The Practitioners Speak on Oral History (1)

Allison Penner and Ronald J. Grele


Ronald J. Grele
Ronald J. Grele served as the former director of the Oral History Research Office at Columbia University, New York, New York, as well as former president of the Oral History Association. Grele authored the landmark book Envelopes of Sound: The Art of Oral History (1991) in addition to numerous other articles on oral history theory and method.
Citation Information: Ronald J. Grele, interview by Allison Penner, New York, NY, USA, 15 June 2012, Oral History Centre Online,
Allison Penner interviews Ronald Grele 15/06/2012
TOH GRELE Ronald 20120615
PROJECT TITLE: The Oral Historians
NARRATOR: Ronald J. Grele
INTERVIEWER: Allison Penner
PLACE OF RECORDING: Columbia University, New York, New York, USA
SESSION: 1 of 1
LENGTH OF SESSION: 45 minutes 26 seconds (website version: 29 minutes 1 second)
TOTAL INTERVIEW LENGTH: 45 minutes 26 seconds (website version: 29 minutes 1 second)
FILE NAME: TOH GRELE Ronald 20120615 Transcript – final website version.docx
TRANSCRIBER: Allison Penner


Allison Penner: My name is Allison Penner. I’m at Columbia University in New York, New York with Ron Grele. The date is June 15th 2012, and we are doing an interview on the practices of oral history and Ron’s experience with that. So I guess just to get started here, what attracted you to oral history? How did you become an oral historian?
Ronald Grele: Actually it’s kind of a mundane answer. I was looking for a job. I had finished my residency at Rutgers University for the Ph.D. and I had taken a one-year teaching assignment at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. At that time I was married; I had four children. My daughter, who is the fourth, was born in Easton. I was looking for a job, and at that point in time the job market was very expansive; it was quite easy to get jobs. And I had turned down two jobs. One simply because the place was too ugly for us to live in. [AP laughs] I tell that to students now, they can’t believe the arrogance of it! Incredible! But it was July and I had not secured a job. I had been considered for a couple, but I had not gotten one. And the former head of the History Department at Rutgers, Henry Winkler, had gone to Washington to become the editor of the American Historical Review, and he called one evening and asked me – he knew I was looking for a job. He said, “There’s a job opening at the Kennedy Library in Washington, D.C. at the National Archives doing oral history.” And I said to him, “What’s oral history?” [Laughs] And he said, “Don’t worry; you’ll learn.” [Laughs] So I applied for the job and went down for an interview. And Charles Morrissey, who was one of the founders of oral history in the United States, one of the forefathers – I don’t know who the other three were, but he was one of the forefathers of oral history. And Charlie had just come out [from the Truman Library to become] the director of the oral history program for the Kennedy Library. And he hired me, and I began my career at the Kennedy Library as an interviewer and archivist. It was then located at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. So that’s my first experience in oral history, working for the Kennedy Library.

Allison Penner: Can you tell me about the very first interview that you ever conducted?
Ronald Grele: Yes, I can. Charlie was widely read. There wasn’t that much of a bibliography on oral history, but he had read it. And he was very interested in other fieldwork sciences such as folklore and linguistics and anthropology, et cetera. And there was wide literature on interviewing practices, so working with Charlie was really a training ground for interviewing. And for the actual practice, we went out together; while he was doing interviews, I would sit in and watch him do the interviews, and gradually – I guess the first interview I ever participated in was an interview he had done with a congressman by the name of Torbert McDonald who was a close friend of the Kennedys.

