Life Histories

I think the most interesting thing I have found in my life histories is the extant personal depth. I remember reading the guidelines in the Couch readings a few weeks ago and in our class discussion we halted for a second to talk about things that stood out to us–I recall people bringing up the questions such as how passionate the person feels about their work or how shameful… Their attitude towards family sizes, their own family size and how well off they seem to be… Even things like their knowledge of a balanced diet. How an interviewer was supposed to gauge most of these things during a conversation is beyond me, however most of them seem to hit most of the topics on the outline, or at least hit a few at substantial depth.

My favorite life history is the personal narrative of a man who worked his way up through the educational system gradually, experiencing a lot of “ups and downs” (the interviewer titled the piece from this quote). From a sweeper in a classroom to an instrumental and vocal music teacher at Atlanta University, he often grappled with religious sentiments, identity development and pressure to succeed financially. The line that resonated with me the most came at the denouement of the piece, and read: “But you know what I’ve decided to do: Not to let nothin’ worry me but so much. I had my ups and my downs and there’s not a thing I can do about it all now. Whatever comes I try to meet the situation the best that I can under the circumstances, and the rest I left go.” I loved this because I think it speaks to a wide array of the narratives from the Federal Writer’s Project. Grappling with the depression can be seen through the eyes of each American citizen living at the time–but many of those narratives can be grouped together through perspective. His perspective–which is inspiringly practical–is so powerful to me because it highlights the power of human resilience.

The life histories made me think a lot about You Have Seen Their Faces by Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White, a piece of photojournalism that I mentioned in class a few weeks ago. The largest similarity between the two is the distancing of people from their own personal narrative. In the life histories, the disjoint is seen where names and places are changed, or stories are re-ordered to seem more appealing. In the Caldwell and Bourke-White work, it is seen where quotations are swapped between portraits, altering the provenance of the story entirely. In both cases, narratives were used to urge passion, patriotism and participation within American society, which I believe they, coupled with all of the other efforts of the day, did.

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