A Brief History of Folklife Theory

*The original version of this document was posted on-line. I copied it and have changed different copies over the years. The status of this copy versus the original cannot be determined at this time (January 2010) because I cannot find the original. If you are or discover the original author, please let me know. I would like official permission to host a copy of the document here. Barring that, I am treating it for the time being as an orphaned work.*

### Overview

The term “folklife” implies an ethnographic understanding folk culture with reference to the way people actually make use of traditions at specific moments. This conception reflects a rather radical shift in the theory underlying contemporary folklore studies that occurred in the late 1960s.

Those who study the history of science and ideas have shown that a discipline’s implicit assumptions about a subject affect the way it is studied, and can limit advances in understanding until a “paradigmatic shift” occurs. In folklore studies, several basic ideas about the nature of folklore — ideas rooted in the early 19th-century beginnings of the field — had limited folklore fieldwork to the mere collection of texts; and while these notions of “Folklore as Survival” and “Folklore-as-Text” were essential for the evolution of folklore scholarship, ultimately, it began to inhibit fuller — and more engaging — interpretations of traditional culture.

The paradigmatic shift in folklore studies towards Context, Performance, and Event (inspired in part by emerging paradigms in anthropology, linguistics, sociology, and philosophy), was also influenced by the fieldwork experience of observant young folklorists. The resulting change in theory, in turn, has moved folklife fieldwork toward ethnography, and to a role of central importance in the contemporary interpretation of folklife.

A brief overview of the history of ideas in the discipline of folklore studies will illustrate the relationship of theory and fieldwork, and show concretely why it’s no longer adequate to merely collect and classify texts.

### Romantic Nationalism

The Term Folklore was coined in 1846 by an Englishman interested in “popular antiquities,” but looking for a good Saxon word for it. He and others of that era, regarded folklore as a survival from an earlier time — a vestige of an earlier stage of development in human society and culture, with no function or relevance today, and no contemporary meaning.

19th-century interest in folklore spurred by reaction to 1) industrialization and social change; and 2) political and cultural domination of one nation by another: of Germany by France; Ireland by Britain; Finland by Russia. One German intellectual in particular, J.G. Herder, urged German poets and composers to turn to the traditions of the Peasants, whose traditional tales and songs preserved the authentic national spirit, identity, values of the German people. These were the proper basis, the raw materials, for elite literature and music.

The Brothers Grimm were among those whom Herder inspired. But the Grimms were not interested in the tellers, or the role tale-telling played among the peasants who perpetuated the tradition. They looked upon the tales they collected as declined myth, and were interested only in the texts and what they thought it told them about earlier, purer, forms of German culture. Others began collecting folklore in other countries for similar reasons.

The Grimms, and most of those they inspired, virtually ignored the actual “life” of the lore. Fieldwork standards at that time were very loose — merely collecting, not ethnography; there was no idea of adhering to the spoken language of tale-tellers, of valuing the stories as actually told, of trying to observe actual storytelling events. Rather, the standard practice was to rewrite texts — to “improve” them for a literate readership.

### Historic-Geographic (or Comparative) Method

A few decades later (1870s), scholars interested in “magic tales” (“Märchen” was the German term) began to notice similarities among materials all over Europe, and sought an explanation for this. One school of thought suggested that similar tales all descended from a single original source (monogenesis). Scholars began assembling and comparing all known variants of the recognizable tale types — both form literary sources and from field collections — plotting their distribution across space and time, in order to identify place of origin, and especially to reconstruct the original forms — done by a statistical enumeration of persistent “traits.” All this research was essentially an abstract manipulation of what folklorist Richard Bauman has described as “disembodied” texts,.

This approach came to be known as the Historic-Geographic method, or the Comparative method. Influential into mid 20th century. Gave rise to standard reference works, massive compilations of variants: Aarne-Thompson Tale-Type index and the Motif Index of Folk Literature. JF Child in this scholarly tradition.

### Cultural Evolutionism

An opposing school of thought held that the widespread dispersion of similar materials was due not to single-source, but to the fact that, as human civilization evolved, men passed through similar stages of culture. Linear hierarchy: Barbarism – Savagery – Civilization (i.e., British). Societies in similar stages of culture, they held, had same sort of conceptions, beliefs — spirits, animism, magic, shape-shifting: all folklore, then, was belief/tales from stage of Savagery into stage of civilization — survivals, vestiges of earlier phases.

Cultural Evolutionism posited that similar tales and beliefs originated independently among dispersed populations that were passing through the same stage of cultural evolution. According to this theory, then, superficially similar items of folklore in different cultures had exact same significance. To understand peasant beliefs (survival), one need only to compare them with similar beliefs of primitive tribes, where original meanings were still understood.

The point is this: Because of their theoretical presumptions, both the Historic-Geographic and the Cultural Evolutionist approaches were item-centered — concerned with “texts” only. Both took items of lore out of their social and cultural context. Their thinking admitted no possibility that a tale, song, or custom might actually have functions or significance among people (peasants) among whom they collected it (though in fact, many 19th-century folklorists collected their items indirectly — from people of their own class who had encountered folk traditions, often from their servants).

One approach was literary, the other anthropological, in objectives; both treated lore as “disembodied stuff, floating around the map almost by itself” (Richard Bauman).

BOTH schools of thought:

* Ignored life of the lore in social groups, and were therefore SURVIVAL-oriented.

* Ignored the tellers and singers who kept the arts alive through performance.

* Ignored use, function, actual performances/events, aesthetics, creativity.

* Ignored indigenous language, diction, style of performance (paraphrased abstracts or completely rewritten texts were not merely sufficient, they were regarded as “improved”).

