Last week, in discussing Brian DeLay’s War of a Thousand Deserts, we briefly touched on the topic of oral history as a means to learn about the past–not just from a person’s lifetime, but from a family, tribe, and/or community’s more distant past. As we noted, DeLay used very little, if any, oral history; instead, he relied on written sources (as most historians do) to piece together the fascinating story he tells.
This week’s book, Susan Lee Johnson‘s Roaring Camp, uses oral history in what I thought was a fascinating way–one I’d like to discuss a bit further, since this has been on my mind after, as I’ve mentioned ad nauseam in this blog and in class, last week’s American Association for State and Local History conference. My previous encounters with use of oral history to glean pieces of the distant, non-lifetime past have largely, if not completely, come from Native American history.
Thus, Johnson’s use of oral history to get at both facts and memory of the legendary bandit Joaquín Murrieta fascinated me, especially since she uses it oral history to learn about a literate society. Her prologue discusses stories about Murrieta, and how those have evolved over time, beginning with family memories. She then goes into other sources for this story, including written news and literary treatments.
Like Anton Treuer said about his use of Ojibwe oral traditions to glean the motives of the leader Hole in the Day, Johnson largely uses Murrieta family tradition to learn more about why Murrieta took the actions he did. Family tradition stated that he was avenging the rape of his wife, murder of his brother, and flogging of himself.
Like others using oral history and family memory, she uses these sources to compare with others, and to bring in context. With regard to Murrieta, she discusses what family memory says about him, and how that relates to broader historical trends. For example, in discussing the move of Joaquín and his wife Rosa to California from Sonora, she notes that Sonoran men, more often than others, did not travel to the gold fields alone but brought their wives. Thus she is using family memory to add a personal detail and illuminate a broader story.
At the same time, Johnson treats family memory, along with written sources, with a rightful degree of skepticism–more than many other authors do. This in large measure reflects Johnson’s concern–not just with the history but how the story came to be told. That raises the question of how transparent we should all be with our skepticism of our sources. Is this because of her focus–that she is taking a strongly textual analysis approach to these stories? Is this because she’s asking particular questions about history and memory, and thus interrogating how the idea of a “white” Gold Rush came to be?
I would say that this is the case–and that it made me think more about how I use my sources in my own work. We all interrogate our sources as we use them, acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses of each and the purposes for which we can and cannot use them. But are we being transparent enough about that process? Would that bog down the stories we try to tell?
Furthermore, will the need for transparency and discussion about sources, especially family memory like Johnson uses, recede as anthropological methods of using oral history to learn about the distant past become more mainstream in history? Is the need to explain these sources a byproduct of them not being as accepted in the historical profession and in the world at large? Or is it more a part of the cultural turn in history?
For lack of a compelling conclusion to my series of questions, all that I can say is, I look forward to discussing these issues further in class!
This week I commented on Nick’s blog post.