Alessandro Portelli, the Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History.
This paper begins by situating Alessandro Portelli's oral history in the context of the postwar reaction in Italy against the historical theories of the influential Neapolitan philosopher Benedetto Croce. It then proceeds to a discussion of Portelli's methodology by reference above all to the essay The Death of Luigi Trastulli, whose starting point is the death at the hands of the police of a young Terni steelworker in 1949. Portelli's essay is not concerned with verifying, in the mode of the documentary historian, the precise circumstances in which Trastulli was killed, however. His concern was rather to account for the diverse memories, which have grown up around the Trastulli event. Portelli's oral history methodology was inspired by his pathbreaking discovery that erroneous memories possess historical value. The paper concludes by raising some possible criticisms of the methodology.
The most influential Italian historian in modern times would certainly be the Neapolitan philosopher and literary critic Benedetto Croce (1866-1952). For many historians, however, Croce's indisputable greatness is badly flawed by the blatant elitism of his philosophy of history. In his Filosofia e storiografia (1949), for example, he represented human beings as falling into two classes: the politically-active few who are intrinsically part of the historical process and the majority who, like mere animals, stand outside it. Historiography, according to Croce, has no reason to concern itself with the second, essentially passive class of beings: they belong to the realm of nature, rather than the dynamic, indeed heroic process by which history is made (Portelli 293 n. 6).
In the postwar period, however, the Italian masses became much more active politically than Croce would have thought possible or considered desirable. His theories about the inevitable passivity of the majority seem profoundly disconfirmed by the widespread politicization of the 1950s and 1960s, which culminated in the legendary "Hot Autumn" of 1968-69. A key feature of post-fascist Italy was the growth of a large-scale communist movement. The most influential communist intellectual in this period was Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937). Together with the writings of Salvemini and Borgese, Gramsci's Prison Notebooks, which were posthumously published in 1947, played no small part in weaning Italian intellectuals from Croce's overpowering legacy (Roberts). For Gramsci, Croce 'was the most sophisticated, influential and dangerous philosophical opponent of Marxism and working class revolution in Italy and Europe.' Gramsci blamed Croce's theories for creating the political inertia he attributed to the masses ("Overview of the Prison Notebooks"). As fascism vanished, a more inclusive mode of writing about ordinary Italians was pioneered by Carlo Levi's Christ Stopped at Eboli (1945) and numerous works on magic and ritual in southern Italy produced between 1948 and 1961 by the socialist folklorist Ernesto de Martino (Portelli 36).
It is against the backdrop of the reaction against Crocean historiographical elitism characteristic of postwar Italian communism that, towards the end of the 60s, Alessandro Portelli took up a tape recorder and traveled Italy in an effort to recover, by means direct oral encounters, the historical voices of ordinary people (Portelli viii). While searching out folk songs about the Italian working class experience, he stumbled upon the story of the enigmatic death of a young communist steelworker, Luigi Trastulli.
Trastulli's death at the hands of police during anti-NATO protests in Terni in 1949 was eerily reminiscent of the death of Carlo Giuliano, the young antiglobalization protestor killed by police in Genoa in 2001. But while most every detail of Giuliano's death was captured by photographers avid for sensational images, Trastulli's death was part of a drama which went under-reported by the local media and was probably not photographed at all. Portelli found that he had little to go on except the memories of those who had been present at the event or knew someone who had. Memories proved unreliable: some people said Trastulli had been shot while exiting the factory gates, while others asserted that he had been fired at while climbing a wall. Portelli's most disconcerting discovery was that, in some people's memories, Trastulli had been murdered during street fights over job losses at the Terni steelworks in 1953, rather than during the anti-NATO protest of 1949.
In the end, faced with the reality of interviewing people thirty years after the events he was asking them to recall, Portelli realized that his inquiries had led him not to the truth about Trastulli's death, but to a confrontation with the instability of human memory itself. Instead of interpreting this as a disappointment, however, he viewed it positively, aware perhaps that he had invented a new historical field. '"Wrong" tales,' he decided, are valuable because '[t]hey allow us to recognize the interest of the tellers, and the dreams and desires beneath them' (Portelli 2). Portelli's book The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories (1991) appeared at a time when oral history was already widely practiced, e.g., by Studs Terkel, but was not yet informed by a self-conscious methodology. Portelli's work, says Mary Marshall Clark, director of the Oral History Research Office at Columbia University, 'has transformed oral history from being a kind of stepchild of history into a literary genre in its own right. He has allowed us to see oral histories as more than eyewitness accounts that are either true or false, and to look for themes and structures of the stories' (qted. In Stille).
Despite its widespread acceptance, however, Portelli's oral history methodology cannot be considered without acknowledging some of the problems it raises. First of all, its emphasis upon the unreliability of memory implies that all accounts of past events are equally flawed by human subjectivity. Exaggerated unduly, this could be used to foster skepticism about whether an event such as the Holocaust ever took place. In fact, a New York Times piece about The Death of Luigi Trastulli has been posted on a revisionist website, apparently to undermine confidence in our knowledge of the Holocaust, a phenomenon which is especially vulnerable to skepticism because the perpetrators ensured that little documentary evidence survived the event itself (Stille). However, it should be pointed out that Portelli's methodology is not designed to open the door to such radical skepticism. To see oral histories 'as more than eyewitness accounts that are either true or false,' is not to suggest that the question of their truthfulness should be left aside or even does not matter, but simply that the evolution of memory is itself a historical subject. (Indeed, Portelli's very discussion of the diverse memories which have sprung up around the Trastulli episode presupposes the existence of at least some certain facts about it. He does not suggest that Trastulli's death never occurred at all, for instance, or that it really could have occurred in 1953.)
The second problem is that Portelli wears his political commitments proudly on his sleeve. There are numerous occasions when, reading through the thirteen essays comprising the volume, his praxis seems impossible to disentangle from his leftist politics. Indeed, Portelli admits that, when he commenced his researches, his 'motivation was ultimately political.' He was not even a professional historian, he concedes, but a criminal lawyer (Portelli x-xi). There are some indications that Portelli's praxis is biased in favor of recovering left-wing history. His preoccupation with Terni and Appalachia stemmed from the fact that 'these two areas had produced songs in which an advanced modern working-class awareness combined with the integrity of traditional forms of expression' (Portelli xiii). He seems to dismiss songs which do not reflect working-class consciousness as of no value whatsoever. For example, he regarded two previously uncollected fascist songs dating from the 1930s - which he discovered when they were sung to him by the folk singer Trento Piotti - as little more than blemishes on his…