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Monthly Archives: September 2013

The Interviewer’s Perspective

My mother, Joan, grew up to be an interviewer of many people.  As an oral historian, your sources are people.  People of all walks and stations in life.

Alistair Cooke, the great broadcaster and reporter

Alistair Cooke, the great broadcaster and reporter

Her two co-written books contain dozens of moving stories of everyday people — and some famous like Alistair Cooke, John Lewis

John Lewis, U. S. Representative and Civil Rights Activitist

John Lewis, U. S. Representative and Civil Rights Activitist

and Jerry Rubin.

Rubin speaking at the University at Buffalo in March 1970

Rubin speaking at the University at Buffalo in March 1970

In high school, I remember she and my dad would sometimes take me out of classes early.  We’d drive into New York City so Mom could interview Pauline Newman, who survived the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 and grew up to be a famous union organizer with the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union.  Other times we drove in so she could interview other sources for her book.  While she interviewed, my dad and I saw double features of old movies from the 1930s and 1940s at art houses like the Little Carnegie Playhouse, the Thalia, or Bleeker Street Cinema.  Afterwards, we’d meet my mom and eat at the now defunct Copenhagen restaurant for herring and smorgasbord or pasta at Minetta Tavern in the Village.

logoJoan’s interviewing skills started in high school when she ran the Vox Populi (Voice of the People) column for the school newspaper.

Monday, November 14, 1938

. . . After lunch I went to teachers’ lunchroom to ask questions for “Vox Pop”—“What’s your idea of an ideal pupil?”—teachers all male. Mr. Heaton says one who brings apples every morning. I shall remember that sometime. Mr. Trumpell asked me if I wrote the column every week—he said he got a kick out of it—especially my terse remarks, says he. (I looked up “terse” in the dictionary; it means, “elegantly and forcefully concise”—that’s me!). . . . I had to get my picture taken for Cosmopolites[1] today. Sorta sickly smile on face of all.

[1] Evidently a club for those who are cosmopolitan.

November 14, 1938.  Doodle by Joan of her class and teacher laughing at her trying to find Volume 1 (not 2) of Thucydides.  She has lost a tooth.

November 14, 1938

This interview has unexpected — or perhaps not! — consequences!

Monday, November 21, 1938

And then today—oh, today was a lovely day. In the morning from the L, the world was real and tangible in the bright air and the sunlight. Then when I got to school (one minute on time), the boy behind me started to tell me how what Mr. Heaton said for my column brought results—You know for his “ideal pupil,” he said one who brings apples every day. Well, it seemed every one in the school took the hint, for there was Mr. H. with apples, apples, apples of all kinds on his desk—big, little, even one with a ribbon on it. Well, it proves someone reads the column, as my editor cynically said. In the middle of the class during organization paper writing, Mr. Heaton came up to me and said, “Well, I suppose you want your share of the loot.” And I said, “Oh, of course! I expect my commission.” And he grinned and said to take my pick. So at lunchtime Bobby Smith and I went up and took some big red apples while Mr. Heaton grinned (he’s so cute!) and Richard Schindler looked puzzled. As I explained, it will stop the Depression—fruit stores sell more, pupils get A’s, Mr. Heaton gets fat and I get my commission.

Once she starts at sophisticated U-High (connected to the University of Chicago), interviewing is not exactly what she expected.

November 9, 1938

November 9, 1938

Wednesday, November 9, 1938

I got to school early this morning. . . . I planted myself in front hall and pounced on everyone who came in saying, “Describe your ideal U-High girl” . . . One of them wanted a “glamorous blonde with a slinky walk.” Hmmmm.

I think my mom found that boy quite amusing!

November 14, 1938. Doodle by Joan of her class and teacher laughing at her trying to find Volume 1 (not 2) of Thucydides. She has lost a tooth.

November 14, 1938. Doodle by Joan of her class and teacher laughing at her trying to find Volume 1 (not 2) of Thucydides. She has lost a tooth.

Speaking of interviews, I’ve had the good fortune to have been interviewed by lovely people since Home Front Girl came out.

Trilla Pando’s lovely review of Home Front Girl came out a while back. But I just came across Trilla’s blog describing how she got into reading it. It’s really fun!

“[B]eing a reviewer for Story Circle Book brought me just what I needed! Home Front Girl: A Diary of Love, Literature, and Growing Up in Wartime America appeared at the front door as if on cue. I’ve been journaller about as long as I can remember. A one-year diary showed up under the Christmas tree every year with the same dependability as the doll at top of the red stocking, and continued even after the dolls went away. I made my most recent entry this morning. Part of my life. I was ready, ready for this book.

Joan Wehlen Morrison was a greater journaller than I. What’s more, while I assume “no one’s ever going to care about these” and store them helter-skelter and here-and-there, Joan wrote thinking that her journals would be read, stored them carefully, and made sure her writer daughter knew where they were.  That daughter, Susan Morrison has turned these journals into a story of both her mother’s life from when she turned 14 in December of 1936 to 1943 when she met her future husband of 66 years. But Morrison has done more. She’s captured a slice, a small slice but an important one, of American history. This is an important book.
Trilla's copy--she writes, "Well read now, and I'll be reading it again."

Trilla’s copy; she writes, “Well read now, and I’ll be reading it again.”

