History, we are often taught, is driven by vast social, political, and economic forces. But each political event, each war, each clash in the streets or at the picket lines, is experienced by individuals. It is this profound bond between public history and personal struggle, Alessandro Portelli contends, that gives oral history its significance and its power.
In The Battle of Valle Giulia—the title comes from an Italian student protest of the 1960s—Portelli reflects on how to connect personal memories with history, how to fittingly collect and represent the complexity of memory. Crossing cultures, classes, and generations, he records the private and singular experiences of Italian steelworkers and Kentucky coal miners, veterans and refugees of World War II, soldiers who fought in Vietnam, Italian resistance fighters and Nazis, and members of student movements from Berkeley to Rome. By listening to those whom others presume are "without historical memory"—such as youthful protesters, or the rural Tuscan women who saw every father, son, and brother killed by Nazi soldiers—Portelli clarifies the process by which narratives come into being as oral history, and he illustrates the differences and distances between story-telling and history-telling.
Portelli's articulate discussion of dialogue, representation, narrative and genre link historical analysis with literary and linguistic theory and with the concerns of contemporary anthropology.