Ronald Blythe is now more than 90 years old, beloved and revered in England as a newspaper columnist, literary critic, and memoirist. But he remains best known for his summer labors of 1967, when he sat down with the residents of a single town in his home county of Suffolk and asked about the past. He spoke with everyone from farmers who’d barely traveled beyond the county line to survivors of Gallipoli. Teachers, blacksmiths, roof thatchers, even a magistrate—Blythe talked with them at length about their lives and their land and their relationships to the people around them.
The resulting book, Akenfield—published in 1969 and reissued this week from New York Review Books—is, in keeping with its subtitle, a multipronged “portrait of an English village,” complete with agricultural data and selections from years’ worth of school records, as well as Blythe’s concise, lyrical descriptions. But the soul and the bulk of this book is its oral histories. Prior to Akenfield, the most famous literary representation of this eminently English flatland was probably Dodie Smith’s 101 Dalmatians, and the most poetic description to be found in that novel is a fleeting mention of its “quiet streets of old houses.” Blythe concedes that his setting is “not a particularly striking place and says little at first meeting”; his book is therefore “a quest for the voice” of the region and its people.
Blythe reports that the village had fewer than 300 residents at the time when he lived and wrote there. Despite the author’s remoteness, however, his quest was in spirit with a growing movement of the time. Akenfield was published in the early stages of an era when oral history loomed over literary culture unlike any time before or since. From roughly the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, large volumes of artfully transcribed and arranged interviews were published by the biggest houses, nominated for the biggest awards, optioned for film and theater, and sold in huge numbers. This was a moment for socially conscious books like The Autobiography of Malcolm X; Oscar Lewis’s National Book Award-winning La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty; and Howell Raines’s My Soul is Rested: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South. It was a time rife with folk history, like the Foxfire series and Ann Banks’s First-Person America, which collected life histories drawn from interviews by the WPA Writers’ Project. And of course it was the era of Studs Terkel, whose Working—an instant bestseller and the inspiration for a play—best exemplified the trend. Published in 1974, it too was nominated for the National Book Award, but it lost to yet another oral history, Theodore Rosengarten’s All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw, which told the story of a wrongfully imprisoned Alabama sharecropper in his own words, and was eventually adapted as a play and miniseries as well.
The first book to perfect the format remains one of the greatest. Oscar Lewis published Children of Sanchez: Autobiography of a Mexican Family in 1961, after years studying destitute vecindades in Mexico City. Originally envisioned as the first in a multi-volume study of lower-class families, Children became a phenomenon never to be repeated. Lewis, already an esteemed professor of anthropology, had grown weary of simply editorializing on his subjects’ experiences. With hundreds of hours of interviews behind him, he instead decided that the subjects could explain themselves just as well.
Lewis essentially proposed a New Anthropology to match Tom Wolfe’s later identification of a New Journalism. Like Wolfe, he had his antecedents, particularly John Neihardt and Zora Neale Hurston, whose respective Black Elk Speaks and Mules and Men were oral histories of a more obviously fictionalized kind. Lewis’s book was serious fieldwork that, to borrow Wolfe’s phrase, read like a novel. “If one agrees with Henry James,” Lewis said, “that life is all inclusion and confusion while art is all discrimination and selection, then these life histories have something of both art and life.”
Oral history renews our appreciation for the familiar.
While also concerned with a small laboring community, Akenfield is a very different book from Children of Sanchez. In his wonderful and informative introduction to the new edition, Matt Weiland quotes Blythe as saying, “The book is more the work of a poet than a trained oral historian, a profession I had never heard of when I wrote it.” There is no present-tense poverty in these monologues except that of excitement, even if plenty of interviewees live downright ascetically. And there is no narrative, either, though a story certainly emerges; for all its quiet and subtlety, Akenfield documents the disappearance of an entire mode of civilization.
The majority of the speakers in Akenfield are laborers of some sort, and uncommonly forthcoming for rural Englishmen and women. They reveal more to Blythe about themselves and their local customs than they might even tell their own neighbors. “Your village person would as soon undress outside his own front door as divulge his innermost feelings,” says Marian Carter-Edwardes, fifty, a “Samaritan” who travels the county helping people with medical and psychological issues. The locals and lifers are hardly confessional, but they are reflective and philosophical. “I am worried about everything getting too big,” muses Gregory Gladwell, a forty-four- year-old blacksmith,
I have been learning how to pack [products] up to go to America—when only ten years ago, if an order had been finished it lay in the corner of the shop until somebody in the village felt like picking it up. I sometimes want to be alone again.