And inspirational to me. My next get-organized is not going to be the mess under the kitchen counter that’s on the schedule now. No. I’m going to take those boxes of disorganized mixed-up journals and diaries and get them in chronological order, and then, I’m going to read them.  It may be that some do indeed need discarding—I’ll do it now, and I’ll be the one to do it. But others I’ll keep and who know, while likely they will never be published, someday great or great-great grandchild may enjoy knowing what twentieth-century life was like in the Panhandle of Texas.

            Thank you Morrisons.”

And thank you, Trilla!

“Dear Diary” on Paper and in the Age of Computers and Social Media

I found my mother’s handwritten diaries after the death, transcribing and editing them into Home Front Girl.  As a professor of English literature, my training made it possible for me to think about what passages I wanted to retain so that the book had a narrative arc.  The published version consists of about 2/5’s of the actual material Joan had written. Joan speculates on the fate of her diary.  On January 20, 1942, Joan hears the Pulitzer-Prize winning author, Stephen Vincent Benét, speak on “Poetry and History” at the University of Chicago.

Monday, April 24, 1939

Monday, April 24, 1939

Stephen Vincent Benét, Yale College B.A., 1919

Stephen Vincent Benét, Yale College B.A., 1919

Joan writes,

Mr. Benét was talking about diaries in history and I believe I have written mine with the intention of having it read someday. As a help, not only to the understanding of my time—but to the understanding of the individual—not as me—but as character development. Things we forget when we grow older—are written here to remind us. A help not only in history but in psychology (I can’t even spell it). If I can do that I believe I shall have done all that I could wish to. I rather like the idea of social archeologist pawing over my relics.

Of course, that is exactly what has happened–only her daughter (me) is the social archeologist.

On Sunday, the New York Times had a piece called “Dear Diary” (scroll down on this link) commenting on how the diary format remains an integral part of the Young Adult and Children’s bestseller lists–with Sherman Alexie‘s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and the Dork Diaries by Rachel Renee Russell, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Jeff Kinney).  Diaries appeal since we sense they are the one spot where an authentic self is revealed.

But what happens today in a world where electronic recordings detail our daily lives?  The New York Times article by Parul Sehgal poses that very question, asking “[H]ow many people actually keep diaries anymore?”

Joan at age 17 when she was keeping her diary.

Joan at age 17 when she was keeping her diary.

Michele Filgate in Salon wonders if social media will kill the diary off.

Nick Harkaway suggests that some diaries were written with the ultimate goal of being published, as with Churchill’s.  The author Brian Morton is quoted in Filgate’s article as saying: “I’ve read that Tolstoy used to keep two diaries, one that he left lying around for other people to read, the other a more intimate record for himself alone.”

Filgate wonders what we are losing with the advent of Facebook and Twitter.  While social media allows writers to instantly connect with their readers, a diary fills a key void for a writer. “Perhaps in this day and age, a diary and social media can serve the same purpose: as a place for writers to be themselves. Yet part of me is intimidated by the idea of sharing all of myself with an audience. The privacy of a good old-fashioned diary for my unfiltered thoughts is incredibly appealing — even though I know that for writers in times past, what was private eventually became public.”

Joan only had two-ring binders; no fancy diary with a lock and key.  Her parents could have read them if had chosen to.  While Joan speculates on the future of her diaries, it is clear she doesn’t want anyone but herself to read them now.  As Filgate writes, “It used to be that many writers’ diaries were published posthumously — and often, passages they might not have intended for the public would be shared with readers.”  Joan’s seems like a private diary–especially given her tales of necking with various boys!

Today NPR had a report called “For Biographers, The Past Is An Open (Electronic) Book” by Ilya Marritz.  A problem for biographers in the future who used to rely on hand-written or typed letters and diaries is that the very medium messages or book drafts are preserved or sent on–computers– are ephemeral.  Marritz writes, “A lot of us think electronic communications live forever. But if someone won’t give up his emails, or takes his passwords with him to the grave, or if he used software that’s now outdated, his records may be lost.”  The biographer of David Foster Wallace, D. T. Max, writes that the loss of some of this material is “a new form of defeat for biographers.”  He even recommends that biographers get training in computer forensics!

Max points out that searchability is a plus with electronic records (should they exist and be accessible).  But, as a scholar, this creates its own concerns.  Home Front Girl is available electronically on Nook or Kindle which is great. You can download it this instant should you choose.  As an author, I’m all for that.  And then you can search for topics that interest you, such as “God” or “Churchill” or “German.”

Here Joan writes, makes a little sketch, and pastes in a photo her herself with her injured eye.

Here Joan writes, makes a little sketch, and pastes in a photo of herself with her injured eye.

But (and this is a big but) reading in this way prevents you from seeing the big picture, from experiencing the entire aesthetic impression the book as a whole breathes.  If you only read Shakespeare for words like “blood” or “king” or “wind”–what kind of understanding would you gain of his changing and textured readings of those concepts?  It would be superficial at best.  You need to read a book as a whole before privileging searchability.

Ultimately, for me, as a daughter missing her mother, I found the hand-written diary to be of boundless comfort.  Less impersonal than pixels on a screen, to see her ink blotches from the days of fountain pens and spontaneous drawings was infinitely more intimate than an electronic medium.  In fact, I wrote a piece for This I Believe on the importance of Writing a Diary — on Paper.  As I wrote there, “But nothing can replace the physical presence of the ink trails carefully traced by a human hand. Especially those made by a beloved human hand.”

She even includes her hangman games.

Joan even includes her hangman games.

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