Proseminar in Folklore Theory

Course Logistics

ENGL 632-001, MW 1:00 PM - 2:15 PM, HLG 305

Pr. John Laudun
HLG 356, MW 9:30-10:30, 14:30-15:30, and Tuesday mornings by appointment.

Course Description

This course is a survey of key concepts, problems, and perspectives in folklore theory and method, focusing on key moments, ideas, and texts in the evolution of folklore studies in order to acquire a “feel” for the foundations of the discipline. For the purposes of this course, the field is conceived fairly broadly and includes work done in adjacent fields like anthropology, sociology, psychology, linguistics, and literary studies. As much as it is possible, the readings are chronological, allowing us to follow the interactive dimensions of intellectual history, wherein one theory arises as a response to (extension of, corrective of, or refutation of) another theory. Mileage in such a chronology must vary, however, as some texts (usually those that awaited translation) are considered in the context of those texts they most influenced.

The purpose of any proseminar is to acquaint students with the core texts or theories of a particular field of inquiry. Folklore’s diverse beginnings and many interrelations make it particularly difficult to gather all such materials into a semester of study. The aim of this course, then, is to familiarize you with those texts, thinkers, and ideas that seem central in light of recent developments in the discipline and to acquaint you with other texts, thinkers, and ideas so that you may begin to see these complex webs for yourself. A proseminar assumes you have an interest in a field or discipline as a profession, not necessarily as a professional practicing within the field, but as someone interested in the history and nature of the practices of the field as it has developed over time and through various institutions. We will, then, spend the semester reading from folklore’s intellectual history and discussing the implications (those) ideas have for our understanding and uses of folklore.

Speaking of the field, we will not in this course address directly, in the sense of how-to, the topic of fieldwork, though we will on a regular occasion be concerned with methodology as it is implicated in various theories. That does not lessen the importance of fieldwork, and I encourage, but do not require, all those trying to understand the discipline of folklore studies to do some kind of fieldwork. Extended fieldwork, in the sense of lasting beyond the first interview, is an experience that no one with an investment in the discipline should be without. A more extensive treatment of fieldwork theories and methods is to be found in the folklore fieldwork course.

Finally, there are some methods and skills which any competent “knowledge worker” — more on the use of this term during the semester — should have in this day and age. Some of them have long been within the purview of folklore studies Specifically, folklorists have always, in some ways, engaged the collection and sorting of data that today’s databases make, in many ways, trivial. We will talk about this and other matters throughout the semester, but you should also feel free to bring such topics and concerns up as part of our ongoing conversation.

The goal of this course is to familiarize you with an intellectual history, and in some ways landscape, of a particular discipline, folklore studies, in order for you to begin to map out where your own interests lie. I hope that the materials we cover, and their attendant bibliographies and references, will begin to suggest possibilities for you, but there are always more books and journals than can be scribbled down here. Your real job is to go out and find that territory which interests you.

Course Requirements

In addition to the obvious requirement that everyone come to class with the reading done, with at least two to three questions or comments prepared, and the willingness to engage in a discussion, seminar participants are, this semester, required to write a literature review on a topic, or topics, of her choosing as well as leading a seminar or sequence of seminars on a topic. (All such topics are to be established in dialogue with the instructor.)


A full quarter of your grade is based on that ever-slippery notion of “participation.” I leave it up to you to concretize it in a way that manifests the sublimity of your wit, the substance of your thought, and the grace of your presence. Nota bene: I take participation very seriously in all my classes, but most especially in seminars. (45%)


This is a seminar. Everyone is responsible for its success, not just the instructor. As a seminar participant, each of you will be responsible for leading the class at various moments throughout the semester. Each presentation will be based on a different infrastructure: an abstract, an outline, a series of slides with text, a series of slides with only graphics, etc. (15%)

In the past, I have encouraged or required participants to profile a journal or to review a book. The description of those assignments is included here for your information: it should be noted that writing a book review is an easy way to get published, and it was once seen as part of the overall functioning of a scholarly domain.

Journal Profile

In parallel with books, the record of any discipline is to be found in its journals. They are also the places where young scholars have their best opportunity to see their ideas in print. I encourage all graduate students to join their respective disciplinary organizations, especially while student rates apply, but I also require that participants in this seminar acquaint themselves with the journals available to them as resources and outlets for their work.

Book Review

You will write one book review, following the JAF format, on a text of your choosing. Please see me if you are having any difficulty in deciding upon a book. (Book reviews are also a great way to get published.) Both the reviews and the profiles above will be compiled into a seminar publication.

