Title Reviewed:
American Folklore

Author Reviewed:
Richard M. Dorson

Clarence F. McIntosh


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 57, Issue 2, pp 173-175

Article Type:
Book Review

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American Folklore. By Richard M. Dorson. The Chicago History of American Civilization. Edited by Daniel J. Boorstin. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959. Pp. ix, 328. Chronology, bibliographical notes, table, index. $4.50.)

At first glance, the title of this volume appears to be merely descriptive, but after reading the Foreword it takes on a special and complex meaning. The author, professor of history and folklore at Indiana University, commences his essay with a definition of folklore. It is, he writes, "the oral traditions channeled across the centuries through human mouths" (p. 2). He points out that folklore may refer to types of barns, quilts, tales, songs, customs, rituals, and a variety of other phenomena. "The common element" he sees in this variety is "tradition." He then states an assumption upon which the entire book rests: "Since the ar⋆⋆⋆e of tradition in a given culture may vary considerably from country to country, it is only right that the study of folklore should follow the contours of a particular civilization" (p. 2). This, in brief, is Dorson's theory of American folklore, which he first presented before an audience of scholars in 1957. His book thus becomes an extensive exposition of this idea.

American folklore, the author writes, began to take form with the first colonist landings. Beliefs of the Old World were grafted onto the environment of the New World. Colonial folklore centered on themes of the land, savages, and the providence of God. With the coming of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, Providence passed from general attention. The new turn that folklore took was native—from "the odd grain of American character." Regional types, the down-Easter, the crafty Yankee, the homespun southerner, and the expansive westerner, all developed. Using subliterary sources, such as the Spirit of the Times, the author examines in particular the development of folk humor, which, he asserts, decreased as sectional strife grew. "But," he concludes, "the backwoods oral yarn found one final supreme mode of expression during the Civil War holocaust, in the person of its central actor, Abraham Lincoln" (p. 69).

Mr. Dorson interrupts his chronological presentation at this point and shifts to some other aspects of American folklore. He interprets the regional folk culture of the Pennsylvania Germans, the Ozark hill folk, Spanish New Mexicans, Utah Mormons, and Maine Coast Yankees, all of whose traditions stand in contrast to American urban industrial society. In an examination of immigrant folklore, he poses the question, "What happens to the inherited traditions of European and Asiatic folk after they settle in the United States and learn a new language and new ways" (pp. 135–136). Drawing mainly upon his own collection of lore from the Upper Penninsula of Michigan, the author concludes that tradition among immigrants lasts longer than is commonly supposed. He also explores Negro folklore, which he perhaps surprisingly treats separately from that of other immigrants, and concludes that its African origins should be minimized. Folk heroes also receive consideration. Using the term "fakelore" that he coined in 1949 in connection with deliberately manufactured folk heroes like Paul Bunyan, the author develops in contrast legendary heroes like Davy Crockett and Jesse James. Returning to his chronology the author ends his essay with a brief chapter on modern folklore, in which he concludes, after an examination of the folklore of city folk, college students, and G.I.'s, that mass culture is not traditionless. "The idea that folklore is dying out is itself a kind of folklore" (p. 278).

Some readers will be disappointed because of gaps in the illustrative material from the wide spectrum of folklore that the author draws upon; and others will find weaknesses in his case. Among the former is the almost complete exclusion of folk dance, art, and crafts. Among the latter, three examples will suffice. It appears that the author raises some issues that ought to be pursued further. One of these is the problem of maintenance of tradition by immigrants. He probably dismisses too quickly the general implications of the studies of Marvin K. Opler, who reaches a conclusion in his study of the Japanese and Nisei that varies from Dorson's own. More collecting and interpreting in this area is needed before a firmly held conclusion should be reached. Weaknesses also appear in the chapter on folk heroes. Dorson correctly designates Paul Bunyan hero-tales as "fakelore." Are, however, many of the Davy Crockett tales, which were in part the products of Whig politicians and propagandists, less "manufactured" than those about Bunyan? In short, the useful term, "fakelore," should be applied consistently. Also, why should the author exclude the leading figures in our national experience about whom tradition has woven many tales, namely George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln, from his gallery of folk heroes? To qualify, must a folk hero be of local significance and then become legendary through oral word and sub-literary media? Must the hero be only "folksy"? Why not consistently follow the definition of "tradition" as folklore if it is valid? These weaknesses, however, are minor in view of Dorson's thesis.

Professor Dorson demonstrates beyond much doubt his theory that American folklore, or at least many of its aspects, follows the "contours" of American civilization. This is his great achievement, for which we are grateful. Further, he uses his extensive collecting and interpreting in the field of folklore skillfully and easily, making this book both a good introduction to American folklore for the beginner and a stimulating interpretation for the scholar.

Clarence F. McIntosh, Chico State College

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.