Folklore and American Literature. Encyclopedia Of American Folklore

Study of the relationships between American folklore and American literature, these
relationships involving both of the disciplines and their materials. It is difficult to
separate the discipline of American folklore from that of American literature because the
two fields developed from common interests and an overlapping group of scholars. Their
early histories are inevitably bound together. Academic training in folklore was begun in
the United States at Harvard University by Francis James Child and George Lyman
Kittredge, scholars of language and literature. The American Folklore Society, formed in
1888, began only five years after the creation of the Modern Language Association of
America and included several literary scholars and writers, among them Mark Twain,
Joel Chandler Harris, and Edward Eggleston, as charter members. The study of folklore
for some time was widely accepted as a key component to the study of any national
literature, modern or classical; as a result, folklore courses in the late 20th century are
still most often taught in university Departments of Language and Literature. Over time,
both disciplines have grown. Folklore, like linguistics, comparative literature, computer
science, and other 20th-century offspring of well-established academic areas, has come to
generate its own disciplinary identity. Nevertheless, the American Folklore Society and
the Modern Language Association of America still have a number of close ties, many
common members, and similar interests among the memberships.
As for the materials themselves, almost inevitably scholars have begun their task by
considering folklore and by trying to differentiate it from literature. Even though folklore
is related to many other disciplines—from art and architecture to music and recreation—
literature has remained the key one. Scholars have proposed at least three different means
to distinguish the materials.
One viewpoint is that while literature is an art, folklore is more like a craft; in other
words, folklore is literature minus the art. This may be fairly characterized as an elitist
view of literature, although American folklore’s historical pursuit of marginal peoples—
rural, poor, immigrants, and others—and their folklore has certainly contributed to this
perception. This view denies that folk arts are art at all, and tends to be fundamentally
socioeconomic- and class-based; that is, the wealthy can afford (both in money and time)
art, while the working class may not, and the poor and isolated cannot, and therefore they
have none. Conversely, rural and poor peoples have folklore, while urban, educated, and
wealthy Americans do not.
American folklorist Alan Dundes has proposed that “we are all folk,” and this
conception is particularly appropriate for the United States, a country founded upon
democracy, equality, and freedom. This viewpoint has ramifications as to who has art,
including verbal art. No longer is art necessarily elite, something necessary to import into
rural and impoverished communities; indeed, folklorists, anthropologists, and other
scholars have turned their attention to “indigenous” arts or folk arts that arise from, and
already exist in, traditional communities. Also, American folklorists have worked for
more than a generation to document and study urban folklore. Nevertheless, artistic status and significance are granted more easily to formally trained performers in tuxedos and
evening dresses on a concert stage than to traditional blues singers performing in a
nightclub or storytellers on a porch. In American culture, however, fine storytellers are,
in fact, “verbal artists.” Similar cases can be made for wood-carvers, clock makers,
quilters, potters, and other folk performers—art is fundamental to them all. In fact, one of
the similarities between American folklore and American literature is that historically
they are not class-based. American authors have come from all groups and classes, and
the same is true for American folklore. All classes and groups in America have art, literature, and folklore, even if they have not all yet been studied adequately.
A second viewpoint—the belief that folklore and literature are fundamentally and
clearly separable, according to one criterion or another—has led to a number of dividing
lines, none of which finally stand up to scrutiny. Perhaps the most commonly used is that
of medium; that is, folklore is oral, while literature is written. Some scholars from both
literature and anthropology see this as a firm dividing line and then consider folklore as
simply the precursor of literature, because cultures developed oral communication before
writing. Thus, for example, H.Monro and Nora K.Chadwick’s monumental study The
Growth of Literature (3 vols. 1932–1940) views folklore (including ballads, romances,
and epic) as the predecessors to written works of literature in cultures around the world.
To be sure, oral folklore did precede written literature, but oral folklore has not died out
over the thousands of years since writing or even the hundreds of years since printed
books have been available. Nor have literary works necessarily developed in all cultures
that have developed writing and print. Thus, to depict the distinction as unidirectional and
evolutionary based on technological development is misleading and simplistic. Indeed,
oral traditions have persisted, and new traditions have been created; they are all thriving
well into the era of electronic communication.
