Although cavemen told their histories out loud, they mostly involved hunting mammoths, eating mammoths, and getting impaled by mammoths. Not until the Greeks was there an individual who would stand as a giant in the field of oral history, the universally agreed upon finest form of history.
HOMER: I’m blind. Not everyone knows this. Sort of like Jesus being Jewish. It just flies under the radar. Anyway, I would have LOVED to have written some of my stuff down—you try memorizing 12,110 lines in The Odyssey. And Gods help you if you mess up just one syllable. The fan boys in the crowd cry bloody murder. You’d think I changed it so Melanthius shoots first. I wish I could have written some of this crap down, like Herodotus.
HERODOTUS: GREEKS SMASH PERSIANS! BOOM!
HOMER: Honestly, though—it’s not like anyone was fact checking us. Greeks invade Troy with a big horse; Greeks hold off a billion Persians with Aristotle MacGyver and a screw driver… it’s all the same quality of research.
HERODOTUS: SMASH XERXES!!!
HOMER: Which is just as well for Herodotus. Not exactly Richard Hofstadter, you know what I mean?
Sadly, reading and writing destroyed the Greek tradition of oral history, dumbing down Western Civilization. Not until the 20th and 21st centuries was there a rebirth of this ancient art, renewing our full understanding of the past.
ARTHUR SCHLESINGER, JR.: I think oral histories are wonderful—the WPA’s slave narratives are incredibly important to our understanding of that horrible institution. But no one should think that oral histories adequately replace thoroughly researched, well-written historical works.
There was a dawning realization that oral histories adequately replace thoroughly researched, well-written historical works.
ARTHUR SCHLESINGER, JR: That’s not at all what I sa–
Shut up, Arty. A young auteur began to combine oral history with pictures and ruminating period music, providing an even greater sense of historical understanding with even less work by the listener.
KEN BURNS: I like to think I combine the best parts of real historical work—the research, the meticulous attention to detail, the legitimate attempt at impartial analysis—with the best parts of oral history—its ease and convenience.
HOMER: Kenny said that?! He’s a sweet kid, but if he’s making any attempt at legitimate research, he’s not doing oral history. You think I went out and researched Odysseus’ hotel bills to confirm the years he was away from Ithaca? That’s not how we did things back then. Herodotus can’t even spell “research.”
HERODOTUS: THIS IS SPARTA!!!
HOMER: The one I worry about is Hofstadter. He takes this work seriously. The current trend in history is obviously leaving him a little unhinged.
A lone holdout against the inevitable tide of oral history’s dominance in Western Culture, historian Richard Hofstadter has made a defiant stand for his inferior form of recollecting the past.
RICHARD HOFSTADER: I don’t recollect the past—I examine, dissect, and explain it. If we don’t carefully analyze our histories, we won’t learn anything from them. For example, the best way to avoid the destructive use of paranoia in American politics is to study it in the past and use that to prevent it now and in the future. Anything important that has happened benefits from serious analysis like that.
With his backward defiance, it was only inevitable that Hofstadter would collide with the most active purveyor of oral history in the early 21st century: Jim Nelson, editor in chief of GQ.
JIM NELSON: I love oral histories. And classic entertainment like Ferris Bueller. The sitcom, not the movie. Did I mention I helped produce that… wait, what were we talking about?
JIM NELSON: I love those things! Sure, you could spend years trying to meticulously unearth and review all of the legal, internal, publicity, and formation documents surrounding something like ESPN. You could do that. OR—you could just talk with the people who did shit for the network through the years, assume they have no ulterior motives, and call it history! You tell me which is faster, easier, and more readable.
Despite Nelson’s rational articulation of a complicated argument–
JIM NELSON: Kim and Kanye rule!
Hofstadter was unmoved.
RICHARD HOFSTADER: Wait, there’s an oral history of ESPN that people are mistaking for a REAL history?! ESPN is the most influential media company of the last two decades and promises to be just as important for the next 20 years, and all we’ve got is an oral history? What is wrong with this Nelson guy?
Let’s ask him. What’s wrong with you, Jim Nelson?
JIM NELSON: What d’ya mean, ‘what’s wrong with me?’ At GQ we love oral histories. We’ve done them on Cheers, Michael Bay, and Tim Tebow.
RICHARD HOFSTADER: Why are you even calling them histories? They’re more like interviews about people and things.
Shut up, Ricky. Continue, Jim.
JIM NELSON: I’ve got three more planned between now and the end of the year: the Oral History of Kim and Kanye’s wedding, the Oral History of the First Season of Friends, and the Oral History of Frank Sinatra Getting Buried with a Flask of Jack—
[Nelson stops talking after Hofstadter knocks him out with a hardcover copy of The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It.]
HOMER: Like I said, Hofstadter is pretty high strung. The irony is GQ will probably publish this as an oral history. I bet it’ll be good, too.