Following Tradition: Folklore in the Discourse of American Culture

Following Tradition: Folklore in the Discourse of American Culture

Gay, David E

Following Tradition: Folklore in the Discourse of American Culture. By Simon J. Bronner. (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1998. Pp. xv + 599, illustrations, notes, bibliographic essay, references, index.)

By now folklorists must be used to having their work ignored in books about tradition. Michael Kammen’s The Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York: Random House, 1991), for instance, a long and intriguing book on the uses of tradition in American culture, is typical in its almost complete failure to mention folklore as either a subject or discipline-only 30 or so pages in a book of over 800. Edward Shils’s Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981) is even worse. And George Stocking’s various books and essays on Franz Boas only rarely mention his connection to the field of folklore. Simon Bronner’s Following Tradition stands as a corrective to this tendency, providing a series of essays on the arguments folklorists have had about the uses and meanings of tradition from the Gilded Age on.

At the core of the arguments about folklore in the period Following Tradition covers is the opposition of academic and applied-is the task of the folklorist to preserve and study folklore or to encourage the use of folklore by writers, folk festivals, and others? This question has caused bitter feuds in the discipline between those who favor the presentation of folklore as materials for use and those who favor the preservation of texts and materials. Alfred Shoemaker, for instance, was critical of Pennsylvania’s first state folklorist, Henry Shoemaker, becoming “especially annoyed at Henry’s invitations to creative writers to elaborate on folklore” (p. 333). Alfred Shoemaker insisted on “an ethnological approach” to folklife studies, and thus he “systematically gathered objective data-mostly material and social such as barns, customs, foods, and crafts” in order “to record the ordinary and characteristic lifeways of traditional communities,” whereas Henry Shoemaker “wanted to record lore to inspire the public with imaginative local narratives that recovered America” (p.333).

The most famous of these disputes was between Benjamin Botkin and Richard Dorson, and Bronner tells the story well. Botkin saw the task of folklore as “restoring the sense of community and continuity to modern life . . . , therefore, the folklorist should take the initiative, which meant participating and creating new forms of popular culture” (p. 383). Por Botkin “folkloristic initiative included reading folklore to children in elementary schools, writing new literature based on folklore, and promotion of folk festivals, all in the name of creating ‘understanding and enjoyment’ ” (pp. 383-384). Botkin also had avery different sense of what the dynamics of folk tradition were, and what materials should be included, than most ofhis academic critics. Indeed, Botkin refused to distinguish between what people wrote, what happened in a movie, and what was said on a street comer. For him the stuff and process offolklore were truly protean. Not in the academic’s limited sense of an item’s being able to move from place to place and redaction to redaction, but in a profounder sense: from words in air to words on a page and back out again, from one meaning here to a vastly different kind ofuse there, from one kind ofuse here to a vastly different kind ofuse there. [Bruce Jackson, quoted in Bronner, p. 385]

Botkin’s approach, thus, has much to recommend it as an approach to folklore-especially in a world where folklore is increasingly encountered in mass-mediated or literary forms and where orality is less and less an accurate measure of the traditionality of folklore (if, indeed, it was ever really the key). But, for Dorson, Botkin’s work celebrated the spurious”fakelore”-and not folklore and so was open to attack for its “vapid and inane generalization” (p. 380). And, as .is well known to most folklorists, Dorson’s attacks were continual and unforgiving. Bronner, a student of Dorson’s, might be expected to side with Dorson in his presentation of the debates, but his account is in fact well balanced, presenting Botkin’s work fairly and attending to inconsistencies of Dorson’s assaults on Botkin and others.

But Bronner’s Following Tradition does have some flaws. The chapters are often overlong and thus lose their sharpness. Issues of race, though examined closely in the chapter on the Gilded Age, are inconsistently applied in the others, and class is largely ignored. What role did class and race play, for instance, in the work of Martha Beckwith, a white female academic scholar who studied Hawaiians, Native Americans, and Jamaicans-or in the work of folklorists more generally, where often a white academic studies either peoples of color or ethnic groups from outside the dominant culture and from a much lower social class? What ofthe problem of the dominant culture’s appropriation of Hawaiian and Native American culture for its own uses? And sometimes Bronner’s characterizations of writers and their research miss the mark-as in his account of the work of the Grimms. Indeed, Bronner shows little familiarity with the cultural, project of the Grimms, especially Jacob, in re-creating the Germanic past or with German-language scholarship on the Grimms. Even so, Bronner’s book is an important contribution to the history of folklore studies, one that moves beyond the traditional Whiggish narrative of continual improvement to a narrative that highlights the presence and importance of ideology and personality in the debates that have wracked the field. Following Tradition is a necessary complement to the many books that overlook the role of folklore in American culture and to histories of the field that present only the views of the ideological winners in the debates over the meanings and uses of tradition.

Copyright American Folklore Society, Inc. Spring 2000

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