Further complicating the matter is that the line drawn according to the medium of
transmission is no longer widely accepted. Folklorists have accepted and studied a
number of traditional written forms, including graffiti, and literary scholars have moved
away from the criterion of writing. After all, there are still thousands of different
languages active within the United States. Is it accurate to conclude that so many cultures
have no literature? If by “literature” one means written works of artistic merit, then yes,
but more and more literary scholars have adopted the term “oral literature” as a means of
acknowledging and accepting oral performances as works of artistic merit and
significance as well. As a result, the claim that medium provides a clear distinguishing
line between folklore and literature is no longer valid.
A number of other criteria for distinction between folklore and literature have been
proposed, most based upon a gross generalization from a few select, but not always
representative, examples. For example, attempts have been made to differentiate the
materials according to permanence. that is, folklore is fluid and transitory, while
literature, because it is fixed in print, is permanent. Here one must consider what is meant
by permanent. While it is true that most folklore is transitory in the sense of its orally
performed characteristics, one must recall that oral genres and even specific texts can be
traced back several thousand years. The texts of many literary works are hardly as
“fixed” as some literary scholars represent, and their reputation or place in the culture can
change just as dramatically and quickly as oral performances. Thus, permanence has not
turned out to be a wholly satisfactory or clearly distinguishable characteristic. Another criterion proposed has been the orientation: folklore expresses the traditional within a
culture, while literature (as art) forsakes the traditional for the creative and innovative. To
be sure, folklore does capture traditional aspects of a culture, but each performer
invigorates the traditional with his or her own creative use in performance, and literature
certainly has its own traditional elements. Therefore, literature and folklore cannot be
fairly characterized as though one looks forward while the other looks backward; they are
both complex artistic forms combining traditional elements with innovation in
performance. Still other scholars have attempted to separate them according to what
might be termed ownership: Literature is signed and identified, while folklore is
anonymous. This may be due more to convention and copyright law than anything else,
but, even so, it is not completely true. Many literary works, such as Walt Whitman’s
Leaves of Grass, were published anonymously, while in many cultures certain stories are
told only by (and thus, in effect, “owned by”) a particular performer. Others have
suggested complexity as a distinguishing criterion: Literatures style and structure is more
complex than folklore’s. This distinction depends in large part upon which works one
selects as representative examples of literature and folklore. Furthermore, it depends on
how scholars account for all of the different levels of complexity—including metrics,
structure, and style. Finally, some scholars persist in asserting that folklore and literature
are distinguished by who creates it; that is, folklore is created by groups, while literature
is generated only by individuals. Folklore scholars long ago dismissed the notion of
folklore being created by groups. Individuals generate performances for others, whether
they read or listen in groups or individually
In general, the attempt to create neat and simple dichotomous categories for folklore
and literature has led to frustration. In fact, the boundaries between folklore and literature
are neither natural nor secure. Any number of works are problematic. What does one call
The Odyssey, Grimm’s Household Tales, or Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus: His
Songs and Sayings? Are these examples folklore, oral literature, orally based literature,
literature based upon folklore, or simply literature itself? Perhaps one key to
understanding that cultural expressions can be either—and even both—and that the
interaction between folklore and literature is necessarily fluid and complex lies in
realizing that folklore and literature are different kinds of cultural products, valued
essentially by different groups.
Literature, at least until quite recently, has been viewed primarily as a written product
(although in the 1990s this is being revised to include oral forms for many cultures)
whose value and significance are not limited to the ethnic and national group from which
it comes; that is, the artistic merit and human values expressed are not specific or unique
to one culture. Indeed, in some cases it has been readers from other cultures around the
world who have called attention to particular artists’ works, rather than readers within the
author’s native group. In contrast, folklore is a wider category (in that it includes more
than verbal forms), but the value and significance of traditions are fundamentally within
or between particular cultures. As a result, outsiders may see folklore as exotic, quaint, or
even disturbing in contrast to their own familiar artistic expressions. Both folklore and
literature, therefore, function as artistic and significant cultural expressions for their
respective audiences.
