On first encounter, oral history seems both straightforward and innately subversive, an approach to narrative history that offers unmediated access to an otherwise inaccessible past. What could be simpler and more transparent than a tale told by the person who experienced it? History from the horse’s mouth, so to speak: a plebeian alternative to traditional scholarship’s reliance on testimony from the powerful and institutional documents.
Not surprisingly, many of the genre’s pioneers emerged from outside the academy and many of them identified with ‘history from below’, as they sought to undercover stories never previously considered worthy of investigation. Think of Ronald Blythe with Akenfield, his beautiful account of life in a small Suffolk village. Think of Alex Haley’s (controversial) use of family lore to identify African ancestry in Roots. Think of Studs Terkel’s Hard Times and Working, think of Wendy Lowenstein’s Weevils in the Flour and Under the Hook: compelling narratives of the Great Depression and of labour, from the US and Australia respectively.
Or think, perhaps, of the Federal Writers Project launched under Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration. That scheme exemplified the reformist spirit of the New Deal, partly because it funded unemployed writers (a form of literary pump-priming that one wishes contemporary governments would rediscover) and partly because those writers were specifically tasked with documenting the lives of ordinary people. Some of them set out to find former slaves, eventually compiling about 2000 interviews with men and women born in bondage. By and large, slave owners took pains to prevent their possessions learning to read or write. As a result, there are few records about enslaved people – and even fewer in which they speak.
That’s why you feel chills down your spine when you read, say, the transcript of 89-year-old Lucretia Alexander describing the moment of emancipation in Arkansas. ‘Old colored folks, old as I am now, that was on sticks,’ Alexander says, ‘throwed them sticks away and shouted.’
Without question, the WPA Slave Narrative Collection now archived at the Library of Congress, constitutes an extraordinary resource. Yet you don’t have to spend long with it to recognise that, far from providing a transparent window onto the past, oral history can introduce perceptual distortions of its own. For instance, a surprising number of ex-slaves speak warmly about the plantation. Why? The interviews took place seven decades after the Civil War: these are very elderly people recalling their infancy from the depths of the Great Depression, and in the wake of all the racial violence that followed reconstruction. They’re answering questions put to them by educated whites – and, as impoverished African Americans in the deep South, they understand the peril of expressing discontent to authority figures. Which is not to suggest that the interviews aren’t important. But the slave narratives remind us that oral testimony requires interpretation, just as much as any other historical source.
The new book Australian Lives: An Intimate History originated from the Australian Generations Oral History Project, a fascinating, multifaceted attempt to explore the complexities of oral history in the twenty-first century. Between 2011 and 2014, researchers from Monash University recorded more than 1200 hours of audio from more than 300 people, in a collaboration between academic historians, the National Library of Australia and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The participants were self-selecting, responding to a call-out broadcast on the ABC. The final cohort was, however, whittled down to cover Australian residents born each decade from the 1930s to the 1980s.
The involvement of the ABC highlights the differing uses to which oral history can be put. Radio – a medium reliant on the human voice – lends itself to individual testimony. Studs Terkel’s histories emerged from his forty-five year career as a broadcaster. Yet radio listeners also expect to hear a well-structured story, as Michelle Rayner, the executive producer for Radio National’s Books and Arts, explains in the special edition of Australian Historical Studies devoted to the Australian Generations project. ‘The role of the radio producer is akin to that of a director,’ she says, ‘weaving together sometimes singular characters into a cohesive narrative whole, which can give a new complexity and depth to a situation, event or historical process. This role did not sit easily with our use of a pre-recorded archive of long life history interviews.’
Think of S Town, the incredibly popular (at last count, more than 40 million downloads) podcast constructed from oral testimony from the rural south of the United States. The success of that show rested upon the brilliant editing that transformed everyday smalltown lives into the stuff of a true crime thriller. Rayner and her team eventually used recordings from the Australian Generations project alongside audio from other sources to create shows examining fatherhood, motherhood, housing, boarding schools and, somewhat unexpectedly, glory boxes.
A different approach is adopted by Anisa Puri and Alistair Thomson in Australian Lives. The editors chose choose fifty people from the huge database, presenting selections from the interviews organised according to common experiences: family, education, relationships, ageing and so on. Instead of forming the coherent narrative we’d expect from a radio show or podcast, the book invites readers to make their own comparisons about changes across the decades.
