In 1965, Alan Dundes commented on the assumed division between the literary and the anthropological in folklore studies:
Many of those outside the discipline of folklore and even some of those within tend to divide folklorists into literary or anthropological categories. With this binary division comes a related notion that each group of folklorists has its own methodology appropriate for its special interests; hence there is thought to be a method for studying folklore in literature and another method for studying folklore in culture.
(Dundes 1965b, 136)
Dundes stresses that the study of folklore in literature and in culture is “almost exactly the same.” And this shared approach comes from “the discipline of folklore” which “has its own methodology applying equally well to literary and cultural problems.” The dichotomy, Dundes says, is false, persistent, and divisive.
As noted in the preceding chapter, there had been a remarkable similarity between the literary and anthropological approach to folklore. While this similarity was veiled, and not necessarily recognized, it did exist. And certainly with the emergence of folklore as an independent discipline, the two branches of folklore study would grow together. Still, the roots of conflict ran deep; the tension between the literary and the anthropological persisted. Francis Lee Utley spoke of this in “Conflict and Promise in Folklore,” his presidential address delivered at the sixty-third annual meeting of the American Folklore Society on December 27, 1951: “Nothing has disturbed your president more in this year . . . than the disintegrative quarrels which make our society function at only a small fraction of its potential.” Utley listed four major conflicts that threatened “to deluge our society.” The first was “the literary folklorists versus the anthropologists—speaking bluntly the . . . Modern Language Association versus the . . . American Anthropological Association.” He continued, “Broadly speaking, the source of the battle is a preoccupation with differing subject matters—the folklore of the native White and the Southern White (with a brief glance at the immigrant White) as opposed to the folklore of the aboriginal Indian.” Utley further noted that “the best of the anthropologists seem to me to be more aware of the absurdity than we are—at least they seem more anxious to resolve the conflict so that folklore studies can proceed with direction and accomplishment” (Utley 1952, 111).
Very often this resentment ran like static through scholarly debates. A controversy that has been stilled in recent years was once energetically pursued as the myth-ritual debate. In 1966, Joseph Fontenrose wrote, “Myth has a great vogue today, and nowhere so much as in literary criticism. Some critics are finding myth everywhere, especially those who follow the banner of the ‘myth-ritual school’” (Fontenrose 1971, i). He points out that there is diversity of opinion within the myth-ritual school. For the most part, he adds, all agree that “myths are derived from rituals and that they were in origin the spoken part of a ritual performance.” The myth-ritual theory was given impetus in 1912 by the publication of Jane Harrison’s Themis. She presented myth as the legomena or the spoken part of dromena, the rites. The true myth for Harrison was the sequence of words which accompanied the rites.1
In 1934, Fitzroy Richard Somerset, the Fourth Baron of Raglan, delivered an address to the English Folklore Society entitled “The Hero of Tradition” (Raglan 1965). This formed the basis of The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth, and Drama (1936). Lord Raglan studied the lives of Robin Hood, the heroes of the Norse Sagas, King Arthur, Cuchulainn, and the Greek heroes. He found that the accounts of the heroes’ lives conformed to a pattern composed of twenty-two features, among which were the following:
1. His mother is a royal virgin.
2. His father is a king, and
3. Often a near relative of his mother, but
4. The circumstances of his conception are unusual, and
5. He is also reputed to be the son of a god.
The hero’s life ends with the following features:
18. He meets a mysterious death.
19. Often at the top of a hill.
20. His children, if any, do not succeed him.
21. His body is not buried, but nevertheless
22. He has one or more holy sepulchers.
(Raglan 1965, 145)
Raglan suggested that this pattern emerged from the rituals associated with the rites of passage, specifically those-concerned with birth, accession to the throne, and death.
Raglan’s discussion of the pattern in the hero cycle is important. In the headrtotes to Raglan’s “The Hero of Tradition,” and in “The Hero Pattern and the Life of Jesus,” Dundes situates Lord Raglan with others who have worked on pattern in folklore, and on pattern in the life of the hero (Dundes 1965b, 142-44; 1978b). Johann Georg von Hahn published Arische Aussetzungs-und-Ruckkehr-Formel (Aryan Expulsion and Return Formula) in 1876. Von Hahn used the biographies of fourteen heroes and arrived at sixteen incidents. In 1909, Otto Rank, after a study of fifteen biographies, published The Myth of the Birth of the Hero. Raglan was unaware of the work of von Hahn and Rank (Dundes 1978a, 231). Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale, which appeared in 1928 in Russian, was also part of the pattern approach to the study of narrative.
Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) was certainly the most popular of those who studied pattern. Campbell divides the hero’s adventures into the formula of separation, initiation, and return. He truncates the heroes’ biographies, never examining the life of one person in its entirety. His major conclusion, in keeping with the tenor of the myth-ritual school, denies historicity to the heroes of tradition. As Dundes notes, Campbell was, like Raglan, unaware of the body of scholarship. While he included one footnote on Otto Rank, he did not make any reference to von Hahn, Propp, or Raglan (Dundes 1965b, 143).
Raglan makes this same point in support of the ritualistic interpretation in “Myth and Ritual,” an article that was included in the 1955 issue of the Journal of American Folklore, entitled Myth: A Symposium. “Myths as a rule are untrue historically, because most rituals have been developed gradually, and not as a result of some historical incident.” Raglan focuses on ritual because he believes that action must be prior to thought. As he says, “Nobody can possibly imagine anything which has not been suggested to him by something which he has seen, heard, or read” (Raglan 1955, 454, 455). This stance allows for no creativity among the folk. Nothing can come as an expression of the mind and the soul except that which has gone before. And this precedent in event must be ritual: “My general theory . . . is that there arose, probably in southeast Asia, and at least 6000 years ago, a religion centering about the cult of a divine king who was periodically killed” (Raglan 1957, 360). The religion spread, though the king was no longer killed. Yet the initial killing was retained symbolically in rituals and myths. This could also be found in folktales and legends which, for Raglan, were merely myths severed from ritual. An example of the vestigal remains can be found in the folktale “Llewellyn and His Dog” (AT 178A). In this tale, the faithful dog has saved a child from a serpent. The master returns home, sees the bloody mouth of the dog, and shoots it, thinking that it has killed the baby. According to Lord Raglan, this tale records the substitution of animal for human sacrifice.
William Bascom in “The Myth-Ritual Theory” (1957) and Joseph Fontenrose in The Ritual Theory of Myth (1971) provide a careful critique of Lord Raglan, Stanley Edgar Hyman, and others of the ritualist school. Bascom remarked on Raglan’s two major points in favor of ritual interpretation of myths—that myths lack historicity, and that the folk lack creativity. In short, myths could not be connected with historical events because, in Raglan’s words, “tradition never preserves historical facts” (Bascom 1957, 36). Raglan had “after much consideration . . . fixed on the term of one hundred and fifty years as the maximum” for folk memory (Bascom 1957, 36; see also Raglan 1949, 12). Bascom counters this argument with a reference to the Gwambe of Mozambique, and their legends about early European contacts:
[One legend tells of] a disagreement among the chiefs of the Delagoa Bay area as to whether Europeans should be refused permission to pass through their territories, since they were so dirty, disease ridden, and destructive. Another legend . . . tells of the killing and prompt burial of white cannibals in the region south of Delagoa Bay.
(Bascom 1957, 105-06)
The details in both of these legends have been confirmed in Portuguese records “referring to historical events 400 years ago.”
Addressing Raglan’s argument denying the creativity of the folk, Bascom refers to the statement Raglan made in The Hero: “No popular story-teller has ever been known to invent anything” (Bascom 1957, 106; See also Raglan 1949, 134). Following Bascom’s critique, Raglan’s second point was that the incidents in folktales were the same the world over. And finally, folktales treat subjects of which the folk have no knowledge, such as castles and kings. Thus, for Raglan, the folk could not create the stories because they were not capable. And the proof that they were not the creators lies in the content of the tales, which involved things not of their life. Raglan argues for diffusion from the center of origin where the ritual killing of the king was first enacted. From the ritual arose the myth; and from the myth, the tales.