Literature Review

Because of the nature of this course, I forego the most familiar of all course assignment genres, the seminar paper, and instead ask you to imagine a project, of a size and scope to be decided, and to sketch out what resources you will need. (40%)

Course Agenda

Early History

In the first unit of this course, we will examine the emergence of two ideas that are still very powerful in our time: the Enlightenment’s privileging of rationality and the counter-Enlightenment’s attempt to recover humanity through nationalism. Both were an attempt to reveal, and/or encourage, common cultural underpinnings to states ruled separately.

These two logics, rationalism and nationalism, so govern our thinking that we cannot, at times, comprehend the complexities of history – i.e., that history itself is a cynical arrangement of dynasties perfecting the technologies of domination that reached its nadir in the brutality of the colonial era, an era in which we still abide.

What we will be tracking is a slow shift in focus:

Throughout this history, we will retain texts as our primary object for understanding human nature. The questions we need to remind ourselves to ask are:

It is important to remember that these changes within the narrow domain of how we imagine human discursive productivity are really part of a larger collection of histories, some intellectual and some political. Nineteenth century interest in folklore was, to some degree, spurred by concerns over (1) industrialization and the social changes being wrought by it and (2) the political and cultural domination of one nation by another: of Germany by France; Ireland by Britain; Finland by Russia. One German intellectual in particular, J.G. Herder, urged German poets and composers to turn to the traditions of the peasants, whose traditional tales and songs preserved the authentic national spirit, identity, values of the German people. These were, Herder argued, the proper basis, the raw materials, for elite literature and music.

The Brothers Grimm were among those whom Herder inspired. But the Grimms were not interested in the tellers, or the role tale-telling played among the peasants who perpetuated the tradition. They looked upon the tales they collected as declined myth, and were interested only in the texts and what they thought it told them about earlier, purer, forms of German culture. Others began collecting folklore in other countries for similar reasons. In this vein, William Thoms coined the term “folk-lore” in 1846. Thoms interest was “popular antiquities” but he preferred a “good Anglo-Saxon word” for it. Like the Grimms, Thoms regarded folklore as a survival from an earlier time, a vestige of an earlier stage of development in human society and culture, with no function or relevance today, and no contemporary meaning.

The Grimms, and most of those they inspired, virtually ignored the actual life of the lore. Fieldwork standards at that time were very loose: collection, not ethnography. There was no idea of adhering to the spoken language of tale-tellers, of valuing the stories as actually told, of trying to observe actual storytelling events. Rather, the standard practice was to rewrite texts, to “improve” them for a literate readership.

For those less familiar with European history in general and European intellectual history in particular, Christof Koch’s review of George Makari’s Soul Machine: The Invention of the Modern Mind is a thumbnail sketch of the developments in Western European philosophy that led up to our current moment of understanding human consciousness in the particular way we do:

Koch, Christof. 2016. Constructing the Modern Mind. Scientific American Mind 27 (3): 22-27. DOI: 10.1038/scientificamericanmind0516-22. URL.

Koch’s sketch leads us right into Bauman and Briggs’ Voices of Modernity.

Here are a few other readings to get your started:

Ritchie, Susan. 1993. Ventriloquist Folklore: Who Speaks for Representation. Western Folklore 52 (2/4, Theorizing Folklore: Toward New Perspectives on the Politics of Culture): 365–78. DOI: 10.2307/1500095.

And just in case you were curious about the larger historical trends that were occurring that might be driving some of these ideas, you might want to make sure you understand how the pulses of the Little Ice Age (1250-1850) affected Europe’s populations as well as how the enclosures that started in the 1200s but began to be implemented more seriously, especially in England, from 1700 to 1820 played out.

The Emergence of the American Folklore Society

The Grimms’ Haus und kindermarchen was an international bestseller, prompting scholars around Europe to fulfill the charter set out by Jakob Grimm to discover the kernel of a given nation/culture—the two now being firmly intertwined. There is considerable work in England that co-occurs with the early nineteenth century of Schoolcraft, and it is worth mentioning here the importance of Edward Tylor, Andrew Lang, Gomme, profiled by Richard Dorson in Peasant Customs and Savage Myths: Selections from the British Folklorists (1968) and in British Folklorists: A History (1969), in developing the notion not only of culture amongst European nations but also working out an evolutionary schema, as that idea became available and popular, for culture itself.

The Tale-Type & Motif Indices

Thompson Motif Index, ATU Tale Type Index, Propp Function Analysis and Lévi-Strauss Structural Analysis of worldwide folk-literature

Read: Voices of Modernity chapters on Schoolcraft and Boas; Newell 1888, Boas, Bunzel.

On the Field and Work of a Journal of American Folk-Lore. (1888). Journal of American Folklore 1(1): 3-7.

