Pushing Boundaries in Oral History-Based Biographies

By Nasstrom, Kathryn L. | The Oral History Review, Summer-Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Pushing Boundaries in Oral History-Based Biographies


Nasstrom, Kathryn L., The Oral History Review


Abstract The author comments on three preceding articles, two by authors of oral history-based biographies (Sandy Polishuk's biography of Julia Ruuttila and Catherine Fosl's biography of Anne Braden) and a third by their editor, Deborah Gershenowitz. The author acknowledges the constraints imposed on the authors of oral history-based biographies, both by the refusal of biographical subjects to discuss certain matters and by the necessary honing that editors undertake. While granting the need for author-subject and author-editor negotiations and revisions, the author (of this commentary) insists on the value of pushing boundaries in oral history-based biographies and finds encouragement in the process of dialog, negotiation, and compromise that improved the books under consideration.

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These articles are by thoughtful authors who made decisions about writing and editing with great care and self-reflection, and who quite purposefully shaped the texts they produced. Those choices and their consequences will be the main focus of my commentary, but I want to begin with an observation. Because these biographies were produced through careful and studied decisions, I was struck by the element of chance that also shaped the texts. Sandy Polishuk didn't learn about one of Julia Ruuttila's husbands until Linda Shopes asked her to verify an unrelated piece of information: whether or not Julia's grandfather had been a captain in the Civil War. That information and its source also ended up helping Sandy tease out another seemingly unrelated issue: Julia's racial identity, a fascinating topic I'll return to. Cate Fosl, for her part, often had a rocky relationship with Anne Braden, but it became significantly easier when Cate moved to Louisville, Anne's place of residence. But, what if that hadn't happened? And the snowstorm that kept them together at a writers' retreat longer than expected led to the epilog of the book, something that Cate had been puzzling over for some time. As oral historians and writers, we have a tough enough time assessing the consequences of what we choose to do deliberately--and then these chance elements come along and complicate the process further. I'm reminded that a published biography, with all the finality that product seems to imply, is only one in a sequence of understandings and renderings of a life. This is especially so for the oral history-based biography, a point that will run through the remainder of my commentary as well.

But, returning to the purposeful way these biographies were shaped, I want to take up a point that Sandy mentioned at the end of her article, namely the matter of what ends up on the cutting room floor, so as to continue the conversation about writing and editing practices that these articles set in motion. Most especially I want to consider the consequences of what's left on the floor. Deborah set me thinking about this with her well-argued case for the editor's role in getting a biographer to lift her eyes from the fascinating particulars of a life and to use that life to comment on the "larger context" and the "wider world." I'm in complete agreement with that position. In that spirit, I will be considering some of the cutting room floor pieces for what they might tell us about wider contexts, but also for what they tell us about the self, the subject of the biography.

Sandy ended her article by saying that some of Julia's "most outrageous claims" were cut. "Outrageous" piqued my curiosity, but without knowing the nature of those claims, it's hard to know what they might tell us about wider issues. But, they would certainly tell us a great deal about Julia, someone we already learned was given to "fictionalizing" her life in some substantial ways. That there is even more to it than we learned seems central to any understanding of Julia. What also ended up on the cutting room floor, Deborah tells us, was substantial extracts of Julia's fiction and poetry. …

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