his grandfather to read between.  Instead, he has to fill in the story or be content with having just pieces of stories.    

     Erik is not the only person trying to understand their parent's.  Eggy, Erik's tenant's young daughter,tells Erik about her father the first time they meet.  Eggy and her mother live alone and Eggy never knew her father.  Eggy's mother hasexplained that her father left, but Eggy does not really understand where her father is.  Eggy makes up stories about where her father is, one of these stories is that he was in a box and disappeared (15).  Erik understandsthe holes in his knowledge of his father, but Eggy seems to need to fill in these holes. 

Inga, Erik's sister, tells the story of how Kierkegaard'sfather told him a secret about himself right before he died.  Kierkegaard explained that this secret had a large effect on his life. Inga tells Erik that "'Kierkegaard never recorded what his father's secret was. We may never know about our own father. I've had all kinds of fantasies about it, making up stories in my mind...'" (56).  These characters all share the desireto know more about their father. Inga did not know it at the time of this quote, but she ends updiscovering her father's secret, just like Kierkegaard.  Unlike Kierkegaard, Inga and Erik's father's secret turns out to be anticlimactic.  However, the living can never know everything about their predecessors.  Despite the fact that Eggy's father is alive, both Eggy and Inga feel the need to make upstories to fill in those cracks. Even after Inga and Erik find out their father's secret they know thebasic story, but they will never know how their father felt about the events.

     A family's culture evolves and changes throughout generations, but the voices of past generations continue to emerge in the lives of their descendents.  The dead will always have secrets, no matter how hard their descendents try to uncover "the facts."  Despite the fact that Erik and Inga are trying to uncover what happened to their father, Erik points out that "History is made by amnesia" (51) when Inga tells him about the bookshe is writing.  Despite this knowledge, they continue to research what happened to their father.  Our ancestors pass on their knowledge,their culture and their stories. However, the cracks in our knowledge of them often appear as gaping holes.  A family tree portrays avery clear direction of life, however, people bring their ancestors along withthem.  Each person lives not only from one's family, but also with one's family.  

Works Cited

Hustvedt, Siri. The Sorrows of an American. New York:Henry Holt and Company, 2008.


Anne Dalke's picture

knowing our families, knowing ourselves

You develop two very nice contrasts in this paper: first, between Erik’s attempt to feel--and to articulate fully what he feels—in juxtaposition w/ his father’s reticence in both feeling and telling; and then between Erik’s acknowledging the holes in his knowledge of his father, and Eggy’s need to fill the holes in hers. You make a few gestures towards Inga’s understanding of these matters; other characters missing from your catalogue are Sonia, who also wants to understand her dead father better; and Jeff, who uses Erik to figure his father’s anger.

You dance throughout this paper around all those untold stories that “will never be known”—I’m not sure, though, whether not telling necessarily means not knowing; an untold story might actually invite the telling and the knowing of what has not been articulated. I’m a little unclear by what you mean by the “sense of the unknowable”—mightn’t that just involve a refusing to say? Or a knowing that does not want to say? Or actually not knowing? (And how can you tell the difference among those various possibilities?)

You move towards your finale by saying that the “dead will always have secrets”; I think that one of the (many) claims of this novel is that all of us will always have secrets—not only the dead from the living, but the living from others alive, including those who love them—and (perhaps most importantly?) the living from ourselves. So much of this novel is actually about the difficulty of knowing ourselves.

I actually end your essay profoundly confused; you say there both that the cracks in our knowledge of our ancestors “appear as gaping holes” and that each of us “lives with our family.” Do you mean that we live with what we do not know?