But my first interview was with a woman by the name of Marjorie McKenzie Lawson. She and her husband, Belford Lawson, were John Kennedy’s main entrée into the African American community. And they had been long-time operatives within the Democratic Party, and they were hooked into all of the preachers and the black fraternities and sororities – the black bourgeoisie, which had been mobilized over many years within the Democratic Party, from the Depression on. And they were key figures in all of that, until a man who later became senator from Pennsylvania, [Harris Wofford], who had been in India with Chester Bowles and been very affected by Gandhi, made contact with Martin Luther King. Chester Bowles was a Kennedy person, [and he, Harris Wofford,] told Kennedy that he had to make contact with Martin Luther King. So sometime before the 1960 election, Kennedy moved gradually to make contact with a different kind of African American leadership, leaving Belford and Marjorie Lawson kind of on the sidelines. And they bitterly resented it, bitterly resented it. And she was my first interview. And I had really looked very carefully at all of the civil rights stuff and all the interior of the civil rights movement. But mostly she wanted to talk about being a woman [in the company of] all those Irish Catholic men, and their attitudes towards women. And it quite surprised me; I was not prepared for that. Interesting first lesson: be prepared for whatever surprises come along. I had totally misread her career with the Kennedys. She blamed some of the loss of contact within the Kennedy administration on Robert Kennedy and [Kenneth] O’Donnell and all the Irish mafia, because they couldn’t stand working with an aggressive woman. This was long before feminism. I guess Betty Friedan had been published, but it was long before people talked in that way. But that was my first interview. It was a marvellous interview. She was very, very critical of Robert Kennedy at that time, this is in 1965. Robert Kennedy, of course, later became very, very close to the African American community and [I understand that] she closed the interview. The interview remained closed for many years. [Laughs]

Allison Penner: Is it open now?
Ronald Grele: I don’t know. I don’t know; the latest biography of Kennedy didn’t seem to mention it, so I don’t know.

Allison Penner: That’s fascinating.
Ronald Grele: That’s my first experience – my first interview.
Allison Penner: It’s interesting because so many people, their first interviews are for like school projects or smaller things. That’s, I mean, quite a prestigious interview to begin with. What would you say has been your worst interview?
Ronald Grele: Oh, the worst interview I ever had – Mary Marshall [Clark] mentions this all the time – is with Bella Abzug. And it was – God, it was a terrible experience. Bella Abzug was a leading American feminist, and she was a congresswoman from New York City. And she had been involved in Women Strike for Peace; she was an activist, a long-time activist. [She was a] very, very dynamic person, and a very close friend of Shirley MacLaine’s. And I was then head of the office here at Columbia, and I got a call from Shirley MacLaine. And Shirley MacLaine had been visiting Bella and she was moving – Bella was moving. And there were all these boxes outside her door waiting to be picked up by the garbage man. And they were all her records. And Shirley MacLaine prevented them from being destroyed, and she was shocked by all this. And she called and said Bella has to be interviewed. And I said, “Wonderful.” Shirley MacLaine was going to put up the money; the way in which Columbia operated then – and still to a large extent does – is we have to fund our interviews. And so I contacted Abzug, and she refused to be interviewed. No interest in it whatsoever. She was busy with day-to-day life, and to reflect on the past was nothing she would ever be interested in doing.

And so a number of years passed, and Mary Marshall came on. And important things changed, and Bella Abzug moved on to doing different kinds of things. And she was very friendly with a number of women historians with whom I was very friendly, and so they wanted me to interview Bella so I agreed to do that. And then I contacted Shirley MacLaine. Unfortunately I had never kept any correspondence, [nor had I ever] written to her after the telephone conversation. She had completely forgotten about it. And I got a call from Bella Abzug, just screaming, screaming at me for asking her friend for money for this interview: “Who the fuck do you think you are?!” It was really a terrible, terrible experience.
But anyway, after an hour or so, and then a meeting afterwards with a very close friend of hers, Amy Swerdlow, who’s a very close friend of mine – Amy had been with her in Women Strike for Peace and many, many years – she agreed to be interviewed. And it was a terrible interview, just terrible. I was interested in the way she became a feminist – she had always been a feminist; it was never a question for her. And she was thinking about how she would use this to write her biography. And if she couldn’t find in the session what she could write the next week, she was totally uninterested. And after one or two sessions I had to give up. Amy was telling me I should ask her about this, ask her about that, and every time I did it was awful, off-beat, off-kilter. And eventually Mary Marshall took it over and did three or four interviews, and then Bella became ill and died. And so we never got a full interview, but we got a richer interview with Mary Marshall. But that was my worst interview.
Allison Penner: And you were so tenacious in actually getting it too, after being rebuffed so many times.
Ronald Grele: Well, as I think about it over the years, what I should have done is when she first started screaming at me, I should have just hung up. Really, I should have. [Just] said, “To hell with it.” And then allow my friends to renegotiate that and have a different interviewer, and not even got involved. I just should have – I should have hung up.
Allison Penner: Do you think that there are situations where, even if you are the only person available, you just shouldn’t do the interview anyway?
Ronald Grele: Oh sure. If there’s no chemistry. And in fact we say this to people often, when we interview them here at Columbia – we did – that if they’re unhappy with the interviewer, let us know; we’ll get another interviewer. Sometimes there just is no chemistry. Some people cannot interview other people; some people cannot be interviewed by other people. They deeply resent the style, the manner – whatever it might be, subjective or objective.
Allison Penner: What do you like about doing oral history interviews and

