Hunting for the Plot

Hunting for the Plot: Stories and Stereotypes

My parents, Herbert and Mary Ellen Knapp, standing in front of their "Tin Lizzy," 1929.
Herbert and Mary Ellen Knapp, July 13, 1924

I have finished my biography of my parents, and while waiting for it to be published, I lost my mind and changed the title from “Hunting for the Plot” to “Private Lives and the Big Picture: Rednecks, Immigrants, and the Making of the American Middle Class, 1832-1999.”One of my daughters mentioned casually that she liked it better the other way and KAZAM! I saw at once she was right. What got into me? That new title makes the book sound like another unreadable, boring textbook written by some pretentious professor. It’s not like that. It’s a story—the story of my hunt for the plot linking the lives of my great grandparents, grandparents, and parents. So, having come to my senses, I changed it back. 

Once I mentioned to a friend that I was writing about my parents and urged him to write about his. He said his parents weren’t “that important.” But “Importance” is beside the point. I have lived long enough to be able to make a list a mile long of people who were “important” in my youth who are now completely forgotten. What’s that song about making people happy? “Fame, if you win it, / Comes and goes in a minute. / Where’s the real stuff in life to cling to?” The real stuff is what is personal.

The generalizers in the media and the academy can’t be bothered with individuals (Uncle Harry, Auntie Mame, etc.). They would have us all think in terms of stereotypes: white racist males, and offended blacks, of stay-at-home moms and liberated women, of students in elite colleges and those in junior colleges and trade schools, of white collars, blue collars, and pink hats. And we are supposed to assume that all the people in any category are pretty much the same so we don’t need to “know” them—which is to say, to learn their stories. But when we reduce people to stereotypes,” everything fits neatly into its slot so there’s no “real stuff” to cling to and we drift apart. 

My parents wanted our family to be seen as an example of the perfect middle class suburban family. We were all surface; there was no depth to us. I always knew there was more to my parents than they let on. But they weren’t talking. They were afraid that we, their children, would think less of them if we knew their stories. The exact opposite is true. Stories are what tie families (and nations) together. Categories and stereotypes are what keep us apart.

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Hunting For the Plot

For a couple of decades, I have been working on a memoir of my parents. Not steadily of course. Sometime a year or two would go by without my touching it. Now it’s done, and we are preparing it for publication. 

As it took shape, I saw that I couldn’t explain my mother’s behavior without explaining her mother’s behavior, and her mother’s behavior didn’t make sense unless I told about her mother, my maternal great-grandmother (b. 1857). That woman was at the root of all my mother’s problems.

Brayton Hall where my great-grandmother, a scullery maid at the age of 12. scoured the pots and pans with sand.

Her name was Hannah Oliphant. She and her sister were orphans. At the age of twelve they were put into service scrubbing pots and pans with sand in a place much like Downton Abbey. It was called Brayton Hall and was on England’s border with Scotland.

Then I learned that on my father’s side, I had to go back to his grandfather (b. 1832), another orphan who grew up being shifted from one neighbor to another. In his early teens, he ran off and went West. 

As if all that weren’t enough, I discovered my parents’ stories made sense only in relation to the larger story of the emergence of the much maligned American middle class. So I changed the title from Hunting for the Plot to Private Lives and the Big Picture: Rednecks, Immigrants, and the Making of the American Middle Class. That class, as we think of it today, began coming into existence in the late 1800s as more and more people moved from farms and small towns into cities. In the 1920s, it assumed the distinctive features that its supercilious critics still find offensive.

Middle class fathers are stereotyped as being cultureless, boring, bigoted, inarticulate, sexually stifled, hypocritical, and incipiently fascist. Mothers, as repressed, oppressed, and none too bright—unless they are rebelling against the patriarchy, in which case they are brilliant. This stereotyping of people based on their “middle class values” is no less unfair than the generally recognized unfairness of stereotyping people on the basis of ethnicity, race, or religion. As is always the case with stereotypes, there is a kernel of truth involved, but there is also a “yugh” degree of over-simplification and distortion.

It is far easier to resent one’s parents than to understand them. I speak from experience.