MALS QUARTERLY, FALL 2002
THE FIRST GATHERING OF THE ORAL HISTORY CIRCLE
by Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer
The rainy weather failed to dampen the spirit of some thirty incipient and accomplished oral historians who came together at the Hanover Inn on October 19 for the first gathering of the Oral History Circle. Over wine and cheese, memories and plans were shared while enthusiasms were declared for this unique genre which we have taught here at Dartmouth for the past eight years and have been working in for the past fifteen years.
Itís been said that Oral history is a revolutionary tool that can transform the content and purpose of history, give it back, in a sense, to the people who experienced it so that accounts of what happened are no longer determined by the elite, by the authorities of any culture or sub culture. And as students, past and present, described projects and theses, it became clear how much our understanding of the past can be enhanced by garnering stories first-hand, in direct encounters with those who lived it.
Maggie Montgomery, who took the first ďPreserving the Past: Oral History in Theory and Practice?course we taught at Dartmouth in 1994, talked about her thesis: the story of how members of a Laotian family were brought from their war-ravaged nation to Lyme, New Hampshire by a group of committed citizens. Frank Possemanto, class of ?0, who traveled in the rain and gloom to the gathering from Boston, described his efforts to publish his oral history thesis: a growing up story of working-class boys in Bostonís North End. Maria Graham told the group about her imminent trip to Ireland where she plans to interview nuns in two convents for her thesis while Luke Fleming spoke of his adventures in doing an oral history on the New Hampshire Presidential Primary. Dola Neill described the two very different projects sheís engaged in: a told-to mini memoir of a woman whose husband suffered brain damage, and her current thesis that explores the role of orality in preserving the past of her native Yoruba culture in Nigeria.
In between people recalled oral histories of one-room schoolhouses, a legal dispute, a hippy commune, a gay womenís organization in Hanover, the LA riots, the Connecticut River, the Yiddish Theater, the Black Arts Movement, memories of Tito, four women in Akronís Police Department, and Southern Belles making their debuts. The range was truly wide and intriguing.
We thought of the questions often directed to oral historians: How objective is this form of history? How reliable is memory? And of Studs Terkelís response: ďIn their rememberings are their truths.?/span>
For us, itís been both a challenge and pleasure not only to be professionally involved in the genre ourselves but to guide a new generation of oral historians. And joining together on that rainy afternoon with students weíve worked with over the past eight years as well as those who plan to take the course this spring gave us the opportunity to reflect on how a sense of community has developed among MALS oral historians past, present, and future as well as how this approach to understanding the past has yielded such heuristic results.
Future gatherings of the Oral History Circle are in the works as are intensive workshops with students currently (and planning to be) immersed in independents and theses.