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The Voice of the Past: Oral History (Fourth Edition)

Reviewed by Benji de la Piedra


The Voice of the Past: Oral History (Fourth Edition); Paul Thompson and Joanna Bornat; Oxford University Press 2017; $39.95; Paperback; ISBN 978-0-19-933546-6; 484 pages.

The Voice of the Past, a foundational text in the field of Anglophone oral history, has been thoroughly updated to encompass a more global scope of oral history research traditions, and to reflect the many advances logged by oral historians in the 21st century. First published in 1978, with second and third editions published in 1988 and 2000, The Voice of the Past features major revisions and additions in its newly published fourth edition. These are composed not only by Thompson, but also by the volume’s new co-author Joanna Bornat. (The book also features a short new chapter on oral history theory by guest-contributor Lynn Abrams.)

New additions to the book include:

  • “Reaching Out: Other Cultures,” a chapter that surveys oral history traditions and trends in non-Anglophone parts of the world
  • “Parallel Strands,” a chapter that surveys developments in several fields that contribute significantly to oral history’s interdisciplinary endeavor, including visual media, public history, sociology, narrative studies, and memory studies
  • “Transforming Oral History Through Theory,” Abrams’s chapter, which introduces several poststructuralist concepts for analyzing “how and why something is said” (132) in a given interview
  • Ample discussion of 21st century oral history projects and developments in the field, woven into heavily revised chapters such as “The Achievement of Oral History,” “Memory and the Self,” “Projects,” and “Interpretation”
  • A series of boxes inserted throughout the text, which present interview extracts from books discussed by Thompson and Bornat
  • A bibliography of almost 500 oral history books, and an index of 80 oral history websites

Thompson’s overarching intention remains the same as in previous editions: to demonstrate oral history’s distinctiveness and validity as a method of social research. Thus, while he and Bornat write in the book’s preface that “The Voice of the Past is meant for oral historians of all kinds, not just academics” (x), the structure and underlying stances of this book make clear that it intends primarily to cultivate oral historians in the mold of objective, disinterested researchers—rather than, say, that of partisan activists or more idiosyncratic creatives.

The book’s first two chapters therefore remain basically unchanged, and are addressed to readers who must first be convinced of oral history’s methodological legitimacy and civic potency. Chapter One, “History and the Community”—which Thompson and Bornat call “a manifesto…about the potential social value of oral history” (ix)—frames oral history as an essential tool for completing and balancing the historical record. Chapter Two, “Historians and Oral History,” presents a sprawling intellectual history of historians and social researchers (in the Anglophone world, as well as in 19th century France and Germany) using oral evidence and life story interviewing techniques. The chapter concludes that the gathering and interpretation of oral evidence by historians is due for a comeback, since these are “the oldest skill[s] of their own craft” (70).

These two chapters are followed by a series of chapters that further elaborate the disciplinary tradition and outlook of oral history research: “Reaching Out: Other Cultures,” “Parallel Strands,” “Transforming Oral History Through Theory,” “The Achievement of Oral History,” “Evidence,” “Memory and the Self,” and “Projects.” These chapters—as well as the last three chapters on “The Interview,” “After the Interview,” and “Interpretation”—are written as surveys. They attempt to communicate an encyclopedic scope of information in a narrative prose style. This attempt produces stretches of writing throughout the book that struggle to cohere from paragraph to paragraph, and may not easily maintain the reader’s attention.

And to be sure, although the survey approach is ambitious, it poses the risk of oversimplification. Take for instance the following summary about “the evolving genre of black autobiography” from Chapter Two: “This began in the 1830s with slave narratives, often ghosted by a white writer, strongly Christian in style, and used to support the campaign for the abolition of slavery. The most famous of these is The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845)” (35). The composition and arrangement of these sentences would lead the uninformed reader to believe, erroneously, that Douglass’s autobiography was ghostwritten by a white person. Thus any of the general pronouncements that Thompson and Bornat make about oral history trends and traditions around the world should be vetted by a deeper exploration into the particular literature before being cited uncritically.

There are parts of this book that will energize the reader, by making apparent the depth of Thompson and Bornat’s feeling for the utility, allure, and fundamental goodness of oral history. Chapter Seven, “Evidence” (which Bornat took the lead on revising) is the prime example. Here, with inspired eloquence, the authors thoroughly dismantle the classic, misguided critique of oral history as an unreliable source of information about the past. The authors systematically demonstrate the presence of bias in both written and quantitative historical documents, forcefully asserting that “the problem of memory is not peculiar to the oral historian, but basic to social research” (214). They draw attention to the “considerable advantage” enjoyed by oral historians, who are able to draw on the “abundance of sociological discussion on the interview method, the sources of bias in it, and how these may be estimated and minimized”—“Discussion of the bias similarly inherent in all written documentation is by comparison scarce,” they write (189). Oral historians of all stripes, both seasoned and novice, ought to read this chapter closely.

However, despite offering a comprehensive introduction to oral history as a field, The Voice of the Past fails to frame oral history as an individual’s practice, and this is the volume’s chief flaw. Practical guidance on doing oral history is not offered until Chapter Ten, “The Interview,” and even then it is overly formulaic. Neutrality is advanced as the interviewer’s prime ethic—as echoed by the more than twenty boxes containing interview extracts throughout the book, of which only one includes an interviewer question. By working so hard to justify oral history in the terms of social-scientific research, Thompson and Bornat neglect to elaborate the methodological pragmatism and intersubjective self-implication that are responsible for oral history’s essential humanism.

What’s missing in this chapter, indeed throughout this book, is any mention of self-reflection, experimentation, or trial-and-error as the driving forces of an oral historian’s personal development as a researcher. The authors of this book do not give their reader sufficient permission or tools to make informed adaptations of their method based on present circumstances, past experience, or future objectives.

Certainly, The Voice of the Past remains an important touchstone, arguably required reading, for those who lay claim to membership in the interdisciplinary field of oral history. The book especially belongs on the shelves of individuals who teach and speak on behalf of oral history to people uninitiated in the field. However, practitioners of oral history will likely find the experience of reading this book from cover to cover rather ponderous and impractical. I advise them to treat this book as a reference volume, to be consulted as a trailhead for many, many facets of oral history’s method, theory, antecedents, findings, and promise.

Benji de la Piedra is an oral historian and writer living in Little Rock, Arkansas, documenting the early life and community history of Herbert H. Denton, Jr. Along with Mario Alvarez, de la Piedra is Co-Founder, Co-Director, and Co-Lead Interviewer of the Columbia Life Histories Project.