Oral history not worth the paper it’s printed on?

I had an Irish-American friend who hated the English, and he had good reason. Family oral history related how a few generations ago one of his ancestors had been shot and killed by an English officer in a land dispute.  As a result, his family lost the land and became destitute. These kinds of stories helped make my friend interested in tracing his family roots, which you can do now easier than ever with computer records. He was surprised to find that his family was Anglo-Irish and that his ancestors were “English” officers, the villains of the family saga. They could find no records of the specific land dispute of family legend, but if it happened his ancestors were on the other side of that gun.

Oral history is always like that, which is why it often has better stories.  Individuals do it with “fish stories” where their role get bigger and better defined with each telling and groups do it. It is not that people are trying to lie, although sometimes they can be, but memory must be recreated each time we tell.  Some of the details are forgotten, so we fill in what seems best.  Groups get messed up even faster than individuals.   Investigators know not to let eye-witnesses discuss what they saw before they get it down on paper individually.  When people get together, they produce a shared narrative. They help each other remember details.  Some of those details are things that never happened, but the confirmation of the group makes everyone more certain of their memory.  In memory, certainty does not correlate strongly with accuracy.

Oral histories sometimes retain enough facts to make them useful and enticing. The Iliad and Odyssey were passed orally for centuries before they were written down. The 19th Century archeologist Heinrich Schliemann used the books to find the location of Troy. But the details of the war and the personalities are legend.   When I was a nerdy classicist, my friends and I played a game of finding things mentioned in Homer that did not exist during the time of the Trojan War, but were evidently added in the telling, or things that Homer did not understand from the time of the Trojan War and so explained poorly.

Accurate sources and assessing all sources is a challenge for anyone who writes history or even is interested in it. We really can study only the written sources. Some cultures do not produce written sources and no written sources comprehensively cover all the things we may want to know.  People write what THEY think is important. We might want to know something completely different.

There is an advantage to being unknown. I recall reading an essay about the great warrior Crazy Horse.  Little is really known about him.  There are no confirmed pictures.  He made his reputation as a warrior by going on raids of other tribes.  In the raid, people are killed in brutal ways, women are abused and generally misery is inflicted.  What would a detailed and accurate history do to Crazy Horse’s reputation?   If we are doing a history of the West, can we compare the oral legend of Crazy Horse with the historical record of his adversary, George Armstrong Custer?  Crazy Horse’s “history” is much more akin to the legends Libby Custer told about her husband after his death.

Oral history is useful more as a way of understanding what a group thinks about itself today than about actual events of the past.  The narrative is a group effort.  It both shapes the thinking of the group and is shaped by it. That is why it is so popular.  If you don’t have to worry about being proved wrong by a written source, you can speculate and make up better stories.  This might make me an apostate as a historian, but I think maybe it is not so bad to “improve” outcomes.  It is depressing to know your family was a bunch of losers for six generations. Do yourself and your posterity a favor and insert a few stories of overcoming adversity and coming out on top.  You don’t even need to make anything up, just re-frame it.  My ancestors were not driven out of Europe by Cossacks because they were drunks, draft dodgers and ne’er-do-wells.  No. They were freedom loving rebels who could not abide spending another day in those oppressive precincts. 

BTW – the story I told up top is not accurate.  I was correct in the general thrust, but my telling had some addiOral history not worth the paper it’s printed on?tional details.  I think they might be true, but I have no real reason to think so.  If I retell it to my friend, he may like my version better and I have no doubt will incorporate parts of it into family lore.  When the story is told in the next generation, some of my story telling DNA will be among the heritage.  Who knows, maybe I got this right by random chance.

That is why when we really want to know we need to find a contemporary written source.  And don’t believe what people tell you about the past, especially if the say it will lots of passion.