In the first volume of the Journal of American Folklore, the April to June issue of 1888, William Wells Newell briefly explained the founding of the American Folklore Society: “A proposal to establish a Folk-Lore Society in America was made in the form of a circular letter, dated at Cambridge, Mass., May 5, 1887, and subscribed with seventeen names.” A second letter was sent in October with 104 signatures from supporters residing throughout the United States and Canada: “the number of signers having reached the necessary number, the American Folk-Lore Society was organized at Cambridge, January 4, 1888” (Newell 1888a, 3).
Crucial to the society, both in the initial organization and the direction in the first two decades, was the work of William Wells Newell (1839-1907). At the founding of the American Folklore Society, Newell was forty-nine years old and of independent means. Like other wealthy and well-educated men of his time, he chose the enterprise of science as his avocation.1 This selfless dedication won praise from Boas years later: “He always seemed to me in a way like a representative of a time of greater devotion to ideals and a greater unselfishness than we are accustomed to find at the present time” (Boas Papers, Boas to Dixon, 2/1/1907). Newell threw himself whole-heartedly into securing what he referred to as “the scientific future of the Journal” (Boas Papers, Newell to Boas, 9/13/1888). His formal education had not prepared him for this field. After graduating second in his class at Harvard University in 1859, Newell entered Harvard Divinity School where he took his degree in 1863. He worked for a short time as Unitarian minister in Germantown, Pennsylvania, then as a tutor in philosophy at Harvard (1868-1870) (Robinson 1907, 59). Subsequently he opened a private school in New York, where he began his collection of children’s games, which resulted in Games and Songs of American Children (Newell 1883; see Bell 1973, 7). In the early 1880s, Newell retired from teaching, toured Europe, and then settled in Cambridge to “the life of private scholarship” (Bell 1973, 7).
Newell was in a position to shape and direct the early development of the American Folklore Society. It was he who suggested the location for the first meeting of the society, who named the prospective editors, and who guided the plans for the journal. His tone of leadership and diplomacy are conveyed in his letters. On March 15, 1888, Newell wrote to Boas, “I agree heartily to your proposal in regard to division of the field, and empower you,” then choosing a more egalitarian phrase, scratched out “empower you,” and continued, “think you had better arrange with Mr. Dorsey for dividing the Indian tribes in any way you see fit” (Boas Papers, Newell to Boas, 3/15/1888). In planning the first meeting, Newell wrote to Boas, “I hope that you will go to Phila., at any cost of trouble. It is very desirable that the Journal should be represented by some editor other than myself. Being the first meeting, it is important to get things right” (Boas Papers, Newell to Boas, 11/22/1889). And in the same letter, he noted that Brinton and Matthews should be added to the editorial committee. “If then the Committee wish me to be general Editor, I am willing to be such; and I have done most of the work, and must take the responsibility, perhaps my name might appear separate as General Editor.” Such was the case. Newell served as editor of the journal from 1888 to 1900, and as editor of the American Folklore Society memoir series from 1894 to 1906 (Robinson 1907, 59).
The first volume of the Journal of American Folklore opened with a statement by Newell, “On the Field and Work of a Journal of American Folk-Lore.” Newell saw the “principal object” of the American Folklore Society linked to the publication of “a Journal, of a scientific character,” which would provide:
1. For the collection of the fast-vanishing remains of Folk-Lore in America, namely:
a. Relics of Old English Folk-Lore (ballads, tales, superstitions, dialect, etc.).
b. Lore of Negroes in the Southern States of the Union.
c. Lore of the Indian Tribes of North America (myths, tales, etc.).
d. Lore of French Canada, Mexico, etc.