what do you not like?
Ronald Grele: You know, it’s an interesting question. I was asked to, as you know, answer these questions for the Croatian students, and when they asked me about the Kennedy project, I said I discovered I liked to interview, but I never thought about why. So I’ve been thinking about why since then. I’m good at it. I really am good at it, and one enjoys what one is good at. I grew up in a small New England town where there was a public green where all these old men used to gather and gossip all the time. And I grew up in a family of gossips. And I always liked gossip; I liked listening to gossip, et cetera. You know? A natural snoop, I guess. And theoretically I’m always interested in the story behind the story. [In a funny sense] I was just waiting for structuralism to discover that it’s really important to understand the deep structure of things.
I can elaborate this in a theoretical way: One listens for what is told and untold. When I read Althusser, Louis Althusser – I’ve talked [elsewhere] about how important Althusser was to me. But it wasn’t the political side of Althusser that was of most importance to me; it was the discussion of symptomatic reading. What is symptomatic reading? How do we read symptomatically? How do we take what is being said to us as a symptom of something larger, a larger condition, a more complex phenomenon if you will. And I’ve always liked that about interviewing, that people tell you things and there are undertones and overtones. And words can never quite capture the total essence of an experience. The only way of getting that is more words. And as a French post-structuralist Luce Irigaray talks about this kind of ineffable reality, that you have to use words but words cover so many complexities of an experience and the only way of getting at it is more words. And that’s intriguing to me.
What don’t I like about it? I don’t like it sometimes when – on the Kennedy project this was a problem but also it’s happened to me a number of times interviewing “members of the elite,” and we can talk about that in a moment. Sometimes you’re considered as a hired [biographer]; “This is [my oral historian,” one man who I interviewed said when he was called upon to introduce me at a social gathering where we had met]. [Laughs] When I worked on the Kennedy project we had a wonderful, wonderful team. And there was a young kid – we were all young at the time – and he was Irish Catholic; he was so fascinated by the Kennedys. And he believed that by interviewing on the Kennedy project he became part of the Kennedy circle. I tried to tell him, “Joe, you are not part of the Kennedy circle.” On the left hand, a lot of friends of mine [once believed] that by interviewing working class people they become members of the working class, and in my particular group of friends we called that false proletarianization. And the same thing happens with elite interviews. People interview people who are wealthy, this, that, and the other, and they believe that they’re part of that crowd. Well, you’re not; you’re not. And it takes a great deal of self-awareness, I think, to do interviews. You have to be – you have to know who you are. And I resent being, in that sense, treated as the hired help or – [dealing with] people who don’t take the history seriously.

