America in Legend

English 432: American Folklore
MW 1:00-2:15, HLG 202

Professor John Laudun
HLG 356, MW 2:30-3:30, Tuesdays 9:00–12:00, and by appointment. 482-5493 or

Course Description

The course is designed to introduce participants to the basics of folklore studies, both through an initial “bootcamp” as well as through ongoing readings – some as a focus for conversation, others as sidebars, and then to explore the way that America is socially constructed through stories we tell, sometimes to cheer ourselves on, and sometimes to scare ourselves silly. As an advanced course for undergraduates and a foundational course for graduate students, this course attempts to address folk materials and dynamics in terms of rhetorical effectiveness, literary/generic structure, and cultural history. Some students will be interested in the theory that will be used, albeit lightly, throughout the course, and non-folklorists interested in American literature and culture will find the historical dimensions critical to understanding certain genres/topics of American fiction.

The goal of this course is to examine online, and offline, legends and understand the sources, both structural and referential, upon which they draw. Social media will be one of our foci, and as such this course highlights that media, first, has always been social, and that, second, the social world has always been mediated. Because of the personal nature of much of social media, participants in this course will need to have an open mind about the nature of meaning, and, just as importantly, about the varieties of human experience and perception. Much of the material in this course reveals the anxieties and fears, the prejudices and blindnesses, that humans too often carry with them and rarely communicate directly, only allowing them to slip out indirectly, in stories and assertions that manifest what are often tangled knots of things thought and/or felt. In some cases, the knots are not pretty.

Course Requirements

For matters of daily comportment and responsibility, please see The Essentials.


A great deal of the readings are scholarly in nature and will be available either as links to JSTOR and Project Muse or through the course’s Moodle site, either as PDFs or as links to sites. In addition to the on-line materials, there are a few books required for this course. Those titles will be given to you within the first few weeks of classes. Expect to purchase between 2 and 4 books, so be sure to set aside a portion of your budget for that expense, in addition to the cost of printing other materials as needed.


The assignment schedule for this course is simple: participation, exams, and a course project. Participation is worth 20% of your grade. Each of the exams is worth 15%; and the course project is worth the remaining 50%.


A lot of collections of “American folklore” have been published over the years, each with its own assumptions about both “America” and “folklore” as well as what the purpose of such a collection should be. Typical of one kind of collection are those by Charles Skinner, whose Myths and Legends of Our Own Land reaches 9 volumes. A more synthetic, and more contemporary, reference can be found in the American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, edited by Jan Brunvand, a copy of which is available in the university library (Reference GR101.A54). While dated by contemporary scholarly perspectives, the collection of essays in Don Yoder’s American Folklife (GR105.A6) is still quite useful, and foundational in many ways.

In addition to reference works focused on the topic of American folklore, there are a myriad of other specialist reference works, many of which are available either in electronic formats or in the library for your use. Consider the following titles: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Folklore, Encyclopedia of Asian American Folklore and Folklife, the Encyclopedia of Life Writing, The Greenwood Encyclopedia of World Folklore and Folklife are all the kinds of entry texts, being encyclopedias that will be familiar to your freshman/sophomore self but will also get your junior/senior/graduate self on the road to more serious and substantial work. That is, in addition to a synthesis/summary of a topic from a particular perspective, most scholarly encyclopedias also offer a small number of suggested readings. Please follow through on those readings the way you would a link on a web page.

Institutional Necessities

One day, the University will create a central resource that collects stuff like this, but until then, they ask faculty to include things like this:

Emergency Evacuation Procedures

A map of this floor is posted near the elevator marking the evacuation route and “Designated Rescue Area.” Students who need assistance should identify themselves to the instructor.

Accessibility Services, Disability Services, & Other Helpful People

The university maintains a wide variety of services and centers designed to help students who have either ongoing or emergent needs. Please don’t hesitate to contact any of these folks,, and don’t be embarrassed to talk to me.

Course Agenda

Please note two things: First, that this course does not follow a fixed, calendrical schedule, but, rather, an agenda. If you miss class, reach out to one of your contacts to ascertain where we are in the agenda. Second, in most cases, the direct link to an article or other kind of resource is posted in this course. In a number of instances, the direct link is to JSTOR, since that is where a number of folklore studies journals are archived. Please see the note on accessing materials for more information on successfully accessing databases and data repositories.