2. For the study of the general subject, and publication of the results of special studies in this department.
(Newell 1888a, 3)
Newell followed this outline of the orientation of the society with a discussion of each point. He stated his opinions clearly about what constituted a proper study of folklore. Newell’s emphasis was primarily on collection and preservation of the lore which he viewed as fast-vanishing due to the forces of “uniformity of the modern world” (Newell 1888a, 4). Enough remained of old English lore to warrant collection, but the time for the richest harvest had passed. As for ballads, the collector should look to the Scottish and Irish ballad singers, though again the prime time for collecting had “almost passed in the 17th century.” Prospects were better for nursery tales: “Fairy tales, beast fables, jests, by scores, were on the lips of mothers and nurses” (Newell1888a, 4). And superstitious beliefs “which supply material to the psychologist” were abundant as were the minor elements of folklore. Newell included among the minor elements children’s games, proverbs, riddles, “racy sayings,” and peculiar expressions. And finally, he says, the folklorists should study the local dialects which are characteristic of “the older and more retired towns.” The information thus gleaned could be useful to the historians of American life (Newell 1888a, 5). It is clear from Newell’s discussion of what remained to be collected that he shared the nineteenth century attitude toward folklore as a survival from a previous age, something which was in the process of passing away in the modern world.
The second division for collection in Newell’s outline was black folklore. “It is but within a few years that attention has been called to the existence among (American Negroes) of a great number of tales relating to animals. . . . The origin of these stories, many of which are common to a great part of the world, has not been determined” (Newell 1888a, 5). He also directed attention to the music, songs, and superstitions of the Afro-American.
Newell stressed the collection of the “traditions of the Indian tribes.” This focus of study, he said, “will be generally regarded as the most promising and important part of the work to be accomplished” because these traditions were still part of “whole nations” (Newell 1888a, 5). This was living lore rather than “the relics of a crop once plentiful, but, unhappily, allowed to perish ungarnered.” He was prescient in recognizing the scope of the studies to come: “Systems of myth, rituals, feasts, sacred customs, games, songs, tales, exist in such profusion that volumes would be required to contain the lore of each separate tribe” (Newell 1888a, 5).
The living lore of the American Indians would soon become an “essential part of history.” Newell saw this life passing away: “For the sake of the Indians themselves, it is necessary that they should be allowed opportunities for civilization.” And for the future, it was imperative that “a complete history should remain of what they have been” since their “wonderful life” would soon be no more, and their uniqueness would be absorbed by the modern world (Newell 1888a, 6).
In the initial planning for the first volume of the journal, Newell wrote to Boas about his idea for a “record of American Folk-Lore,” with a parenthetical note that this would be “for Native Races only,” and asked him “If such a heading . . . were introduced, would you take charge of it, and provide yourself with assistants as you may see fit?” (Boas Papers, 3/16/1888). In another letter, Newell wrote Boas, “I. . . think you had better arrange with Mr. Dorsey for dividing the Indian tribes ... or delegate any part of the work to any one” (Boas Papers, 3/15/1888).
Newell’s inclusion of the American Indians and their “living lore” in the initial statement “On the Field and Work of a Journal of American Folk-Lore” would require clarification in subsequent publications (Newell 1888b, 79-82; 1890). It would also provide the nexus for some disagreement about the American concept of folklore (Bell 1973; Dundes 1966a). Clearly the inclusion of the American Indian in folklore studies was an innovation of an American scholar. It showed Newell’s creative approach to folklore studies. It set American folklore scholarship apart from European folklore scholarship, since in the European framework, the American Indian as “savage” would be studied by the ethnologist and not by the folklorist.
In addition to collecting, the second major purpose for the journal was to encourage “the study of the general subject.” For Newell, this entailed the connection between folklore of the United States and that of other continents. The folklore of the British in America “can neither be understood nor collected without reference” to England. And English folklore, in turn, is part of a wider complex. This second major focus for the journal, the study of the general subject, was well within the framework of Newell’s first focus, the collection of folklore in America. He was proposing to study the collection of folklore from other countries as a means of augmenting our understanding of American folklore. He was not proposing a general study of folkloristics. This distinction is important since Newell’s “study of the general subject” would have different connotations for contemporary folklorists.
The field and scope of American folklore studies is pursued further in an anonymous contribution to “Notes and Queries,” in volume 1 of the Journal of American Folklore. The author, known to be Newell, refers to the creation of the term folklore by Ambrose Merton in 1846 and the foundation of the English Folklore Society in 1878.2 This was founded for “the preservation and publication” of British and foreign folklore (Newell 1888b, 79). The author notes, “The rules of this society have served as the model of those adopted by the American Folk-Lore Society, which must, therefore, in an especial sense, regard the British organization as its parent” (Newell 1888b, 79-80).