For instance, when Ruth Apps (born in 1926) describes a Catholic childhood in Wagga Wagga, she recalls the sectarianism that once dominated rural Australia. ‘[W]hen we walked home from the convent after school,’ she explains, ‘we had to pass the public school and the nuns always exhorted us, “Don’t walk on that side of the road, there are Protestants over there.” You did not walk on the same side of the road as the Protestants. You just simply didn’t do it.’
A few pages later, James Finnegan (born in 1981 in south west Sydney) matter-of-factly discusses a youthful enthusiasm for ‘Paganism and Wicca and the affinity with the moon’. Through the implicit comparison we confront the extraordinary transformation of spiritual life in Australia. Census data might provide a statistical measure of the decline of traditional faith but the difference between Apps and Finnegan makes us feel what that means. What would those Wagga Wagga nuns have made of a genuine pagan?
The interviewees in Australian Lives are not, by and large, famous (though SRB readers might know the work of SF writer Ben Peek, who features briefly), nor, for the most part, do they talk about the Big Events of traditional historiography, except in passing. The chapter on ‘Military Service’ covers the first world war, the second world war, Vietnam and Afghanistan. But the transcripts reveal nothing about battle or strategy or military heroism. Bert Castellari explains that the deafening noise he endured serving in a tank crew in New Guinea cost him his appreciation of music; Jason Johnson recalls the occupation of Afghanistan for the camaraderie and the food the locals prepared. ‘I think I ate more pomegranate in Afghanistan than I care to ever remember,’ he says.
Elsewhere, Apps mentions the legacy of her father’s time on the Western front. ‘[W]e kids used to love to feel daddy’s shrapnel and you could feel it under his skin in various parts – his legs, his torso – and that remained in his body until he died.’ Conventional histories enumerate the casualties suffered by Australians during the Great War: so many dead, so many crippled, so many mentally infirm. But the image of children playing with their father’s shattered body evokes, in a much more visceral way, the everyday ghastliness inflicted on thousands of families.
Oral history is particularly good at drawing out those aspects of everyday life that don’t necessarily leave a mark on the documentary record. Sexuality is an obvious example. Geraldine Box (born 1946) describes coming to terms with her lesbianism in Darwin in the mid-seventies. ‘I had no concept for it,’ she says. ‘I had no role models or concept of what was going on, until I met somebody and that was, ah, right. So the light went on but, you know, we thought we’re the only people in the world anyway.’
The chapters on immigration and race contain equally devastating recollections. Lisa Jackson, a woman with Indigenous ancestry, tells of a family history marred by the Australian apartheid of the early twentieth century, back when her grandparents ‘actually had to get permission from the Chief Protector of Aborigine to get married.’ Donat Santowiak describes arriving in Australia from Poland in 1964 and settling in rural Victoria, an experience he compares to ‘being slapped across the head with a shovel’. As a teenager from a foreign country, he was regularly beaten up (‘I ended up nearly losing all my teeth’) and thrown physically out of shops when he couldn’t pronounce the name of products to the satisfaction of the proprietor. Not surprisingly, he assiduously expunged any trace of his Polish culture. ‘The price of admission was a denouncement of my heritage,’ he says.
Puri and Thomson explain how they edited the extracts in Australian Lives ‘to capture the nuance of the spoken word, while also ensuring a readable and coherent text’. But they also direct the reader to the NLA website, where the original audio files can be accessed. As Puri notes in Australian Historical Studies (in an article written with Kevin Bradley from the NLA), oral historians traditionally privileged the transcript as the primary object of study, a perhaps inevitable decision in a pre-digital era but one that inevitably obscured important nuances in what was being gathered. For instance, most of the interviews in the WPA Slave Narrative collection render the responses in standard American English, a practice that becomes particularly apparent when you read those few that give phonetic renderings of the subjects’ African American speech.
By contrast, the technology available to the Australian Generations project means you can read Leo Cripps’ account of his childhood in the central highlands of Tasmania in the thirties (‘What I used to do to warm me hands up, I used to put them up in the flanks of the bullocks and that used to warm me up enough that I could get ‘em yoked up, you see’) in Australian Lives – and then hear his voice as he tells the story. From the audio, you can detect his excitement as he brings out a photograph to illustrate a point. This emotion is imperceptible in the transcript. Furthermore, since the recording also contains the interviewers’ voice (‘Okay, so this is an interview with Leo Cripps who will be speaking with me, Ben Ross, for the Australian Generations Oral History Project’), the listener is forced to confront the specific process by which the text was produced.