Particular examples of folklore—proverbs, songs, tales, legends—have been recorded,
transcribed, printed, and distributed to become part of American literature. Examples range from American Indian myths and folktales to Anglo American ballads and
folksongs. The original oral tradition may continue independent of, and perhaps wholly
oblivious to, the written product. Similarly, a work of literature can help generate an oral
tradition while the original written work remains intact. Biographical narratives about
famous American figures—from George Washington and John F.Kennedy to Lizzie
Borden and Marilyn Monroe—have helped create or spread stories into oral tradition.
Further, a written tradition may interact with an oral tradition in any number of different
ways. In fact, the history of American culture provides many rich opportunities for case
studies of the interaction between folklore and literature.
The study of the relationships between American folklore and American literature is
complex at least partly because any artist, whether oral or a writer, takes some cultural
knowledge and combines it with creativity and inspiration, and thus inevitably reshapes
the raw material. There are often differences, sometimes quite major, between one work
and another. One might consider the difference in form and style between traditional
American Indian tales, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s Algic Researckes (1839), and, finally,
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Hiawatha. Connections between folklore and literature
in general, and specific texts in particular, may seem obvious, but folklorists have learned
to assess relationships very carefully Richard M.Dorson proposed that scholars studying
the relationships of folklore and literature consider at least three kinds of evidence
(biographical, internal, and corroborative) before asserting any direct connection (Dorson
1957). Biographical evidence would include pertinent data that an author did indeed
know about a particular culture and information about how he came to know it firsthand.
Longfellow, for example, never lived among American Indians as preparation for writing
Hiawatha, nor did he live among Cajuns before he wrote Evangeline. On the other hand,
George Washington Cable grew up and lived much of his early life in New Orleans and
was employed by the U.S. Census Bureau for work across southern Louisiana. His
representations of Cajuns and Creoles, while not always flattering to those cultures, are at
least based on his personal experiences. Dorsons internal evidence involves evaluating
whether a particular product (tale, song, proverb, joke, and the like) is set in an
appropriate context for the particular culture and community represented. If the writer
faithfully depicts the scene, this adds evidence that the writer does indeed have firsthand
knowledge of the culture and its folklore. Finally, corroborative evidence consists of
proof that the particular material (a story, proverb, joke, custom) has had an independent
traditional life. This requires checking other appropriate collections to confirm the
existence of this item in oral tradition. For instance, examining collections of Cajun folk
history and legends will produce virtually no evidence for an oral version of Evangeline.
On the other hand, Mark Twain recalled a traditional ghost legend (“The Golden Arm”)
told to him in his youth and wrote Joel Chandler Harris to ask if he knew the story as
well. Harris had not heard it, but he later collected it and used it as the basis for a tale in
Nights with Uncle Remus, while Twain used his version for part of the essay “How to
Tell a Story”—and alternated between the two versions in his performances on the
lecture circuit.
The history of American literature is inevitably and deeply tied to American folklore.
Early American writing clearly contains numerous examples of folklore and stands as an
expression of Americans’ peculiar concerns and experiences. Illustrations abound in
Richard M.Dorson’s America Begins: Early American Writing (1950), a sourcebook of American colonial writings. The volume contains selections from many familiar colonial
authors: John Josselyn, Increase and Cotton Mather, John Smith, John Winthrop, and
others. However, Dorson groups the readings not by author and work but according to
issues and themes pertinent to those encountering the New World: voyages to the New
World, natural wonders, remarkable providences, Indians (including captivity stories),
witchcraft, and so forth. By doing this, Dorson illustrates the colonists’ lifestyles and
culture as manifest in both their folklore and the written accounts. These early American
writings are strongly rooted in American folklore and New World experiences.
Over the next century and a half, however, prominent American writers looked more
to the Old World for models, especially literary models. Forms popular in France,
Germany, and England became the norm for American writers—the essay, short story,
and romance among prose forms, for example. With those forms came their concerns,
including class distinctions and the development of refinement and taste.
By shortly after the Civil War, at least one prominent writer spoke up to criticize
American literature—specifically, for forsaking American folklore and American themes.