Dundes observes that this explicit statement of parentage in “Notes and Queries,” this line of institutional kinship, as it were, from the English Folklore Society to the American Folklore Society marked American folklorists as “imitators rather than innovators” (Dundes 1966a, 238). Newell’s opening statement “On the Field and Work of a Journal of American Folk-Lore” was followed by Thomas F. Crane’s “The Diffusion of Popular Tales.” Crane’s model for the study of folktales was the European comparative method and he suggested that this be applied to American narratives (Crane 1888, 8-55).
This identification with Europe was carried further in “Notes and Queries” when the author reviewed the folklore societies and journals that existed on the continent. He included the French Société des Traditions Populaires, which published a monthly journal Revue des traditions populaires. and Mélusine, a monthly journal edited by Gaidoz and Rolland. Additionally, he discussed the Italian Archivio per lo Studio delle Tradizioni Popolari, edited by Pitré and Salamone-Marino and published four times a year, as well as the Hungarian Ethnologische Mittheilungen aus Ungarn, edited by Anton Hermann.
The author included the review of folklore journals and societies to stress the point of a common bond between them. As Newell said in a letter to Boas on this topic, “I think it will be necessary to make some brief record of European research: both for our readers, and on account of the comity [sic] of exchange, since the chief of these journals will notice us” (Boas Papers, 3/15/88). Though numerous subjects were included in the approaches to folklore, the shared element was the focus on oral tradition. And this verbal aspect distinguished folklore studies from literary studies. “Lore must be understood as the complement of literature”; it is knowledge that is transmitted verbally without the use of writing (Newell 1888b, 8o).3
While the initial statements made by Newell in “Notes and Queries” emphasized the link with European folklore studies, the following statement marked the innovative stance of American folklorists. Since lore belongs to “a whole people” it is termed folk and, “it does not appear either desirable or possible, in dealing with a primitive people, to include a part and exclude another part of its traditions. In dealing, therefore, with the Indian tribes of America, it is the intention of this journal to include the entirety of their oral traditions” (Newell 1888b, 80-81).
Thus, the first volume of the Journal of American Folklore sets out with a more inclusive concept of folklore than the European concept of the same era. Whereas, according to European definition, folklore includes the study of peasant populations and excludes primitive people, following the points made in Newell’s opening statement and in “Notes and Queries,” American folklore would include the study of American Indian oral tradition in its entirety. There would be no exclusion of either the Indian or of mythology as outside the scope of study.
Apparently this inclusive approach to the study of folklore brought forth some debate. In volume 1, number 2 of the Journal of American Folklore, Newell clarified his position:
In the first number of this journal it was pointed out that it was the intention of the editors to include the mythology of the native races in the scope of their labors, an inclusion obviously wise and necessary. But, in making this statement, it was by no means intended to discuss the relation of the terms “folklore” and “mythology.”
(Newell 1888c, 163)
The author added that opinions differed as to whether or not these terms could be differentiated and applied to separate groups of people. However, for the purposes of the journal, mythology would refer to “the living system of tales and beliefs which, in primitive peoples, serves to explain existence”; and folklore would refer to the body of unwritten traditions of civilized countries. “Had it not been out of regard to brevity, this publication might have been called the ‘Journal of American Folk-Lore and Mythology’ ” (Newell 1888c, 163).
On March 24, 1890, in a paper delivered before the New York Academy of Sciences, Newell returned to his initial position and defined folklore as belonging to both folk culture and primitive culture. As he explained it, “It was soon evident that the oral traditions of Europe could not be treated by themselves without consideration of oral traditions in other parts of the globe” (Newell 1890, 134). It was discovered that the folklore of the European immigrants in the United States and the folklore of the “families of the purest English stock” shared aspects with “practices and beliefs . . . among savage tribes” (Newell 1890, 135).
