Folklore (American History Through Literature)
Folklore is that part of a culture learned informally and interpersonally in groups whose members have a common bond. Communities such as a village or urban neighborhood as well as families, ethnic or religious groups, occupations, and regions generate and perpetuate traditions expressing shared values. Transmitted by word of mouth and demonstration, folklore takes many forms, from oral literature (proverbs, songs, tales) and material culture (architecture, crafts, food) to behavior that combines words and body action (superstitions, customs, games).
Folk knowledge was central to the lives of many Americans at the start of the nineteenth century. But institutions arising in the period 1820870, such as public schools, sheet music, popular magazines, and factories, would begin to fill the educational, recreational, and material needs once served by folk culture. This time of great change also saw the closing of the frontier, the building of a transcontinental rail system, and a demographic shift from country-side to city, breaking down the isolation that had fostered dependence on folklore for survival and quality of life.
Collectively, writers of the period who had grown up in tradition-based communities must have witnessed this transformation of American society with a mixture of regret and relief. Their literary uses of folklore, whether as the foundation of a work or for "local color," were both an attempt to recapture a vanishing way of life and an acknowledgment of the progress they were experiencing.
With a few exceptions, the serious study of American folklore did not occur until after 1870, as manifested by the establishment of the American Folklore Society in 1888 (along with academically based scholars, early members included Mark Twain, Joel Chandler Harris, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and George Washington Cable). Our knowledge of antebellum American folklore thus depends heavily on the work of imaginative writers, with little contemporaneous "scientific" fieldwork documentation to corroborate their reliability. For most of those authors, folklore was grist for the creative mill, not a collection of cultural gems to be accurately recorded.
Early literary uses of folklore can be a valuable resource that allows folklorists to fill in missing information. A methodology for assessing the authenticity of folklore in literature should include consultation of biographical materials to determine under what circumstances the author encountered the lore, and comparison of perceived folk materials with those in later "scientific" collections from the same culture believed to be continuous since the author's time. To literary scholars, on the other hand, folklore is of interest as one source of an author's inspiration and for its contribution to a work's artistic success.
Whereas historical events certainly have had a role in shaping American folklore, geography has been an even stronger influence; it has provided a template for the diversity of the country's population and physical environment. The regional character of American folklore will therefore be the basis for this review of some noteworthy cases of literary use.
Marking the beginning of the survey period, and also illustrating the "detective work" of analyzing folklore in literature, is Washington Irving's (1783859) "Rip Van Winkle" (1819). At first glance, the story seems to be a European fairy legend transplanted to New York State that Irving might have heard from descendants of early Hudson Valley settlers. But the story's endnote hints at a very different source: "The foregoing Tale, one would suspect, had been suggested . . . by a little German superstition about the . . . Kypphäuser [sic] mountain" (p. 57). Living abroad in 1817, Irving met British novelist and folklorist Sir Walter Scott (1771832), who encouraged him to explore German folklore. Soon thereafter, while learning German, Irving came across the folktale "Peter Klaus" in either Volks-Sagen (1800) by Otmar (Johann Carl Christoph Nachtigal) or Volks-Sagen, Märchen und Legenden (1811) by Johann G. Büsching. It concerns a goatherd who awakens from a twenty-year slumber, after drinking fairy wine on the Kyffhäuser Mountain, to find his village dramatically changed.
Although elements of "Rip Van Winkle" are nearly identical to those in "Peter Klaus," a close reading shows the German tale to be merely Irving's Old World springboard for a distinctly New World work of fiction. Further, mention of possibly genuine Catskill Mountains legends (the bowling ghosts of Henry Hudson's crew and the Postscript's Native American lore) is grafted to the conclusion. Although the main plot of "Rip" thus is not based on American folklore, the discovery of, and comparison with, its source material more clearly reveals Irving's creative contributions in this seminal work of American short fiction. (His other famous story, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" , most likely had a similar German inspiration in the headless-horseman Rübezahl legends published by Johann Karl August Musäus.)
