The Original Chroniclers of Punk on How They Did It
When Jean Stein and George Plimpton began compiling their book American Journey: The Times of Robert Kennedy, using the oral history format, little did they realize that they were inventing a revolutionary new literary genre that, ten years later, would land them on the best-seller list.
Stein and Plimpton’s masterpiece, Edie: American Girl, published in 1982 perfected, if not invented, the narrative oral history genre. In these times when the term “oral history” is used to define anything from a single, edited interview to a collection of interviews published as an anthology, we decided to clarify our definition of the “narrative oral history.” For the record, when we use this term, we mean a book of edited passages from a collection of interviews and additional texts that are tightly woven together into an accurate chronology, creating a carefully crafted narrative. Stein says it best in the introduction to The Times of Robert Kennedy, where she uses the term “oral narrative” to describe their book, adding that, “Oral history has been largely thought of as the collecting of interview transcripts for storage in archives in order to provide historians with research material. Somewhat less common is the use of interview transcripts as a literary form, in which the raw transcripts are edited, arranged, and allowed to stand for themselves, without the intervention by the historian.”
Stein and Plimpton chose their subject well. Not only was Edie Sedgwick a relatively forgotten celebrity when their book was first published, but Edie: American Girl shed new light on a chaotic period of American history with a radical new literary format that inspired Norman Mailer to declare, “This is the book of the Sixties that we have been waiting for.”
The narrative oral history format was generally ignored until Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk was published more than a decade later. Since publishing our book in 1996, the oral history genre has exploded. In this essay we attempt to clarify the intuitive rules that we adhered to, in order to explain why the narrative oral history format is such a delicate beast—and how the format is compromised when these rules are breached.