I am at Huddersfield where yesterday, I attended the Unofficial Histories Conference. This is probably one of the best conferences I have attended, mainly because it has been so pertinent to what I am thinking about: where and how does memoir fit into historical writing.
How accurate is memoir? Can memoir ever be relied on? Is a memoir the individual story that challenges the collective story? One of the presenters described finding his mother’s memoir and a stash of photographs. They became the archive he is using to create a story about rural life for his family in the 1950s.
Immediately I saw how this memoir could be mined for information. His mother says she never got to hunt with a gun. Only the big kids used guns. The little ones used sling shots. From this memory we can deduce by the time she was a big kid, the kids no longer hunted.
But the presenter was arguing that 1950s modernity did not touch this rural family. But the memoir infers that it did. By the time his mother was a big kid – say thirteen – perhaps five years after this memory happened, there was no more hunting. Meat presumably was bought somewhere and perhaps even stored, perhaps in a refrigerator. …
This leads to a question: is it the memoir or the interpretation of the memoir that matters? Last week I read Ruth Reichl’s memoir Not Becoming My Mother. It was recommended to me as an food memoir that I needed to read. I found the text annoying to say the least. I prefer Reichl’s witty stories about her mother’s inability to cook and her ways of getting around this. I wanted to suggest to Reichl that this was an interpretation of her mother that fitted in with popular memory of women’s lives and a version that needed to be re assessed or at least added to. I wasn’t happy that she presented her mother as the same old unhappy, unfulfilled woman with no agency and no choices.
Then of course we have to think about the way archives are censored. First by the person who keeps the original material that goes into an archive, then by the archivist and then by the researcher.
How accurate is anything we think we know?
Another presenter boldly told us that she knew we had already formed impressions of who she was just by how she appeared. But how accurate were those impressions?
And so I have come away from this conference with more questions than answers but I know now that other historians are thinking about the same things and that we are moving into different ways of thinking about how we tell histories and the histories that we tell.
My training as an oral historian teaches me that I have to dig deeply into the stories I am told. I have to think about tone, silences, stumbles, repetitions and importantly, things that are left out. Same same with written memories … except I can only hear them in my head.