So, the item-centered, text-oriented approach, which sets out to collect, arrange, classify, and analyze survivals, is rooted in 19th-century theories about what folklore is and how it is to be understood, and also in a conception of FOLK as peasants (illiterate, rural, pre-industrial, backward).

Now these approaches to folklore persisted well into the 20th century. The American Folklore Society was established in 1888; most of its founding members were coming from either literary, Historic-Geographic, or Cultural Evolutionist perspectives. James F. Child was the 1st president of the AFS; William Wells Newell set the Society’s agenda: to “collect the fast-vanishing remains” of Indian, Negro, French Creole, Old English peoples. Ultimately, the members of this influential first generation of American folklorists were all text- (or artifact-) centered, and concerned with classifying types and tracing diffusion.

American collectors of tales and folksongs were typically drawn to folklore out of a kind of Romantic Nationalism, believing folklore preserved the spirit of the true Anglo-Saxon stock — in VA, Richard Chase, Annabelle Morris Buchanan, John Powell all came out of this ideology, using folklore as a basis for elite art. They were not interested in role of lore in context, or skill of different narrators; their collected texts were not faithful to tale-tellers style and language; standard editorial practice, as for the Grimms, was to “improve” collected tales for publication.

### Cultural Relativism

The seed of a newer perspective, however, was also present among the first AFS membership, in the work of Franz Boas, a young anthropologist newly-arrived from Germany. Boas had an early scientific interest in cultural differences in perception, and was disposed to first-hand, empirical investigation of culture in living societies. He turned his attention to cultural artifacts (masks, tales), and viewed them in relation to their specific cultural context: local systems of symbol and meaning. = beginnings of fieldwork and ethnography.

Boas revealed the flaw in Evolutionary premise: superficial similarities misleading; similar items in different cultures may have very distinctly divergent meanings. Culture as an integrated whole; items reflect culture. Meaning not in reference to abstract scheme of stages of cultural evolution; but in relation to specific, systemic whole. CULTURAL RELATIVISM.

Boas’ thinking was revolutionary. As a teacher of anthropology at Columbia, Boas influenced an entire generation of young anthropologists, encouraged documentation of folklore, urged in-depth fieldwork.

### Contextualism I

As anthropologists began doing more firsthand fieldwork — less abstract theorizing — began to perceive how folklore was indeed an integral, functional part of its living cultural context; not a survival, but having contemporary significance among the people who used it.

Result: fieldwork began informing interpretive anthropological theories that emerged in the 20th century influenced folklorists and those in other professions introduced in folklife, still inform folkloric studies today.

### Functionalism

Culture an integrated whole; all parts contribute to the well-being of the whole. William Bascom and Archer Taylor proposed four functions of folklore:

didactic; validation; social control; amusement.

### Contextualism II

Bronislaw Malinowski, particularly interested in belief and custom — intensive fieldwork: Participant/Observation. Understanding requires systematic fieldwork, immersion in society. Psychological function of, e.g., magic among high-risk island fishermen: allays anxiety. Wrote about importance of cultural context, situational context — both more generalized than in current usage among folklorists. Still thought of culture as an objectified “thing,” determined behavior of individuals by rules and norms.

Along this same time, first academic programs in folklore being created. Ralph Boggs at UNC; Stith Thompson at IU. Most folklorists in English departments; concerned with ballads, still collecting and classifying texts. But just beginning to use tape recorders, making verbatim transcripts; still looking at lore as oral literature, but doing more and more fieldwork and beginning to pay attention to things like the skills of narrators, singers — the role of individuals in maintaining tradition. Herbert Halpert; Vance Randolph.

Richard Dorson — historian/folklorist. Saw American Folklore as product of historical experience (“survivals” from recent past; not remote). Beginning to see that folklore continued to be created, even in modern times.

But in the early 60s, some significant shift occurred in folklore studies. Growing awareness of the importance of CONTEXT to an informed understanding.

### Oral Formulaic Theory

Perhaps most significant shift prompted by a study of Yugoslavian epic poetry by two Harvard scholars interested in the formulaic phrases in Homeric literature. Their theory was that Homer, blind Greek poet of the 2nd century B.C., was practicing an oral tradition, and relied on formula in composing epic poems. Studied living Yugoslavian singers, who sang long epic poems. Discovered system of improvised performance, whereby song created anew each time its sung; never the same twice, responded to context — interest of audience.

### Folklore as Communication and Performance

This vision of oral folk literature, being created improvisationally by using traditional stock of phrases, images, motifs, inspired young folklorists (especially at University of Pennsylvania) to look more closely at the performance of folklore in context — to think of folklore, not just as a text to be collected, classified, and annotated, but as communication that takes place in specific social situations. Even more, as a performance that emerges in a kind of negotiative feedback between performer and audience. Oral Formulaic theory, for example, applied to blues and improvised sermons.

Lots of other influences: linguistics, anthropology, communications theory, even theory of literary criticism.

This perspective was a virtual revolution in the discipline of folklore.

* Brought about new levels of precision to documentation of folklore in context, paying close attention to details, social relations, interaction.

* Changed perception of folklore-as-item to folklore-as-event.

* Highlighted the dynamic tension between dual forces of tradition and innovation; continuity and change, at the center of which is —

* the folk artist/performer, elevated to new level of importance — as purposeful, creative individual, not passive tradition-bearer; one who may employ folklore in strategic ways to achieve specific objectives (e.g., proverbs).