For those interested in exploring the materials drawn upon for the introductory lecture, and the founding assumptions of this course, the following brief bibliography offers some first steps:

Bateson, Gregory. 1972. Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press. (See the essays: “A Theory of Play and Fantasy” and “Style, Information, and Grace.”)

Bauman, Richard. 1975. “Verbal Art as Performance.” American Anthropologist 77 (2): 290–311. doi:10.1525/aa.1975.77.2.02a00030.

Goffman, Erving. 1974. Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. New York: Harper Colophon Books.

Hall, Edward. 1976. Beyond Culture. Anchor Books.

And to begin the semester with our central question firmly before us:

O’Connor, Cailin and James Owen Weatherall. 2019. Why We Trust Lies. Scientific American September: 54-61. Moodle.

Burke, Kenneth. 1941. Literature as Equipment for Living. In The Philosophy of Literary Form, 293-304. University of California Press. URL.

Matters of “Fact”

As Wikipedia notes:

The Day the Universe Changed is a British documentary television series written and presented by science historian James Burke, originally broadcast on BBC1 in [Spring] 1985 by the BBC [and rebroadcast on PBS in Autumn 1986]. The series’ primary focus is on the effect of advances in science and technology on western society in its philosophical aspects. The title comes from the philosophical idea that the universe essentially only exists as one perceives it through what one knows; therefore, if one changes one’s perception of the universe with new knowledge, one has essentially changed the universe itself. To illustrate this concept, James Burke tells the various stories of important scientific discoveries and technological advances and how they fundamentally altered how western civilization perceives the world. The series runs in roughly chronological order, from around the beginning of the Middle Ages to the present.

(Wikipedia also has a nice entry on the printing press.)

Legend Foundations

Bascom, William. 1965. The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives. Journal of American Folklore 78: 3-20. JSTOR.

For more on possible ways to consider the inter-relationships of the forms of folklore see also: Littleton, C. Scott. 1965. A Two-Dimensional Scheme for the Classification of Narratives. Journal of American Folklore 78(307): 21-27. DOI: 10.2307/538100. JSTOR.

Another essay that works well with Bascom’s “Forms of Folklore” is his essay on the four functions of folklore: Bascom, William. 1953. Four Functions of Folklore. Journal of American Folklore 66(262): 333-349. DOI: 10.2307/536411. JSTOR.

Langlois, Janet. 2005. “Celebrating Arabs”: Tracing Legend and Rumor Labyrinths in Post-9/11 Detroit. Journal of American Folklore 118/468: 219-236. JSTOR.

If you’re observant, then you might have noticed that Langlois’ essay is tagged as part of JSTOR’s Security Studies collection. It’s worth taking a look: the landing page is not very informative, but if you search for something like rumor than you get a very nice history of its study represented in the search results. (If you are interested in the history of Arab-Americans in Louisiana, see “Roots of the Cedar: The Lebanese Heritage in Louisiana”.)

Ellis, Bill. 1989. Death by Folklore: Ostension, Contemporary Legend, and Murder. Western Folklore 48 (3): 201-220. JSTOR.

Legends as Performances

In addition to thinking about folklore qua texts, folklorists have also developed a robust model of folklore as transactional in nature: folklore was “equipment for living” (Kenneth Burke) or folklore as a way to get social business done. Some describe this as a contextual approach, but the term most often associated with it is performance. The articles below focus on the nature of contexts:

Bauman, Richard. 1972. The La Have Island General Store: Sociability and Verbal Art in a Nova Scotia Community. Journal of American Folklore 85(338): 330-343. JSTOR.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. 1975. A Parable in Context: a Social Interactional Analysis of Storytelling Performance. In Performance and Communication, 105-130. Ed. Dan Ben-Amos and Kenneth Goldstein. Mouton. doi:10.1515/9783110880229.105. PDF is on Moodle.

