Portelli, ‘a life in progress and the stories of oral history’

Francesco Ricatti   University of the Sunshine Coast

Harlan CountyAlessandro Portelli recently retired from his position as Professor of American Literature at the University of Rome La Sapienza. Portelli has been highly influential in the development of oral history. Follow the link to listen his recent lecture at Royal Holloway University of London, which marked the launch of the Public History Centre. In it, Portelli highlights some of the experiences that have contributed to the development of his oral history methodology. The work for one of his most recent book, They say in Harlan County, began with an interview in 1973 and continued until the publication of the book in 2010, a reminder to all of us of the importance of longitudinal studies and the need to resist corporate (university) pressure for quick turn around in research, when such pressure might undermine quality and depth.  This is a beautiful and intense lecture on the link between oral history, popular music, literature and political engagement. It is also a timely and convincing reminder of the importance of an open and humanistic approach to questions of power, hegemony, and culture. As Portelli suggests towards the end of the lecture, what two persons have in common makes a dialogue possible, but their differences make it meaningful.

Alessandro Portelli – Reflecting on a life in progress and the stories of oral history

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One thought on “Portelli, ‘a life in progress and the stories of oral history’

  1. DM says:

    Portelli’s fascinating lecture at RHU starts by recalling his initiation into the Italian tradition of investigating popular culture, in which the fieldwork of Gianni Bosio and Ernesto De Martino, probably its best-known figure, stand out. Portelli also mentions Rocco Scotellaro whose death aged 30 in 1953 cut short all the political, research and creative promise he had already shown. For those who want to follow up his work, there are translations of his poems in Modern Poetry in Translation, series 3, no.10 (2008) and an account of the editors’ visit to Scotellaro’s home town of Tricarico in Basilicata in 2012 (check it out via the MPT home page). The Italian Wikipedia entry gives an idea of the extraordinary range of his interests and achievements and of the reasons why he should not be forgotten. He’d be the wonderful subject of a proper intellectual and cultural biography.

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