Also, about the same time, concept of folk group changing. Not just the rural, isolated, homogeneous. Also among ethnic groups, urban communities, occupational groups, age groups, gender groups — ultimately any group of people who interact in informal, face-to-face ways; this interaction becomes the basis for shared identity, shared expressive resources, culture-based communication. Not only is anyone a “folk”; any individual may move in different folk circles at different times, according to role, relations, and therefore bear different traditions.

For our purposes, most important points were that:

* The item-oriented approach to folklore as a collection of texts, removed from their social and cultural contexts, was incomplete, misleading
* Folklore came to be viewed as contemporary and meaningful, rather than as nonsensical survival from a bygone era (though still deeply situated in history)
* Folklore an intrinsic response to human experience; new forms of tradition can arise from contemporary experience of groups

Markdown in Brief

# Header 1 #
## Header 2 ##
### Header 3 ###             (Hashes on right are optional)
#### Header 4 ####
##### Header 5 #####

This is a paragraph, which is text surrounded by whitespace.
Paragraphs can be on one line (or many), and can drone on
for hours.  

Here is a Markdown link to [Warped](http://warpedvisions.org), 
and a literal .  Now some SimpleLinks, like 
one to google (autolinks to are-you-feeling-lucky), a test 
link to a Wikipedia page, and a CPU at foldoc. 

Now some inline markup like _italics_,  **bold**, and `code()`.

![picture alt](/images/photo.jpeg "Title is optional")     

> Blockquotes are like quoted text in email replies
>> And, they can be nested

* Bullet lists are easy too
- Another one
+ Another one

1. A numbered list
2. Which is numbered
3. With periods and a space

And now some code:

    // Code is just text indented a bit
    which(is_easy) to_remember();

Text with  
two trailing spaces  
(on the right)  
can be used  
for things like poems  

Some horizontal rules ...

* * * *
****
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Proseminar Reader

Please note that all pages having to do with _Journal of American Folklore_ content are now links to JSTOR or Project Muse pages. The American Folklore Society receives royalties for such links and the individual downloads that occur. The Society receives no royalties, and perhaps just as importantly the service providers have no idea that folklore content has a readership, if I download the PDF and make it available in other ways. The better news is that beyond graduation, should you encounter an institution or organization that does not already have a JSTOR subscription, the Society makes it possible to subscribe at an incredibly good rate.

The links below are directly to the JSTOR URLs and should take you directly there if you are on a network with an institution that has a JSTOR subscription. If you are not on that network — if you are at home or otherwise away from the authorized network and its IP address — most organizations allow you to access JSTOR via proxy. (At UL Lafayette, you can do this by starting [here](http://library.louisiana.edu/cgi-bin/proxy?http://www.jstor.org/)).

## The American Century, Part I: Boas and His Contemporaries ##

Crane, T. F. 1888. The Diffusion of Popular Tales. _Journal of American Folklore_ 1(1): 8-15.

Boas, Franz. 1888. On Certain Songs and Dances of the Kwakiutl of British Columbia. _Journal of American Folklore_ 1(1): 49-64.

Fortier, Alcee. 1888. Customs and Superstitions in Louisiana. _Journal of American Folklore_ 1(2): 136-140.

Fortier, Alcee. 1888. Louisianian Nursery-Tales. _Journal of American Folklore_ 1(2): 140-145.

Mason, Otis. 1891. The Natural History of Folk-Lore. _Journal of American Folklore_ 4(13): 97-105.

Lomax, John. 1915. Some Types of American Folk-Song. _Journal of American Folklore_ 28(107): 1-17.

## The American Century, Part II: Two Paths ##

Thompson, Stith. 1938. American Folklore after Fifty Years. _Journal of American Folklore_, 51(199): 1-9.

Benedict, Ruth. 1934. The Science of Custom. Excerpted from _Patterns of Culture_, 1-20. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Bunzel, Ruth. 1929. Excerpts from _The Pueblo Potter: A Study of Creative Imagination in Primitive Art_, 1-48. New York: Dover.

Bascom, William. 1954/1965. Four Functions of Folklore. In The Study of Folklore, 279-298. Ed. Alan Dundes. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.

Thompson, Stith. 1955. Myths and Folktales. _Journal of American Folklore_ 68(270): 482-488.

Utley, Francis Lee. 1961. Folk Literature: An Operational Definition. _Journal of American Folklore_ 74: 193-206.

## Mid-Century Revisions and Refinements ##

Redfield, Robert. 1947. The Folk Society. _American Journal of Sociology_ 52(4): 293-308.

Bascom, William. 1953. Folklore and Anthropology. _Journal of American Folklore_ 66: 283-290.

Bascom, William. 1955. Verbal Art. _Journal of American Folklore_ 68(269): 245-252.

Jansen, William Hugh. 1959. The Esoteric-Exoteric Factor in Folklore. _Fabula_ 2: 205-211.

Dundes, Alan. 1962. From Etic to Emic in the Structural Study of Folktales. _Journal of American Folklore_ 75(296): 95-105

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1955. The Structural Study of Myth. _ Journal of American Folklore_ 68(270): 428-444.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1978. Harelips and Twins: The Splitting of a Myth. In _Myth and Meaning_, 25-33. New York: Schocken Books.

Bascom, William. 1965. The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives. _Journal of American Folklore_ 78(307): 3-20.

## The Emergence of Performance ##

Burke, Kenneth. 1973/1941. _The Philosophy of Literary Form_. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. Pp. 293-304. [Link](http://johnlaudun.org/teaching/proseminar/burke-1941/).

Jakobson, Roman. 1960/1988. Linguistics and Poetics. In _Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader_, 32-61. Ed. David Lodge. New York: Longman.