Studies of folklore in literature often are by scholars whose literary training and focus has caused them to overlook their subjects's inclusion of material folk culture (which became part of American folklore study in the 1960s). Such is the case with Kevin J. Hayes's Melville's Folk Roots, which examines the largely nautical superstitions, legends, tall tales, proverbs, and songs in the works of Herman Melville (1819891), mostly acquired firsthand in his early sailing experiences. But Melville did not restrict himself to this verbal lore; some of his richest uses involve traditional food, art, and architecture. For example, chapter 32 of White-Jacket (1850) describes a type of sailor's pie called dunderfunk as "made of hard biscuit, hashed and pounded, mixed with beef fat, molasses, and water, and baked brown in a pan . . . in the feeling language of the Down Easter, [it] is certainly 'a cruel nice dish' " (p. 134); chapter 15 of Moby-Dick (1851) gives a recipe for New England chowder: "It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt" (p. 65). Both dishes create a sense of place, the first on sea to illustrate shipboard resourcefulness with limited stores, the second on land as Nantucket hotel fare.
Chapter 57 of Moby-Dick describes the folk art of scrimshaw: "In Nantucket, and New Bedford, and Sag Harbor, you will come across lively sketches of whales and whaling-scenes, graven by the fishermen themselves on Sperm Whale-teeth . . . in their hours of ocean leisure" (p. 269). This occurs as part of a critique of visual depictions of whales, Melville's point being that only artists who have actually seen the animal are capable of portraying it accurately (and, by extension, only those who have experienced the world can truly know it). This example of both occupational and regional folklore thus supports one of the author's philosophical themes. Finally, Melville's short story, "I and My Chimney" (1856), revolves around a type of vernacular building known to architectural historians as the New England Large House (a late-eighteenth-century development of the saltbox). Melville uses the dwelling, modeled on his real-life Berkshire farmhouse, Arrowhead, as a playful, pre-Freudian allegory of emasculation. The narrator's wife wants to tear out the massive central chimney with which he identifies to create a more fashionable hall: "'What!' said I, 'abolish the chimney? To take out the back-bone of anything, wife, is a hazardous affair'" (p. 289).
John Greenleaf Whittier (1807892) was both a poet and pioneer folklorist whose Legends of New-England in Prose and Verse (1831) and The Supernaturalism of New England (1847) were early attempts at preserving his region's "traditionary lore." Although much of his material was gleaned from printed sources, some evidently was taken from oral tradition. It should thus come as no surprise that he incorporated this lore in his poetry. A good example is "Telling the Bees" (1858). In his note to the somber poem the folklorist in him explains, "A remarkable custom, brought from the Old Country, formerly prevailed in the rural districts of New England. On the death of a member of the family, the bees were at once informed of the event, and their hives dressed in mourning. This ceremonial was supposed to be necessary to prevent the swarms from leaving their hives and seeking a new home" (p. 59).Whittier's appreciation of the custom's origin, indicative of the English background of early New England folklore, is confirmed three decades later by British writer Thomas Hardy's description of the same tradition in one of his Wessex Tales, "Interlopers at the Knap."
A rich vein of folklore runs through the antebellum literature known as "humor of the old Southwest." Southern writers such as David Crockett (and his exploiters), Johnson Jones Hooper, William Tappan Thompson, George Washington Harris, and Thomas Bangs Thorpe broke from British literary models by using rustic speech, characters, and manners to comically portray their region. Allowing for the fictionalization and exaggeration, their works provide valuable insight into America's frontier folkways.
A pioneer of this genre was Augustus Baldwin Longstreet (1790870), whose Georgia Scenes (1835) is set in Augusta, Georgia, in the 1790s. Teachers then were paid directly by parents, who would withhold pay for the days their children were freely given a holiday. In Longstreet's sketch, "The Turn Out," the pupils barricade themselves in the log schoolhouse and prevent the teacher from entering until he is forced to grant them a holiday. This curious school ritual had its origins in sixteenth-century Britain and is the subject of Anglo-Irish novelist Maria Edgeworth's story, "The Barring Out" (1796). In America, "turn outs" are documented as early as 1702, but Georgia Scenes is the first literary treatment, followed by Edward Eggleston's The Hoosier School-Master (1871).