In fact, Walt Whitman, in Democratic Vistas (1877), claimed that so far there was
virtually no American literature. He recognized that the heart of any national literature
was what made that particular culture different and unique—especially its experiences
and its peculiar genres. Whitman denounced earlier American writers for following Old
World themes and Old World forms, such as the romance. He argued that American
writers instead should pay attention to American experiences, such as the Civil War. He
pointed out that the national character of Old World countries was best found and
expressed in their ballads (part of their folklore), and that the goal for American writers
was to find the appropriate forms for this in the New World. To be sure, Whitman’s
contribution to American literature is not at all limited to this stance. His free verse broke
the tradition of English metrics and offered opportunities to future generations of writers,
and for much of his career he wrote powerfully about America and his love of it
(including “I Hear America Singing,” “Song of Myself,” and many other works). Still,
Whitman is remarkable in his outspoken views about the importance of America (the
New World); its folklore, its themes, and its forms of American literature were to develop
as something more than an emulation of Old World authors and styles.
Whether one attributes the change to Whitman or not, American literature changed
during the 19th century and moved to incorporate and depict American experiences,
themes, and issues, including the Civil War, slavery and racial prejudice, opportunities
for economic success, the woman’s changing role in society, and the Vietnam War,
among others. New forms—such as slave narratives and other kinds of life stories—
became important sources. Many American writers, from Horatio Alger and Edward
Albee to John Barth and T.S.Eliot, from William Faulkner and Sylvia Plath to William
Styron and Eudora Welty, have used folklore in some ways in their writings. Clearly, the
focus on the American experience, including its particular themes, issues, and folklore,
has had a major impact on American literature.
Literary critics, however, have sometimes associated folklore primarily with regional
literature. In their view, folklore consists primarily of regional dialects, folk humor, and
peculiar character types and is chiefly found in humorous writings of the Old Southwest
and New England. The impact of folklore is much broader than this and is by no means
limited to regional literature. In fact, the finest works of American Literature are deeply rooted in American folklore; including Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Twain’s The
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Faulkner’s Absalom,
Absalom. Several writers specifically address the importance of folklore in American life.
Huckleberry Finn, for instance, learns far more about life and how to live among others
from the runaway slave Jim than from his book-learned friend Tom Sawyer. Jim’s
lessons, often on signs and customs but occasionally using personal narratives, are often
humble, but always heartfelt, and it is his respect and affection to which Huck ultimately
In the past, the primary focus and methodology for studies in folklore and literature
lay in the identification of items of folklore within works of literature. Over the last
several decades, scholars have urged that both identification and interpretation be part of
the process: that is, if folklore is indeed part of a written work, how and why is that
relevant? How does the folklore influence the audience’s associations and perceptions?
Most recently, the area of folklore and literature has expanded to include the complex
interactions between the two related expressive forms. This includes not just the
identification of, and relationships between, particular texts, but also the choices that
artists make when creating a work in a particular medium or tradition. In some cases,
issues such as form (genre), style, structure, and tone may be just as significant as the
text. Quite a few American writers, including Washington Irving, Nathanial Hawthorne,
Twain, and others have used the fairy tale (Märchen) form—not a traditional American
oral form—for a wide range of purposes. James Thurber’s “The Girl and the Wolf,” for
example, parodies the form. More recently, authors have turned to this form in an attempt
to redraw the distinctions in the roles in traditional tales. Because the study of folklore
and literature involves expressive forms that are fluid and that interact with each other,
this area has also grown to include the relationships of orality and writing in general. The
study of oral performance, composition, aesthetics, and repertoire has become inevitably
connected to the study of writing, print, and electronic media. In many contemporary
cultures, performers must choose from among several media and many forms. Those
studying the relationships between folklore and American literature can contribute to a
better understanding of how artists make their choices and how creativity can be
expressed and manipulated.
Eric L.Montenyohl
Brown, A.La Vonne, and Jerry W.Ward. 1990. Redefining American Literary History. New York:
Modern Language Association of America.
Dorson, Richard M. 1957. The Identification of Folklore in American Literature. Journal of
American Folklore 70:1–8.
Dundes, Alan. 1965. The Study of Folklore in Literature and Culture: Identification and
Interpretation. Journal of American Folklore 78:136–142.
Jones, Steven Swann. 1984. Folklore and Literature in the United States: An Annotated
Bibliography of Studies of Folklore in American Literature. New York: Garland.
Rosenberg, Bruce A. 1991. Folklore and Literature: Rival Siblings. Knoxville: University of
Tennessee Press.