Bauman, Richard. 1972. Differential Identity and the Social Base of Folklore. _Journal of American Folklore_ 84(331): 31-41. Also published as _Towards New Perspective in Folklore_. Ed. Americo Paredes and Richard Bauman. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Hymes, Dell. 1971. The Contribution of Folklore to Sociolinguistic Research. _ Journal of American Folklore_ 84(331): 42-50.

Hymes, Dell. 1981. Breakthrough into Performance. In _”In Vain I Tried to Tell You”: Essays in North American Ethnopoetics_, 79-141. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Bauman, Richard. 1975. Verbal Art as Performance. _American Anthropologist_ 77: 290-311.

Gossen, Gary. 1972. Chamula Genres of Verbal Behavior. In Toward New Perspectives in Folklore, 145-168. Ed. Americo Paredes and Richard Bauman. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Tedlock, Dennis. 1983. On the Translation of Style in Oral Narrative. In The Spoken Word and the Work of Interpretation, 31-61. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

## Folklore’s Futures ##

Stewart, Susan. 1991. Notes on Distressed Genres. _Journal of American Folklore_ 104(411): 5–31.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara.

Oring, Elliott.

Bronner, Simon. 1988. Art, Performance, and Praxis: The Rhetoric of Contemporary Folklore Studies. Western Folklore 47: 75-102.

## Things Every Folklorist Knows ##

Bogatyrev, Petr and Roman Jakobson. 1982 (1929). Folklore as a Special Form of Creativity. In _The Prague School: Selected Writings_, 1929-1946, 32-46. Ed. P. Steiner. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Ben-Amos, Dan. 1976. Analytical Categories and Ethnic Genres. In _Folklore Genres_, 215-242. Ed. Dan Ben-Amos. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Journals in Folklore Studies and Adjacent Areas of Inquiry

Because of the interdisciplinary nature of folklore study, and often the interstitial housing of folklorists within the academy, there are a number of journals that are of interest to folklorists. The list below can only be suggestive:

## Folklore Journals/Periodicals ##

* _Folklore Fellows Communications_
* _Journal of American Folklore_
* _Journal of Folklore Research_ (formerly_Journal of the Folklore Institute_)
* _Louisiana Folklore Miscellany_
* _Southern Folklore_ (was _Southern Folklore Quarterly_)
* _Western Folklore_

## Anthropology, Cognitive Science, Linguistics, Psychology, Semiotics ##

* American Anthropologist
* American Ethnologist
* Annual Review of Anthropology
* Critical Quarterly
* Cultural Anthropology
* Discourse Processes
* Genre
* Journal of American Culture
* Journal of American Ethnic History
* Journal of Anthropological Research
* Journal of Linguistic Anthropology
* Journal of Psycholinguistics
* Language in Society
* Oral Tradition
* Pragmatics
* Semiotica
* Text
* Text and Performance Quarterly

## Other Journals of Interest

* African American Review
* American Literary History
* Contemporary Literature
* Discourse
* Modern Fiction Studies
* Narrative
* New Literary History
* Novel
* PMLA
* Public Culture
* Representations
* Social Text

`*` There are a number of state and regional folklore journals. For readers specifically interested in Louisiana matters, I also recommend the adjacent historical journal _Louisiana History_.

Apprenticing to a Discipline

The contents of this list is something you will want to aim to be able to do by the time you take your comprehensive exams. You may not have the best of grasps on everything included here, but you have committed yourself to deepening your understanding as you write your dissertation.

* You know at least one major journal, if not the flagship journal, in the field, and you know and understand the wider constellation of journals that make up the field — i.e., you know the major and minor journals or the different dimensions the journals pursue.
* You have read the last five years of a/the major journal in the field.
* You can name a dozen books off the top of your head that “everybody knows.”
* You can name, again off the top of your head, another dozen important or significant books that take the field in directions you would like to pursue.
* You can cast some sort of narrative about how the field arose and/or where it has been.
* You care where the field is going and/or you can narrate places you would like to take the field.

Proseminar Schedule

*Please note that the dates for the Spring 2010 offering of this course are as follows:*

| Week | Dates |
| —— | ———– |
| Week 1 | January 13 |
| Week 2 | January 20 |
| Week 3 | January 25 and 27 |
| Week 4 | February 1 and 3 |
| Week 5 | February 8 & 10 |
| Week 6 | February 22 & 24 |
| Week 7 | March 1 & 3 |
| Week 8 | March 8 and 10 |
| Week 9 | March 15 and 17 |
| Week 10 | March 22 and 24 |
| Week 11 | March 29 and 31 |
| Week 12 | April 12 and 14 |
| Week 13 | April 19 and 21 |
| Week 14 | April 26 and 28 |

### Week 1 & 2: Epochal Thinking

* [A Brief History of Folklife Theory](http://johnlaudun.org/teaching/proseminar/brief-history-of-folklife-theory/)
* [The Journey of Humankind](http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/journey/)

### Week 3: The Current Moment in Folklore Studies

### Week 4: Other Voices, Other Rooms

* Read Bauman and Briggs 1-162.
* Read the introduction to Jacob Grimm’s _Teutonic Mythology. [[Google Books]](http://books.google.com/books?id=YxwAAAAAQAAJ&pg=PR1#v=onepage&q=&f=false)

### Week 5: More Voices, More Rooms

* Read Bauman and Briggs 163-321.
* Grimms 91 [[Link]](http://johnlaudun.org/20060206-grimms-91/).
* Ray Hicks tells AT 301A [[Link]](http://johnlaudun.org/20080128-at-301a-hicks/).

