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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As I was scrolling through the hundreds of life histories, I mindlessly picked ones with titles that stuck out to me or about interesting people. Somehow however, almost all of my life histories revolved around the world of agriculture– I read the narratives of white farmers, sharecroppers, turkey raisers, etc. This lead me to believe the Federal Writers Project made a conscious effort to curate the stories of an underrepresented silent majority. Oddly enough, it intrigued me that these narratives were interesting not only to me but a lot of others. The people that were interviewed seemed to refer to their lives as quite simple– living in bucolic areas, continuing the work of their fathers and grandfathers. Although set in different times, I saw similarities in my life histories and Little House on the Prairie– solely in the fact that such simple lifestyles are worth not only curating but reading.

Secondly, I realized that having a common theme in my life histories will help me when it comes to coding and tagging the documents as there would be a lot of overlap. This realization helped me notice other areas that would make organizing metadata for my life histories a lot easier– such as choosing ones that all took place geographically in the south.

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Daniel White – Blog Post 10: Response to Life Histories

The most interesting thread I found woven throughout the life histories is the prevalent theme of agriculture.  In modern times, as well as back in the 1930s, stories are generally set in urban areas, and authors and works of literature (both great and small) have come from modernized, populated areas that are filled with communication conduits and networks of writings and writers.

So many of these life histories, however, are both written about and by rural people and rural places.  That’s what was so unique about the Federal Writers Project, it gave a voice not only to the poor and marginalized people of the U.S., but it also showcased an entire face of our country that was often overlooked.

As pioneers into a new age and method of writing, these life histories and FWP stories are a huge responsibility for our class as we begin to code them, to translate them into a modern “language”.  I know we’ve been mentioning this idea of “authenticity” a lot, and that’s going to be more relevant than ever.  We need to keep in mind how to portray these stories in their purest, most true form—presented in the way that they were originally intended.

We’ve all had our own ideas of authenticity and what it means and how to achieve it, but now we’re going to be putting these theories to the test as we handle these historically delicate stories.  How can we best convey the authors’ original messages?  How can we best code and tag these stories?  How can we best classify these stories and integrate them into our own forms of metadata?

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Life Histories

During my time spent with the folders this week, I heard an array of different stories; classic triumphs, action and tragedies – different persons and their families trying to survive in America.

The Federal Writers Project gave American’s an entertaining chance to earn a living and make life less mundane in the post-Depression era, giving voice and narrative to masses of different people, most specifically for this class – the southern region of the United States. All of the folders provide a glimpse into a certain individuals life, delivered to you through the interpretative lens of the interviewer. On top of that, as the Life Histories were drafted and submitted for review, it seems that some editor would deliver a stamp of approval or rejection, where the editor is signifying to the interviewer to take the narrative in a different direction. So that is another level of meaning, another set of possible biases and attitudes that can affect our XML transcription for these Life Histories.

Is it right to create narratives in these Life Histories? Is our main goal in transcribing these life histories to give the most honest and “truthful” depiction we can? Is that even possible?

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A Real Reality

It’s deceitful, almost. Reading through my life histories I’m imagining tales of the death sentence in Raleigh–through the means of a gas chamber and an electric chair–I’m told about sons dying, families that live in the grime and dust in the shadow of Asheville mines and mills, and of cotton mills that simply conjure up pre-civil war era images in my mind.

It’s deceitful in that I can’t fathom these stories being real. They all seem a bit like the Beverly Hillbillies with a strange Grimm Brothers’-esque dark twist. It’s hard to put into pieces, at least in my mind, that these are real people. There are people that lived through these conditions and people that made the best of these conditions.

That thought alone amazes me. I’m from a much different background historically speaking, and it’s hard to imagine the history I grew up learning being compared to this history I’m learning now through these life histories. Being from a northern, suburban area it’s foreign to me to try and integrate this southern, rural life history project and solidify the elements into my mind. Perspective and perception are funny things, often times taking our notions and thoughts we understand to be true and knotting them and unfurling the threads.

The hardest part with these stories I’m reading is understanding that these things that I can’t fathom, happened whether or not I accomplish the feat of ever understanding this all. They happened. The stories are real. Polished and prompted in some instances, sure. That doesn’t deny the fact that they’re real histories though, at least to the people that lived them. To me, they’re imaginings and to these others they were real.

