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Personal Accounts Title



Personal accounts can come to us directly from the subject or secondhand, collected by intermediaries. How the account reaches us will shape it in the process. If an individual writes his or her own story, the incidents in and nature of that life are preselected by the writer in response to his or her particular agendas, drives, and motivations. Certain factors will enhance or limit the narrator’s capacity to convey information: is the narrator barely literate (at one extreme) or influenced by a desire to imitate a certain style (at the other extreme)?


Does the narrator enjoy the luxury of unlimited time and funding to contemplate a philosophy of life? For example, Bill Clinton’s memoirs have been funded generously by a publisher’s advance. Or is the narrator hiding notes written under duress, as with Wole Soyinka’s prison diaries, published as The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka? Soyinka was imprisoned by the Nigerian government for his activism in the Civil War of the 1960s. A consummate author and intellectual, he felt compelled to write during 18 months of solitary confinement. Lacking writing materials, he managed to scribble fragments of plays, poems, and

Wole Soyinka

political commentary in the blank spaces between the line of books smuggled into his cell. While compiling these for publication years later, he indicated the continued need for secrecy about who helped get the books to him, and even their titles, fearing for the safety of those who aided him. His prison writings gave him focus and purpose, and kept at bay the “daily humiliation of fear.”3


If an intermediary records the account, he or she often influences the narrator by intervening or asking questions. The intermediary shapes the discussion, even unintentionally, simply by being present. There are many perspectives on a life that one would write down in private, but would not necessarily share with someone else.


For an oral history, the transcription of an interview can change its nature. A summation of the account would render a very different portrait than a verbatim transcript, complete with hesitations and false starts that can convey important perspectives on issues that may be difficult for the subject to discuss. These reflect how people actually speak, while a summation expresses only what the collector felt was important. In addition, language and colloquial phrases are important in conveying the subject’s attitude toward issues or comfort level with various topics.


The Sample Analyses offer perspectives on personal accounts; one is written by the subject and the other results from oral interviews interpreted by a scholar. In each case, think carefully about the source. Was the author trying to argue a case on her own behalf? Was the subject a close friend of the interviewer? Is each person fluent in the language used? Was the interview summarized or are the subject’s words clearly stated? The last point is an important one, because a summary becomes an historical analysis rather than existing as a primary source.


3 Wole Soyinka, The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), p. 16


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