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Widow X Waits for You
May 20, 2009 - 2:01am

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It’s easy to feel an exhilaration verging on hysteria at the start of a big research project; you don’t even know the scope of what you don’t know. As time passes, sources prove to be like mice: If you find one, you can bet there’s a mischief of others hiding on the shelves. Who knows what’s waiting to come to light?

I’m no scholar, so I love to read about scholars’ troubles. One of my favorite accounts is in one of the first ethnographies I ever read, People of Coal Town, by Herman R. Lantz (Columbia UP, 1958).

It’s a study of Zeigler, Illinois, once a “company” town (an owe-your-soul-to-the-company-store sort of place) in the Southern Illinois coal fields. At the time of the study there were 2,300 residents. The research team was from the Graduate School of Southern Illinois University and “included two professional social scientists, one professional newspaperman, and four graduate assistants, working over a period of four years.” The names of the town and its people were changed to protect the subjects, and just to be sure no one discovered Zeigler’s true identity, researchers craftily refer to nearby St. Louis as “Riverview” and Chicago as “Lake City.”

Some ethnographies come awfully close to what we now call (poorly, I think) creative nonfiction, but they lack art’s guiding hand. This one includes wonderful oral histories in the people’s voices, descriptions of place, conjectures about character and motives, exposition of historical events, and material from other sources such as the local paper. It’s a lot of stuff thrown together in somewhat haphazard chapters with titles such as “Meaning of Mining” and “Prosperity and Decline,” but it’s still highly readable. The authors say in the introduction:

The particular form of this analysis, the community study, represents a type of research which has had considerable appeal both for the professional social scientist and for the layman. For the professional the possibilities of the richness afforded by seeing life in a total setting are intriguing. For the layman these studies possess a vitality and zest which make their characters come to life and unfold a quality which is moving and real.

They even try to use language poetically, as a literary writer might:

Here were communities which had been thriving industrial towns, with hope and a future, with a vast[?] melting pot of persons possessing different nationalities and creeds. Here there had been a history of people who had initiated efforts at developing a way of life. Today much of this has disappeared. The economic base has been removed and where once the soil which nourished hope was present there are only the ashes and dust of time-spent years and the memories of the past embodied in those who remain. Here, we might say, was a chapter in American history which needed recording, and so like the artist exhilarated by the undertaking of a new painting, we projected a plan and started its implementation.

There’s that exhilaration, but it’s hard to sustain once you get involved in the more mechanical tasks of implementation. The researchers had a hard time being accepted in the town, let alone trusted, and relied first on community leaders to make introductions, then on paid handlers “possessing rapport with certain sections of the community.” Even then the townspeople balked, told the research team jokes with “destructive, sadistic undertones,” and pimped them out with paranoid banter. (“How do I know you fellows didn’t paint the name of a university on the car yourself?”) Lantz and his team found it “necessary to ‘listen with the third ear’ in order to capture the essence and significance of [informants’] remarks,” since they wouldn’t say things straight.

This makes me laugh; Zeigler is eight miles from where I grew up. The university team wanted every detail of the people’s lives, past and present, unearthed for their study, and they saw nothing unusual, inconvenient, or intrusive about asking for them. What they got from “the natives” was not always what they expected:

One of the researchers became personally interested and concerned for the welfare of Mrs. X [a widow living by herself on public assistance], whose personal history revealed her to be a lonely, unhappy individual with poor familial relationships. He took a few minutes each day to visit with her. Mrs. X reacted overtly with considerable pleasure whenever these visits occurred. She offered refreshments and always insisted that the researcher remain longer than originally planned. After a few such visits, however, it was discovered that Mrs. X was spreading destructive gossip about the researcher and the purpose of the research. She told neighbors that the researcher imposed on her time and was engaged in the practice of asking foolish questions about irrelevant matters.

The researchers’ hurt tone is comic (“she was unable to accept the constructive efforts which were offered and had to distort the motives of the researcher”) and betrays their disappointment at the fall of belief in orderly plans.

Widow X—our subject, our common humanity, our naivete’s downfall—awaits us all.

 

 

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