anglo-american connections in folklore and folklife

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  • Anglo-American Connections in Folklore and FolklifeAuthor(s): Simon J. BronnerSource: Folklore, Vol. 101, No. 1 (1990), pp. 47-57Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of Folklore Enterprises, Ltd.Stable URL: .Accessed: 16/06/2014 22:44

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  • Folklore vol. 101:i, 1990 47

    Anglo-American Connections in Folklore and Folklife SIMON J. BRONNER

    CONSIDERING that the settlement, language, and arts of the United States derived in great part from the British Isles, one would expect the links between folklore studies in the two places to be stronger.' This is not to say that great achievements have not been made. Every student of folklore knows of Harvard Professor Francis James Child's catalogue of British ballads, the Englishman Cecil Sharp's harvest of English folk songs in the southern Appalachians of the United States, Vance Randolph's vast collection of tales and customs derived from British inspiration in the American Ozarks, or Richard Dorson's encyclopedic narrative of the Victorian British folklorists.2 And it is possible to point to a flurry of research activity across the Atlantic before the turn of the century, and again after World War II; but until recently Americans, like their English cousins in folklore studies, mostly turned their lenses on peoples they considered more exotic- American Indians, east and south European immigrants, Africans, and Asians. This essay offers some possible explanations for this transatlantic rift and suggests a research agenda involving the analysis of the structure and aesthetics guiding traditions.


    American folklorists had the best intentions for Anglo-American study. After all, they organized the American Folklore Society in 1888 on the model of the English society formed ten years earlier, and in a nod to the mission of the Folklore Society they announced that their Society served to encourage the 'collection of the fast-vanishing remains of folk- lore in America.' Several examples of these remains were given, including the lore of French Canada, Indian tribes in North America, and negroes in the Southern States, but listed first were 'relics of old English folk-lore (ballads, tales, superstitions, etc.).3 The anthropological emphasis in the Society's early years, however, ensured the attitude that the workings of culture were revealed by attention to the primitive and exotic, rather than by the historical examination of the common and everyday centred on the immediate past. British precedent helped to establish this principle. Evolutionary doctrine reigned, and in folklore study it supported a search for a long-hidden past where the origins of modern institutions in pagan rituals could be unearthed. For the Victorians, the genre of custom and belief, and its symbolic ascent from superstition to science, from rude existence to genteel manners, became the standard topic for study. This anthropological study of folklore was particularly suited to English and American ideas of civilization. According to the predominant philosophy, civilizing was a moral and technological uplifting of peoples into nations and empires. In the best-selling works of the Englishman Herbert Spencer, who applied Darwin's precepts to the civilizing process, and of similarly minded scholars in America such as John Fiske, Lewis Henry Morgan, and William Graham Sumner (who all wrote on folkways), Victorians read of folklore as key evidence of the rise of civilization from savage and barbaric stages.4 This rise was tied to

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    industrialization and empire-building, coupled with the development of rational codes of moral judgments of character and manners inside the home. The assumption that there were stages of regular development through which civilizations climbed assured the dominant nations in the West of their superiority, for they saw themselves as occupying the top of the ladder, proud that their technology, expansiveness, and rationality marked the height of civilization.

    The separati6n that had occurred in Great Britain between the study of oral and material genres in folk culture also found its way into the American conception of folklore, despite objections from certain leading British folklorists, notably George Laurence Gomme who argued for 'lore' as a sweeping kind of knowledge found in customs, tales, and crafts.5 The use of 'lore' mostly applied to tales and beliefs nonetheless suggested to most writers in Britain a crude survival of past practice which drew distinction because it seemed out of place within a modernizing society like Britain's. The significant fact for analysis and comparison was the remaining text, and owing to evolutionary doctrine it was often assumed to be universal. The use of 'life' suggested a perception of tradition which was much more localized and functional within a community or group; it often assumed a relation of traditions to the present needs of people within a community. Especially lasting and influential in the dominant use of 'lore' was the emphasis on genre, and classification by text, rather than by social group, spread by George Laurence Gomme's Handbook of Folk-Lore published in 1890, and expanded by Charlotte Burne in 1914. Gomme's influence can be seen, for example, in The Folk-Lore Manual of 1892, whose American author Fletcher Bassett admits that its essential contents were derived from Gomme's work.6 The name of 'folk-lore' coined by William John Thoms in 1846, lent itself to a textual interpretation. A progression similar to the one from Thoms to Gomme and others in England can also be found in the United States. John Fanning Watson, a Philadelphia merchant, saw industrialization and urbanization taking away what he called 'traditionary lore' during the 1820s, and, moved by Sir Walter Scott's field collections in Scotland, made a collection which he called Annals of the Olden Time in Philadelphia (1830). Although striking for its dig in the backyard for local customs, Watson's antiquarian efforts, like Thoms's, were submerged in the rush for an anthropological science of folklore.' William Wells Newell, organizer of the American Folklore Society, claimed in 1892 that 'American students will prefer . . . to consider the comparative examination of this material as a part of anthropological science.'"

    Folklorists working in anthropological museums, especially, flocked to the American Folklore Society. Serious about the study of folklore but lacking university status, the Society sought to convey a professional image. Later, when folklorists in anthropology, language, and literature managed to establish footholds in American universities, the Society became more academic. This development marks an essential difference between the progression of the American and English Folklore Societies. The English Society could not carry over its serious image into the universities, and instead it fostered the noble status of the enthusiastic amateur. The emphasis on survival and custom in English folklore study continued well into the twentieth century. And the study of survival and custom for the English Society retained an international, cross-cultural scope, owing to the days of global empire. The American Society meanwhile focused more and more on its own field, a nation of diversity.

    American study diverged from its British precedent largely at the behest of Franz Boas, a German-American. professor at Columbia University who became president of the American Folklore Society in 1900 and served as editor of its journal from 1908 to 1924.

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    Boas moved folklore study from its evolutionary biological model to a system of relativity inspired by Albert Einstein's theories. Cultural relativity lacked the absolutism of cultural evolution. Cultural relativity was based on the distinctiveness of many cultures, one not being better or loftier than another, though different in character and history. Thus the assumption that survivals found in a culture of the present could be connected to a different culture of another time did not hold up in a view of time and space that was heterogeneous rather than homogeneous. Boas's cultural relativism stressed the integrity of individual cultures and, often, the individual within the culture. Such a move meant a d


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