Research & Creative Activity

Indiana University

Office of Research and the University Graduate School
Volume XVII, Number 1, April 1994

Picking Up the Common Thread

Each of us has at least one good story to tell. We weave these stories out of the threads of individual, generational, communal, or national memories. Like recitations of ancient oral epics such as Gilgamesh and Beowulf, the tales we tell to define who we are and where our personal or cultural history lies inevitably recount the outcomes of familiar struggles. Exploring how such stories reflect the vexed and complex relationships between history and memory is the work of history professor John Bodnar. For Bodnar, who is also the director of IU's Oral History Research Center, memory is essentially narrative in nature. He is most interested in how ordinary people author that narrative. Thus, Bodnar's recent work deals with oral histories recounted by factory workers and managers at a Studebaker plant in South Bend, Indiana; by members of various communities in Whiting, Indiana; and by visitors to war memorials and participants in other public commemorations.

In an essay titled "Generational Memory in Modern America: The Case of Whiting, Indiana," Bodnar explains why point of view generally emerges as the most significant aspect of the oral texts he studies: "Presented as stories, with the identity of the narrator assuming a central role, [these] narratives are subjective, despite their objective components, and aim to persuade all who will listen.

"Stories 'reconstruct' rather than 'resurrect' the past and make the case that paths taken in life were appropriate, that identities forged were admirable, and that their version of experience is genuine. Thus, they serve interests in the present rather than merely the cause of accurately representing the past. They are not only selective and subjective, but defensive and didactic." Because collective memory is grounded in relationships--people to people, members to institutions, insiders to outsiders--the narratives that grow out of it usually teach or defend specific moral values. Bodnar's work illustrates how those stories clarify what the past felt like and how they modify our understanding of widely accepted historical discourse. Sitting in his office at the Oral History Research Center (a training ground for students of history, folklore, sociology, and anthropology), Bodnar leans back in his chair to catch the breeze flowing in from a casement window nestled under the eaves of Memorial Hall, whose fourth floor houses the Center. Enjoying the chilly air, he reflects that in a sense he "flirts with becoming a literary critic." This is a temptation, Bodnar says, because his work involves paying close attention to the structure of the stories created by the "oral historians" he interviews.

As most competent literary critics will attest, conflict lies at the very heart of any good story--indeed it is the motivating force. Thus, Bodnar carefully maps the sites of conflict that emerge as his storytellers subject history to memory. He explains that contested sites of history and memory arise when people elaborate on their invested roles as workers, as members of communities and generations, as patriotic citizens, or as political leaders of a nation. Frequently, these elaborations conflict with the interests and master narratives of some other group.

For instance, in this era of multicultural education, Lynne Cheney, former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, issued a public plea for a more inspiring and unified story of the past. Cheney, and other cultural leaders like her, saw history as "a monolithic entity that taught lessons of nation building and patriotism and as a 'kind of civic glue' that would help all citizens feel part of a common undertaking." Bodnar's analysis of oral histories rendered by ordinary people reveals how groups disenfranchised by their ethnic, class, gender, or generational status create historical accounts that conflict with that kind of official narrative. Bodnar discusses the conception of the Vietnam War Memorial as a case in point. And in this case, a national monument serves as the text of memory. In the prologue of his most recent book, the Pulitzer PrizeŠnominated Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century (1992), Bodnar explains how official visions of an appropriate memorial of the Vietnam War emphasized the need for national unity and the desire to symbolize a heroic sacrifice made for the nation.

But opposed to political leaders' insistence on a symbol that memorialized a national triumph of patriotism stood the desire of ordinary people to erect an expression of grief and sorrow--to commemorate loss rather than nationalism. The winning design conceived by Maya Ying Lin, a young art student at Yale, depicted the now-famous long black granite walls inscribed with the names of the 58,000 American men and women who died in the war.

Bodnar notes that critics of the design said it looked like "a mass grave," a "black gash of shame." Such critics decried the absence of patriotic symbols and pleaded for a memorial that would "make them feel part of America." Bodnar concludes that in its final conception, the Vietnam memorial "clearly represented the triumph of one set of interests over another." While it can be viewed as an embodiment of patriotism or as an "expression of comradeship and sorrow for the dead," the latter theme predominates over the former.

In its discussion of the relationship between patriotism and public memory and its examination of how the past is continually recast as a product of the present, Remaking America examines the efforts of what Bodnar terms "vernacular interests" to contain the cultural dominance by political leaders. His discussions of public events such as ethnic community fairs, pioneer celebrations, Civil War reenactments, and other public remembrances of war explore the subtexts present in public commemorations over the last century.

Bodnar's work with oral narratives recounted by citizens of Whiting, Indiana, reveals equally contested accounts of history. Bodnar's analysis of these conflicts focuses on generational differences. He argues that "Generational memory is not simply a remnant from the past but, like all forms of remembering, an invention born in the present to enhance one's position in contemporary debates."

Whiting's older generation, born between 1902 and 1924, were children of immigrants who went to Whiting in the first two decades of this century to work in the Standard Oil Refinery or the steel mills. This generation constructs memory narratives that valorize solidarity, fidelity to institutions, and self-sacrifice. Bodnar argues that these elderly, working- class citizens feel the values that pervaded their relationships are now threatened with extinction. The loss comes at a time when the nation they inhabit is (by their estimation) in dire need of such values.

The life stories told by the older generation of Whiting residents are not repeated by a younger generation, whose narratives chronicle incidents of individual struggle and resourcefulness. Bodnar comments on this disparity by concluding that "mutualism and solidarity from the past were contrasted with selfishness and individualism in the present. . . . [The older generation's] critique of modern society and the consumerist and selfish values they believed it engendered was not tied solely to a nostalgic defense of a world they knew. They did not want to escape the present, but alter it."

The common thread that runs through all of Bodnar's work can be found in his close examination of how the teller--whether history book or factory worker--shapes the tale. Indeed, the broad project of the social (as opposed to the political) historian is to investigate how history affects the lives of ordinary people. But even in books dealing with social history, the narrative is usually structured by a professional historian.

Thus, memory confronts history in less immediate terms than it does in Bodnar's analysis of oral narratives. Jim La Grand, one of Bodnar's graduate students, who praises what he terms his mentor's "hungry and creative approach to the field of history," notes that over the last couple of decades many historians have been worrying about the fragmentation of their discipline. They feel that social, political, ethnic, and other subfields of history too often become separated from one another. La Grand sees Bodnar's work as "a step toward remedying that situation."

Bodnar's oral history interviews reveal implicit connections between the personal and the political spheres. Bodnar's careful, sensitive attention to how an elderly factory worker tells his life story allows the historian to learn not only about family and local history, but also to hear comments and critiques of an economic system and of social relations.

Bodnar's work examines the intricately woven tapestry of recent American history and individual memory. His analysis of oral narratives points out where a pattern deviates from the dominant motif and reveals where the threads are tangled or knotted. Yet, overall, his approach reveals how the past, present, and future are all of a piece, especially when seen in the light of collective memory.

--Susan Moke