Friday, January 20, 2006

Oral History

I read somewhere recently that when cultures begin to record their oral traditions (by writing them down, for instance), the capacity for oral tradition is itself destroyed. This was stated as if it were a commonplace, an accepted fact.

Now I don't know much about this. I'm sure it has some basis in terms of the precise, word-for-word preservation of things like Homer's epics and the early texts from the Old Testament, but there seems to be an associated assumption that we in modern socities don't have any real contact with oral traditions. I don't think this is true.

As an example, there is, I claim, a strong canonical form of oral history in certain battles of the American civil war. There is, of course, no end of written and audio-visual material recording the history of the war, but there's some emergent oral tradition beyond this.

I discovered this recently when I was visiting the Gettysburg battlefield with my uncle. We went on new year's day so all the vistor centers were closed, but I got the history in its canonical form from Uncle Mike. When you tell the story of Gettysburg, it has a certain form.

You start by telling about Buford at the seminary and his concern for good ground. You then tell about the Confederate troops coming to Gettysburg because they thought they could get shoes there. As that first skirmish unfolds, you tell the story of Reynolds saying, "Forward! For God's sake forward!" just before he is shot. You dilligently record the orders of Robert E. Lee to Longstreet to take cemetary ridge "if practicable".

Moving on to the second day, you tell the story of Sickle's blunder, crossing the peach orchard in search of better ground and how the 1st Minnesota unit had to fill the hole to save the Union army. Then you move through Devil's Den and to the charge on Little Round Top. You talk about how Chamberlain was a schoolteacher as you tell the story of "the tenacious 20th Maine". You record his orders to hold the hill "to the last" and then recount how he did that. You tell the story of Chamberlain's men running out of ammunition. You must not omit his call of "Bayonettes!"

For the third day, you tell the story of Pickett's charge. This is an appropriate place to insert remarks about Lee's belief in the invincibility of his army if you haven't already. You must describe the "grove of trees" (unless you prefer the variant reading, "copse of trees") as the focal point of the Confederate attack. You describe the charge across the open field and over the fence at the Emmitsburg Road. When you tell of the Virginian's breaking through the Union line, you must describe this as the "high water mark of the rebellion."

This is how the story of the Battle of Gettysburg is told. (My apologies for any required bits I left out.)

So what's my point? Well, I've never been a big fan of form criticism, but it seems to me that a story like I've just recounted gives us some degree of insight into the layer of transmission of oral histories just before the actual oral history itself. There are some clear points to be made and even some particular phrasings to be observed. The history of Gettysburg as I've recorded it here hasn't crystalized into a single precise narrative -- and probably because of our various technologies for recording history it never will -- but I think you can see how this rudimentary outline could, over time, gel into a canonical narrative.


Thomas Adams said...

Your post brought back fond memories of my own visit to Gettysburg, and you told the story well. Part of me wonders, though, whether these epic oral traditions are a sort of “defense mechanism” against the remorseless horror of an event like Gettysburg. The tales wrap the battle in so much glory and valor that it’s easy to look past the carnage. It may also be a way of honoring the dead – of saying that men performed incredible and tragic deeds on this land, and if you forget any part of it you’re trampling on their graves.

Andy said...

Yes, some things just need to be remembered (which is an important theme of the Old Testament, incidently).