Crane, T. (1888). The Diffusion of Popular Tales. Journal of American Folklore 1(1): 8-15. doi:10.2307/532882.

After reading these first two, literally, seminal essays in the first issue of the Journal, scan the table of contents and at least read the first few pages, if not skim in their entirety, the contributions from Newell on voodoo in Haiti, of Bolton on counting-out rhymes of children, and Brinton’s “Lenâpé Conversations” before reading Boas’s “On Certain Songs and Dances of the Kwakiutl of British Columbia” more carefully. Before you put away the volume, be sure to take a look at the “Waste-Basket of Words” and the first entry under Note and Queries.

Later, Boas would offer a more synthetic account of the many things he and his students were encountering:

Boas, Franz. 1904. Some Traits of Primitive Culture. Journal of American Folklore 17/67: 243-254.

In the same volume, you will find this catalog:

1904. Record of Negro Folk-Lore. Journal of American Folklore 17/67: 296-297.

It helps, I think, to follow how the field consolidated its practices (in terms of genre) over the next few decades on various kinds of collections, some of which came with ethnographic notes and some of which did not, balanced by the occasional ethnographic sketch. Take a look at the Volume Information for JAF 30 (1917) and then read from that volume:

Parsons, Elsie Clews. 1917. All Souls Day. Journal of American Folklore 30/118: 495-496.

By the end of the nineteenth century, collections were the established principle practice of folklore studies. As the twentieth century unfolded, however, Franz Boas in the U.S. And Bronislaw Malinowski in the U.K. Became increasingly interested in ethnography. The result was something of a split between the practices of literary folklorists, focused on texts only, and anthropological folklorists, who focused on larger socio-cultural practices which were understood as the context for texts.

With that as a backdrop, Hurston’s Mules and Men (1935) reveals itself to be quite an innovative text. But reading widely in the Journal during this period of the Society really helps to establish what folklore scholarship, and thus the humanities and anthropology, looked like during this period.

The Fifties: The Moment before “the Turn”

The great collections of language use proved a fertile ground for a variety of structuralist approaches. The first form to be introduced to American folklorists was the structuralism of Claude Levi-Strauss, which, based on hundreds of indigenous American texts, fit well with the established practice of text-oriented scholars, many of whom remain focused on the grand typological/indexical projects begun by Aanti Aarne and elaborated by Stith Thompson. The tensions of the fifties would help feed the felt need for, and thus possible resolution offered by, the ethnography of speaking which emerged in the early sixties. That was but one resolution; there were a number of unresolved issues that remain to this day.

Mead, Margaret. 1951. Anthropologist and Historian: Their Common Problems. American Quarterly 3(1), 3-13. doi:10.2307/3031182.

Mead, Margaret. 1953. Cultural Bases for Understanding Literature. PMLA 68(2), 13-23. doi:10.2307/2699120.

Bascom, William. 1953. Folklore and Anthropology. Journal of American Folklore 66(262), 283-290. doi:10.2307/536722.

Bascom, William. 1955. Verbal Art. Journal of American Folklore 68(269), 245-252. doi:10.2307/536902.

Utley, Francis Lee. 1958. The Study of Folk Literature: Its Scope and Use. Journal of American Folklore, 71(280), 139-148. doi:10.2307/537683.

The entire issue in which Utley’s article appears is worth a look, not only for Herbert Halpert’s “breadth vs depth” but for the exchange between Stanley Edgar Hyman and William Bascom as well as Dorson’s note on “Folkore in American Literature.” The URL for the issue is:

Mead, Margaret. 1961. Anthropology among the Sciences. American Anthropologist 63(3): 475-482. doi:10.2307/667722.

Myth: A Symposium

And then there’s the matter of myth and structuralism. At one reckoning, Lévi-Strauss’ essay was the single most downloaded item from all of the Journal of American Folklore.

Dorson, R. M. (1955). The Eclipse of Solar Mythology. Journal of American Folklore 68(270), 393-416.

Hyman, S. E. (1955). The Ritual View of Myth and the Mythic. Journal of American Folklore 68(270), 462-472.

Lévi-Strauss, C. (1955). The Structural Study of Myth. Journal of American Folklore 68(270), 428-444.

Raglan, L. (1955). Myth and Ritual. Journal of American Folklore, 68(270), 454-461.

Thompson, S. (1955). Myths and Folktales. Journal of American Folklore 68(270), 482-488.

Saussure File

Matejka 1997 File Matejka, Ladislav. 1997. Jakobson’s Response to Saussure’s Cours. Cahiers de l’ILSL 9: 169-176.