Why does that matter? The transcripts in Australian Lives discuss events going back to the first half of the twentieth century. But the participants related their stories between 2011 and 2014. In her influential study of everyday life under Italian fascism, Luisa Passerini makes the point that ‘the raw material of oral history consists not just of factual statements but is pre-eminently an expression and representation of culture, and therefore includes not only literal narrations but also the dimension of memory, ideology and subconscious desires.’ The Cripps interview might discuss Tasmania in the 1930s. But the recollection of those events is necessarily filtered through the lens of 2012.
In another fascinating essay from AHS, Katie Holmes compares the interviews from Australian Generations with those recorded in the early 1980s for a bicentennial history project. She remarks on the prevalence of references to mental illness in the former – and their almost complete absence from the latter. Part of the explanation she offers is that ‘these narratives of mental illness are themselves produced in a historical moment which has been described as a “therapeutic culture”, which encourages talking about the self, legitimises the articulation of pain and trauma, and promotes “talking” as means of healing the ravages of an individual’s past.’ In other words, ordinary people might now make sense of their experience through a discourse unavailable to them earlier in their lives. That’s what makes this project so interesting: its awareness of the limitations and the possibilities of oral history.
A traditional critique of ‘history from below’ might emphasise its inability to totalize: to explain how society works, you need to look at the top, the bottom and the relationship between them. Oral history – necessarily subjective, necessarily partial – is particularly vulnerable to this argument. Certainly, Australian Lives won’t provide the reader with an explanation of the events it describes, nor will it offer an analysis of their meaning. But that’s not the point.
When Kim Bear muses on being a teenager on the Gold Coast on the early seventies, she ticks off a list of the cultural influences sharping her youth: Gough Whitlam, the Vietnam moratoriums, feminism, Cleo magazine. Yes, Cleo magazine. ‘I think probably just about everything else I learned to do with sex or contraception or anything came out of Cleo,’ she explains. ‘That was kind of the Bible really because not only would they talk about it but there’d be pictures and discussions and it wasn’t always about, you know, the wrongness of it.’
Traditionally histories of the period would, no doubt, explain the complex relationship between youth culture, industrial militancy and anti-war activism that made the administration of Gough Whitlam (a figure from the Right of the ALP) so transformative. In the process, they would, quite possibly, skip over the influence of a commercial woman’s magazine – even though, for one teenager at least, Cleo mattered more than anything else.
‘Oral history,’ write Puri and Thomson, ‘is especially effective in capturing the more intimate aspects of everyday lives – love and loss, moving home or country, sustaining or questioning faith – that are too easily left out of history’s big picture.’ That seems entirely right. This is, you might say, a book concerned with the texture of the past, rather than its structure or meaning. The Australian Generations Oral History Project will be an important resource for historians of the future – and Australian Lives provides a fine introduction to it.
Ronald Blythe, Akenfield, Allen Lane, 1969.
Kevin Bradley and Anisa Puri, ‘Creating an Oral History Archive: Digital Opportunities and Ethical Issues’ in Australian Historical Studies, Vol 47, Issue 1, March 2016.
Alex Haley, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, Doubleday, 1976.
Katie Holmes, ‘Talking about Mental Illness: Life Histories and Mental Health in Modern Australia’ in Australian Historical Studies, Vol 47, Issue 1, March 2016.
Wendy Lowenstein, Weevils in the Flour: An Oral History of the 1930s Depression in Australia, Scribe, 1998.
Wendy Lowenstein, Under the Hook: Melbourne waterside workers remember working lives and class war, 1900-1980: Melbourne Bookworkers, 1982.
Luisa Passerini, ‘Work, Ideology and Consensus under Italian fascism’ in History Workshop Journal, Vol 8, No 1, 1979.
Michelle Rayner, ‘The Radio Documentary and Oral History: Challenges and Opportunities’, in Australian Historical Studies, Vol 47, Issue 1, March 2016.
Studs Terkel, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, Pantheon, 1970 .
Studs Terkel, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, Pantheon Books, 1974.