Rhode Island School of Design writing instructor Phil Eil (formerly the Providence Phoenix news editor) posted a compelling series of Tweets the other day:
Last year, on an @Ancestry genealogy kick, I found this remarkable “Declaration of Intention” form signed by my great-grandfather, Charles Eil, in 1909 renouncing allegiance to Emperor Nicholas II of Russia. Doc gives an outline of his immigration story. Occupation: “Carpenter.”
Charles was born in 1883 in “Jitomar, Russia” (what is now Zhytomyr, Ukraine), approximately 4,600 miles from New York. He came to the U.S. via a ship from Rotterdam, Holland, and arrived in June 1907. In 1909, he was 26 years old, 5’6″, 151 pounds, w brown eyes and brown hair.
This document is incredibly evocative for me, for so many reasons. I really didn’t know any of the facts it contains, and reading it turned my great-grandfather into a person I could almost picture. (The writing teacher in me says: “That’s what details do!”)
It is also a data-point in an archetypal story of upward, Jewish-immigrant mobility. Charles the immigrant-carpenter’s son, my grandfather Harry, was a doctor who served in the U.S. Navy. His son, my dad, is an MD/PhD who also served in the Navy.
Of course, that upward trajectory stops with me, who got an MFA and now works as a freelance journalist and adjunct college English/literature/journalism lecturer. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ But I do (mostly) love what I do! So there’s that.
Different ancestors would have had different opinions about the end states of their progeny, of course. We can’t know from archived documents what Ol’ Charles would have considered to be a satisfactory end point of his “trajectory,” but the life Phil leads would likely have seemed aristocratic to him, in a good way.
One suspects Phil Eil is not done, and careers stemming from an MFA can have many unexpected branches, but even if he continues along his entire career more or less as he is now, the possible meaningfulness and leisure (used for intellectual pursuits, I trust) may have seemed the height of success to an early-twentieth-century carpenter. (I’m not without some credibility for this suggestion, having been an early-twenty-first-century carpenter.)
On the other hand, maybe Great Grandpa Eil would have thought the son of a PhD medical doctor would be selling himself short if he weren’t an even more prestigious surgeon or a tycoon.
In any event, these are the ebbs and flows that should give us pause when we’re inclined to decry income gaps and class differences across multiple generations. The 1%? Of which era? And by what measure? The important question is whether life has its cycle, with people who are motivated to draw wealth to their families able to do so and those who find their purpose elsewhere to do that.
A good portion of a carpenter’s work in modern-day Newport involves adjusting houses to economic trends. One month, the project is raising partitions and reconfiguring the layout to accommodate a new apartment in the mansion of a family that can no longer afford the luxury of their home without sharing some of it with a paying tenant. The next month, the crew indulges in a sort of archeology, uncovering for an up-and-coming couple the fine, intricate woodwork that some previous owners had to sacrifice for the sake of their own partitioning.
In my family, the father of my father’s father was a pharmacist who owned much of what is now Little Falls, New Jersey, which (I’ve been given to understand) wasn’t quite the marker of wealth it would seem to us now. His son was a paper salesman who provided a good life for his family. His son was a Yale-educated lawyer who didn’t really take to the law and turned instead to editing and then teaching. And his son? Well, I’m not sure what I would say I am, yet. One might observe that we’ve moved more or less laterally across the generations, with some ups and downs from parent to child and within each of our own lives.
Such a state of affairs has the benefit of not creating the feeling of trajectory, which perhaps makes it easier to see that people don’t tend to think a century down the line. I provide for my family; you provide for yours; and we’re successful if everybody’s happy. For an immigrant carpenter disembarking onto American soil in 1907, that probably did mean a better starting point for his children, but having spent time working as background scenery in the lives of some of Newport’s wealthiest families, I can attest that a more remunerative station ceases to be a measure of happiness at some level.