Bascom, in his critique, counters Raglan, point by point. First he notes there are societies where the tellers of the tales embellish and elaborate: “it cannot be maintained that creativity is lacking in all societies” (Bascom 1957, 106). Further, Bascom notes, the fanciful elements in folktales are just that—the fantasy of the folk. Thus, the castles, kings, and queens allow the folk to escape from their everyday life. The presence of the fanciful and the absence of the mundane does not, as Raglan maintains, prove that the folk could not have been the creators of the tales. Addressing Raglan’s diffusion argument, Bascom makes two observations. To say a trait or tale has diffused does not mean that (1) it could not have been the creation of one person, or (2) that it could not have been of secular origin. And finally, Bascom finds the best evidence of the creativity of the folk in their own creations: “If the aborigines of the Americas could invent the igloo, snow-shoe, toboggan, smoking, cire perdue casting, the zero concept, and so forth, could they not also have composed a folktale?” (Bascom 1957, 107, 108).
Bascom’s critique of Raglan in “The Myth-Ritual Theory,” though pointed, was balanced and reasoned. It brought forth a bitter reply from Stanley Edgar Hyman, an ardent supporter of the ritualist interpretation of myth. Hyman pondered why Bascom had chosen to review Raglan’s The Hero “more than two decades after publication”; and why the selection of a general work, The Hero, rather than a book that focused on a specific area in greater detail, “such as Jane Harrison’s Themis, which Bascom quotes at one point?” (Hyman 1958, 152). Having asked the question, Hyman responded,
The question answers itself. Bascom cannot debate Greek drama with Harrison, or New Testament myth with John M. Robertson, or medieval romance with Jessie Weston, or Homeric epic with Rhys Carpenter, or Scandinavian Edda with Bertha Phillpotts; he is not informed on such matters; he is an anthropologist, not a folklorist.
(Hyman 1958, 152; emphasis added)
Hyman’s initial and concluding remarks stress that an anthropologist—in this case, Bascom—is unqualified to judge the work of a folklorist. Indeed, Hyman goes so far as to say that the anthropologist is not equipped to understand the folklorists’ subject matter. As he says, “Many factors keep anthropologists from being adequate folklorists, and some day I hope to write about them in more detail.” Hyman continues:
The American Folklore Society decided, with dubious wisdom in the infancy of both fields, that this problem was no problem; the membership and activity of anthropologists in our society has been encouraged; and it has been the informal custom to choose alternate presidents from that field.
(Hyman 1958, 154)
Hyman inveighs against the attention paid to Bascom due to his position in the American Folklore Society. “Thus Bascom can speak and publish encyclicals on the subject in the JOURNAL.” Hyman adds that most of Bascom’s contributions “like this paper on the Myth-Ritual Theory, display the tendency of his own field, as Franz Boas and others have shaped it in America in our century, toward atomism and nominalism, wary of any theory or generalization.” And finally, Hyman says, “anthropologists tend to see folklore as a minor subdivision of anthropology, a body of materials for cultural profiling” (Hyman 1958, 154).
Hyman’s “A Reply to Bascom” was followed immediately by Bascom’s “Rejoinder to Hyman.” Bascom regrets, “that Hyman has brought what had been a respectable discussion of theory down to the level of vulgarities of mind, ignorance of literature, and arguments about who is and who is not a folklorist.” Bascom vigorously protests Hyman’s portrayal “that I regard folklore as a minor tool of social science, as a minor subdivision of anthropology.” And referring to Hyman’s critique of Boas, Bascom says, “In renewing his attack on Boas, Hyman adds little that is new except to do me the honor of including me with him.” “But by attacking the potential contributions of anthropologists to the study of folklore . . Hyman does a disservice both to our Society and to the ritual theory of myth.” Bascom points to the crucial contribution which can and must be made to folklore through anthropology. The proponents of the myth-ritual theory speak in universal terms. But in order to prove its universality, scholars need to consider material beyond the influence of western civilizations “where the research of anthropologists will be important if not indispensable” (Bascom 1958, 155, 156).
