When I failed an American history course in the ninth grade, it was not because I was stupid. It was because I was bored. And I wasn't the only one.
Part of the blame, of course, lay in the fact that all of us were distracted. Francis Tarkenton was our high school team's quarterback, and the only history we were really concerned about was that of our team's current season.
A larger share of the blame, though, lay with our text -- one of those terrible books where all the events of the past are reduced to a skeleton pinned together by proper nouns and dates -- and with our teacher's refusal to deviate from its stupefyingly dull pages. It wasn't until I was out of college and a high school teacher myself that I realized with a start that much of what we had studied in that ninth-grade course had happened within the lifetimes of people still alive and well in the town where I was now teaching. lThat flesh-and-blood neighbors had been involved in many of those movements and events along with the stick figures of our text. That there were people out there (and still are today) who were teenagers before the first airplane left the ground. From the moment I brought one of those people into my class to talk to my students about all she's been through, and watched as they sat hypnotized and unbelieving, I was won to oral history.
The genre has its weaknesses. Detractors frequently deplore the way facts sometimes become obscured or twisted in the rush of personal recollection. Politicians alter details to suit their own advantage. People thrown together in the most trying circumstances years later remember those "good old days" -- probably because the intensity with which they lived life then and the quality of their interdependence have not been matched since.
But our more official histories have their problems too. A history book published in 1952 and used for years in public schools in the state of Tennessee says, "By nature, the Negro is polite . . . . He is not disturbed about 'race' problems. . . . In Tennessee, there is no present or expected 'race trouble.' Each race understands and appreciates the place of the other."
Somewhere between the two lies truth.
For the clean, clear eloquent ring of authenticity, First-Person America stands tall. Actually, the history behind this book is almost as fascinating as the book itself. During the days of the New Deal, under the umbrella of the WPA, the Federal Writer's project was formed to give work to unemployed writers -- some 6,500 of them at one point, each receiving about $20 a week -- including Nelson Algren, Richard Wright, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Conrad Aiken, Ralph Ellison and Studs Terkel. Part of what they did was gather "the largest body of first-person narratives ever collected in this country." The project lasted until our entry into World War II, at which time the interviews were boxed up, stored in various libraries and largely forgotten. The 80 narratives presented here were selected mainly from among some 10,000 interviews (roughly 150,000 pages of testimony) collected under the leadership of folklorist Benjamin A. Botkin and deposited, largely unorganized, with the Folk Song Archive of the Library of Congress.
Botkin's emphasis on collecting "history from the bottom up," thus allowing people to become their own historians, did not mark the first time this had ever happened, as Ann Banks points out in her fine, informative introduction; but it was the first time it had happened to any extent in this country. The fact that so much of the material collected is still unpublished is not only contrary to one of Botkin's worthy goals to "to give back to the people what rightfully belongs to them in a form they can understand and use," but is also our loss.
Thankfully, some of the material has seen print. Banks, who has done her homework well, lists those books and pamphlets in her introduction and her afterword. But it is First Person America , the newest addition to the list, that is of special interest here. The narratives, ranging in length from two to three pages each, are grouped in categories such as "Women on Work," "Troupers and Pitchmen," and "Industrial Lore." The first of these, labeled "Old Times," contains interviews with seven women. As in all the other sections, sentences leap off the pages and become embedded in our consciousness: "There were no houses and everybody lived in dugouts that were made by digging a square hold about ten feet by ten feet, then about seven feet deep (and stretching a tarpaulin over the top)", or "All of our shoes were made by a man who came around every so often and took our measurements with broomstraws, which he broke off and tagged for the foot length of each member of the family," or "The only thing mother had to start housekeeping with was a plate", or "Grandmother said if I would get her a couple of chicken feathers she'd teach me (how to knit), and she did."