### Week 6: The American Century, Part I: Boas and His Contemporaries

*All of JAF 1(1) is available at this link: [[JSTOR](http://www.jstor.org/stable/i223339)]. I would encourage everyone to take a look at some of the other articles in the issue, especially the essays by Bolton, Brinton and Beauchamp that come between those by Crane and Boas listed below as well as the unsigned Note “The Credit of Originating the Term “Folk-Lore.”*

#### The Founding Issue ####

Newell, W. W. 1888. On the Field and Work of a Journal of American Folk-Lore.
_Journal of American Folklore_ 1(1): 3-7. [[JSTOR](http://www.jstor.org/stable/532881)]

Crane, T. F. 1888. The Diffusion of Popular Tales. _Journal of American Folklore_ 1(1):8-15. [[JSTOR](http://www.jstor.org/stable/532882)]

Boas, Franz. 1888. On Certain Songs and Dances of the Kwakiutl of British Columbia.
_Journal of American Folklore_ 1(1):49-64. [[JSTOR](http://www.jstor.org/stable/532887)]

#### Louisiana’s Place in the Founding Issues ####

Fortier, Alcee. 1888. Customs and Superstitions in Louisiana.
_Journal of American Folklore_ 1(2):136140. [[ToC on JSTOR](http://www.jstor.org/stable/i223340)]

Fortier, Alcee. 1888. Louisianian Nursery-Tales.
_Journal of American Folklore_ 1(2):140-145. [[ToC on JSTOR](http://www.jstor.org/stable/i223340)]

Fortier, Alcee. 1889. Louisiana Nursery Tales II.
_Journal of American Folklore_ 2(4):36-40. [[ToC on JSTOR](http://www.jstor.org/stable/i223342)]

Newell, W. W. 1889. Reports of Voodoo Worship in Hayti and Louisiana.
_Journal of American Folklore_ 2(4):41-47. [[ToC on JSTOR](http://www.jstor.org/stable/i223342)]

### Week 7: The American Century, Part II: The Two Paths

### Week 8: Mid-Century Revisions and Refinements

(March 8 & 10). Read Lévi-Strauss’ _Myth and Meaning_ and his essay on “The Structural Study of Myth” ([JSTOR](http://www.jstor.org/stable/536768)).

### Week 9 (March 15 & 17).

### Week 10 (March 22 & 24).

### No Week (March 29 & 31). **No class due to Easter Break holiday.**

*The Singer of Tales*. Read the first part.

Week 11 (April 5 & 7). *The Emergence of Performance*.

Week 12 (April 12 & 14). *Portraits of the Whiteman*.

Week 13 (April 19 & 21). *Things Every Folklorist Knows*.

Week 14 (April 26 & 28). *Folklore’s Futures.*

Literature as Equipment for Living

Burke, Kenneth. 1973/1941. _The Philosophy of Literary Form_. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. Pp. 293-304.

[*Square brackets indicate the end of a page in the printed version of the text.*]

HERE I shall put down, as briefly as possible, a statement in behalf of what might be catalogued, with a fair degree of accuracy, as a sociological criticism of literature. Socio- logical criticism in itself is certainly not new. I shall here try to suggest what partially new elements or emphasis I think should be added to this old approach. And to make the “way in” as easy as possible, I shall begin with a discussion of proverbs.

## 1 ##

Examine random specimens in _The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs_. You will note, I think, that there is no “pure” literature here. Everything is “medicine.” Proverbs are designed for consolation or vengeance, for admonition or exhortation, for foretelling.

Or they name typical, recurrent situations. That is, people find a certain social relationship recurring so frequently that they must “have a word for it.” The Eskimos have special names for many different kinds of snow (fifteen, if I remember rightly) because variations in the quality of snow greatly affect their living. Hence, they must “size up” snow much more accurately than we do. And the same is true of social phenomena. Social structures give rise to “type” situations, subtle subdivisions of the relationships [294] involved in competitive and cooperative acts. Many proverbs seek to chart, in more or less homey and picturesque ways, these “type” situations. I submit that such naming is done, not for the sheer glory of the thing, but because of its bearing upon human welfare. A different name for snow implies a different kind of hunt. Some names for snow imply that one should not hunt at all. And similarly, the names for typical, recurrent social situations are not developed out of “disinterested curiosity,” but because the names imply a command (what to expect, what to look out for).

To illustrate with a few representative examples:

Proverbs designed for consolation: “The sun does not shine on both sides of the hedge at once.” “Think of ease, but work on.” “Little troubles the eye, but far less the soul.” “The worst luck now, the better another time.” “The wind in one’s face makes one wise.” “He that hath lands hath quarrels.” “He knows how to carry the dead cock home.” “He is not poor that hath little, but he that desireth much.”
For vengeance: “ At length the fox is brought to the furrier.” “Shod in the cradle, barefoot in the stubble.” “Sue a beggar and get a louse.” “The higher the ape goes, the more he shows his tail.” “The moon does not heed the barking of dogs.” “He measures another’s corn by his own bushel.” “He shuns the man who knows him well.” “Fools tie knots and wise men loose them.”

Proverbs that have to do with foretelling: (The most obvious are those to do with the weather.) “Sow peas and beans in the wane of the moon, Who soweth them sooner, he soweth too soon.” “When the wind’s in the north, the skilful fisher goes not forth.” “When the sloe tree is as white as a sheet, sow your barley whether it be dry or wet.” “When the sun sets bright and clear, An easterly wind you need not [295] fear. When the sun sets in a bank, A westerly wind we shall not want.”

