432: American Folklore

America in Legend

English 432: American Folklore, MW 1:00-2:15, HLG 321
Professor John Laudun, HLG 356, MW 8:00-9:00, Tuesdays by appt.

Course Description

The course is designed to introduce participants to the basics of folklore studies, both through an initial “bootcamp” as well as through ongoing readings – some as a focus for conversation, others as sidebars, and then to explore the way that America is socially constructed through stories we tell, sometimes to cheer ourselves on, and sometimes to scare ourselves silly.

As an advanced course for undergraduates and a foundational course for graduate students, this course attempts to address folk materials, and dynamics in terms of rhetorical effectiveness, literary/generic structure, and cultural history. Some students will be interested in the theory that will be used, albeit lightly, throughout the course, and non-folklorists interested in American literature and culture will find the historical dimensions critical to understanding certain genres/topics of American fiction.

Course Texts

A great deal of the readings are scholarly in nature and will be available through the course’s Moodle site, either as PDFs or as links to websites. In addition to the on-line materials, there are a few books required for this course. Those titles will be given to you within the first few weeks of classes. Expect to purchase between 2 and 4 books, so be sure to set aside a portion of your budget for that expense, in addition to the cost of printing other materials as needed.

Course Requirements

There are a total of 100 points in this course: 40 for the semester project, 20 for participation, 20 each for the two exams, 10 for the mid-term paper, and 10 for a documentary activity of your choosing. Both the documentary activity and the mid-term paper may be part of and/or contribute to the semester project. (Sometimes they are the best way to discover what you don’t want to spend several weeks thinking, researching, and writing about.) Participation can be a source of confusion. Does it mean just showing up? Showing up is understood: an advanced course depends upon all of us being in the room (on time) and being prepared to discuss the topic at hand. An 400-level course in the humanities is not a data dump, but an opportunity to absorb new material, digest it, use it to analyze old and new points of information, and create new forms of knowledge that may be interesting or valuable to no one else but yourself. Active engagement with the materials, the topics, and others is requisite to achieve full marks in participation.

Course Resources

A lot of collections of “American folklore” have been published over the years, each with its own assumptions about both “America” and “folklore” as well as what the purpose of such a collection should be. Typical of one kind of collection are those by Charles Skinner, whose Myths and Legends of Our Own Land reaches 9 volumes. A more synthetic, and more contemporary, reference can be found in the American Folklore: An Encyclopedia (Reference GR101.A54) edited by Jan Brunvand, a copy of which is available in the university library. While dated by contemporary scholarly perspectives, the collection of essays in Don Yoder’s American Folklife (GR105.A6) is still quite useful, and foundational in many ways.

In addition to reference works focused on the topic of American folklore, there are a myriad of other specialist reference works, many of which are available either in electronic formats or in the library for your use. Consider the following titles: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Folklore, Encyclopedia of Asian American Folklore and Folklife, the Encyclopedia of Life Writing, The Greenwood Encyclopedia of World Folklore and Folklife among many others.

In addition to a synthesis/summary of a topic from a particular perspective, most scholarly encyclopedias also offer a small number of suggested readings. Please follow through on those readings the way you would a link on a web page.

Course Schedule

*Please note that, in most cases, the direct link to an article or other kind of resource is posted in this course. In a number of instances, the direct link is to JSTOR, since that is where a number of folklore studies journals are archived. Please see the note on JSTOR for more information on successfully accessing it and other repositories.


Bascom, William. 1965. The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives. Journal of American Folklore 78: 3-20. JSTOR

For more on possible ways to consider the inter-relationships of the forms of folklore see also: Littleton, C. Scott. 1965. A Two-Dimensional Scheme for the Classification of Narratives. Journal of American Folklore 78(307): 21-27. DOI: 10.2307/538100. JSTOR

Bascom, William. 1953. Four Functions of Folklore. Journal of American Folklore 66(262): 333-349. DOI: 10.2307/536411. JSTOR


Fine, Gary Alan. 1992. Introduction. Manufacturing Tales: Sex Money Contemporary Legends, 1-40. University of Tennessee Press.

Ellis, Bill. 1989. Death by Folklore: Ostension, Contemporary Legend, and Murder. Western Folklore 48(3): 201-20. JSTOR.

As a nice follow-up to the Satanic Cult legends that were widely popular in the U.S.A. during the late eighties, and continue to bubble up even to the present moment, take a look at this post on Cracked While the post itself obviously has a good deal of fun at the expense of the video it examines, the video itself is an interesting document.

For more on Satanic cult rumors: Victor, Jeffrey. 1990. Satanic Cult Rumors as Contemporary Legend. Western Folklore 49/1 (Contemporary Legends in Emergence): 51-81. DOI: 10.2307/1499482. JSTOR

About those bridges:

Slender Man

Parkinson, Justin. 2014. The origins of Slender Man. BBS News Magazing (June 11). Link.

Peck, A. 2015. Tall, Dark, and Loathsome: The Emergence of a Legend Cycle in the Digital Age. Journal of American Folklore 128/509: 333-348. MUSE.

Tolbert, Jeffrey. 2013. “The sort of story that has you covering your mirrors”: The Case of Slender Man. Semiotic Review 2 (Monsters). Link.

Frank, R. 2015. Caveat Lector: Fake News as Folklore. Journal of American Folklore 128/509: 315-332. MUSE.

Ellis, B. 2015. What Bronies See When They Brohoof: Queering Animation on the Dark and Evil Internet. Journal of American Folklore 128/509: 298-314. Muse.

Of Orality and Literacy

Coming Up

Jason, Heda. 1971. Concerning the “Historical” and “Local” Legends and Their Relatives. Journal of American Folklore 84/331: 134-144. JSTOR.

Baker, Ronald L. 1972. The Role of Folk Legends in Place-Name Research. Journal of American Folklore 85(338): 367-373. DOI: 10.2307/539325. JSTOR.

Seemann, Charlie. 1981. The “Char-Man”: A Local Legend of the Ojai Valley. Western Folklore 40/3: 252-260. JSTOR.

Bennett, Gillian. 1989. “Belief Stories”: The Forgotten Genre. Western Folklore 48/4: 289-311. DOI: 10.2307/1499544. JSTOR.

Turner, Patricia. 1993. I Heard It Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture. University of California Press. PDF.

Ideas and/as Metaphors

Dundes, Alan. 1971. Folk Ideas as Units of Worldview. Journal of American Folklore 84/331: 93-103. JSTOR.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. 1980. Conceptual Metaphor in Everyday Language. The Journal of Philosophy 77/8: 453-486.DOI: 10.2307/2025464. JSTOR.