Whispers of the Past, Voices of the Future: Oral History, Narration and Nation Building

Living in the United States, it’s not everyday or (ever) that one meets a Rapunzel, Cinderella, Hansel or Gretel, yet all are household names.  Whether filtered through Disney’s magical lens and therefore imbued with the hums of princesses, secure within domestic bliss and surrounded by whistling woodland creatures, or those of playwrights and pop stars, it’s likely that most Americans have some familiarity with the fairy tales of two Grimm men.  Like those employed by the Federal Writers’ Project nearly a century later, these celebrated brothers engaged in the practice of oral history, collecting stories from locals which they then compiled into collections.  You can find a really interesting article, “Once Upon a Time,” by Joan Acocella, in the link below.


Acocella’s descriptions of their methods, as they reported them, at least, are quite similar to those heralded by W.T. Couch in his preface to These Are Our Lives: no judgements or embellishments were added, their interviewees were common folk rather than the socially important, and the tales themselves were distinctly national, representing a region.  However, just as Couch’s project has been questioned by historians cited by Soapes in “The Federal Writers’ Project Slave Interviews: Useful Data or Misleading Source,” Acocella highlights the deception in the Grimms’ much earlier fieldwork–a deception which, while distant temporally and geographically from the Federal Writers’ Project, suggest the necessity of reading these more contemporary histories with a consciousness of possible political motive.

Our favorite fairy tale folklorists, it turns out, didn’t scour the countryside questioning peasants, but instead relied on their more wealthy acquaintances, who repeated stories from far beyond the German borders.  While we can trust that the writers working under the direction of Couch chose much more authentic interlocutors, there’s still the problem, mentioned by Hirsch in Portrait of America of there being choice involved at all ( 170).  Subjects weren’t selected at random from the population, but were instead picked, first by the writers themselves, and then by Couch as he decided which stories to include.  This selection process was very interesting to me because it seemed to contradict the organic nature of the stories which the project was attempting to capture–the essence of reality.  By carefully sifting the results to publish, letting only those which he subjectively deemed “most typical and most important”fall into the public’s eye, wasn’t he applying the personal judgement which he warned his workers to resist (Couch xii)?  Additionally, wasn’t the transformation of the life histories from interviews to more aesthetic narratives a way of destroying the voice of the people which he claimed to champion?  It seems so, but for what?

The answer might lay with the Grimms, who Acocella claims, citing historians, edited their own texts with the goal of crafting a shared national identity.  For this reason, they moralized and Christianized, shaping the stories into models for German children, while also praising the unification of Germany through their emphasis on the local nature of the oral traditions which they supposedly tapped.  Ultimately, they didn’t collect the past so much as attempt to create an identity for the future.  Returning to Soapes, who mentions that the Federal Writers’ Project interviewers ignored responses with which they disagreed while prompting desired answers (34), I believe that Couch and his workers, like the Grimms, were driven by motives other than learning about Southern culture–those of politics and creating a national identity, for which they were willing to sacrifice truthfulness.  That’s not to say, however, that these histories are useless.  Like the Grimms’ tales, they are not only interesting but might at times contain bits of reality.  And even when they don’t, there is value in understanding a culture’s unrealized ideals and perceptions of reality.

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