Elsewhere, a sixty-one-year-old saddler confesses a similar anxiety, saying, “You don’t make much money if you work with your hands. You can’t make the turnover. But I have no regrets working so slowly. I began in a world without time.”
Everywhere in Akenfield, residents feel the pressure of outside. They sense that their work is becoming obsolete, that patience is being worn down, that economics don’t allow for the kind of small-scale farming that had sustained the region for centuries. Even the young people are on edge. Roger Adlard is thirty-one, and introduced as a “factory farmer,” even though his narration begins, “My father bought me a farm when I left school because I had decided that it was the only life for me. It was in my blood. I never wanted to do anything else.” The Adlard men are farmers going back generations, but Roger ran face-first into the changing market upon taking over his own land. Land prices skyrocketed in the ’50s, destroying any chance of actually growing his operations on his paltry wages. So he turned to livestock, mostly pigs, who he now buys, fattens, and sells for other operations to butcher. There’s no ancient art to it; it’s simply industrial labor—pigs in, pigs out. He grew up entertaining “those glorious boyhood dreams of harvest fields, hot sun and of being perched up high on a tractor. I feel that the kind of farming I do now isn’t quite ‘right.’ Certainly it isn’t satisfying.”
Roger represents another kind of change in Akenfield: barely anyone in the old guard talks about their dreams. The younger people, like twenty-one-year-old farmer Terry Lloyd, seem more thoughtful, more worldly. Terry is a steward of the land, but not of the village. “His mind is restless in the way that the Suffolk rivers are restless,” Blythe describes him. “The water hardly seems to move at all, yet it reaches the sea.” Terry has his ancestors’ unflinching work ethic, but he’s also been to London, and knows enough about the world beyond Akenfield to have an opinion on teen fashion and to express his frustration at the local closed-mindedness. “Never give anyone anything to talk about if you can help it,” he says with scorn.
That’s why I admire Hughie. Do you know Hughie? Hair like a girl and trousers so tight you wonder he can breathe. What a nerve he’s got! The old women clack about him and the men whistle. But he takes no notice at all. But why shouldn’t he do as he likes?
This clashes with the observations of older outsiders like Marian Carter-Edwardes or colonel Trevor West, a retired officer now raising pigs in Akenfield in order to regain a sense of “complete control” after years of posts in the war-ravaged Middle East. “I find the East Anglians cold and hidden,” he says. “They can be barbarous and there is an innate cruelty in them.” Terry’s story about his friend corroborates this assessment, but his own open-mindedness shows how the cold ways are disappearing along with the small farms.
Blythe sees his townsfolk neighbors as an English variant of an ancient type. Whether a seed farmer or an industrial slaughterer, Suffolk’s land-bound agricultural class are on the same side of a
great division that separates the growers from the mere consumers of food the world over. Deep in the nature of such men and elemental to their entire being there is the internationalism of the planted earth which makes them, in common with the rice-harvesters of Vietnam or the wine-makers of Burgundy, people who are committed to certain basic ideas and actions which progress and politics can elaborate or confuse, but can never alter.
In its best and most noble form, oral history can reveal the unique and strange songs among these kinds of overlooked, shared experiences, like a microscope reveals the hidden universe in a drop of water. It can grab hold of some broad category—farmer, Depression, Civil Rights movement—and shake out the many particulars that exist within it. Blythe was right to think of it as somehow akin to poetry; oral history renews our appreciation for the familiar. It finds the emotion and the humanity inside historical reality, even contemporary reality.
Take “The Poet,” one of Akenfield’s later monologists, who grew up in suburban London and came to the village after Oxford in order to “find my health.” In contrast to the region’s reputation for plainness, this young man was surprised to find a genuine grandeur:
It was not my village but to say that I returned to it seemed a true way of describing what had happened to me. Suffolk amazed me—the great trees, the towering old buildings soaring out of the corn. The huge clear spaces. I am now at home here.
Blythe may have gone looking for a sort of regional voice, but like Lewis, Rosengarten, and Terkel, he found more than that. Like the artist he claims foremost to be, he animates the countryside, gives it color and depth. He turns “quiet streets of old houses” into “huge clear spaces,” and finds the ordered, evolving poetry in everyday speech and feelings.