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That someone else: finding a new oral history ancestor

In April Allison Corbett shared her reaction to Dan Kerr’s article “Allen Nevins Is Not My Grandfather: The Roots of Radical Oral History Practice in the United States,” explaining the roots of her own radical oral history practice. Today we hear from Benji de la Piedra, as he shares another oral history origin story from his research on the Federal Writers’ Project. Enjoy his insights, and check out our call for submissions here, if you’d like to contribute your own reflections.

“Ever since the Federal Writers’ Project interviews with former slaves in the 1930s, oral history has been about the fact that there’s more to history than presidents and generals.” –Alessandro Portelli

Dan Kerr acknowledges in his article, “Allan Nevins Is Not My Grandfather,” that most historians of oral history tend to dismiss the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) as a mere “prehistory” of the field, because the vast majority of FWP interviews were recorded with pen and paper rather than with machine. However, in the research that I conducted towards my M.A. thesis in oral history, I discovered for myself the untapped potency that the FWP holds for oral historians who seek an origin story more closely aligned with the field’s impulse towards effecting social change.

Started in 1935 as part of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, the Federal Writers’ Project put thousands of unemployed writers to work on assignments that served the FWP’s ambitious cultural agenda: to foster a badly needed renewal of the United States’ self-image, and to forge a new American unity through celebration of unrecognized American diversity. As Jerrold Hirsch writes, the cohort of public intellectuals directing the Project—Henry Alsberg (national director), Sterling A. Brown (editor of Negro affairs), Morton Royse (social-ethnic studies editor) and Benjamin A. Botkin (folklore editor)—sought to imbue the nation’s public life with “a cosmopolitanism that encouraged Americans to value their own provincial traditions and to show an interest in the traditions of their fellow citizens.”

FWP writers pursued this pluralistic aim through a practice that I think of as proto-oral-history fieldwork. All across the country, the writers spent much of their workdays conducting interviews with people traditionally excluded from the process of history-writing: the working poor, immigrants, women, and people of color (including those who had been born slaves). The Project intended to use the testimony furnished by the interviews as fodder for both an American Guide Series—a set of guidebooks, one for each of the state in the Union—and Composite America, a series of cultural anthologies that would reveal overlooked strands and narratives of American culture to the wider public.

If you are an oral historian seeking a new grandfather—one with greater aesthetic concerns, democratic objectives, and community-based ethics than Allan Nevins—I recommend you check out the leading soul and intellect of the FWP’s interviewing program: B. A. Botkin (1901 – 1975). I first encountered Botkin in the introduction to Ann Banks’ First Person America, a book that curates about eighty extracts from the almost 10,000 interviews produced by FWP fieldworkers, and was the result of Banks’ own pioneering effort to survey and catalogue the entire collection of interviews, which had sat unexamined in a set of file cabinets at the Library of Congress for more than thirty years after the Project was disbanded.

In the introduction to her book, Banks celebrates Botkin’s “unconventional approach to the subject of folklore” as a crucial influence on the Federal Writers’ interview methodology. Botkin “wanted to explore the rough texture of everyday life,” Banks writes, “to collect what he called ‘living lore’…Again and again, he stressed the importance of the process of collecting narratives. The best results, he wrote, were obtained ‘when a good informant and a good interviewer got together and the narrative is the process of the conscious or unconscious collaboration of the two.’”

Banks goes on, “Benjamin Botkin called for an emphasis on ‘history from the bottom up,’ in which the people become their own historians. He believed that ‘history must study the inarticulate many as well as the articulate few.’ The advent of tape recorders in the years following the 1930s has refined the practice of what has come to be called oral history and made it possible for Botkin’s goals to be pursued more easily.”

In other words, Botkin instructed the Federal Writers to approach their interviews dialogically, as intersubjective exchanges built upon a shared authority, decades before these central concepts were so named in the field of oral history. Botkin saw the potential for this interview technique to drive a radically inclusive rehabilitation of American life, decades before the popular education and people’s history movements that Kerr recovers in his article.

 Botkin instructed the Federal Writers to approach their interviews dialogically, as intersubjective exchanges built upon a shared authority, decades before these central concepts were so named in the field of oral history.

Botkin deeply appreciated the pedagogical and integrative function of the work that we now call oral history. His desire to make the archive produced by FWP fieldworkers accessible to an “ever-widening public,” to “give back to the people what we have taken from them and what rightfully belongs to them in a form that they can understand and use,” led him to declare the FWP’s interview program “the greatest educational as well as social experiment of our time.” While the outcomes of this experiment varied in quality, social justice-oriented oral historians will continue to find Botkin’s impressive body of thought a particularly germane touchstone for their work. Why? Because Botkin’s method and theory of interviewing took relationships seriously. Botkin prized the meaningful encounter—the “mutual sighting,” to use Portelli’s phrase—as the foundation for not only a successful interview, but also a healthy democracy.

Botkin refined this ideology in the years following his tenure with the FWP, when he elaborated a public-facing research practice that he called “applied folklore.” Botkin used this term broadly, “to designate the use of folklore to some end beyond itself…into social or literary history, education, recreation, or the arts.” He identified the basic impulse of applied folklore as “the celebration of our ‘commonness’—the ‘each’ in all of us and the ‘all’ in each of us…an interchange between cultural groups or levels, between the folk and the student of folklore.” And anticipating the highest aims of contemporary historical dialogue work, Botkin writes, “The ultimate aim of applied folklore is the restoration to American life of the sense of community—a sense of thinking, feeling, and acting along similar, though not the same, lines—that is in danger of being lost today. Thus applied folklore goes beyond cultural history to cultural strategy.”

In my recent work as Project Trainer for the DC Oral History Collaborative, I have constantly recalled Botkin as a personal guide. I have encouraged my interviewers to be themselves in the encounter; to relax their impulse to control the dialogue and instead follow, as Botkin instructed his Federal Writers, “the natural association of ideas and memories”; and to practice framing their narrators as valuable witnesses of their neighborhood, school, and migration histories. I have done this in the spirit of fostering what the Federal Writers’ Project aimed for nationally—“an inter-regional synthesis”—within the densely diverse and still too segregated scope of our nation’s capital.

Featured image credit: “Federal Writers’ Project presentation of Who’s who at the zoo” by unknown, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Ron Grele

    In the debates over the heritage of oral history in the United States Benji de la Piedra righty directs our attention to the WPA narratives and Benjamin Botkin. A far more complex and significant usable past than others recently proposed.

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