WSJ on oral histories: A hoax in the family line

Jay Gould told everybody he knew about his work recording the memories from the working people of Manhattan, real history. In 1942 he told The New Yorker of his work, and the phrase “oral history” leapt out of the story.

It was a great idea. But Gould made up everything about his work. At his death, friends discovered he left no oral histories behind.

It’s still a good idea, though, and it makes for good student project. Barry Weiss wrote a quick history of oral history for the Wall Street Journal last week. You can pull it off of JSTOR and use it as an introduction to the projects you assign to students.

You’ve never heard of him, but Robert Rush may be a modern-day Herodotus. Mr. Rush, who jokes that “he got his B.A. from the back of a Humvee,” is an oral historian with the U.S. Army. A retired command sergeant major who spent 30 years on active duty before getting his doctorate in history, Mr. Rush believes that recorded testimonies “can flesh out details that aren’t present in the paper histories.” In 2006, he was stationed in Iraq, where he spent seven months interviewing everyone from “engineers to bricklayers to military officers,” all with his handheld Olympus.

A century ago, historians might have laughed at Mr. Rush’s desire to spend time talking to construction workers. Today, the populist impulse is everywhere in the study of history.

Veteran interviews need to be done quickly for any veterans left from World War I, and for the few remaining veterans from World War II and Korea. There is a crying need for interviews of the women who performed the “Rosie the Riveter” work building airplanes, tanks, bombs, and other manufactured items, especially interviews of those women who worked in heavy industries and then went home to raise families when the men returned from foreign fronts. Rush got the soldiers while they were in Iraq — many of them are home now, and provide a source of oral history.

Veterans of Gulf War I, and Vietnam, have stories that need to be told and recorded. There is much to be done.

These stories would be perfect for podcasts, by the way.

Today, digital technology has allowed for every fisherman and every member of Parliament to immortalize their stories. With folks from all walks of life now making autobiographical podcasts, historians in the future will be presented with the issue of how to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Storycorps, an ambitious national oral- history project whose results can occasionally be heard on NPR, does some of this sorting, providing a more structured opportunity for such recordings than YouTube. In soundbooths across the country, Americans can come in and record their stories for 40 minutes, which then get archived in the Library of Congress. David Isay, the founder of Storycorps, describes the act of listening to the voice as “an adrenaline shot to the heart.” The physical experience of hearing another’s words can bring an understanding that reading those words on a page simply cannot.

If you go to the Library of Congress Web site you can listen to Lloyd Brown, the last U.S. Navy veteran of World War I, who died earlier this year. On the 71-minute recording, which he made at age 103, Mr. Brown offers a confession for posterity. “I lied about my age; I told them I was 18,” he recalls in a Southern drawl. At 16, he couldn’t wait two years to join the Navy. “It was a matter of patriotism.” So says the voice from history.

Weiss’s story, in the on-line version, briefly linked to this blog last week, bringing in at least two readers. Alas for the blog, but good for readers, the links at the bottom of the page change. Follow what’s there, see what you find.

2 Responses to WSJ on oral histories: A hoax in the family line

  1. mpb says:

    I think it is important to note that “oral histories” are not just recorded stories. That is, there is a need for standard information (meta-data); it also helps (essential?) to have some idea as to why the stories are collected.

    This is really research with oral data. Like any other data, the circumstances of its collecting are important as well as the ability of the researcher to provide scholarly assessment. It helps to know how oral data differs from written data from archaeological data. [maybe the small books by James Deetz would help, Invitation to Archaeology and In Small Things Considered

    I can’t think of good references off the top of my head but I’m sure you have some listed earlier. There used to be a program during the US Bicentennial called “Above Ground Archaeology” which attempted to give guidelines for students to use. Another great program is the Spradley & McCurdy approach, The Cultural Experience: Ethnography in Complex Society,


  2. bernarda says:

    Probably the most famous oral history writer and recorder is Studs Terkel.

    There are lots of recordings at the site.


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