Oral History: To Fill the Silences

By Meghan Jullian
MALS Quarterly, Spring 2005

1948 was a momentous year. President Truman signed the Marshall Plan. The World Health Organization was established by the U.N. Israel was declared an independent state. And oral history was identified as a discipline unto itself.

Twenty-three MALS students signed up for the spring Oral History class, taught by Professors Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer, to learn what made oral history so distinct from the general study of history. After all, aren't all sources originally oral?

In the first class, the Professors Frommer asked us to define oral history. People gave varying definitions: it was a recording of impressions of the past; it was memories fading that were too precious to be lost; it was the way to supplement - or correct - the historical accounts found in textbooks.

Or perhaps it was to fill the many silences in history. Oral history is personal. It allows for individual, unofficial voices, the voices rarely heard in books and articles. Oral history explains that interviewing your neighbor's grandmother about her experiences on the homefront during World War II is a laudable enterprise. Textbooks are skeletons; oral histories are ligaments, organs, and skin.

By our third class, we were critiquing oral histories like pros. We analyzed our first book, Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman, by Merle Miller, according to the paradigm of medium, message, and massage, as articulated by Marshall McLuhan. The Professors Frommer were serious about the syllabus's goal of "explor[ing] the theoretical implications, practical applications, and literary dimensions of oral history."

They explained that the medium was the form the data took (book, film, recording, etc.). The message was just that - the data or subject matter of the interviews. The massage was the effect that the medium or the message has or does not have on the reader or listener.

And through reading and discussion, we came to understand that more than the average history textbooks were oral histories creative works. The interviewer must transcribe hours of taped conversations, and then select from the interviews those segments most pertinent to his or her theme.

Amy Fortier, a MALS student of several terms, thoughtfully remarked upon how well the oral history class complemented the MALS program "in that it bridges the purely academic and fact-based part of the program with the creative writing portion. What the class does is brings to life the history many of us slept through in high school and makes it dynamic. Everyone likes a good story and, as they say, the truth is stranger than fiction."

Oral history can, of course, address any issue at any time in history. In the class being taught this term, Professors Myrna and Harvey Frommer chose books whose pivotal event was WWII. The aforementioned book by Miller is on the list, as are Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1980s, by Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer; It Happened in Manhattan: An Oral History of Life in the City During the Mid-Twentieth Century, by Myrna Katz and Harvey Frommer; and The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two, by Studs Terkel, one of America's preeminent oral historians.

The Good War stunned me. I had somehow assumed WWII was different from other wars - more just, more reasoned, more everything. But as I read the wrenching accounts of nurses and wives, the wounded and the decorated, mostly Americans, but Japanese and Germans, too, I felt overwhelmed. I had rarely thought of WWII as it was experienced by each single person. I do not suppose I had thought of many events in history as they were experienced by individuals.

Fortier seemed to feel the same way. "I now find myself wondering about the back stories of strangers, family members, and friends," she said. "I had never really given this genre much thought before but now will most likely do an oral history thesis."

Several other classmates have expressed interest in an independent study in oral history, if not a potential thesis in it. We will have practice in the art this term - our main assignment is to interview six to twelve people and compile an oral history of twenty-five to thirty pages. The length of the project seemed a bit intimidating at first, but then I realized that a single interview of an hour or so could yield ten pages.

Learning about oral history is not limited to those enrolled in the course. Roughly three times a year, the Frommers organize an Oral History Circle, which takes place in people's homes or in various locations on the Dartmouth campus. Past and present oral history students, the Frommers themselves, and anyone interested in oral history are invited to attend an event that is a combination potluck and discussion. The seventh Oral History Circle took place in the open area in Rocky on May 7th, with a nice crowd in attendance-including children and dogs.


Contact Myrna or Harvey