Another Longstreet sketch, "The Gander Pulling," features an even more unbelievable, but no less real, tradition. Vaguely inspired by medieval jousting tournaments, this brutal sport of the frontier South and Midwest required contestants to gallop their horses along a track while trying to yank the greased head off a live male goose suspended by the feet from above. Travel writers Henry Bradshaw Fearon and George William Featherstonhaugh described the sport in the early nineteenth century, but again, Georgia Scenes is the first fictionalization, followed by The Crockett Almanac 1840.
Perhaps the finest (from the folklorist's perspective) literary use of folklore for the period, if one of the most obscure, is Hardin E. Taliaferro's (1811875) Fisher's River (North Carolina) Scenes and Characters (1859). The author, a Baptist minister and newspaper editor in Alabama, wrote the book following a visit to his Appalachian home community in Surry County, North Carolina. His recollections of boyhood neighbors emphasize the tradition of storytelling, in particular tall tales, a folktale type favored by many regional humorists (perhaps because it relies on the same hyperbole as do their writings). Taliaferro, however, managed to produce a work of literary merit with few of the genre's usual distortions.
At the same time, Fisher's River is a reliable American folklore document for the 1820s, a good half century before the first serious research. Early variants of folktales are told in dialect in the social contexts in which the author originally heard them. He did not even fictionalize the narrators's names (although he chose to hide his own identity with the pen name "Skitt"). These include Larkin Snow, the miller, whose stories entertained customers waiting for their meal to be ground, and gunsmith Uncle Davy Lane, whose "Ride in the Peach-Tree" substitutes a peach pit for the cherry stone used by Baron Munchausen in an eighteenth-century European variant of the hunting yarn. The seed, rammed down the barrel of the narrator's rifle when he runs out of regular ammunition, is fired at a large buck, which then runs off. A few years later, the narrator climbs from a cliff into a peach tree to gather the fruit, only to have the tree, which he discovers to be growing from the shoulders of the same stag, run off with him.
The best nineteenth-century literary portrayals of African American folklore, such as those of Joel Chandler Harris (1848908) and Charles Waddell Chesnutt (1858932), appeared too late for the period under consideration. Two earlier nonfiction works, however, give a promise of things to come. While Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (1845) was intended as abolitionist polemic, its details of slave culture anticipate the ex-slave oral histories recorded in the 1930s as part of President Franklin Roosevelt's Work Projects Administration. Frederick Douglass (1818895) describes the Maryland plantation of Colonel Edward Lloyd as having "the appearance of a country village. All the mechanical operations for all the farms were performed here. The shoemaking . . . the blacksmithing, cartwrighting, coopering, weaving, and grain-grinding, were all performed by the slaves on the home plantation" (p. 37). Slave fare consisted of "coarse corn meal boiled. This was called mush. It was put into a large wooden tray or trough, and set down upon the ground. The children were then called, like so many pigs . . . [to] devour the mush; some with oyster-shells, others with pieces of shingle, some with naked hands, and none with spoons" (p. 45).
As protection from whippings, a fellow slave advised Douglass to carry "a certain root . . . always on my right side," but in a note the author distances himself from such magico-religious practices: "This superstition is very common among the more ignorant slaves" (pp. 67, 73). Charles Waddell Chesnutt would later fictitiously elaborate, in The Conjure Woman (1899), on the empowering sense of control afforded slaves by this African-derived belief system.
Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823911), literary critic, friend of poet Emily Dickinson, abolitionist, and commander of the First South Carolina Volunteers, a Union Army regiment of freed slaves, devotes a chapter of his Army Life in a Black Regiment (1870) to the spirituals he jotted down at night in the outfit's Civil War camp. The chapter was first published as an Atlantic Monthly article in 1867, the same year field-collected variants of twenty of his thirty-seven songs appeared in Slave Songs of the United States, compiled by pioneer folklorists William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison, a confirmation of their authenticity.