Jakobson and Bogatyrev 1966 File Jakobson, R., & Bogatyrev, P. (1980). Folklore as a Special Form of Creation. Folklore Forum Folklore Forum, 13(1), 1-21.

Jason 1991 File Jason, H. (1991). Marginalia to P. Bogatyrev and R. Jakobson’s Essay “Die Folklore als Eine Besondere Form des Schaffens”. Folklore, 102(1), 31-38.

Geoghegan 2011 File Geoghegan, B. (2011). From Information Theory to French Theory: Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss, and the Cybernetic Apparatus. Critical Inquiry, 38(1), 96-126. doi:10.1086/661645

Anticipating the Turn (aka the Sixties)

As with any intellectual history, there is more to “the turn toward performance” than meets the eye: there is considerable buildup across a broad intellectual front, including the introduction of existentialism into the American academy and public culture. (E.g., William Barrett’s The Irrational Man [1958] — see note below). A consideration of these broader trends would reveal that the acceptance of work by Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus following the second World War was anticipated by work in American philosophy, such as John Dewey’s Art as Experience (1934) and Kenneth Burke’s Philosophy of Literary Form (1941). of Some of the effort to discern a particular American culture was in response to the rise of rich international connections, many of which were brought about by displaced intellectuals who came to the U.S. in the thirties and forties. Some of them stayed and the result was that American intellectuals interested in work by Roman Jakobson found him referring to work by Vladimir Propp and Mikhail Bakhtin, and so American scholars found themselves confronted by an entire school of literary theory, now known as Russian formalism, which interacted somewhat with their emerging interest in structuralism as it had been developed in France by Lévi-Strauss, Piaget, Lacan, and others. (And all of this ignores the many contributions of the Frankfurt School during this time.)

Burke, Kenneth. 1973/1941. The Philosophy of Literary Form. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. Pp. 293-304.

Jakobson Roman. 1960. Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics. In Style in Language, 350-377. Ed. Thomas Sebeok. MIT Press.

Lord, Albert. 1960. The Singer of Tales. Harvard University Press.

The link below will take you to an online version of The Singer of Tales hosted by Harvard University:

Note: If you have never had the chance to read William Barrett’s The Irrational Man, I highly recommend it. A survey of its chapter titles should prove reason enough: from “The Encounter with Nothingness” and “The Testimony of Modern Art” to “The Place of the Furies,”” the book was the gateway to existentialism, and thus also phenomenology, for many.

Burke 1941 File

Jakobson 1960 File This is a fairly large download at 18MB, but it is a very high quality scan of the pages of the book as well as references and ToC.

Lord 1960 URL

Bascom, W. 1965. The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives. The Journal of American Folklore, 78(307), 3-20. doi:10.2307/538099.

The Turn towards Performance

Dell Hymes proposed the “ethnography of speaking” as a term to address the importance of performance, over and against the focus on competence in linguistics, in the early sixties. As the decade wore on, and the social sciences began to focus more on The Social Construction of Reality (Peter Berger, 1968), folklorists were part of the larger re-thinking of how people, both individually and in groups, theorized and acted upon the world as they understood it. While we start with Bauman’s programmatic essay, “Verbal Art as Performance,” his earlier essays (some of which we read and some of which we do not) reveal that he is working through a number of dimensions of a rhetoric of folklore forms alongside others. (See Abrahams.)

Bauman, Richard. 1975. Verbal Art as Performance. American Anthropologist 77(2): 290-311.

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. doi: 10.2307/539322.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. 1975. A Parable in Context: A Social Interactional Analysis of Storytelling Performance. In Folklore: Performance and Communication, 105-130. Ed. Dan Ben-Amos and Kenneth Goldstein. Mouton. Moodle.

Abrahams, Roger. (1976). The Complex Relations of Simple Forms. In Folklore Genres, 193-214. Ed. Dan Ben-Amos. University of Texas Press.

The Maturation of a Paradigm

Readings include special issue of Western Folklore.

Hill, Jane, and Ofelia Zepeda. 1992. Mrs. Patricio’s Trouble: The Distribution of Responsibility in an Account of Personal Experience. In Responsibility and Evidence in Oral Discourse, 197–225. Ed. Jane Hill and Judith Irvine. Cambridge University Press. Moodle.

Sawin, Patricia. 2002. Performance at the Nexus of Gender, Power, and Desire: Reconsidering Bauman’s Verbal Art from the Perspective of Gendered Subjectivity as Performance. Journal of American Folklore, 115(455), 28-61. doi: 10.2307/542078.

One Future among Many for Folklore Studies

Readings include Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Oring, Tangherlini.