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Prospecting For Truth In the Ore Of Memory

When Alessandro Portelli was doing an oral history of a small working-class Italian city in the 1970’s, he became puzzled when his subjects repeatedly made factual errors or even related events that had never happened. For instance, when talking about the death of a worker named Luigi Trastulli, who had been killed in a clash with the police in 1949, the people Mr. Portelli interviewed all insisted that the event had occurred during demonstrations in 1953.

At first it seemed like the kind of mistake that aging memories are prone to and the reason that many historians are wary of oral history. But Mr. Portelli, perhaps because of his background teaching American literature at the University of Rome, began to see the errors of oral histories, like Freudian slips, as a central part of their meaning and their narrative strategy.

Trastulli died during a demonstration over Italy’s decision to join NATO — a controversy that had lost much of its meaning by the time Mr. Portelli did his interviews — and the 1953 demonstrations were prompted by mass firings from local factories, which had permanently changed life in the area.

”I realized that memory was itself an event on which we needed to reflect,” he said in a recent interview at the University of Rome. ”Memory is not just a mirror of what has happened, it is one of the things that happens, which merits study.”

The theoretical work of Mr. Portelli and other Italian oral historians has become standard reading in the field. ”Alessandro Portelli’s work has transformed oral history from being a kind of stepchild of history into a literary genre in its own right,” said Mary Marshall Clark, director of the Oral History Research Office at Columbia University. ”He has allowed us to see oral histories as more than eyewitness accounts that are either true or false, and to look for themes and structures of the stories.”

This approach has prompted Indiana University, for example, to change the name of its Oral History Research Center to the Center for History and Memory — an indication that the relatively young field of oral history has entered a new stage of maturity.

As an area of academic study, it got its start in 1948 in the United States when Allan Nevins, a historian at Columbia, founded the oral history office. His main interest was diplomatic history, and he began by recording the accounts of scores of government officials who might not have left written memoirs.

The field began to take off during the 1960’s and early 70’s with the emergence of the civil rights and feminist movements and the proliferation of inexpensive tape recorders. Scholars hailed oral history as a means of documenting and giving voice to blacks, women, Native Americans, immigrants and other groups that had often been pushed to the margins of society. Oral history reached mass audiences with groundbreaking books like ”The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” ”Roots” by Alex Haley and ”Hard Times” ”Working” by Studs Terkel and ”La Vida’ and ”Children of Sanchez” by Oscar Lewis, which were all based on interviews.

At the same time many academic historians viewed the field with suspicion, insisting that written documents were the gold standard of historical truth. Oral sources, they said, have selective memories, get facts wrong, conflate events and slant their accounts of the past to fit the needs of the present or of the researcher. Oral historians responded to that criticism by trying to make their work meet the same standards as documentary history.

”Until the 1970’s, most of oral history was pretty traditional: the worth of a document was judged on whether or not the person was more or less truthful, had a good memory, and if people couldn’t remember or lied, the document wasn’t worth much,” said Ronald J. Grele, who headed oral history centers at both the University of California at Los Angeles and Columbia before his recent retirement. ”People were not much concerned with what is now called ‘subjectivity.’ Sandro Portelli is one of the key people who is concerned with subjectivity.”

As Mr. Portelli has written, ”Oral sources tell us not just what people did, but what they wanted to do, what they believed they were doing and what they now think they did.”

At the same time that Mr. Portelli was sorting through varying accounts of Luigi Trastulli’s death, Luisa Passerini, a professor of history now at the European University in Florence, was encountering similar problems interviewing Italian workers about the Fascist period from 1922 to 1943.

At an international oral history conference held in Britain in 1979, she delivered a groundbreaking paper that examined the silences, discrepancies, irrelevancies and inconsistencies that cropped up in her interviews. In many cases her subjects virtually skipped over the 20 years of the Fascist period with only a passing reference or two.

”Irrelevancies and discrepancies must not be denied, but these will never be understood if we take oral sources merely as factual statements,” she said in her talk, arguing that they ”should be taken as forms of culture and testimonies of the changes of these forms over time.”

Italian scholars in particular, Mr. Grele said, have ”played an important role in beginning to ask questions about the nature of oral sources, questions about memory, about what we learn from people’s mistakes, about how history lives on and is transmitted.”

