Interpreting an Oral History Interview
With two sets of oral history interviews, the Farm Labor Project and the Vanguard newspaper interviews, we had the opportunity to model different interpretive options. In the case of the Farm Labor Project interviews we chose to present fuller life histories. The experience of working on farms as part of the World War II home front effort is the center of the story. However, we included far more family background and post-student life history than in the Vanguard segment. In contrast, the edited narrative about the challenge to civil liberties in the story of the Vanguard has a more thematic approach. The two sets of stories lent themselves to this interpretive decision. While the Farm Labor Project participants appreciated that their experience was interesting and unusual, the Vanguard student journalists consistently described that episode as life changing. Vanguard was an “iconic story,” a term coined by oral historian Linda Shopes to describe a defining moment in a narrator’s life history account. Individual iconic stories surface in most of the life history interviews, but the experience of working on the Vanguard during the period it was shut down by the college president was significant for all the narrators.
In addition to editing the oral narratives to tell historical stories with different emphases, we also chose and ordered excerpts that would highlight several interpretive features of oral history:
• the ways in which oral histories can subvert and challenge official
versions of historical events;
• the iconic stories within oral testimonies that form individual and collective memories and are key to finding meaning in a particular historical episode;
• the slipperiness of truth in oral histories and the importance of mining the multiple truths in the historical record;
• the ways that memory is shaped by the present.
The edited narrative of the Farm Labor Project presents a re-interpretation of the official written record of the Farm Labor Project. Brooklyn College advertised the Farm Labor Project to its students as a patriotic response to wartime labor shortages. “Feed a Fighter in ‘44” was one of the logos. What emerges from the students’ stories, however, is less about patriotic duty and more about the adventure of leaving the city and their families, many for the first time. As Marion Greenstone described, “it seemed like a great opportunity to get out of New York, to get away from the family and to be in the country.” Once in the country, these predominantly Jewish women and men from urban working-class backgrounds discovered that they were as foreign to the farmers as the farmers were to them. The students’ encounters with migrant farmworkers heightened consciousness of racial and economic injustice in the United States. And in general, they learned that farming was hard, backbreaking work. “I lost some of my romantic feeling about rural life,” stated Marjorie Brockman. As the Farm Labor Project students recounted, the war was barely a backdrop to their farming adventure. Elliot Levine stated quite frankly, “I’m almost embarrassed to say that my recollections of the Farm Project have very little to do with the fact that we were at war.” Any sense of contributing to the war effort was shattered when they learned that the peas and beans they were picking were often dumped in the river. These interviews offer a far deeper, richer, more accurate and more subjective -- account of the experience than was documented in the projects’ official reports. This is a fine example of oral histories’ complicating the record of this episode, and deepening our understanding of life on the home front during World War II.
Iconic stories, those that are imbued with special meaning, are apparent in both historical episodes. Often told with impressive detail and emotion, they can signal an important moment in an individual’s personal history or a group experience. “Wherever we were, we sang because we all could harmonize by ear. I took the melody,” begins Phyllis LeShaw. “I made my debut as a harmonica player…” recounted Elliot Levine. We placed these two personal iconic stories next to each other in the Farm Labor Project episode as both narrators relayed with enthusiasm incidents that related to their passion for music, and their current identities as professional performers.
Within the Vanguard narrative, the story of Professor Harry Slochower emerges as iconic in the collective memory of the interviewees. Student after student remembered this professor. They recalled his assignments, teaching style, and political ordeals. Yet why did he remain so prominent in the consciousness of these narrators fifty years later? Certainly one explanation is that Slochower’s history as a victim of the domestic Cold War helped place their own encounters with local McCarthyism within a broader historical context. Like Slochower, they too were historical actors who challenged the attack on civil liberties.
In the edited scripts we juxtaposed differing versions of the chronology that led to the Vanguard journalists losing their charter and ultimately being locked out. Was it the article about ROTC on campus or President Gideonse overriding the elections of Professor Clarkson to the chair of the history department that resulted in student suspensions? As Rhoda Karpatkin admitted, “I’m embarrassed that I can’t remember which one triggered that.” The narrators’ honest admissions about the inevitable loss of memory with the passage of time is in fact a useful warning to oral historians, a reminder that the oral history as primary document cannot stand alone in the historian’s construction of events. Having said that, the mistaken dates, inaccuracies and even contradictory accounts are themselves interesting and useful evidence for historians to mine for deeper meaning.
Readers of oral history texts can find in contradictory stories insight into the ways that narrators make sense of their pasts, painful and joyful. Juxtaposing different truths was also a strategy for enabling narrators’ voices and personalities to emerge. In the “Youthful Adventures” section of the Vanguard episode, both Gene Bluestein and Herb Dorfman describe their experiences in the 1940s with teenage gangs. Bluestein recounts when “the guys decided to buy guns” he and a good friend figured “that you could get killed that way so we left.” Describing a gang fight over a girl, Dorfman asserts, “No such thing as a gun or a knife or a stick or a rock in those days. You used fists.” The opposing impression about the availability of weapons among youth in the 1940s is not resolved in this historical account. Yet the differing versions suggest one narrator is romanticizing a more innocent past and the other glorifying his unruly youth.
The edited excerpts also include explicit references to the ways in which the act of remembering a historical moment is shaped by the present as well as the events that succeeded that moment. More than once, for example, Ann Lane of the Vanguard narrative places her student activism and the attack on civil liberties within the context of her 1960s activism. “Were we scared?” she asks in response to President Gideonse attack on the newspaper. “Probably we thought it would be wonderful if they did something dramatic to us. By the ‘60s I knew going to jail was not a good thing to do, was not a happy experience, but at that point I was nineteen years old, eighteen years old.”