The Common Good
November-December 1997

Angles of Vision

by Anne Wayne | November-December 1997

The subversive nature of oral history.

My passion for oral history stems from the delicious thrill of hearing the hidden story. I adore listening to my grandma's tales of life in the Australian outback. Farming during the Depression was hard. Grandma's family survived by hiring immigrants to clear the paddocks. The timber was then exported, as railroad sleepers, to South Africa.

While attending university, I learned that Australia denied work to immigrants during the Depression, and I recalled grandma's stories. Government inspectors arriving at the farm were given a bottle of whiskey, and they would fill in Anglo-Saxon names for all the immigrants on the job! At its root, the practice of oral history is a refusal to let the official version be the sole standard of history.

Journalist and author Studs Terkel understands the subversive nature of oral history. His latest book, My American Century, is a "quasi-anthology" of his eight oral journals. It combines memories about the Great Depression and World War II, as well as reflections on the American Dream and the nature of work.

Terkel freely admits that the possessive pronoun in the title "reflects...a personal view....I have tried for as much balance as possible, yet objectivity...has escaped me." This is obvious from a cursory glance, which shows that only 12 of the 47 histories come from women. However, the oral testimonies that do make it into this collection offer remarkable insight into the lives of ordinary Americans and confound the official truth about America.

The book is divided into eight thematic chapters. Sioux Indian author Vine Deloria offers the first story. "You read the tremendous sacrifices the pioneers made to get across the Great Plains....[Y]our own people who sat on the hillside,...looking down at these people, who are terrified because they're in tall grass. Neither side understands the other." Terkel opens up the possibility of understanding by giving voice to those traditionally voiceless.

His testimonies come from the underside of history. Jane Yoder, the daughter of a Work Projects Administration (WPA) worker, recalls entering nurses training with the daughter of a doctor: "Before I could ever say that my father was employed in the WPA, discussions...in our rooms immediately [were]: these lazy people, the shovel leaners."

The interviews are presented as complete, grammatically correct stories. I found it frustrating to read the unannotated text and wondered what questions prompted the answers and what reflections Terkel had on his role. At points Terkel inserted a descriptive note like "[laughter]." This made me more curious because I did not even know if it was ironic or nervous laughter.

Terkel's gift is his talent for eliciting an astonishing honesty from his subjects. I was struck by the pro hockey player who allowed his vulnerability to become evident: "When Toronto dropped me I said, 'I'm a failure'....I became disillusioned....I began to see the exploitation." Explains Terkel, "It was simply a case of making conversation. And listening."

LIFE OUT OF DEATH: The Feminine Spirit in El Salvador records conversations with women who lived through El Salvador's bloody civil war. Narrower in focus than Terkel's book, it allows a more detailed picture of the situation, which I found very satisfying. Although still essentially narrative history, I appreciated the interpretive elements the authors brought to the text.

The book opens with introductory chapters about El Salvador, easing the reader gently into the women's testimonies. The interviews are interspersed with "supporting material which clarifies the women's stories and gives an idea of the strength of the forces arrayed against them."

Women from a variety of positions within the resistance movement speak about their experiences during the war and their current struggles. We hear from peasants, sisters, novices, and intellectuals.

Some unexpected memories are uncovered. Many of the women knew Oscar Romero before his conscientization and speak of this time. Others admit their doubts with heart-rending honesty: "Sometimes I think it would have been better not to preach the gospel. If people's consciousness hadn't been raised at least they wouldn't have died."

Most of the interviews are couched in safe terms. The women speak of public situations with only a few moving into the story of their life cycle. I rarely entered into the women's emotional reality. At times I wished the interviewers had been more probing, gently moving the women from institutional and communal realities to particularized, personal stories.

A North American sister reflects, "Here in El Salvador you don't have to give people permission to talk about God." Thus the women's stories often touch on powerful truths about life and justice. In effect they are doing collective theology. Life Out of Death unearths the texture of a "spirituality of resistance." As Nelly Del Cid says, "It is a privilege to drink from the well of the experience and faith of a people. It motivates one to stay with them in the fight for life."

Alessandro Portelli has long been active in the Italian and international oral history movement. He brings a broad understanding of the genre to The Battle of Valle Giulia: Oral History and the Art of Dialogue, a set of essays about the practice of oral history. It is a fascinating inside look at the process that illuminates history from behind the scenes.

As an academic Portelli brings self-conscious reflection to his essays. His writing does not capture the attention in the same way as Life Out of Death or My American Century. However, plow through the academic language and it is an extremely interesting and stimulating text.

The book is divided into three parts. The first gives an overview of oral history, its practice, and the major issues for the field. Portelli incorporates examples from his rich and diverse experience collecting interviews. Occasionally Portelli is so self-referential that it becomes annoying, as in the chapter "Roles and Gazes in Multivocal and Multilateral Interviewing." But the exploration of these themes makes for thought-provoking reading.

I was intrigued by the questions raised about the role of the interviewer and the power of the interviewee. Portelli recounts an experience with a woman who told him later, "She had consulted with her sister over the phone and they had concluded, 'If he ain't too stuck up we'll talk to him.'" Portelli gives prominence to the process of the interviews showing that meaning begins at the moment of collection. We learn not only what people spoke but how they said it and the dynamics that led to their speech.

Parts two and three cover war and youth movements. Portelli remains more interpretive than narrative in these sections. He points to the relationship between private and public history, for a theme such as war transcends the demarcations between biography and history. It brings the first person "to the foreground of social and historical discourse."

Truth is a complex reality in oral history. Portelli answers oral history's critics by showing that truth resides not simply in a sequence of historical events. Portelli explains, "The contradictions and the symbols point...to another level of truth."

The final level of truth lies in the reader. "By writing about these events, I am inevitably writing about myself," Portelli concludes. It is the same for us. Reading these three oral history texts connects us to our world and inevitably shows us the best and the worst, the unique and the ordinary in ourselves.

ANNE WAYNE recently completed her internship with Sojourners, and she is currently continuing her pilgrimage to communities of faith and justice around the world.

The Battle of Valle Giulia: Oral History and the Art of Dialogue. By Alessandro Portelli. The University of Wisconsin Press, 1997.

Life Out of Death: The Feminine Spirit in El Salvador. Oral stories compiled and arranged by Marigold Gest and Pamela Hussey. Catholic Institute for International Relations, 1996.

My American Century. By Studs Terkel. The New Press, 1997.

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