In short: “Keep your weather eye open”: be realistic about sizing up today’s weather, because your accuracy has bearing upon tomorrow’s weather. And forecast not only the meteorological weather, but also the social weather: “When the moon’s in the full, then wit’s in the wane.” “Straws show which way the wind blows.” “When the fish is caught, the net is laid aside.” “Remove an old tree, and it will wither to death.” “The wolf may lose his teeth, but never his nature.” “He that bites on every weed must needs light on poison.” “Whether the pitcher strikes the stone, or the stone the pitcher, it is bad for the pitcher.” “Eagles catch no flies.” “The more laws, the more offenders.”

In this foretelling category we might also include the recipes for wise living, sometimes moral, sometimes technical: “First thrive, and then wive.” “Think with the wise but talk with the vulgar .” “When the fox preacheth, then beware your geese.” “Venture a small fish to catch a great one.” “Respect a man, he will do the more.”

In the class of “typical, recurrent situations” we might put such proverbs and proverbial expressions as: “Sweet appears sour when we pay.” “The treason is loved but the traitor is hated.” “The wine in the bottle does not quench thirst.” “The sun is never the worse for shining on a dunghill.” “The lion kicked by an ass.” “The lion’s share.” “To catch one napping.” “To smell a rat.” “To cool one’s heels.”

By all means, I do not wish to suggest that this is the only way in which the proverbs could be classified. For instance, I have listed in the “foretelling” group the proverb, “When the fox preacheth, then beware your geese.” But it could obviously be “taken over” for vindictive purposes. Or consider [296] a proverb like, “Virtue flies from the heart of a mercenary man.” A poor man might obviously use it either to console himself for being poor (the implication being, “Because I am poor in money I am rich in virtue”) or to strike at another (the implication being, “When he got money, what else could you expect of him but deterioration?”). In fact, we could even say that such symbolic vengeance would itself be an aspect of solace. And a proverb like “The sun is never the worse for shining on a dunghill” (which I have listed under “typical recurrent situations”) might as well be put in the vindictive category.

The point of issue is not to find categories that “place” the proverbs once and for all. What I want is categories that suggest their active nature. Here there is no “realism for its own sake.” There is realism for promise, admonition, solace, vengeance, foretelling, instruction, charting, all for the direct bearing that such acts have upon matters of welfare.

## 2 ##

Step two: Why not extend such analysis of proverbs to encompass the whole field of literature? Could the most complex and sophisticated works of art legitimately be con- sidered somewhat as “proverbs writ large”? Such leads, if held admissible, should help us to discover important facts about literary organization (thus satisfying the requirements of technical criticism). And the kind of observation from this perspective should apply beyond literature to life in general (thus helping to take literature out of its separate bin and give it a place in a general “sociological” picture).

The point of view might be phrased in this way: Proverbs are *strategies* for dealing with *situations*. In so far as situations [297] are typical and recurrent in a given social structure, people develop names for them and strategies for handling them. Another name for strategies might be *attitudes*.

People have often commented on the fact that there are contrary *proverbs*. But I believe that the above approach to proverbs suggests a necessary modification of that comment. The apparent contradictions depend upon differences in *attitude*, involving a correspondingly different choice of *strategy*. Consider, for instance, the *apparently* opposite pair: “Repentance comes too late” and “Never too late to mend.” The first is admonitory. It says in effect: “You’d better look out, or you’ll get yourself too far into this business.” The second is consolatory, saying in effect: “Buck up, old man, you can still pull out of this.”

Some critics have quarreled with me about my selection of the word “strategy” as the name for this process. I have asked them to suggest an alternative term, so far without profit. The only one I can think of is “method.” But if “strategy” errs in suggesting to some people an overly conscious procedure, “method” errs in suggesting an overly “methodical” one. Anyhow, let’s look at the documents:

_Concise Oxford Dictionary_: “Strategy: Movement of an army or armies in a compaign, art of so moving or disposing troops or ships as to impose upon the enemy the place and time and conditions for fighting preferred by oneself” (from a Greek word that refers to the leading of an army).

_New English Dictionary_: “Strategy: The art of projecting and directing the larger military movements and operations of a campaign.”

Andre Cheron, _Traite Complet d’ Echecs_: “On entend par strategie les manoeuvres qui ont pour but la sortie et le bon arrangement des pieces.” [298]

Looking at these definitions, I gain courage. For surely, the most highly alembicated and sophisticated work of art, arising in complex civilizations, could be considered as designed to organize and command the army of one’s thoughts and images, and to so organize them that one “imposes upon the enemy the time and place and conditions for fighting preferred by oneself.” One seeks to “direct the larger movements and operations” in one’s campaign of living. One “maneuvers,” and the maneuvering is an “art.”

Are not the final results one’s “strategy”? One tries, as far as possible, to develop a strategy whereby one “can’t lose.” One tries to change the rules of the game until they fit his own necessities. Does the artist encounter disaster? He will “make capital” of it. If one is a victim of competition, for instance, if one is elbowed out, if one is willy-nilly more jockeyed against than jockeying, one can by the solace and vengeance of art convert this very “liability” into an “asset.” One tries to fight on his own terms, developing a strategy for imposing the proper “time, place, and conditions.”

But one must also, to develop a full strategy, be *realistic*. One must *size things up* properly. One cannot accurately know how things *will be* what is promising and what is menacing, unless he accurately knows how things *are*. So the wise strategist will not be content with strategies of merely a self-gratifying sort. He will “keep his weather eye open.” He will not too eagerly “read into” a scene an attitude that is irrelevant to it. He won’t sit on the side of an active volcano and “see” it as a dormant plain.

