Oral History and Grele’s “Useful Discoveries”

Can [the] discussion of narrative and historical interpretation remain true to the community of discourse from which it emerges and to our professional vision of what the community should ask of its history? — Ronald J. Grele, “Useful Discoveries: Oral History, Public History, and the Dialectic of Narrative,” The Public Historian, Vol 13, No2 (Spring 1991), pp 61-84

This question is posed by as he ruminates on the implications of Carr’s “potentially democratic and diachronic view of narrative” and Glassie’s view of the “wholeness of a culture” on the possibility of a “theory of presentation” in oral history. I must confess, I am still not sure I understand all of what is being discussed in these ideas and am struggling to find a handle by which to grasp them and their imlications for oral history as a discipline.

I agree with Carr that an awareness of history and the impulse to express it are indeed fundamental aspects of the human experience, and that our interpretation of these things occurs through the lens of past experience, and in doing so I suppose I reveal myself to be “deeply historicist,” though I struggle to see this as Kantian to the same extent as Grele. I recognize in myself some measure of apparent elitism if indeed a recognition of variance in narrative ability is elitist. These are probably the byproducts of my training as an historian.

Grele’s explanation of Glassie’s more “populist” view of history in which folk ideology trumps scholarly analysis is an argument that remains elusive for me. Grele portrays Glassie’s view as one in which scholarly criticism is an ethical and intellectual destruction of the narrative. At this point I am left in the dust and cannot follow the argument. This lack of ability for me renders my judgment on Grele’s discussion of the implications of a sythesis of these two approaches on the theory of oral history a moot point. Communication is indeed framed by human experience. I get that, and I can see — to some extent — how both views have bearing on this. The leap from this to the question at hand, however, is a leap to great for my synthetic abilities.

I think the question is attempting to address how historians and their respective presuppositions about the critical interaction with the objective content of history can successfully communicate with communities, as objects of study, who themselves communicate their history differently and with vastly different presuppositions, experiences, and communicatory abilities. If so, my answer remains a steadfast, “I don’t know.” It is impossible to set aside one’s presuppositions, in my opinion. The best one can do is seek to understand the principles of thought behind perspectives elicited from those with differing presuppositional frameworks, and this is as far as I have come in my thinking on the matter. Hopefully my mind will stretch a bit and understand more clearly the ideas behind the question Grele poses.

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