The Beginning of Oral History in the 1930’s

Other than the achievements of Allan Nevins, there are two major components of oral history in the 1930’s and 40’s. The first I knew I needed to research was the work of Forrest Pogue. Pogue had been repeatedly mentioned by later authors on the topic as an individual who had greatly influenced the public’s interest in oral history with his work “Pogue’s War”. “Pogue’s War” narrated Forrest Pogue’s time as an oral historian with the US army during D-Day and beyond on the European front during WWII. I was able to use this book to discover the other historians in Forrest Pogue’s unit. By researching these individuals, I discovered that many of them wrote and published narratives on their work during WWII.

Forrest Pogue is then relevant again for my research starting in the 1960’s, when, like Nevins, he helps found the Oral History Association. He was an inaugural member due to the popularity of his book, as well as the work he did in the intervening years interviewing SLA Marshall. His work interviewing SLA Marshall, a general during WWII, was an unprecedented oral history project in its amount of time dedicated to interviewing one individual. Forrest Pogue’s interviews were often considered the gold standard in finding a balance between factual information as well as sources of the interviewee’s feelings and views on the discussed material.

I then knew I would need to research the Federal Writer’s Project. This project created hundreds of interview notes under the New Deal. The problem I discovered was that many of the early innovators of oral history and founders of the OHA were not aware of the FWP and its interviews. The first record I have so far found of oral historians in academia acknowledging the FWP is in an essay published in 1969. What I have run into is that it is doubtful the FWP completely disappeared, and while it may not have impacted to academic oral historians, I have yet to ascertain how well it was known among more casual, local gatherers of folk knowledge who conducted oral history interviews.

This is an especially curious question to answer, due to the fact that in the early 1960’s, oral history in America starts to split into two distinct spheres: there are those who are historians using oral histories in order to fill in their narratives in published works, and then there are minimally trained interviewers who are trying to gather their local histories through interviewing older individuals of the community (the most famous example of the latter being the foxfire books, which, though published in the 1970’s, garnered the attention of OHA).