Family

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Ian Frazier’s book, which bears the naïve title Family, is considerably more complex than its title suggests. It is neither a purely biographical study of family history, nor an overview of town life in the Midwest, nor an examination of technological growth in the United States, although it is partly all of these. Some readers may find its eclecticism disconcerting; its organization is prismatic rather than chronological, and the immediate effect upon a reader can be bewildering, akin to that of a guest who arrives late at a party of strangers. Names come in quick succession, as well as something of personalities, associations, and accomplishments, but it takes half the evening before the strangers acquire significance more meaningful than they had upon introduction.

Such diachronology has the advantage of highlighting patterns, however, and this is clearly what Frazier intends. None of his antecedents achieved exceptional fame, although several approached greatness. None attained vast wealth, although one named Fanny Benedict (Frazier’s great-great-great aunt) married Ohio oil magnate Louis Severance. Even so, the generational characteristics that apply in variation to every individual mentioned in this family album are those of earnest hard work, a predisposition to do what appeared to be the right thing, and a trust (sometimes pathetic) in institutions. Events in the larger world touch their lives, and prevailing social standards influence the decisions they make. Collectively, they are the essence of America’s heartland, individuals with whom many readers can identity.

Both sides of Frazier’s family spring from the Ohio and Indiana towns of the Western Reserve, that band of territory stretching westward from the original thirteen colonies theoretically as far as the Pacific Coast. Connecticut was among the last of the Colonies to surrender its claims on western land to national jurisdiction, with the result that many of the earliest settlements in the territory bear names identifiable with the eastern origins of their settlers.

Charles P. Wickham, the author’s great-great-grandfather on his father’s side of the family, was, for example, a leading citizen of Norwalk, Ohio, a town that has perennial associations for the Frazier family. Wickham was a brevetted lieutenant colonel in the Union army during the Civil War, a two-term congressman, and a judge of the Huron County Court of Common Pleas. His son, Louis W. Wickham, born the year after the Civil War, married Ellen Eliza Benedict, the great-granddaughter of Platt Benedict, who originated from Connecticut and founded Norwalk, Ohio, in 1817.

Both Wickham men were attorneys, the son working in his father’s firm, and the family became prosperous in the years following the Civil War, primarily as a result of defending railroad interests in the enormous number of damage claims filed by people who had lost relatives, limbs, or property as the railroads pushed westward. Since the railroads never paid a claim until they had taken a plaintiff through every court possible, the Wickham firm, as regional representative of the railroads for Huron County, prospered steadily. Apparently, the fact that the firm’s senior partner was also a judge never created a conflict-of-interest question in these many cases.

Frazier uses the Benedict line as a springboard for two excursuses, one on the continuous movement of westward settlement that begins following the Revolutionary War and slows only during the Civil War, to resume with even greater energy after 1865. The Benedict who founded Norwalk, Ohio, was among a number of individuals whose families had received financial settlements as a result of claims made against the states for damages incurred during the Revolutionary War. When Connecticut sold three million acres of the Western Reserve to the Connecticut Land Company in 1795, Benedict bought what land he could, and as he prospered, he bought more. Frazier devotes considerable space to evoking the everyday life of people during this period, using particularly the moving personal history of Comfort Hoyt (the great-grandfather of Frazier’s great-great-grandmother), whose Danbury, Connecticut, home and property were destroyed during the Revolution. Hoyt journeyed into the Ohio wilderness entirely on his own, built a one-room log cabin for his family, then returned to Danbury to accompany them back to Ohio the following year. They discovered, upon arriving, that the cabin had been burned to the ground during their absence. Undismayed, Hoyt rebuilt his cabin and prospered.

Frazier’s second excursus deals with the fate of the Norwalk, Ohio, volunteers recruited by Charles P. Wickham to serve the Union cause during the Civil War. In this even more detailed account, the author concentrates on the hardships endured during several nearly forgotten engagements, as well as the celebrated one at Chancellorsville, Virginia, which virtually decimated the Ohio men. His hour-by-hour narration of this bloody encounter is already hauntingly familiar to readers of Civil War historiography, and...

(The entire section is 2088 words.)