A Matter of Positioning

The literary docu-memoir and the oral history memoir

The oral history memoir is not to be confused with the literary (creative nonfiction) docu-memoir. A literary docu-memoir involves some techniques of fiction and imaginative story-telling of a high order. It is lyrical, it is it literary, it is creative, and the “memoir” element highlights the subjectivity of the subject’s experience. It speaks to the subjective truth of the subject’s raw experience and the subject’s feelings and thoughts and emotions in relation to that experience. Moreover, in creatively recreating the subject’s story the literary docu-memoirist employs creative empathy. In literary docu-memoir the writer seeks ways in which to show the reader what it was like for the individual who actually lived the experience, and attempts to convey a sense of what it is to be that person.

An oral history memoir may be written creatively, but it is not creative nonfiction writing as such. The oral history memoir is a systematic attempt to gather and preserve information from the people who experienced historical events and developments at first hand. It is concerned with factual, historical information and how the subject experienced historical events, how those events touched the life of the subject. The oral history memoir looks for meaning in the subject’s memories about her or his experience. It aims to give a plausible account of a particular set of past events that have meaning applicable to today. One of the uses of oral history memoirs is that they can be used to look for the meaning in the past for society today. In this respect, a primary value of oral history testimony is its usefulness in social history, law, education, science, and society. A more particular usefulness of oral history memoir lies in its attempt to recapture a past that would otherwise leave no documentary trace. In this latter respect it can be particularly useful in recovering the personal ramifications of a life.

An example of oral history memoir is Tom Rivers: reflections on a life in medicine and science; an oral history memoir, prepared by Saul Benison. Another is With all deliberate speed: the life of Philip Elman: an oral history memoir prepared by Norman Isaac Silber. In the introduction to Tom Rivers: reflections on a life in medicine and science; an oral history memoir, Benison explains, “this oral history memoir is an attempt to chart the evolution of Dr Rivers’ career” and the importance of that career to the development of advances in medical science (vii). In his memoir, the subject, Rivers, talks about his memories of his professional life and about his observations and what happened in the medical field during his time in service, and how these happenings and events touched his life personally, and states in the beginning he has no intention of talking about his personal or family life, but in the end gives a little information about his parents. In a similar vein is With all deliberate speed: the life of Philip Elman: an oral history memoir. Through Elman’s memories of his experiences, Silber charts the evolution of Elman’s life from his modest childhood to his professional career in law, and his contributions in helping to bring about important changes in American social history and the American legal system.

Both these oral history memoirs are non-political non-polemic journalism. Both are unadorned chronological narratives—lively, competently written and pleasant to read, but in no way lyrical or reflexive. In both books, the subjects’ accounts are delivered in the first person, and written in rational common-sense terms, not exploring emotional or psychological states. In their memoirs the subjects simply present the concrete details of their subjective experiences without emotion, and even though the writer in both cases is non-judgmental, the writer does not employ the use of creative empathy. Each of the books is written differently in that, with Elman’s memoir, Silber prepares the work as a monologue, and with Rivers’ memoir Benison prepares the work as a somewhat verbatim (if presumably edited) transcript of questions and answers. These two examples of oral history memoir are but one small corner of a very diverse field.

One example of diversity in the field of oral history memoir is Black Elk Speaks: by John G. Neihardt. In his 1932 Preface to Black Elk Speaks, Neihardt alleges that Black Elk “has been a participating witness to various stirring events, both in the spiritual and physical world, and he tells of these with a thoroughly unselfconscious simplicity that makes for easy reading” (xviii). Black Elk tells his story to Neihardt through an interpreter—his son, Ben—and in telling his story also tells the story of the Indian tribe to which he belonged. Black Elk is quite poetical, even biblical, but he is no way self-reflective and he does not enter into discussion about his thoughts and feelings.  Julia Smith and Sidonie Watson cite Black Elk Speaks as an example of the “as-told-to” narrative, one of the three processes of collaborative life narrative, and which can be expanded on by the interpreter, the interviewer, or/and the editor (191). An anonymous writer in an online Oral History Primer notes:

“Oral history is spoken history, subject to all the biases and vagaries inherent in human recall; yet it is not substantially different from other historical sources (diaries, correspondence, official documents, newspapers, photographs, etc.) which are distorted, partial, and viewed through the screen of contemporary experience.”

In my view, it is the author’s positioning in the writing of the literary docu-memoir that is crucial in defining this area of creative nonfiction. The creative literary approach to the crafting of the oral narratives—the subject’s stories—while maintaining their integrity, singles out the literary docu-memoir from oral history memoir and other forms with which it might be confused.

Works cited

Black Elk. Black Elk Speaks: being the life story of a holy man of the Oglala Sioux as told through John G. Neihardt (Flaming Rainbow): annotated by Raymond DeMaille; with illustrations by Standing Bear. Albany, NY: Excelsior Editions, State U P., 2008. Print.

Neihardt, John G.. Preface 1932. Black Elk Speaks: being the life story of a holy man of the Oglala Sioux as told through John G. Neihardt (Flaming Rainbow): annotated by Raymond J. DeMaille; with illustrations by Standing Bear. Albany NY: Excelsior Editions, State U P., 2008. Print.

Oral History Primer-University Library-UC Santa Cruz: “Working definition of Oral History Memoirs.” 2013. Web. 17 Jan. 2013. http://library.ucsc.edu/reg-hist/oral-history-primer

Rivers, Thomas Milton (1888-1962). Tom Rivers: reflections on a life in medicine and Science; an oral history memoir, prepared by Sam Benison. Cambridge, Massachusetts: M.I.T.  Press, 1967.  Print.

Silber, Norman Isaac. With all deliberate speed: the life of Philip Elman: an oral history memoir: an oral history memoir/ Norman Silber. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The U of Michigan P, 2004. Print.

Smith, Sidonie, and Julia Watson. Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting LifeNarratives. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2001. Print.

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