Shuman, Amy. 1992. “Get Outa My Face”: Entitlement and Authoritative Discourse. In Responsibility and Evidence in Oral Discourse, 135–160. Ed. Jane Hill and Judith Irvine. Cambridge University Press. PDF

Laudun, John. 2012. Talking Shit in Rayne: How Aesthetic Features Reveal Ethical Structures. Journal of American Folklore 125(497): 304–326. DOI: 10.5406/jamerfolk.125.497.0304. Project MUSE. JSTOR.

Bennett, Gillian. 1996. Legend: Performance and Truth. In Contemporary Legend: A Reader, 17-19. Ed. Gillian Bennett and Paul Smith. Garland Publishing.

Understanding the Information Age

To understand the what we think of as the information age, we’ll need to go back a bit and make sure we understand the previous era, The Media Age, for lack of a better name. And that’s why we begin with Marshal McLuhan.

Carpenter, Edmund, and Marshall McLuhan. 1956. “The New Languages.” Chicago Review 10(1): 46–52. DOI: 10.2307/25293194 JSTOR.

McLuhan, Marshall. 1959. “Myth and Mass Media.” Daedalus 88(2): 339–48. JSTOR.

McLuhan, Marshall. 1968. “Instructional Media: Is Book Dead.” The Clearing House 42(7): 447–48. JSTOR.

Ong, Walter J. 1971. “The Literate Orality of Popular Culture Today.” In Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology: Studies in the Interaction of Expression and Culture. Cornell University Press. JSTOR.

Dégh, Linda, and Endre Vázsonyi. 1975. The Hypothesis of Multi-Conduit Transmission in Folklore. Mouton. Moodle.

Granovetter, Mark. 1978. “Threshold Models of Collective Behavior.” American Journal of Sociology 83(6): 1420–43. JSTOR.

Dorst, John. 1990. Tags and Burners, Cycles and Networks: Folklore in the Telectronic Age. Journal of Folklore Research 27(3): 179–90. JSTOR.

In the essay, Dorst references the film Style Wars. There is both an official Youtube video, as well as a range of unofficial videos, one of which seems to include outtakes from the film.

Bikhchandani, Sushil, David Hirshleifer, and Ivo Welch. 1992. “A Theory of Fads, Fashion, Custom, and Cultural Change as Informational Cascades.” Journal of Political Economy 100(5): 992–1026. JSTOR.

Fake News

Temming, Maria. 2018. People are bad at spotting fake news. Can computer programs do better? Science News (July 26). URL.

Some Case Studies to Get You Working

Do not forget that while a particular article may not be useful to you, articles in the same journal may very well be. Always browse. (And that includes this syllabus! Consider looking at some of the links below for Ellis or on Fake News or on Slender Man – there’s a lot here for you to consider.)

Limor Shifman, Hadar Levy, Mike Thelwall. 2014. Internet Jokes: The Secret Agents of Globalization? Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 19/4,1: 727–743. URL.

Shifman has also worked on memes: this review will tell you more, and you can follow the leads to get access to the text. Folklorists have long worked on memes, and you might consider the results of this search.

If you’re interested in fake news, then you are in luck. There was an entire issue of the Journal of American Folklore focused on fake news: JAF 131/522. For another approach, see:

Murphy, G., Loftus, E. F., Grady, R. H., Levine, L. J., & Greene, C. M. 2019. False Memories for Fake News During Ireland’s Abortion Referendum. Psychological Science 30(10): 1449–1459. DOI.

Evans, Timothy H. 2018. The Bowling Green Massacre. Journal of American Folklore 131(522): 460-470. Project Muse.

Blank, Trevor J. 2015. Faux Your Entertainment: Product Reviews as a Locus of Digital Performance. Journal of American Folklore 128(509), 286-297. Project Muse.

Other Things Possibly of Interest

Why Moral Emotions Go Viral Online - Scientific American:

Attentional capture helps explain why moral and emotional content go viral.

Prof Limor Shifman - Internet Jokes: the Secret Agents of Globalisation? - YouTube

Folklore doesn’t meme what you think it memes | Lynne McNeill | TEDxUSU - YouTube

‘Because Internet’ By Gretchen McCulloch Tracks The Evolution Of Language Online : NPR

Interlude: Ellis’ Aliens, Ghosts, and Cults

Greste, Peter. 2017. Facebook: Cracking the Code. ThoughtMaybe. Link.