Why Italy rather than the United States, the pioneer in the field, was a leader in this theoretical approach to oral history is an interesting puzzle for historians.

”I think it may have to do with the firsthand experience of war,” said John Bodnar, chairman of the history department at Indiana University and head of its oral history program. ”Being a battleground during the war, I think, was a cultural shock that undermined the idea of national history. It destabilizes the past and how it is used.”

Italy, perhaps the most polarized country in Western Europe, with large Communist and neo-Fascist parties for most of the postwar period, is a country where it is understood that everyone has a different version of reality and history. Editorials appear on the front, not the back, page of the newspapers, and ideological bias is so open that some readers buy five or six newspapers to try to piece together the day’s events.

Mr. Portelli’s essay on the death of Luigi Trastulli begins with various press accounts of the incident, which differ radically.

Embracing the subjective nature of historical memory does not, however, mean renouncing the idea of an objective factual reality. ”As oral historians, we must do three jobs at the same time,” Mr. Portelli said. ”We must do the historian’s job of trying to understand what happened, the anthropologist’s job of understanding how people tell their stories and then move back and forth between these two levels.”

In his latest book, ”L’ordine e’ gia’ stato eseguito” (”The Order Has Already Been Executed,” not yet available in the United States), Mr. Portelli goes to great lengths to prove that many of the oral accounts of a crucial event in World War II in Italy are flat-out wrong.

The book is about the massacre of 335 Italian civilians in Rome in 1944 by the Germans in response to an ambush by Italian partisans that killed 33 German soldiers. Many people believe that after the ambush, the Germans issued an ultimatum saying that if the partisans did not turn themselves in, 10 Italian civilians would killed for each dead German soldier.

In fact, the Germans issued a bulletin the day after the attack that the order of retaliation ”had already been executed.” But a series of popular myths have developed around the incident that tend to make the partisans, not the Germans, responsible for the massacre — myths that Mr. Portelli says have been growing in recent years as Italy’s neo-Fascist party has been working hard to rehabilitate itself.

By now, most document-oriented historians fully accept that oral techniques are an essential part of historical work on the 20th century. ”I think it’s an extraordinarily important resource,” said Natalie Zeamon Davis of the University of Toronto, who is known for her archival work on early modern France. She has recently adopted oral interviewing for a project on Vichy France during World War II, a subject on which archival evidence is scant and often unreliable. But, she added, ”I don’t think the emphasis on memory should cause us to forget its value for gathering evidence.”

Oral history is also undergoing something of a renaissance because of the opening up of the former Soviet-bloc countries. Until recently, one-third of the world’s people were essentially off-limits to outside researchers.

Until 1990, David L. Ransel, head of Indiana University’s Russian and East European Institute, had worked exclusively with documentary sources in writing about the lives of Russian women and families. One day he and some statistically minded colleagues were discussing a puzzling demographic anomaly: how was it that Russian women continued to have fewer children during the nearly 20 years that Stalin outlawed abortion in the Soviet Union?

”We looked at each other and said: ‘Why don’t we just ask them?’ ” Mr. Ransel recalled. He then conducted about 100 interviews and discovered that peasant women, whose mothers generally had 10 to 12 children, half of whom died in infancy, simply ignored Stalin’s orders and risked jail by having illegal abortions. On the strength of this experience, Indiana University is now helping to start various oral history projects in the former Soviet Union.

Mr. Ransel said that not all of his colleagues matched his enthusiasm. ”I have a graduate student who wanted to do oral interviews as part of her dissertation, and she dropped her adviser because he was against the idea,” Mr. Ransel said. ”The view is that if it isn’t in the archives, it doesn’t exist.”

In keeping with the perils of oral history, the adviser in question, Hiroaki Kuromiya, a specialist in Ukrainian history at Indiana, offered a different account. ”I don’t recall that incident,” he said. ”I may have said that some graduate students may not have the critical faculties or the Russian language skills to interpret that kind of information.”

What’s more, Mr. Kuromiya said he felt that oral sources were especially valuable as a window on the subjective world of the old Soviet Union.

”People there tended to rely on rumor, so the reliability of their stories is not as interesting as their meaning,” he said. ”These oral sources may not tell you much about what Stalin was doing, but they are terribly useful in telling you about people’s minds.”

– March 10, 2001

Published at The New York Times

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