Conversations from the past
May 25, 2009 8:59 PM   Subscribe

Are there any good sources for accurate transcriptions of historical conversations? I am very interested in history, but am getting a little bored of primarily reading descriptions of things that happened, and would rather see actual conversations. In some ways I'm even more interested in people who aren’t historically significant, i.e. day-to-day conversations from the past. Thanks for reading!
posted by ben5757 to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
It's analogous to, but not precisely what, you're looking for – look into oral histories, such as those in Studs Terkel's books. They are history in people's own words in the times they're living through. For example, I'm currently reading Hard Times, in which he speaks with people who lived through the Great Depression.
posted by WCityMike at 9:05 PM on May 25, 2009

The problem is that in too many cases such transcriptions don't exist at all. That's even true for fairly recent events. I'd really love to read a transcription of the conversation between Grant and Lee at Appomattox Courthouse, but there isn't one.

The closest you're going to find is cases where the "conversation" was by mail, so that the letters on both sides still exist. One of the best examples of that kind of thing I know of is Winston Churchill's history of World War II. He met Roosevelt several times, but a large part of their interaction was by coded message and all those are preserved. Churchill reproduces a lot of those in his book.

The kind of thing you're talking about is very modern. Tape recorders only became widely available about fifty years ago.

Which was a real challenge for people like Warner Brothers in the cartoon unit. When they recorded the voice actors for the cartoons, they used the audio channel on film. To play the sound back, the film had to be developed in a laboratory.

Before tape recording, the only real way an exact transcript of any conversation could be made was by having a stenographer present, doing shorthand, or using one of those machines that court recorders use, and that was very expensive. Why would ordinary people bother with such a thing?
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:11 PM on May 25, 2009

The Salem Witch Trials Reader is actually pretty awesome for this. It features unedited court transcripts from the pre-trial and trial periods, as well as statements and sermons made during the course of the trials. Totally ordinary people, though in the throes of an extraordinary moment of history- it's fascinating how banal some of the complaints were!
posted by headspace at 9:16 PM on May 25, 2009

Boswell's Life of Johnson is a wonderful book, and its popularity is largely due to the accuracy with which it reportedly captures the conversation of Samuel Johnson and his associates.
posted by jayder at 9:24 PM on May 25, 2009

You might be interested in reading the Congressional Record and Supreme Court transcripts.

Beyond that, what you're looking for is called primary source material - letters, journals, diaries, newspaper stories, transcripts, eyewitness accounts that were created by people who witnessed or were involved in historical events. Because there is so much of this data, you're best off identifying specific events, people, or time periods that you want to learn about, and then using resource guides to find what primary material exists.

Incidentally, the use of primary materials by people who aren't at all famous has been a powerful trend in historical scholarship in recent years, underlying important work like Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale, based on a 1785 diary by an apparently historically unremarkable person, Maine midwife Martha Ballard.
posted by Miko at 9:26 PM on May 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

You might want to Google(Books) around and see what you find for "Table Talk." Here's an example.
posted by thomas j wise at 9:27 PM on May 25, 2009

Every president from FDR to Nixon (secretly) taped some conversations - you can find transcripts & audio here. Just bear in mind that not all tapes have yet been released to the public. LBJ and Nixon in particular were voracious recorders - if you Google around, you'll definitely find plenty of articles discussing revelations in their tapes.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum also maintains an extensive catalog of oral histories (including testimony from survivors) about the Holocaust.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 9:38 PM on May 25, 2009

Oral history and ethnography are two disciplines that have what you're looking for. Social history and social anthropology might fit the bill, too.

Cook and Cook's Japan at War: An Oral History is an excellent, complicated account of WWII from the perspectives of Japanese who lived through the war and some of the people they exploited. It's just about the best oral history I know, in any field.

Hiroshima by John Hersey is a moving account of the early days after the dropping of the nuclear bomb.

Some social histories fit your bill. I love the work of US women's historian Linda Gordon, in particular Heroes of Their Own Lives and the better known The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction. There's also the work of E.P. Thompson, the British social historian mentioned in a recent thread.

You might enjoy The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller by Carlo Ginzburg. It's the reconstructed world view of one Italian man with very unique ideas. I didn't get into it, but a lot of people do.

I think you'd dig ethnography. The classic overview of the problems with ethnography is Writing Culture. You can read it for the theoretical discussions, which are interesting and important, blah, blah. But, i'd suggest you mine the book for titles of the major ethnographies and ethnographers of prior decades.

Overlapping with ethnography is social anthropology. Check out the classics: Evans-Pritchard, Malinowski, Margaret Mead, etc. Those scholars worked nearly a hundred years ago. I'm sure there's more recent interesting stuff, that isn't coming to mind. But get too recent, and the work becomes so self-reflective it is boring to read. Same problem with ethnography.

Check out "The Fog of War," the amazing documentary about Robert McNamara, who had his hand in everything from the firebombing to Japan to the key decisions made that escalated US involvement in Vietnam. He speaks directly to the camera, answering questions posed by someone off camera.

posted by vincele at 9:53 PM on May 25, 2009

Accurate records of conversation don't often survive before the era of sound recording, for obvious reasons, but they are occasionally preserved in legal testimonies when it was important to establish who said what to whom. Historians of early modern England, for example, have used church court records to reconstruct the language of ordinary people. Laura Gowing's book Domestic Dangers: Women, Words and Sex in Early Modern London has some great examples of the rich vocabulary of insult in sixteenth-century England: 'Thou hackney quean, thou hackney jade, common ridden jade, codpiece quean, thou monster thou, put off thy long petticoat and put on a pair of britches, put off thy white kerchief and put on a flat cap, for thou hast a snaffle for thy husband to make him lie upon the boards all night and by thyself upon two or three feather beds.' I don't know if that's the sort of 'historical conversation' you're looking for, but it's as close as we can get to the street-talk of Shakespeare's London.

For more of the same, see Laura Gowing, Common Bodies, or David Cressy, Agnes Bowker's Cat. Or, for many, many records of court cases from seventeenth-, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England, see the Old Bailey Online database (previously on MeFi).

You might also be interested in the Putney Debates, the discussions held in 1647 among a group of army officers, including Oliver Cromwell, over the shape of a new political settlement for England. A team of shorthand writers was present to take down the debates, so we have a pretty accurate record of what was said. A lot of the debate is fairly abstruse, but every so often it comes alive and the words jump off the page, as in the famous passage where Colonel Rainborough speaks up for the principle of government by consent: 'For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he, and therefore truly sir, I think it's clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.'
posted by verstegan at 3:15 AM on May 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

I've just started reading Austerity Britain, 1945-1951, which contains lots of original source material from diaries, etc. In particular, it includes recorded, overheard conversations collected by Mass Observation, which I hadn't heard of until I started this book.
posted by primer_dimer at 4:56 AM on May 26, 2009

The Old Bailey Online has some fascinating transcripts and conversations (often laced with profanity) between ordinary people as well as the judges.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 6:31 AM on May 26, 2009

Oxford Book of English Talk by J Sutherland. Used copies cheap and easy.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:57 AM on May 26, 2009

I know I shouldn't be surprised by this site anymore, but here I am, amazed at all of these responses. A huge thank-you to everyone, I'll endeavour to look at all of the suggestions!
posted by ben5757 at 1:43 AM on May 27, 2009

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