Joseph Fontenrose in The Ritual Theory of Myth says, “The ritual interpretation of myths is by no means confined to literary criticism. It has a wide influence in many fields, although few anthropologists, folklorists, or classicists accept it, despite ritualists assertions to the contrary” (Fontenrose 1971, i). Yet, as Fontenrose traces the origin of the ritual theory, he finds the major influence in James George Frazer, the classicist and anthropologist, author of The Golden Bough. Jane Harrison, one of the leading figures of the ritualists, “was a classical scholar much influenced by the findings of anthropology.” Thus, both Frazer and Harrison, drawing inspiration from classics and anthropology, were the sources for those propounding a ritual origin for myths. While willing to accept Frazer’s anthropology, the scholars of the ritualist school were unwilling to incorporate twentieth-century ethnographic material in their consideration. For example, Hyman referred to Bascom’s example of the creativity of the American Indians as “muddying the waters of theory with irrelevant defenses of primitive potentiality” (Hyman 1958, 154). It is likely that Frazer was considered a safe source. From his library at Trinity College, Cambridge, Sir James George Frazer penned the thirteen volumes of the The Golden Bough, protected by his wife, Lily Grove Frazer, from the distraction of the world outside his door (Kardiner and Preble 1961, 76). And he was certainly removed from the world beyond Cambridge, as a legend about him illustrates. When asked if he had ever met any savages, Frazer remarked curtly, “God forbid!” (Beattie 1964, 7). Frazer’s anthropology was penned in the style of the nineteenth century. It was refined and to the liking of the scholars of the myth-ritual theory. But still, it was anthropology. So it is doubly ironic that Hyman protested so against Bascom as an anthropologist daring to appraise the work of folklorists. Indeed, Bascom was both a folklorist and an anthropologist.
In this debate the sabers crossed as they had been crossed before. But this time, the opposition as drawn by Hyman was between the anthropologists and the folklorists. Hyman was speaking as a literary critic and a folklorist and he claimed the field. No anthropologist would be admitted. And why? Because they did not have the proper credentials—they were not folklorists. The past inclusion of anthropologists in the American Folklore Society was, in Hyman’s judgment, a mistake. The hostility toward Boas and his successors was explicit. But Bascom was speaking as an anthropologist and a folklorist. He was proud of this dual affiliation and of his position as an anthropologist whose intellectual tradition linked him to Boas.
The myth-ritual debate focused on the origin and diffusion of narratives, concerns that had been present in both the literary and the anthropological approach to the study of narrative. The concern of origin and diffusion of narratives, and the underlying tension between two differing approaches was present in another major theoretical conflict, the debate about the origin of Afro-American folktales. As Dundes says in his headnote to “African Tales among the North American Indians,”
The positions regarding the origin of American Negro folktales fall along the all too familiar traditional lines. Africanists generally claim that the tales are African survivals while specialists in European folklore argue that the majority of American Negro folktales are borrowed from the European repertoire.
(Dundes 1973, 114)
Dundes discusses the orientation of the American folklorists, who looked to Europe for their scholarly inspiration. Thus, Thompson wrote about European Tales among the North American Indians (1919). Other folklorists of the literary persuasion, following Thompson’s lead and the accepted European orientation, identified Afro-American folktales as largely European in origin. This “European-centered orientation” was intensified by another factor, “their tendency to neglect African folklore” (Dundes 1973, 115).
The divided orientation between Europe and Africa is illustrated by an account given by Dorson in American Negro Folktales concerning his collections from the loquacious raconteur, James Douglas Suggs: “On one occasion I played a tape recording of Suggs to Melville Herskovits, who exclaimed, ‘Those are some remarkable African tales!’ Shortly after, I played the same tape to Stith Thompson, who exclaimed, ‘Those are some remarkable European tales!’” Dorson says “these comments reflect the strong biases of the two masters, whom I equally admired.” In the next sentence, he gives his own opinion, “But the question of origin is susceptible of proof, and the proof of European origins lies in my notes” (Dorson 1967, 16).
Dorson’s position is clear: the majority of Afro-American narratives are of European origin. There is, he stresses, very little evidence to support the theory of African origin. Concerning the 244 narratives presented in American Negro Folktales, Dorson remarks,
The first declaration to make is that this body of tales does not come from Africa. It does not indeed come from any one place but from a number of dispersal points. . . . Many of the fictions, notably the animal tales, are of demonstrably European origin. Others have entered the Negro repertoire from England, from the West Indies, from American white tradition, and from the social conditions and historical experiences of colored people in the South.