Allison Penner: You said that in an interview you need to know who you are. Have you found that as you do interviews, who you are changes by listening to the stories?
Ronald Grele: Well, first of all it changes over time. I am no longer a young Ph.D. feeling my oats in the field. I am now retired, a senior. So it has changed. But my style of interviewing has always been more or less “professional,” in the sense that I am interested in the history and I consider myself a historian. And that is who I am: [I am] a historian. And I’m concerned with how we turn this document into a history: what have you learned for the practice of history? Moving beyond “feeling good;” moving beyond the ambience of the interview where you like each other, where you get along, where you’re concerned about that, to what is [the interview] as history? And that demands a certain kind of distance. There is a distance in the interview. And I would go more towards a more distant approach. Other people get much closer. They do the same things. Other people, a little further. Some people who are journalists are trained to do interviews in a certain kind of way that is much more staccato in the sense of interrupting – moving it forward on their terms rather than on the terms of the person you’re talking to. And it has to be judged – my feeling is it has to be judged based on what’s produced at the end. Do they get at what is needed for the particular purpose of the project? It’s just a matter of style; knowing what your style is, what are you comfortable with. And you establish that in your presence almost immediately. Now some of my feminist friends critique that as a “masculine” style. And that may be true. But it is a style I’m comfortable with, and it’s my style.
Allison Penner: Yeah. You mentioned this idea of doing interviews to feel good. It’s kind of this new understanding of oral history that’s developed, probably exemplified best by the Story Corps project. Can you speak to your understanding of the differences between oral history and the kind of project that would be exemplified by that type of Story Corps –?
Ronald Grele: I have a long critique of Story Corps, probably too long to get into right now. But I’m interested in conversation. And I had a discussion with a young man who was a student of Habermas, and we got talking about Habermas’s distinction between conversation and discourse. You know, there are many conversations, but what conversations become part of a discourse? And I take that to mean, in my case, which conversations are conversations that are part of an ongoing dialogue about history, about where we have been structurally – or not only structurally, but in some larger sense; how people are in the world. Not just in the moment, but in the world. So how do we move beyond that? And with Story Corps – [Well, first of all], all I know about Story Corps [is what they publish and what they publish about themselves and] what shows up on the web. I am not familiar with the full interviews. Their interviews run, they say, to forty minutes, et cetera, and from that they [publish and broadcast] excerpts. So I’m not familiar with the whole – I don’t know what happens afterwards; whether or not in the questioning (or not), people can put their experiences in a larger context to tell us something about the world in terms of a larger discourse.

I think that’s the way we kind of honour people, by recognizing them as historians; that they are capable of not only telling us stories but also telling us what those stories mean. Mike Frisch years ago wrote a very important article on an experience he had with the New York Times in editing interviews that he and his colleagues at Buffalo had done with unemployed [workers], and this was in the ‘70s. And the Times was interested in the emotional side of those stories but edited out every point where people expressed an opinion or interpretation of those events. You know, “I’m unemployed, this is what happened to me, and I’m unemployed because” – things have moved out of town; the boss has done this; blah blah, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Where they put it in context. They would take the story – “I’m unemployed; this is what it’s done for my family” – and not the interpretation.

And there’s a way in which that’s what’s done in the Story Corps books, “On Mom” or “Listening is an Act of Love” – they take the pith of the emotional moments and get rid of the interpretation. So the people become – They say they’re sharing authority by including their stories, but the people just become objects of emotive attitude. I just read an essay by a guy by the name of Benjamin Filene who’s turned out a volume called Letting Go or something or other. He opens his own essay [in that book] by saying: “Every Friday morning I get prepared to cry,” when NPR broadcasts excerpts from Story Corps, and they’re always moving. And he gets ready to cry. Well, crying’s not enough. We have to understand. The people we interview are perfectly capable of telling us what [they think what they say] means. And it’s our job to allow them – or to help them do that, if you will. “Allow” is probably a bad word, but there’s a way in which we do control that interview. But in the presentation, it should be there in the presentation as well. But there’s a difference between feeling good and doing history.
Allison Penner: When you’re interviewing somebody, are there any tricks or keys that you use to help the interview go well? Any tips maybe?