A limited grounding in the culture of the American West typifies the antebellum writers who depicted this region's folklore. A case in point is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's lengthy poem, The Song of Hiawatha (1855). Sparked by the East's (and his own) Romantic fascination with Native Americans, Longfellow (1807882) wrote in an 1854 journal entry, "I have at length hit upon a plan for a poem on the American Indians. . . . It is to weave their beautiful traditions into a whole. I have hit upon a measure, too, which I think the right and only one for such a theme" (S. Longfellow 2:24748). That measure was the trochaic tetrameter, or "tom-tom" beat, of the Kalevala, a Finnish folk epic compiled by Elias Lönnrot (1849, German translation 1852). The traditions Longfellow chose to weave were tales of the Algonquin trickster hero Manabozho, collected in Michigan among the Ojibwa (Chippewa) by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (1793864) and published in his Algic Researches (1839). Some tales in that study had been rendered into English by Schoolcraft's half-Ojibwa wife and chief interpreter, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (Bame-wa-was-gezhik-a-quay, 1800842). Longfellow said of the pioneer ethnologist, "I have pored over Mr. Schoolcraft's writings nearly three years before I resolved to appropriate something of them to my own use" (Keiser, p. 192).
As a presentation of Ojibwa mythology, however, Longfellow's poem is less than reliable. One problem is the name of his protagonist. A week after the previously quoted journal entry he wrote, "Work at 'Manabozho'; or, as I think I shall call it, 'Hiawatha' that being another name for the same personage" (S. Longfellow 2:248). Hiawatha was said to have united the warring tribes of central New York into the Iroquois League around 1570; he had no connection with the more westerly Manabozho. The confusion of the two figures began when Schoolcraft, taking some poetic license himself, read a group of Hiawatha legends and made him into an Ojibwa god. Longfellow compounded the error and further departed from his source material by emphasizing the more creative side of Manabozho's character, that of culture hero. Not all of Longfellow's borrowings were from print, however; Schoolcraft arranged for him to meet Mendoskong, an Ojibwa chief, who supplied firsthand information. This rare early collaboration of a folklorist, folklore informant, and creative writer is remarkable in itself.
The Indians of the Great Plains made a literary appearance as early as 1827 in James Fenimore Cooper's The Prairie, a westward extension of his Leatherstocking novels. However, Cooper (1789851) had never been within a thousand miles of its Wyoming setting, relying for his details on the 1823 account of Stephen H. Long's expedition to the Rocky Mountains. In contrast, Francis Parkman's (1823893) travel narrative, The Oregon Trail (1848), offers a realistic (if superficial) eyewitness account of Dakota (Sioux) traditions, especially customs and material culture.
"The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" (1865) launched struggling journalist Mark Twain (1835910) into the literary spotlight. Rooted in the Southwestern Humor genre, the story is said to be based on folklore, but the nature of that lore is unclear. In an Angels Camp, California, saloon, Twain heard former steamboat captain Ben Coon tell of a frog-jumping contest. Whether Coon's yarn was a local tall tale or an account of an actual gold miners's recreation, similar stories in California newspapers of the 1850s suggest a tradition of some kind. Although Twain's story paints a less detailed portrait of life in the gold fields than Bret Harte's "The Luck of Roaring Camp" (1868), it did inspire a California tradition of its own: in 1928 the Angels Camp Boosters Club began its annual Calaveras County Fair and Jumping Frog Jubilee.
Partly as a response to the disruptions of the Civil War and the nostalgia of the Centennial, the later nineteenth century ushered in a golden age of folklore in American literature. If regional diversity arising from early settlement and the frontier experience can be said to mark the literary use of folklore from 1820 to 1870, the following decades would see for American letters a greater ethnic and gender inclusiveness, revealing more fully the colors and textures of the country's folk-cultural patchwork. Such literary masters of folklore as Mark Twain, Joel Chandler Harris, and George Washington Cable would come into their own, soon followed by the likes of Rowland E. Robinson, Charles Chesnutt, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Kate Chopin. But the antebellum writers of this survey pointed the way, establishing a precedent for using folklore to reconnect American readers to their roots in traditional culture.
See also Blacks; "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County"; Humor; Indians; "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"; Moby-Dick; Oral Tradition; "Rip Van Winkle"; The Song of Hiawatha; Tall Tales
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John A. Burrison