Often, alas, he will. The great allurement in our present popular “inspirational literature,” for instance, may be largely of this sort. It is a strategy for easy consolation. It “fills a need,” since there is always a need for easy consolation [299] — and in an era of confusion like our own the need is especially keen. So people are only too willing to “meet a man halfway” who will play down the realistic naming of our situation and play up such strategies as make solace cheap. However, I should propose a reservation here. We usually take it for granted that people who consume our current output of books on “How to Buy Friends and Bamboozle Oneself and Other People” are reading as students who will attempt applying the recipes given. Nothing of the sort. The reading of a book on the attaining of success is in itself the symbolic attaining of that success. It is while they read that these readers are “succeeding.” I’ll wager that, in by far the great majority of cases, such readers make no serious attempt to apply the book’s recipes. The lure of the book resides in the fact that the reader, while reading it, is then living in the aura of success. What he wants is easy success; and he gets it in symbolic form by the mere reading itself. To attempt applying such stuff in real life would be very difficult, full of many disillusioning difficulties.

Sometimes a different strategy may arise. The author may remain realistic, avoiding too easy a form of solace—yet he may get as far off the track in his own way. Forgetting that realism is an aspect for foretelling, he may take it as an end in itself. He is tempted to do this by two factors: (1) an ill-digested philosophy of science, leading him mistakenly to assume that “relentless” naturalistic “truthfulness” is a proper end in itself, and (2) a merely competitive desire to outstrip other writers by being “more realistic” than they. Works thus made “efficient” by tests of competition internal to the book trade are a kind of academicism not so named (the writer usually thinks of it as the opposite of academicism). Realism thus stepped up competitively might be distinguished [300] from the proper sort by the name of “naturalism.” As a way of “sizing things up,” the naturalistic tradition ends to become as inaccurate as the “inspirational” strategy, though at the opposite extreme.

Anyhow, the main point is this: A work like _Madame Bovary_ (or its homely American translation, _Babbitt_) is the strategic naming of a situation. It singles out a pattern of experience that is sufficiently representative of our social structure, that recurs sufficiently often *mutandis mutates*, for people to “need a word for it” and to adopt an attitude towards it. Each work of art is the addition of a word to an informal dictionary (or, in the case of purely derivative artists, the addition of a subsidiary meaning to a word already given by some originating artist). As for _Madame Bovary_, the French critic Jules de Gaultier proposed to add it to our formal dictionary by coining the word “Bovarysme” and writing a whole book to say what he meant by it.

Mencken’s book on _The American Language_, I hate to say, is splendid. I console myself with the reminder that Mencken didn’t write it. Many millions of people wrote it, and Mencken was merely the amanuensis who took it down from their dictation. He found a true “vehicle” (that is, a book that could be greater than the author who wrote it). He gets the royalties, but the job was done by a collectivity. As you read that book, you see a people who were up against a new set of typical recurrent situations, situations typical of their business, their politics, their criminal organizations, their sports. Either there were no words for these in standard English, or people didn’t know them, or they didn’t “sound right.” So a new vocabulary arose, to “give us a word for it.” I see no reason for believing that Americans are unusually fertile in word-coinage. American slang was [301] not developed out of some exceptional gift. It was developed out of the fact that new typical situations had arisen and people needed names for them. They had to “size things up.” They had to console and strike, to promise and ad- monish. They had to describe for purposes of forecasting. And “slang” was the result. It is, by this analysis, simply proverbs not so named, a kind of “folk criticism.”

## 3 ##

With what, then, would “sociological criticism” along these lines be concerned? It would seek to codify the various strategies which artists have developed with relation to the naming of situations. In a sense, much of it would even be “timeless,” for many of the “typical, recurrent situations” are not peculiar to our own civilization at all. The situations and strategies framed in _Aesop’s Fables_, for instance, apply to human relations now just as fully as they applied in ancient Greece. They are, like philosophy, sufficiently “generalized” to extend far beyond the particular combination of events named by them in any one instance. They name an “essence.” Or, as Korzybski might say, they are on a “high level of abstraction.” One doesn’t usually think of them as “abstract,” since they are usually so concrete in their stylistic expression. But they invariably aim to discern the “general behind the particular” (which would suggest that they are good Goethe).

The attempt to treat literature from the standpoint of situations and strategies suggests a variant of Spengler’s notion of the “contemporaneous.” By “contemporaneity” he meant corresponding stages of different cultures. For instance, if modern New York is much like decadent Rome, then we are “contemporaneous” with decadent Rome, or [302] with some corresponding decadent city among the Mayas, etc. It is in this sense that situations are “timeless,” “non- historical,” “contemporaneous.” A given human relation- ship may be at one time named in terms of foxes and lions, if there are foxes and lions about; or it may now be named in terms of salesmanship, advertising, the tactics of politicians, etc. But beneath the change in particulars, we may often discern the naming of the one situation.

So sociological criticism, as here understood, would seek to assemble and codify this lore. It might occasionally lead us to outrage good taste, as we sometimes found exemplified in some great sermon or tragedy or abstruse work of philosophy the same strategy as we found exemplified in a dirty joke. At this point, we’d put the sermon and the dirty joke together, thus “grouping by situation” and showing the range of possible particularizations. In his exceptionally discerning essay, “A Critic’s Job of Work,” R. P. Blackmur says, “I think on the whole his (Burke’s) method could be applied with equal fruitfulness to Shakespeare, Dashiell Hammett, or Marie Corelli.” When I got through wincing, I had to admit that Blackmur was right. This article is an attempt to say for the method what can be said. As a matter of fact, I’ll go a step further and maintain: you can’t properly put Marie Corelli and Shakespeare apart until you have first put them together. First genus, then differentia. The strategy in common is the genus. The *range* or *scale* or *spectrum* of particularizations is the differentia. Anyhow, that’s what I’m driving at. And that’s why reviewers sometime find in my work “intuitive” leaps that are dubious as “science.” They are not “leaps” at all. They are classifications, groupings, made on the basis of some strategic element common to the items grouped. They are [303] neither more nor less “intuitive” than any grouping or classification of social events. Apples can be grouped with bananas as fruits, and they can be grouped with tennis balls as round. I am simply proposing, in the social sphere, a method of classification with reference to strategies.