The most gripping section for me, however, was the one entitled, "The Yards, Chicago, 1939," where eight men and women describe to Betty Burke their work in the packinghouses of Armour, Swift, and Wilson's just as the CIO arrived to take the place of the AFL. Banks visited several of the women, still alive today, who had been interviewed in the '30s (as she did with 20 of these people in all) to give an extra dimension to the tales they told of almost unbelievable conditions where workers would stand for 10 to 12 hours at a time slopping around in the stench of hog guts and blood only to be laid off just short of the two years' employment they had to have for seniority and promotion -- and then rehired to start again at the bottom. One of the women, Anna Novak, said, "Sometimes I'll watch . . .old ladies, seventy years old and more, going to work in the yards, so bent over and shriveled up and sick it makes you want to cry just watching them. . . . They'll be so gray in the face after a day's work, almost dead looking. They have to sit down there on the floor and rest for half an hour after work before they have the strength to get up and go home at night."
Much of this testimony from the front lines, as it were -- not 40 years removed and colored by memory. As such, it is a tremendously valuable document. Its eloquence certainly comes, in part, from the information being processed several times -- by the original interviewers who worked without tape recorders, and by subsequent editors, Banks included -- but it stands, nevertheless, to give the lie to that Tennessee text, and to remind us all of the indomitability of the human spirit.
Rarely is that fact more evident than in the first-person accounts of immigrants. Both in the chapter entitled "Immigrant Lives" in First Person America and in the fine book, American Mosaic , on page after page after almost numbing page, people endure.
American Mosaic is composed of tape-recorded, edited interviews with 140 men and women over a recent four-year period of time. The interviews are divided into three sections: "The Last of the Old," which includes representatives of the days between 1900 and 1914 when a record 12,928,517 immigrants entered America; "The Wartime Influx," caused largely by the global upheaval of World War II; and "Immigration," which shares with us the thoughts of some of our most recent citizens, including actress Lynn Redgrave and former Premier Nguyen Cao Ky.
In the first section, we find people coming to America for numerous reasons: racial or religious persecution, unbearable poverty, adventure. Sometimes they ran away from home; sometimes they were sent with hope and a blessing by families who desperately needed the money they would surely be able to send back from a country where gold nuggets hung like pears from trees. aUsually they were young, and those who didn't homestead land in the epic, self-sufficient tradition, often found themselves working for pennies in mines, steel mills, stockyards, shoe factories, logging camps, or as parlor maids and cooks in the homes of the wealthy. Often there was tragedy. Pauline Newman, for example, who came from Lithuania in 1901, found herself working for $1.50 a week in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City, where children were hidden in boxes to escape the detection of city inspectors who were supposedly enforcing child labor laws. When the factory burned in 1911, many of her friends died because, as she told her interviewer, "You were not allowed to have your lunch on the fire escape in the summertime. "The door was locked to keep us in. That's why so many people were trapped when the fire broke out."
When asked how they stood such treatment, Grace Calabrese (Italy, 1924) said, "We didn't know any better . . . We came from plain people, we didn't know." And things were better here for many than what they had left. As Ida Levy (Russia, 1921) said, "When I was in Russia I didn't have to want anything. There wasn't anything to want."
An exception to this grim backdrop in the first section is Alistair Cooke (England, 1932) who came to America on fellowship as a graduate student in theater, first at Yale and then at Harvard, and who provides an interview here filled with anecdote and warmth and good humor and affection that simply shines.
The tales of horror that provide the backdrop for the second section are more familiar territory to most of us: Nazi, the Holocaust, mass upheaval and displacement. Here is physicist Edward Teller (Hungary, 1935), for example, who has no desire to return home to Hungary, even for a moment, to see what it's like now. It is a chapter that is closed forever in his life. Many that immigrated during this period were war brides. Enzo Berardi (italy, 1947), for example, tells here of working on a ship that brought in 1,200 of them per trip.
And then there's the third section where Vo Thi Tam, one of the boat people from Vietnam who arrived in 1979, tells her story (which is more chilling in some ways that those stories told by the survivors of the Holocaust since it happened only a few months ago), rushing out of the room in tears at the end of the interview; and one finally comes close to breaking down with her, after more than 400 pages of this, suddenly realizing, "My God, it never stops -- this horror and this waste." As bad as it may get here, this country really is an oasis on this planet.
And that, for me, is one of the great values of this book. For through the eyes of these men and women, we see ourselves anew, realizing all the while that each of us, in some ancestral shape or form, was once part of their desire -- immigrants ourselves.
