Prospecting for truth amid the distortions of oral history



The New York Times

March 10, 2001

ROME — When Alessandro Portelli was doing an oral history of a small working-class Italian city in the 1970s, he became puzzled when his subjects repeatedly made factual errors or even related events that had never happened. For instance, when talking about the death of a worker named Luigi Trastulli, who had been killed in a clash with the police in 1949, the people Mr. Portelli interviewed all insisted that the event had occurred during demonstrations in 1953.

At first it seemed like the kind of mistake that aging memories are prone to and the reason that many historians are wary of oral history. But Mr. Portelli, perhaps because of his background teaching American literature at the University of Rome, began to see the errors of oral histories, like Freudian slips, as a central part of their meaning and their narrative strategy.

Trastulli died during a demonstration over Italy’s decision to join NATO … a controversy that had lost much of its meaning by the time Mr. Portelli did his interviews … and the 1953 demonstrations were prompted by mass firings from local factories, which had permanently changed life in the area.

“I realized that memory was itself an event on which we needed to reflect,” he said in a recent interview at the University of Rome. “Memory is not just a mirror of what has happened, it is one of the things that happens, which merits study.”


The field began to take off during the 1960s and early 70s with the emergence of the civil rights and feminist movements and the proliferation of inexpensive tape recorders. Scholars hailed oral history as a means of documenting and giving voice to blacks, women, Native Americans, immigrants and other groups that had often been pushed to the margins of society. Oral history reached mass audiences with groundbreaking books like “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” “Roots” by Alex Haley and “Hard Times” “Working” by Studs Terkel and “La Vida’ and “Children of Sanchez” by Oscar Lewis, which were all based on interviews.

At the same time many academic historians viewed the field with suspicion, insisting that written documents were the gold standard of historical truth. Oral sources, they said, have selective memories, get facts wrong, conflate events and slant their accounts of the past to fit the needs of the present or of the researcher. Oral historians responded to that criticism by trying to make their work meet the same standards as documentary history.


“People there [in the Soviet Union] tended to rely on rumor, so the reliability of their stories is not as interesting as their meaning,” he [Indiana University’s Russian and East European Institute advisor Hiroaki Kuromiya] said. “These oral sources may not tell you much about what Stalin was doing, but they are terribly useful in telling you about people’s minds.”