Whither We Come

October 15, 2020

When people express interest, amazement, or just questions about my cultural, national, or political ecclecticism, I can always point to these two not-so-remote ancestors as an excuse. I of course never knew my great-grandfather “Jeff Davis,” as he was called by his friends—named, of course, for the President of the Confederate States of America—who died when his granddaughter, my mother, was a child; but I knew his widow, my great-grandmother Susannah Duncan Fraley very well and, of course, his daughter, my grandmother Dora Fraley Davis.

Ulysses S. Grant “Doll” Bunton, I did encounter a few times when I was a little child, since he was the brother of another great-grandmother, maternal grandmother of my father, who sometimes lived with us, Nancy Jane Bunton Norris.

If the parents of Jeff Davis and Ulysses Grant had met during the 1860s, at least, they might have been inclined to shoot each other or call someone else authorized to do so. I appeal to this fact when people find me inconsistent—this, and the fact that my family also fought on both sides of the Revolutionary War. (My great-grandmother Nancy Norris—known as “Aunt Nan” to most who knew her, but “Mammy” to me—told me stories of marauding homeless “rebel” soldiers, as she, a Unionist and Lincoln Republican, called them, whom she remembered in the decades after the Civil War. Her mother threatened some with a shotgun when they attempted to raid her smokehouse for food that they were probably desperate for, supposedly saying, “If you had asked me for it, I’d have given you some. But I won’t have you stealing.”)

As for their forbears, the web gets even more tangled. The name Fraley had been Fraelich, since they had come, like the majority of my ancestors, from Germany, despite the Welsh surnames of both my parents’ fathers. But what could be less German than the Buntons (sometimes spelled Bunting and Bunten), who had originally been Benjamins, Jews who came to North Carolina from Toledo (in Spain, not Ohio) after a few centuries in Windsor?

I heard someone say, “If you wish to accumulate, you must speculate.”

I’m not the person to say if that’s the route to wealth, but I’m convinced that it is the kind of reading that leads to wide-ranging knowlege. You can’t just read the stuff that’s “good for you” or that’s “to the point” if you want to cultivate yourself optimally. Dr. Johnson says somewhere that the only reading that really sticks is material that interests you. And you often don’t know what interests you until you’ve read about it. In fact, we’re most interested in the things that we know most about.