Two white girls in their late teens or early twenties stand staring up at a white truck driver. They wear waitress uniforms from the early 1940s and have faces decorated with giddy grins. One girl stands straight at attention with her arms crossed across her chest while the other bends awkwardly at the waist. The background is dark, obviously night. It’s a normal scene, but it tells a story from the past. It’s a photograph from New Castle, Delaware (also known as my hometown), and it was taken around the time of the Great Depression. Now it sits within Yale’s Photogrammar website (http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=owi2001020000/PP). As I was scrutinizing this photograph and the 68 others taken just in New Castle alone, I felt as though I was looking at a whole new species: the people of the past. I suddenly saw Delaware through fresh eyes. It wasn’t just the boring, seemingly insignificant place where I grew up; it was an important part of history. The people in those photographs were just going about their daily lives, and yet now they provide a glimpse into a different world, a world that both is and isn’t my home. They mattered. They still do matter. And although William Couch was focusing on the South with his life history project, it made me realize the importance of seeing the everyday in new ways and giving the everyday a chance to matter.
In the preface of These Are Our Lives, William Couch says that if readers “cannot for a moment look at the world and people as if they were seeing them for the first time, pushing aside all patterns and doctrines that might be obstructive, this book will have no meaning” (xiii). While reading these life histories, we have to try to drop our biases as much as possible (which, as we have learned over and over throughout the semester, is an enormously difficult task) in order to see these people for who they were: not statistics, not characters in a novel, but real, everyday people struggling through their lives. People who matter because of their everydayness.
Towards the end of the Portrait of America chapter, Jerrold Hirsch points out that while “All of the life histories in These Are Our Lives deal with hard-working, virtuous people coping with their problems,” another book called Such as Us: Southern Voices of the Thirties includes life histories featuring people “who had become their own worst enemies” by doing things like drinking too much or beating their wives (178). Even Couch, who was all about democratizing the ability to be heard, was able to organize and present the life histories in a way that painted the people of the South in a certain light that did not reflect all elements of that society. So how objective are these life histories really? Are photographs, like the ones I discovered from New Castle, Delaware, more objective than these stories? How will the life histories that we work with tie into the photographs on Yale’s Photogrammar site?