Jim Holt, a writer, is another man about town, and a friend with whom I often talk on the phone, so often that this is the only reason I can think of for why we rarely meet. He has a letter in this week’s New York Observer. In the previous issue of that paper, someone called Sparrow wrote an item in the “New York World” section about the creation of National Pronoun Day. Jim writes: “In my opinion, pronouns are an utterly useless part of speech. In the sentence, ‘John took off his hat and put it on the table,’ for example, the pronouns ‘his’ and ‘it’ can easily be eliminated, yielding the more felicitous, ‘John took off John’s hat and put John’s hat on the table.” I disagree. I prefer, “It took of its hat and put it on the table.”
At the launch party for my father’s new book at the Spanish Institute on Park Avenue last week, I was asked by one of the attendees what’s it like to live with a successful father. The question was asked in a tone that suggested my father was actually my son. “Oh, just fine,” I said, blithely. “But his teachers are really anxious about his physics, and his nonperformance at sports is a worry to us all.”
Strictly speaking, the question of my father’s success ought to be directed at my father: I don’t live it; he does. But if I was to answer the question I was asked last week more directly, I’d say that a successful father, who is also a kind father, has instilled in me an ability to derive great pleasure from seeing people I’m fond of succeed. My father is a historian of Spain, and his new book is the first of three volumes on the origins of the Spanish Empire. To make a living from writing books is an achievement. He made his name at the beginning of the ‘60s, with a book on the Spanish Civil War, and then wrote a rather large history of Cuba. He was at work on the second when I was born in Washington, D.C., the day before a U-2 spy plane flew over Cuba and photographed Soviet nuclear missiles—the beginning of what a week or so later would become the Cuban Missile Crisis. My mother did not think this a good time to have a child.
Now and then, it’s pointed out to me by someone that I am privileged, and, yes, I do consider it a privilege to live in New York, to be healthy, etc., but I know that’s not what they mean. What they mean is that I’m privileged by birth, the parents I have, the world I was born into, and, if you consider these things important, then to some extent I am. Occasionally, this pointing-out is more accusatory, especially in Britain, where for reasons maybe mysterious to Americans, it’s a national habit for people to tell you who you are (a habit happily on the wane, I should add). Here in America, you tend to be able to speak for yourself. I myself rarely think about my identity and where I’m from, and I recognize it may be a privilege of a kind not to do so. Some might say I should worry more than I do. (Actually, come to think of it, I so rarely think about who I am that it’s time that I and I got together for drinks. And, Jim, if you don’t have a prior engagement, why don’t you join us?)
I could embark on the family history—and that would be dull, not least because so much family history is fiction. That, I’ve always thought, is the explanation for the obsession with family history. Objectively, family history hardly exists. If I assume three and a half generations for one century, seven generations for two, I’m descended from 256 people, who were English, Welsh, Italian, Armenian, and French—in other words, I’m descended from so many people that, genetically, I’m hardly related to any of them. Of course, this means I’m related, genetically, to all of them, and through them to hundreds of thousands of others; you might say I’m a member of one massive family. But what does that mean? Where does family begin and where does it end?
It’s fair to say that until the 20th century, the political history of Britain was the history of families. So much of British history and biography reads as family romance or feud, never more so than in children’s history books. All there was to look forward to in life, so I thought as boy reading the illustrated histories of Britain in bed before I went to sleep, were endless family rows that might end in that phenomenon known as Spilt Blood or Bloodletting. Then a thoughtful American godfather sent me The Columbia Illustrated History of New York as a present for my 7th birthday, a book I would look at night after night, mesmerized as I was by an Alfred Stieglitz photograph of the Flatiron Building, and how much more compelling this building seemed than the castles in the books I had discarded.