The problem though? These ‘real’ stories that happened to these ‘real’ people all had their names changed to protect privacy back when the histories were first released. How do I incorporate this into the tagging process? Not only this, but how do I incorporate the authenticity. What makes these stories real if there’s no ‘real’ people behind them? There are, but there aren’t. It makes sense to me and it doesn’t. This, along with only the vernacular of the day is what is going to throw off my archival duties.

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Wandering Magicians and False Accusations

As I read through the life histories, I found myself forgetting that they were the real stories of real people. One woman’s husband shot himself in the chest. One man was a wandering magician who accidentally killed his duck by leaving a rubber band around its mouth. One man went to jail after a white woman claimed that he attacked her, because the people in the neighborhood didn’t “like for colored people to own land.” These people’s lives are supposedly ordinary, and yet they all have factors that seem almost fantastical. They show how remarkable the everyday can be. I felt like both the interviewers and the interviewees were speaking directly to me from the past; reading through these pieces was such a strangely intimate experience with people I had never met.

Each life history has its own personality. Some of them are told only through the words of the interviewee. Some of them are told through the blatantly biased lens of the interviewer and include extensive, judgmental descriptions of the interviewee and his or her living conditions (such as when one interviewer describes Bonnie the hairdresser: “She was feline—agile and vigorous”). Some of them have difficult-to-read handwriting in the margins, handwriting that we must decide whether to somehow include or simply leave out. Folder 370 has a concerning phrase scribbled in pencil on the front page: “If it can be proved that anybody ever wrote a letter like this, I will recommend,” and then it’s hard to read the rest. This note, although tiny, could mean the difference between the life history being true and the life history being fictional; and even if the factuality of this life history is in question, does that matter? Each life history, although the interviewers were given the same outline, ended up highly unique, and each one will have unique issues as we begin to work with them. How can we all work together to resolve these distinctive issues? Should we try to come up with one set of standards for things like handwriting in the margins, or is each life history so unique that it would be difficult to come up with such standards?

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Women’s Woes in Times of Trouble

A once wealthy widow deemed “neurotic” who flits about her rented living space in an almost frantic frenzy.  A college educated prostitute.  Mothers of many, battered and desperate, with husbands placed six feet under by car crashes or self-inflicted bullets to the brain.  A menagerie of characters whose stories, when viewed together, create a vivid picture of the diverse ways in which the women adapted to and sometimes shaped their new realities–bleak, yet often brushed with attitudes of curious optimism–during the Great Depression.

By providing a vehicle for female voices, particularly those of the uneducated, impoverished, or socially aberrant whose experiences have traditionally been stifled or misrepresented by the patriarchal narrative of the past, these life histories converge to illustrate that, despite being one of the nation’s most devastating crises, this era marks an important step in the progression towards gender equality.  Whether due to joblessness, abandonment, or death, it seems that many women interviewed by the Federal Writers’ Project in 1939 had found themselves increasingly, if not completely, responsible for supporting their families not only morally but financially, as well.  Faced with the malnourished frames of their numerous children, they began to look beyond the walls of the home or the borders of the farm towards positions in government agencies or factories, with varying levels of employment success.  This responsibility appears to have translated into a newfound sense of autonomy, as several interviewees relate having taken control of their lives by initiating divorces from violent spouses, controlling their bodies through engaging in sex work, or choosing not to marry.

This increased independence, while visible in critical retrospection, was likely invisible to these women who endured such severe psychological and physical hardships inflicted by forces outside of their control–weather, illness, and men–that their stories are sometimes difficult to read.  For example, in “Free Advice,” a fortuneteller describes how after being badly disfigured by her schoolyard sweetheart, she discovered the he had repeatedly raped their young daughter.  This horrifying event raised not only the hair on the back of my neck, but also some questions regarding how to encode these texts.  Domestic and interpersonal violence, being central to these women’s lives, cannot simply be ignored from the tags which I include.  So, how do I account for them?  Do I extrapolate from these accounts and call them by our modern, criminal terms such as rape, molestation, domestic violence, and pedophilia–phrases which never appear in the histories themselves and which the interviewees thus may not have considered the appropriate descriptors?

Finally, in addition to the aforementioned content issues, I have encountered more technical problems, including misspellings, dialect, and penciled in remarks.  While I believe that I will try to include the latter, I am uncertain as to how to handle the misspellings because it is impossible to tell whether they were intentional attempts at capturing dialect or accidental.  The only solution which I see to this predicament is to create a system: correcting the misspellings which occur outside of quotation marks and counting those within as dialect.