Facebook is an enormously powerful corporation, harnessing both the self-disclosed and gleaned personal data of over 2 billion people. Its user-base is larger than the population of any country. The company is all pervasive online, tracking and profiling users and non-users alike. Cracking the Code looks at the insides of this giant machine and how Facebook turns your thoughts and behaviours into profits—whether you like it or not. And it’s not just a one-way transaction either. Cracking the Code also explains how Facebook uses vast troves of web data to manipulate the way you think and feel, as well as act—all in the sole interests of Facebook, masquerading as “community.” What are the social implications of this—when one company basically controls the insights and experiences of the entire online world, with extremely personalised and targeted social and behavioural engineering on a scale never before seen?

Origgi, Gloria. 2018. Say goodbye to the information age: it’s all about reputation now. Aeon (March 14). URL.

We are experiencing a fundamental paradigm shift in our relationship to knowledge. From the ‘information age’, we are moving towards the ‘reputation age’, in which information will have value only if it is already filtered, evaluated and commented upon by others. Seen in this light, reputation has become a central pillar of collective intelligence today. It is the gatekeeper to knowledge, and the keys to the gate are held by others. The way in which the authority of knowledge is now constructed makes us reliant on what are the inevitably biased judgments of other people, most of whom we do not know.

Introduction to the Study of Legend

Fine, Gary Alan. 1992. Introduction. Manufacturing Tales: Sex Money Contemporary Legends, 1-40. University of Tennessee Press.

Ellis, Bill. 1989. Death by Folklore: Ostension, Contemporary Legend, and Murder. Western Folklore 48(3): 201-20. JSTOR.

Seemann, Charlie. 1981. The “Char-Man”: A Local Legend of the Ojai Valley. Western Folklore 40/3: 252-260. JSTOR.

For more on haunted bridges:

As a nice follow-up to the Satanic Cult legends that were widely popular in the U.S.A. during the late eighties, and continue to bubble up even to the present moment, take a look at this post on Cracked. While the post itself obviously has a good deal of fun at the expense of the video it examines, the video itself is an interesting document.

For more on Satanic cult rumors: Victor, Jeffrey. 1990. Satanic Cult Rumors as Contemporary Legend. Western Folklore 49/1 (Contemporary Legends in Emergence): 51-81. DOI: 10.2307/1499482. JSTOR.

Introduction to the Study of Narrative

Labov, William, and Joshua Waletzky. 1967. “Narrative Analysis: Oral Versions of Personal Experience.” In Essays on the Verbal and Visual Arts: Proceedings of the 1966 Annual Spring Meeting of the American Ethnological Society, 12-44. Edited by June Helm. American Ethnological Society. Moodle.

Active Legends


Slender Man

Parkinson, Justin. 2014. The origins of Slender Man. BBS News Magazing (June 11). Link.

Peck, A. 2015. Tall, Dark, and Loathsome: The Emergence of a Legend Cycle in the Digital Age. Journal of American Folklore 128/509: 333-348. MUSE.

Tolbert, Jeffrey. 2013. “The sort of story that has you covering your mirrors”: The Case of Slender Man. Semiotic Review 2 (Monsters). Link.

Frank, R. 2015. Caveat Lector: Fake News as Folklore. Journal of American Folklore 128/509: 315-332. MUSE.

Ellis, B. 2015. What Bronies See When They Brohoof: Queering Animation on the Dark and Evil Internet. Journal of American Folklore 128/509: 298-314. Muse.

Of Orality and Literacy

Coming Up

Jason, Heda. 1971. Concerning the “Historical” and “Local” Legends and Their Relatives. Journal of American Folklore 84/331: 134-144. JSTOR.

Baker, Ronald L. 1972. The Role of Folk Legends in Place-Name Research. Journal of American Folklore 85(338): 367-373. DOI: 10.2307/539325. JSTOR.

Bennett, Gillian. 1989. “Belief Stories”: The Forgotten Genre. Western Folklore 48/4: 289-311. DOI: 10.2307/1499544. JSTOR.

Turner, Patricia. 1993. I Heard It Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture. University of California Press. PDF.