Ronald Grele: Well, first of all, it’s really important to explain exactly what’s going to happen, where it’s going to go, who is going to look at it, what’s going to happen, or what rights that person has. Are they going to get a transcript back; are they going to get this back; will they be able to look at it? It’s very important that it be a totally transparent project; nothing is hidden. No hidden microphones, no – People can say, “Stop the recording.” It’s important that they know they have control over exactly what’s going to happen. Within the interview itself, I always think it’s important in the first ten or so minutes to reveal that you know something that they don’t know that you know, to let them know that you’ve done your research. “Oh, you know about that? Oh, you’ve talked to somebody about that already? Oh, you’ve read this obscure article?” Or they’ll say, “Where did you find that out?” I’ll say, “Harper’s Magazine, June 1952.” “Oh!” It’s important, I think, at some point in time to let them know that you know, so that they know that you’re going to come back at them. [I think people respect that. I think they think this person cares enough about this project that he or she has prepared.]

It’s also important to set the rhythm of the interview. If you begin the interview asking many short questions, people will assume that that’s the pace you want. If you start with questions that require more elaboration – and then ask for more elaboration [you get a fuller interview]. The example I used with Jamil, with his interview: Very early on when he said “we,” I said, “Who are the ‘we’?” So he knows by that that I want more detail; that I know that there are other people; that he can talk more expansively about it. So you’re setting the pace; you’re setting the rhythm.
Sometimes that’s not enough. I interviewed a congressman at one time. He had been a congressman for 24 years, and a very important congressman, but he was used to being interviewed by the press. He knew exactly what the press wanted. So he would give me an answer which was a short – now they call them sound bites, but it was something that a journalist could peg the story to: “Congressman Celler said today blah blah blah,” and then the story would come. And it was very difficult to convince him that I wanted an answer that was more than two sentences long; very difficult to get that across. But you want to establish the rhythm, the rhythm.

And then I think that most interviews begin to kind of collapse on themselves after about an hour and a half, two hours. People get tired. You get tired as an interviewer; you’re just not as sharp as you were, et cetera. My objection is – People talk in this Institute about not taking [a list of questions with them into an interview], a couple times it was mentioned. Why I don’t want my students to take [a listing of questions] with them, why I don’t ever take [a questionnaire], is there’s some kind of imperative to finish that damn questionnaire. You’re coming to the end of the interview, and you’ve got 40 questions and you’ve only asked 30 – there’s such an imperative to ask every question that you’re not listening; that you’re thinking about the next question. And who cares? You can come back a second time. But to take it slower, to deal with topics rather than questions. You establish the rhythm, end when you have to end.
Allison Penner: So what do you see as your particular contribution your work has made to the field of oral history?

Ronald Grele: I’ve talked about a transformation in oral history. I think my work was important in giving people, at a moment in time, a certain way of looking at an interview rather than the older, social scientific way. And I think for a moment at least, as I understand the bibliography, people used the term “conversational narrative.” And I think that was some kind of a contribution: thinking about it in a different kind of way. In terms of the use of oral history in social history, which was from the bottom up – the whole rhetoric of social history – I think my work is really tangential to that, in that my discussion of an interview is something that could be applied to interviews with the working class. I tried that in one essay, in “Envelopes of Sound,” but I think it was a sensibility that the oral narrative, or the oral history is much more than a repository of facts. That it tells us about culture. And that that is the same kind of impulse that Luisa Passerini has, that Lutz Niethammer, that Alessandro Portelli has, et cetera. And that tells us about the culture; it’s a much larger construct. So I think in that sense there’s a kind of correspondence.

I think in my professional career, I have tried to move oral history into newer kinds of directions, both in the Oral History Association, in some of my writings, my activities in the public history world – I used to be very active in that world – my work at the New Jersey Historical Commission, my work at Columbia was to open up oral history to a lot of disparate community activities, working with people who were politically marginalized, on their projects. Helping redefine those projects. In some cases, helping them secure funding. I think that I brought to projects that would have been considered somewhat marginal, I brought to them a certain kind of respectability because of the work that I had done and the places that I had been.

[Recorder turned off]

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