The method has these things to be said in its favor: It gives definite insight into the organization of literary works; and it automatically breaks down the barriers erected about literature as a specialized pursuit. People can classify novels by reference to three kinds, eight kinds, seventeen kinds. It doesn’t matter. Students patiently copy down the professor’s classification and pass examinations on it, because the range of possible academic classifications is endless. Sociological classification, as herein suggested, would derive its relevance from the fact that it should apply both to works of art and to social situations outside of art.

It would, I admit, violate current pieties, break down current categories, and thereby “outrage good taste.” But “good taste” has become inert. The classifications I am pro- posing would be active. I think that what we need is active categories.

These categories will lie on the bias across the categories of modern specialization. The new alignment will outrage in particular those persons who take the division of faculties in our universities to be an exact replica of the way in which God himself divided up the universe. We have had the Philosophy of the Being; and we have had the Philosophy of the Becoming. In contemporary specialization, we have been getting the Philosophy of the Bin. Each of these mental localities has had its own peculiar way of life, its own values, even its own special idiom for seeing, thinking, and “proving.” Among other things, a sociological approach should [304] attempt to provide a re-integrative point of view, a broader empire of investigation encompassing the lot.

What would such sociological categories be like? They would consider works of art, I think, as strategies for selecting enemies and allies, for socializing losses, for warding off evil eye, for purification, propitiation, and de-sanctification, in consolation and vengeance, admonition and exhortation, implicit commands or instructions of one sort or another. Art forms like “tragedy’. or “comedy” or “satire” would be treated as equipments for living, that size up situations in various ways and in keeping with correspondingly various attitudes. The typical ingredients of such forms would be sought. Their relation to typical situations would be stressed. Their comparative values would be considered, with the intention of formulating a “strategy of strategies,” the “over-all” strategy obtained by inspection of the lot.

Folklore Proseminar: Journal Profile

The usefulness of this exercise becomes obvious once you start. It’s also fairly easy to do. Find a journal that interests you. Read the most recent issue. Outline the past year’s contents. Scan the past five years and note down patterns in the topic and method of the articles published within its pages. If it’s available, look at the first issue, which is often the founding issue where the journal’s editors establish its perspective and program. Is it your sense that the journal has continued with its original trajectory, or has it moved away at some point?

Your journal profile will consist of the following:

* **Summary of four articles** from the most recent issue. (Make sure you note if the journal is up to date or if it is running behind). For some journals, like _Southern Folklore_, this will be all the articles in a particular issue of a journal; for others, like _American Literary History_, you are free to choose from the articles listed which ones you would like to read and summarize.
* **Outline of the past year’s contents**. You will want to include author’s names and the complete title of the article, but you do not need to include notes, reviews, or other such matters—unless, of course, they seem of particular importance in your ability to characterize the journal. Again mileage varies here by journal: i.e., for some journals this will be a short task; for others, much longer and more involved.
* **Five-year scansion**. Scanning the past five year’s of the journal, what are the general trends in topics or approaches that you notice? Are there a particular set of contributors who seem to have dominated the journal at a particular moment? What about works in the bibliographies. (This is something you should consider doing in your outline of the past year: what scholarship matters to the journal’s editors and readers.)
* **First/foundational issue**. These are always interesting to examine. I have included the opening pages of the first issue of JAF, which sets out a kind of program. We will have time this semester to discuss the scope and nature of the original program and how it has been realized and/or changed over the past one hundred years of JAF’s publication.
* **Conclusions**. Nothing grand here, unless you notice some interesting developments: e.g., a break between the foundation and the most recent issues of the journal, a sudden change in the journal’s path. Or perhaps everything has remained as the original editor’s imagined. You should also take some time to evaluate the journal in relationship to your own interests and to those fields in which you participate or would like to participate.

Book Review

The first thing you should do is to take a look at the book reviews in the Journal of American Folklore, taking note not only of the formatting of the entries but also their content and structure. As a kind of loose outline of what should be in your review, I offer the following:

* Nature and purpose of the book, including a statement of the main theme(s) or thesis (theses), its subject matter and principal points.
* A descriptive and analytical commentary—not a summary—of the book’s contents written for someone who has not read the book. You will have to exercise careful judgment here in your efforts to compress justly. Your reader needs to know what the book is about and what the author’s purpose was in writing the book. Some questions to help you in fulfilling this dimension of a review are:

1. Is the book important? Why or why not?
2. What questions does it answer or fail to answer? What questions does it raise or fail to raise? Is their a logical reason for such a failure?
3. Does the book offer new information, a fresh approach, or an innovative interpretation? What is its thesis?
4. Does the author advocate a particular point of view, demonstrate a bias for certain concerns over and above other? How so and does this affect the nature of the book’s project?
5. Does the author use available sources and does she use them well or poorly?
6. Is the book credible? What makes you think so?
7. How does the book compare with similar works, current paradigms in the field, etc.?
8. Does the author fulfill the expectations he raises?

* Conclusions: reiterate your main points and remember to leave your reader with what you want he or she to remember more than anything else about the book.

In general, a book review should be both descriptive and analytical. Your review should, of course, be typed, but since these reviews will become part of a class publication, please single-space. Please also use the common typeface Times, or something in its family, at a size of 12 points. This will make the overall document much more readable.