And now, they are us. Granted, each is a survivor. Many others died along the way. But each person here has made it, each in his or her own way. Some have made it spectacularly. Former secretary of the treasury W. Michael Blumenthal (Germany, 1947) tells of inviting the foreign service officer who had signed his visa to lunch in the secretaries's dining room of the State Department where he was then serving as a deputy assistant secretary 14 years later. Most others have more modest stories to tell. But each became a working part of the outrageous experiment that is America, and thanks be to this book for reminding us of that in days like these when we're tempted to slam the doors.
Wouldn't Take Nothin' for My Journey Now is another look at one of the most extraordinary cultures in this country (now several generations removed from those Scotch-Irish, English and German immigrant origins). Though the early immigrants into Appalachia held onto some of their oldest customs, the backbreaking necessity of total self-sufficiency forced on them the forging of a new amalgam -- the southern Appalachian mountaineer.
That culture now is caught in the whirlwind of K-Mart, Pizza Hut change, as are most others. Many of the 35 or so Rutherford County, North Carolina, people interviewed for this book are gone now, and their families are so far removed from the days of self-sufficiency that in many ways, they're a different breed. Most people don't mourn that change, for despite the general reminiscing about good times, survival, even after the first paying jobs arrived, was brutalizing work. As John Bright, a 95-year-old black son of a slave (who, with his wife, Lollie, sent all six of their children through college) says "Lord, pulling a crosscut saw for ten hours for sixty cents a day. That's haaard livin'. Payin' rent, fertilizer -- whew, that's hard go. Why, landlords said they makin' nuthin', and the farmer shore wudn't making nuthin.' So sounds like nobody was makin' nuthin' at all. Lord, it was a lonesome time."
The chief strength of this 167-page book is its 125 black-and-white photographs, most of which are stunning. Ultimately, however, the book does not satisfy. Because the author did not use a tape recorder, he has been forced to summarize his impressions of the people he met. And because he did not push past the surface into the depth of his subjects, and yet tantalized us with his photographs, the book emerges as more show than substance. There are a few quoted bits of folklore ("Drink from the guord, and hit'll keep you from having sugar diabetes, I allus heard"), and observation ("Some people slices a termater so thin it only has one side") and opinion ("A boy would sign on with a gunsmith or a cabinetmaker, and he'd stay with it until he learned his trade. Now you don't know who makes what. Nobody's responsible for what they do") and insight ("When you've got little children, they're allus trompin' on your toes -- then when they're groed up they're trompin' on your heart").
But these snatches just whet my appetite. Where, for example, are Quintenna Boone Hampton's "Elizabethan phrases and earthy word patterns" that the author exclaims over? How did she make the seven-bark salve he mentions? Who are the two men he alludes to who "really originated the three-finger [banjo] picking style?" What's the recipe for molasses sweet bread he glosses over? Likewise it frustrates me when he describes a mill -- "a forest of wooden chutes jutting through the ceiling from one level to another" -- and then fails to satisfy with diagrams or photographs so I can appreciate with him what's happening here.
And now that many of these people are gone, we may never have these pieces of the puzzle. It's as though a man had walked into the pyramid of Cheops with its builder and, though in a perfect position to record all its inner workings and intricacies, emerged and left all history with this record: "He explaimed it all to me and I was amazed."
Nevertheless, a warm glow lingers. Though these short chapters are only appetizers, there is a commendable realization on the part of the author that more was going on here than quackery and ignorance. His genuine appreciation for his subjects shows, and it communicates itself; and that is perhaps all that was intended here, though his preface would lead one to believe otherwise.
Oral history as a relatively new field (although some claim the Bible to be one of its products) must sort through and resolve numerous pressures. In one sense, the same criticism of lack of length and detail that I have applied to Wouldn't Take Nothin' could be applied to the previous two works as well, though with not nearly as much justification. Without some depth, a danger is that the people themselves never really emerge as much more than caricatures. But even so, what a revealing and compelling complement these works all make to the existing historical record, and how much they all three add to the frail, faint whiff of life my ninth-grade history text gave up.
Ann Banks quotes John Dos Passos appropriately in her introduction as he refers to works like these giving "a sense of continuity with generations gone before [that] can stretch like a lifeline across the scary present."