“I am the family face,” Thomas Hardy wrote. “Flesh perishes, I live on.”
These lines come from his poem “Heredity,” a melancholy and wondering meditation on the “curve and voice and eye” that carry on long after our ancestors have returned to dust. “The eternal thing in man,” Hardy says, “That heeds no call to die.”
Hardy came from the kind of people, as Adam Kirsch once put it, that “Jane Austen would never have allowed into her parlor.” But in the distant past, Hardy’s ancestors were said to be aristocracy: Le Hardy. The declining fortunes of his lineage—his mason father, his mother’s history as a domestic servant, his birth just over five months after his parents married—preoccupied Hardy and infiltrated his work.
The image above is a portrait first published in 1889, when Hardy was on the precipice of 50. The one below was painted in 1922, about five years after “Heredity” appeared. He was in his early 80s.
Apparently, these are his parents:
The influence of Darwin on Hardy’s work was immense. In another poem, “She, I, and They,” a man sits, a woman knits, and portraits of their ancestors hang around them. They hear a sigh, but neither of them sighed. It wasn’t the wind. So they look up “at each face / Framed and glazed there in its place,” and decide it was the ancestors, fretting that the couple is the last of “stocks once unsurpassed,” the ruin of what was a “sturdy line.”
A critic once called Hardy “the first great poet of Darwinism.” The same critic disavowed the Darwininan “tragic vision” of Hardy’s novels Tess of the D’Ubervilles and Jude the Obscure, though, so maybe he hadn’t read all the poems closely.
We know how we look depends largely on what our ancestors physically pass down to us. Some geneticists hold that our vocal patterns and even our gestures must be strongly influenced by our genes, too.
In his book Identically Different: Why You Can Change Your Genes, the genetic epidemiologist Tim Spector draws from years of research into identical twins who were adopted at birth and raised apart. In his experience, they not only look alike, but “talk alike and have very similar mannerisms and facial expressions.”
As the title of his book implies, Spector is also deeply interested and invested in epigenetics, which can have surprising effects on identical twins and their physicality, so his comments about traits twins tend to share aren’t coming from a hard-genetic-coding bias.
I’m drawn to books whose authors meet their biological parents as adults and discover chilling parallels in speech, movement, and interests.
One recently-published favorite is Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know, a beautifully intimate reflection on adoption and family, on being raised by white parents as the biological child of Korean immigrants to Seattle. I recommend the book to everyone, but especially adoptive parents, and especially, especially anyone who’s adopted a child of a different ethnicity. I interviewed Chung last October, and here’s an excerpt:
MN: You met your biological father and found out that you shared some really uncanny similarities with him. Another revelation I don’t want to spoil for the reader, but I got chills.
NC: It’s so weird. My sister does it, too—and my kids, but they might do it because they’ve grown up watching me do it. I don’t know.
MN: I wonder how discovering these similarities has changed your relationship to thinking about what it means to come from someone in that physical way.
NC: Growing up adopted, one of the things I heard over and over: ‘Nurture over nature.’ No one ever really came out and said blood is not important. And I don’t think blood is everything. But it was always kind of minimized, the power of these connections and what is passed on from generation to generation.
Also, I think, as you’re well aware, we are so disconnected in some ways from the people who came before us, particularly between the first immigrant generations here in America and subsequent generations. The break with the old country is often permanent, and after a couple of generations there is no more contact. So there’s just a lot that we don’t know. There’s a lot to unearth when we go in search of it, and that’s interesting.
I always grew up thinking (and maybe I just had to think this, maybe it was comforting to think this), blood is not really that important; I’m probably not so much like my birth parents. It was very strange. And, like you said, I discovered these uncanny similarities, both big ones and little ones. It has made me wonder more about other people in the family who I don’t know, and might never know, in part because some of them don’t know about me still, and in part because my birth family is a family of immigrants as well. We do have relatives in Korea, and my sister knows many of them. But she hasn’t been back and she hasn’t seen them in a long time. My birth father goes back fairly regularly. I don’t know how much those connections are going to be carried forward, honestly, in the next generation, like my sister’s and mine and then our kids’.
So I do think about this a little bit differently now. It’s hard to think about it in terms of what we lose, because as an adopted person I guess I feel I’ve already lost a lot of that to begin with.
It was very strange to discover that my birth father loves to write. It’s not something that anybody else in my adoptive family does, so far as I know. But I always loved to write, and to find my birth family and realize this is something that my father and my sister also love and have also always done… I don’t know. It’s hard to look at that and not think, “Oh, probably genes do have something to do with that.”
I also recommend Dani Shapiro’s thoughtful and appealing Inheritance, published earlier this year; Jennifer Teege’s strangely neglected My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me, which I discovered through pure kismet at Greenlight Bookstore about a year and a half into writing my book; and A.M. Homes’ The Mistress’ Daughter, which has stayed with me over the years.
Right now I’m planning to send Ancestor Hunger dispatches on the first and third Tuesday of each month. If you’re wondering what to expect in future installments, I put together an About page. I’ll warn you if I’m thinking of picking up the pace.
All good wishes until next time,