Auto/biographical oral histories, from 'oral memoirs' to The Life of Nate Shaw (1948-1974)

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This essay considers how a selection of early oral history projects in the US, from the 1940s to the 1970s, served to extend written, auto/biographical traditions, but also helped to break open the traditional canon and to challenge generic definitions. It begins with the production of 'oral memoirs' of elite leaders by the Oral History Research Office at Columbia University (in the 1940s and 1950s), then moving on to focus mainly on the auto/biographies by Malcolm X/Alex Haley (1965) and Nate Shaw/Theodore Rosengarten (1974). These narratives are modelled on the traditional genre of the individual autobiography or biography that represents the life of a single person, but the latter two publications, in particular, also begin to challenge generic conventions. This shift reflects an early moment in US oral history when it began to turn from elites to previously marginalised voices. The essay analyses how the co-creation of these texts by the interviewer and narrator prevents any final categorisation of them as autobiographical or biographical, and goes on to argue that Rosengarten's use of the tape recorder enables The Life of Nate Shaw to move furthest from literary tradition in its incorporation of orality.

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Original languageEnglish
JournalOral History
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2017


  • Autobiography, biography, tape recorder, black history, orality

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