Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor
From Memory to History: Using Oral Sources in Local Historical Research. By Barbara Allen and William Lynwood Motell. Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, 1981. Bibliography. Index. 172 pages. $12.50.
Reviewed by Professor Ray T. Smith, who, in conjunction with the San Diego History Research Center of San Diego State University, is compiling a collection of oral interviews with Southeast Asians in San Diego County.
This little book is useful in several ways, but it is limited by the authors’ almost exclusive reliance on folkloristic evidence and models of research with a rural or small-town bias. Both authors are specialists in folklore. That, however, can be no excuse for narrowness in overall perspective.
Conceptually the book starts well. Allen and Montell generalize appropriately about the uses of oral history to illuminate local history. They properly distinguish “folklore” from “oral history,” and they outline and discuss the basic characteristics of “orally communicated history.” They discuss arrangements for oral history recording and the usual range of narratives, and they refer to the special uses of “kernel narratives” and the life-history approach. One significant chapter deals informatively with ways of testing the validity of oral sources by the use of motif-indexing, narrative collation, evidence from material culture, and documentary sources. Another chapter deals with the importance of orally expressed attitudes toward events or institutions as important historical “facts” in their own right. A practical chapter on transforming oral source materials into manuscript form completes the main text of the book.
Bewilderment follows, however, with a lengthy “Appendix A” titled “The Legend of Calvin Logsdon,” which evidently is supposed to serve as a model of locally applied oral history research. This appendix is not introduced or explained well, and it betrays a rather narrow conception of what is a useful topic for oral history. The authors seem to suggest that a “legendary” triple murder in small-town Tennessee in 1868 is (or ought to be) a typical subject for “local” historians today. That slights the relevance of local historians to contemporary concerns such as ethnic enclaves and their interaction with urban majority communities. Ethnic communities receive only the scantiest comment or citation either in the text (e.g., pp. 21, 67 and 91) or in the bibliography. As for more traditional subjects that are of continuing concern today, immigrants and immigration history receive only passing attention in the text (e.g., pp. 39 and 96) and no citation whatever in the index. Urban contexts of oral history are almost invisible.
This raises the basic problem of focus. Allen and Montell scarcely address topics such as urban history, ethnic community history, and the experiences of immigrant groups, all of which have become major concerns among contemporary researchers in both oral and local history. In a book dedicated to the use of oral sources in local history research, the reader needs to be exposed to a more balanced selection of topics and bibliographic sources. For broader fields of view, see the articles by Kathleen Conzen and H.T. Hoover in The Past Before Us: Contemporary Historical Writing in the United States, edited by Michael Kammen (Ithaca: Cornell University Press for the American Historical Association, 1980), pp. 270-91 and 391-407.