Friday, March 11, 2011

In Praise of Oral History: A Dispatch from Fulton, Missouri

Philip White

In a 1940s-style coffee stand in the middle of a drug store, six grey-haired gentlemen sit around a long, light-wood table sipping coffee and swapping stories. They’re here at 10am six days a week (Sunday is a church day, and the drug store, as with many businesses in the town, is closed then), and the proprietor holds the same table for his most consistent patrons, who have gathered in this manner for over 25 years.

Today’s topic of conversation is the day Winston Churchill came to tiny Fulton, MO, 65 years ago to the day. Fulton mayoral candidate Bob Craghead recalls his father charging out-of-towners a whopping 25 cents a pop to park at his farm just outside the city limits. O.T. Harris, whose family is a part owner of the Callaway County Bank across Court Street, is laughing as he recollects the bank’s CFO Tom Van Sant (a frequent visitor at Truman’s White House, and the man who encouraged Westminster College president Franc McCluer in his unlikely bid to bring Churchill to town) reputation as what Jerry Seinfeld called a “close talker.”

My pen is working overtime to scribble down these priceless recollections, in case the batteries in the voice recorder on the table betray me. In the weeks before my Fulton visit, I’ve had similar conversations, albeit by phone, with half a dozen Fultonians. One gentleman was so eager to share his memories that the aforementioned recorder ran to more than 90 minutes. Then he called back the next day with another half hour’s worth of vivid descriptions of the Missouri town as it was in the mid-1940s. I relished each word.

Certainly, oral histories can be distorted by forgetfulness, romanticism and exaggeration, but they remain an indispensable way for a historian (or any writer, for that matter) to add color and personality to his or her work. It is simple (and, sadly, the modus operandi for writers of history that’s as dry as a pile of October leaves) to read a couple of written sources and apply their second-hand generalizations to a time and place. But to talk to people who were in the moment is to see what they saw, hear what they heard, touch what they touched. Such accounts also serve the purpose of putting events that fall into so-called “Great Man” history (in this case, Truman and Churchill parading through town and the latter then delivering his “Iron Curtain” speech) in the context of “regular” folks’ lives. It’s also all too easy to reflect on the impact of such an occurrence through other world leaders’ perspectives or with the benefit of hindsight, but to obtain the real reactions of people who were there adds a new dimension.

Perhaps one reason certain writers avoid oral history is because it requires a different sort of effort. It can take weeks to track down people who were present at a particular event. Some writers surely think “who can effectively describe a bygone era.” You can have 10 conversations before you get one piece of usable information. In addition to prepping for the interview, jotting notes and/or recording, and transcribing, you need to cross-reference certain facts to verify authenticity, and to compare testimonies to establish sources.

And yet, even if it takes 10 hours of panning for every gold nugget minute, such treasures are hidden in the memories of people everywhere. Beyond the benefits of oral history for your project, there is the immeasurable value of creating connections and, if you’re fortunate, new friendships with your interviewees.

Then there is the time capsule bonus of recording first-person impressions for posterity. Recently, Frank W. Buckles, the last surviving American World War I veteran, passed away, marking the end for new oral histories of the Great War. The same will be true in just a few years for World War II, the Great Depression, and all sorts of other 20th-century subjects.

I feel fortunate to be speaking with these fine, 80-something individuals from Fulton while time remains.


hcr said...

You're killing me, Philip! Why Fulton, Missouri, for the Iron Curtain speech? (Although I agree with you on the whole oral history thing).

Unknown said...

But I'd be really curious to know what these old people say they thought about the speech (as opposed to the visit, the fact that the speech happened in their town, etc.) then, and what they think now.

I'm looking forward to learning more about oral history. My main research project doesn't call for it right now, but I feel like I should take the opportunity and learn it while I have experts available to me. The scene you describe is just great, Philip. To be a fly on the wall as these old guys talk to each other about these memories must add a whole 'nother dimension.

LD said...

This is a fascinating project. And there is such a palpable sense of urgency about asking the old folks among us what they remember, while we can still ask and they can still answer.

I will need to do some oral history interviews for my current research project. However, my advisor suggested -- and I agree -- that I should write a complete first draft of the project consulting only primary and peer-reviewed secondary sources. I need to get the "history" straight as well as I can before I bring the "memory" into the picture.

PW said...

Dan, I wholeheartedly encourage you to learn the discipline from experienced historians. You will pick up as much or more from your own experiences. I got one of the best pieces of advice from a Larry King interview I saw, in which he said, "I never learned anything by talking."

LD, I agree with your advisor that you must create a framework from verified primary and peer reviewed sources. However, a wise Historically Speaking editor (who is now blushing!) told me that one thing he dislikes in history texts is when an author directly addresses the opinions of other historians (either agreeing with or picking apart their arguments). "I want to know what YOU think," he then told me.

I implore you to enhance your project with oral history. There are too many dry, lifeless historical works - let your enthusiasm for personal testimonies and your subjects' memories (particularly those regarding their senses, so your readers can see what they saw, hear what they heard, etc - more of a fiction technique but underused by historians).

HCR, if I give away the Fulton secret, will you still buy my book?

LD said...

Oh Lord have mercy. The last thing I need is to be encouraged to express my own views! But thank you for the encouragement.

My project is so difficult because I am writing about a pivotal and very public event involving participants I know personally. So what I need is critical distance. But there will be a place for personal recollection - just not during the first go-round.

Those are all the secrets I can tell. And I don't even have a book!

PW said...

LD, your project sounds intriguing. And maybe a book will come out of it! I can't say I've written at length about an event that I've been personally close to, but I'm sure you'll do a bang up job. All the best.

hcr said...


Yes, but if I were a marketing person, I'd tell you to put out just enough information to make me want to learn more, and to do it just after the book is published, so I'll run right out and buy it, rather than thinking, "oh, gee, I'd like to read that someday" and buying it when I happened to stumble over it.

I've wondered about this speech and the story since I was a small child, since it's one of the earliest things I remember my mother talking about. In my mind, even, she was there, although I have no way now to check if that's just a kid's personalization of an important event. But I'm also honest, so I'll wait!

PW said...

Duly noted, HCR. Maybe I'll just drip feed info between now and the Fall 2012 (why does it take so darn long to get a book done?) release.

I fear I'm too much of an old soul to take advantage of Twitter, Facebook et al, but should probably force myself to learn how.

It's fascinating that your mother talking about Churchill's speech is an early memory. I can't get enough of people's personal recollections.