Newell noted the controversy that arose over the inclusion of American Indian material within the domain of folklore studies: “There was some protest against these, inasmuch as the name folk belongs properly to races in which isolated tribes have been amalgamated into something resembling a nation. But this difficulty could not be allowed to prevent a convenient inclusion” (Newell 1890, 135).
Newell discussed the controversy with scholarly removal: “it was soon evident” that the customs and superstitions of the American Indian would be considered as folklore; and “there was some protest against this” inclusion. In fact, he was at the center of the dispute. It was Newell’s initial concept of folklore presented in the first editorial statement of the Journal of American Folklore and in the first “Notes and Queries” that brought on the protests alluded to in the second volume of the journal. And in this second volume, Newell attempted to quell the storm and to quiet those of traditional European folklore persuasion: the peasants have folklore, the Indians have mythology.
But this was not Newell’s conviction. And so in the 1890 address to the New York Academy of Sciences, he reaffirmed his initial position. Indeed, he said, folklore “came to be used, first, in a definite sense, as including tales, beliefs, and practices now retained among the unlettered peasantry of Europe; secondly, with a wider connotation, as embracing traditionary tales, customs, and usages of uncivilized races” (Newell 1890, 135).
Newell linked the second or “Wider connotation” of folklore with folklore’s “broader meaning.” And he saw this broader meaning as tying folklore to anthropology. To be sure, “the subject has two sides, the aesthetic or literary aspect, and the scientific aspect” but Newell’s statement is more forceful on the latter connection: “In its broader meaning, therefore, folk-lore is a part of anthropology and ethnography, embracing the mental side of primitive life, with especial reference to the narratives in which beliefs and habits are related or accounted for” (Newell 1890, 135).
Apparently Newell was under some constraint to continue at least a topical division between folklore and mythology in the Journal of American Folklore. On October 15, 1890 (Boas Papers), Newell wrote to Boas, “The next number of the Journal is mainly in type,” and he continued with a listing of suggested headings:
1. General—discussions on folk-lore, mythology, etc.
2. Folk-literature—tales, ballads, etc.
3. Superstitions, customs, etc.
4. Travels, ethnological material therewith connected
6. Primitive religions.
Even though this division between folklore and mythology was continued in the journal, Newell had made his position clear concerning folklore and the study of folklore. And if one reads his statements carefully, there really should not be much to dispute. Yet, dispute there is. In “William Wells Newell and the Foundation of American Folklore Scholarship,” Michael J. Bell takes issue with Alan Dundes’s position as stated in “The American Concept of Folklore.” Bell and Dundes refer to Newell’s articles in the Journal of American Folklore and “The Study of Folklore” in the Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences, the same articles discussed here.
Dundes stressed Newell’s division of the field into folklore and mythology. And Dundes tied this to the European evolutionary framework and the European concept of folklore: “Thus by definition the American Indian, since he was not ‘civilized’ but ‘savage,’ in the then popular tripartite unilinear evolutionary scheme of savagery, barbarism, and civilization, could not have folklore” (Dundes 1966a, 228). Dundes notes that Newell solved this problem by using the designation “mythology” for American Indian materials. It was in 1890, Dundes adds, that Newell realized “the distinction was a false one” and adopted a more inclusive attitude toward folklore (Dundes 1966a, 228-29).
It should be noted that Dundes’s review of Newell’s concept of American folklore is somewhat condensed. As discussed above, Newell published three separate statements in 1888 about the scope and the field of folkore. In his first and his second statement, Newell stressed the need for collecting American Indian material (Newell 1888a; 1888b). It was in the third, “Folklore and Mythology,” that Newell felt compelled to clarify his position and to distinguish between the primitive folk and the savage Indian. Thus Newell’s inclusive attitude toward American folklore was present in his first statement in 1888, when he suggested that the “lore of the Indian tribes of North America (myths, tales, etc.)” be collected (Newell 1888a, 3). It was not in 1890, as Dundes states, that Newell realized the distinction between folklore and mythology was a false one. Rather it was in 1890 that Newell reasserted his initial position, the broad inclusive approach to American folklore.
