Author Digs Deeply in “Kentucky Clay”

Review by James Pylant

Kentucky Clay: Eleven Generations of a Southern Dynasty. By Katherine Bateman. Hardbound (2008), 222 pp. + xvii, illus., indexed, $24.95. Published by Chicago Review Press, 814 North Franklin St., Chicago, IL 60610. Order online.

To Northerners, a family’s aristocracy pivoted on “old money.” Yet to Southerners, it was “family name” that defined prominence. Katherine Bateman never felt comfortable with her Southern family’s talk of bloodlines. “For most of my life I ran from the stories,” Bateman admits. “I left the northeastern sector of Kentucky, where generations of my relatives were known, and I never looked back.” But now Katherine Bateman has returned. And she’s looking back, realizing she has a treasure trove of family artifacts—letters, photographs, and even clothing—as well as a rich oral history drilled into her since childhood. Bateman reexamined the memorabilia she inherited and those oft-repeated stories and, combing them with genealogical research, to produce Kentucky Clay.

Her roots trace back to the Clays of Virginia, early seventeenth century colonists, who produced planters and politicians. Two noted descendants of this family were statesman and presidential candidate Henry Clay and Cassius Clay, Abraham Lincoln’s abolitionist advisor and ambassador to Russia. Despite its title, Kentucky Clay does not focus on either of the famous Clays nor is it a comprehensive history of those bearing that surname. Instead, it concentrates on one branch of the family—the author’s direct maternal bloodline.

In 1800, six generations into the Clay family’s American pedigree, William Clay (1777—1785) married Rebecca Cecil, who, as a direct descendant of William Cecil, Lord Burghley (1521—1598), gave the family its prized infusion of blueblood. “When Rebecca Cecil married William Clay, the emphasis changed in our family stories,” the author says. “[T]he structure of the family changed from a patriarchal to a matriarchal one, and the structure of the stories reflects the shift.” Here, Kentucky Clay shows its impact on the author’s immediate family. In the five generations that followed Rebecca Cecil, Katherine Bateman allows the stories of her maternal line unfold with the same frankness when they were told to her. She reveals proud, strong women who were often complex, unconventional and, admittedly, sometimes selfish.

Bateman tells of their tendency to fall into what she calls the “Cecil-mother syndrome,” withdrawing from maternal responsibilities. Kate Burns Mott, the author’s great-grandmother, took a vacation from motherhood by retreating to her bedroom upstairs—for one year. “When Kate withdrew from her family she offered a treacherous option to all of the family’s future mothers: if you have had enough, you can always just ‘go upstairs,'” writes Bateman. She explores how the actions of these women impacted their descendants, and she does not shy away from divulging the infidelities of past generations.

Kentucky Clay became deeply personal and cathartic for its writer, prompting her to wonder if those family stories were told to propose options that others would not have considered. “Family stories,” she says, “have power, the power to define, the power to limit, the power to control.” Kentucky Clay is beautifully printed and well-illustrated with portraits of the author’s Clay, Burns, Mott, Meinhart, and Bateman relatives.

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