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Life History Issues

I chose life histories with titles that related in some way to religion with the interest in how religion related to the people interviewed during this time.  Interestingly, a number of the life histories did not really have a religious focus but a religious undertone with the real focus on other aspects of the interviewee’s life.  Only one of the life histories, titled “Praise the Lord,” that I read retained a real focus on how religion affected the interviewee’s life.  However, every life history’s title related in some way to religion whether the content does or not, an interesting stylistic choice for the writers.

Moreover, these different life histories reflect different styles of writing.  Some are written like narratives with the author describing the setting and interviewees in third person and including the interviewee’s stories as dialogue.  Other life histories purely quote the interviewee without any third person description.  These stylistic differences have varying rhetorical impacts, bringing up questions of authenticity and accuracy with these types of stories.

In terms of issues regarding metadata tags for our project, these life histories prove difficult to deal with.  Tags are difficult to decide when titles do not coincide with the content of the stories such as my seemingly religious life histories.  Many tags must be taken into consideration.  For example, some histories document the interviewee moving to many different places, should we tag all of those locations or just the location in which the interview took place?  Do we use the original names of the interviewees if they are provided or do we remain with the pseudonyms? Do we include the handwritten notes in the margins? Do we keep the grammatical errors or include the handwritten corrections?  The life histories I have read pose what I believe to be the biggest issue with the question of authenticity for these life histories.  A couple of the ones that I have read contain notices on the front that cite other versions in existence.  Therefore, do we need to tag these histories as having other versions? Do we need to try to find the other versions and compare them?

These are big questions that arise when reading these life histories that we have to grapple with in this project.  I believe that tagging the different locations, both original and false names, the names of the writers and revisers, and miscellaneous tags that relate to the stories’ content will help to specify each of the life histories very well.  Any handwritten corrections must also be noted along with notices of different versions.  Hopefully, this metadata will help future researchers to pinpoint these specific life histories.

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Foreseeable Issues

I’ve read through my stories, and I am really starting to understand the goal of the Federal Writers Project. These stories give me insight into the worlds of those I would never otherwise encounter. The Federal Writers Project tries to fight back against the marginalization of certain people’s histories. However, in order to maintain the integrity of this goal, our mark ups cannot attach the biases that we want to try and escape. So, we are inevitably going to face problems when we are forced to make decisions about metadata.

The problems we talked about in class will be relevant to all of my stories. Some of these are edits, dialect, name-changes, and handwritten notes. I saw all of these and more. One thing I noticed in particular, which I brought up briefly on Wednesday, is that editors of my stories have designated their stories’ quality. They’ve written it across the top in pencil. My concern is that including their designation will associate the story with a level of quality that has been decided by one person. For instance, if you search “Good North Carolina Federal Writers Project Stories”, you might be directed to a story based on the opinion of one editor.

Another issue I foresee is how to explain edits on the markup. Should we make the edits that the editors intended, or keep the original version and note that edits have been made. What about words that have been completely blacked out with pen? Sometimes I can read the words that have been crossed out and other times they are completely marked out. Sometimes I can only tell what the original word was if I read through the paper from its opposite side. What is most important: the original or the editor’s version?

Finally, there will be the issue of the changed names. We briefly discussed that there are certain year/death regulations that surround this issue. Either way, I think we will definitely have to come up with a standard, since many of us encountered this issue in our stories. In fact, we will need to come up with a standard that explains all of these issues, so that we avoid injecting our biases and opinions into the personal histories of those people we know nothing about.

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TEI

While taking Comp 110, an introduction course to coding and syntax of computer science, my professor regularly compared the process of coding to a language. My biggest issue with using the program and language (java) we used is because I failed to fully recognize how serious he was when comparing the two. I realized that if I’d taken that mindset when learning the basics— the structure, key words, the platform— I would’ve been able to catch on a lot quicker.

This week’s reading about TEI, although different from programming, reminded me of that notion. Most intriguing and resonating with me is the mention of a need to highlight the difference of text encoding in the humanities. I am very much humanities oriented and I think my fatal downfall with my previous experience with any sort of data representation was my inability to think outside of that linguistic mindset. Much like java, TEI has so many syntactical guidelines, especially with the sensitivity of characters, upper case and lower case letters.

Upon reading about the perception of data and information, that the reading says is inferred and interpreted by reading the types of text, this idea of mark up languages being descriptively encoded with meta-information was a good reaffirmation that I understood the previous learnings on metadata that alluded to TEI before even knowing about it.
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