Michael Bell, in his interpretation of Newell’s concept of American folklore, stresses the continuity in Newell’s thought. He sees no difference in intent between Newell’s first and second statement about folklore, and the third statement where Newell differentiates between folklore and mythology. Referring to the statements in the first issue of the Journal of American Folklore (wherein Newell includes American Indian material in the study of folklore) and the statement in the second number of volume 1 (wherein Newell classifies American Indian material as mythology) Bell says,
The variance between these two conceptualizations is, however, less real than it appears at first glance. The second definition may rightly be seen as a lemma that qualified but does not deny the validity of the first; rather than, as some scholars have felt, Dundes in particular, as a contradiction brought about by the presence of the Indian in America.
(Bell 1973, 12)
Now, as Newell himself noted, his statement made in “Folklore and Mythology” was intended to quiet the debate that arose after his comments in the first issue of the Journal of American Folklore. It can be surmised from his 1890 address to the New York Academy of Sciences that Newell, in spite of the controversy, had consciously and publicly decided to use a “convenient inclusion” and discuss the folklore of savage people (Newell 1890, 135).
In stressing the continuity in his position, and in not adhering carefully to Newell’s words, Bell has diluted Newell’s major contribution to the concept of American folklore—that in spite of the debate which raged, Newell insisted on including the American Indian in folklore studies. This is a truly significant contribution and marks Newell as an innovative scholar.
To contemporary thought, it seems patently obvious: of course the American Indian has folklore. But at the end of the nineteenth century, when the statement was still on the wind that the only good Indian was a dead Indian, and the evolutionary framework still equated the Indian with the savage, and the peasant with the barbarian, Newell was making a revolutionary break. He was striking a new path for American folklore scholarship. Just as the presence of the American Indian distinguished the Americas from Europe, so the study of American Indian folklore distinguished American folklore scholarship from European folklore scholarship.
In “The American Concept of Folklore,” Dundes inserted the following comment in parenthesis: “It might be noted in passing that the American folklorist’s work with American Indian folklore has had important influences upon the direction of American folklore theory” (Dundes 1966a, 228). This point deserves more than parenthetical treatment. It is this unique approach to folklore, to the study of American Indian material, that sets American folklore studies apart from European studies. And it is this unique approach that shapes much of the history of the discipline of folklore in the United States.
Bell explains that Newell of necessity used the term mythology “because the term folklore did not suffice to describe a living system, not because the living system was not also folklore.” Bell maintains that it was not a matter of the evolutionary framework—not a classification of “civilized man and savage Indian”—but rather the presence of “a living active tradition that exists without written record, and a popular tradition that coexists with a written tradition” (Bell 1973, 12). In this passage, Bell has taken the definitional dispute about folklore and mythology, savage and civilized, out of the nineteenth century intellectual milieu and placed it in the latter half of the twentieth century. Thus he focuses on the division between the non-literate and the literate: the non-literate people had mythology, the literate had folklore. At issue, according to his argument, is not the savage nature of the Indian and the civilized aspect of the folk.
Yet it was precisely the nineteenth-century evolutionary framework that shaped and infused the orientation to folklore. To quote a Scotsman who said it succinctly, “The student of folklore is thus led to examine the usages, myths, and ideas of savages, which are still retained, in rude enough shape, by the European peasantry” (Lang 1893, 11). Andrew Lang penned this in 1893 in Custom and Myth, a book he dedicated to E. B. Tylor.
Michael Bell has dismantled the nineteenth-century evolutionary ladder of savagery to barbarism to civilization, and substituted the twentieth-century two-step evolutionary framework from the non-literate to the literate. He has taken the definitional dispute out of the theoretical orientation of the time, and without examining the evolutionary mind-set, he has placed the definitional dispute in the same theoretical framework, masquerading in different terms. He states that “folklore did not suffice to describe a living system” and yet he fails to tie this in with the orientation toward folklore. Folklore could not be associated with a living system of belief precisely because folklore was viewed as dead or dying in the cultural evolutionary scheme. Mythology in this framework preceded folklore; it was the whole garment, while folklore was only the remnant.