(Dorson 1967, 15-16)
He adds, “Only a few plots and incidents can be distinguished as West African.”
In the chapter on “The Negro” in American Folklore, Dorson refers to “the sharp break between African and American tradition,” which was localized in the West Indies. There Anansi, the spider, figures in hundreds of narratives. “But no Anansi stories are found in the United States” (Dorson 1959a, 185). Dorson suggests that the Negro narrative tradition falls into two groups. The area of the Atlantic and Caribbean islands as well as northeastern South America draw their tradition from Africa, while the southern part of the United States draws its tradition from Europe and Anglo-America (Dorson 1967, 17).
In the “Origins of American Negro Tales,” Dorson reviewed the position of the nineteenth-century writers, Joel Chandler Harris and William Owens. Harris, author of Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings, had said, “One thing is certain—the Negroes did not get them from the whites: probably they are of remote African origin.” Owens had written “Folk-Lore of the Southern Negroes” in Lippincott’s Magazine, and stated that the fables of talking animals were of African origin (Dorson 1967, 13). There was the precedent set in the nineteenth century for the position taken by scholars of the twentieth century. Those who most ardently supported the claim of African origin, as Dorson said, were the anthropologists: “When American anthropologists such as Melville J. Herskovits and his students turned their attention to Africa, they reinforced the thesis of African origins with the best scholarly credentials (1967, 13). Dorson noted that Herskovits had traced the rich and elaborated traditions of Dahomey, that he had attacked the white supremacists who denied this cultural inheritance to blacks.
While Dorson clearly admired Herskovits, he was opposed to the anthropological stress on Africa as a possible source for Afro-American traditions. In American Folklore, Dorson criticized what he thought was a negative aspect of this anthropological explanation: “The argument for African origins is fully as racist as that for white origins, for it assumes that an original American Negro tradition can only emanate from black-skinned Africans” (Dorson 1959a, 185).
In the introductory remarks to the panel on Afro-American studies at the International Congress of the Americanists held in Paris in 1976, William Bascom stated his view of the search for African origins: “For moral and political, as well as for scientific reasons, it is important that African retentions be identified and documented beyond reasonable doubt” (Bascom 1979, 593). This was crucial, Bascom said, “because their existence has so often been denied.” Sometimes this denial was supported by explicitly racist explanations (there could be no African retentions because there had never been an African culture; the inferior African culture gave way to the superior European cultures) and sometimes by an explanation that the uprooting of the blacks was so brutal as to wipe out all cultural heritage. Bascom was suspicious of those who were so adamantly opposed to the search for African origin. “I question the motives of some of those who attack the search for Africanisms as academic antiquarianism.” He offered a possible explanation, “I suspect that some of them wish to discourage the search, for fear of what may be found. There are some who are unable or unwilling to recognize Africanisms in their own data, or even in their own personal lives” (1979, 593).
In “African Folktales in America: I. The Talking Skull Refuses to Talk,” Bascom addresses both the issue of origin and the charge of racism: “In this article, I will try to establish as a fact, beyond dispute, that the folktale which I call “The Talking Skull Refuses to Talk” was brought to the United States from Africa” (Bascom 1981a, 184). As Bascom notes, this is the tale that Dorson designated as coming “straight from West Africa” (Dorson 1967, 188-89). Bascom begins with the Talking Skull “not simply because Dorson admits that it comes from Africa, but to demonstrate that it is a tale type, and not just a motif, and also to show the kind of documentation that can be provided, in some instances, for African origins” (Bascom 1981a, 188). Further documentation of the origin of this tale is not redundant, nor is it, Bascom adds, an “antiquarian search for African ‘survivals’ in the New World; nor is it racist. It is, I submit, important not only for Afro-Americans, but for folklorists, for Africans, and for all Americans to recognize the African contributions to America’s folklore” (Bascom 1981a, 184). In the series on “African Folktales in America,” Bascom presents forty-three tales: twenty-four from Africa, one from Haiti, and eighteen from the United States. Of these, Bascom says, none appear in the Aarne-Thompson Types of the Folktale. And only “United States Negro versions” are cited in the Motif-Index of Folk-Literature. He concludes, “Thus they could not have come from Europe or from India” (Bascom 1981a, 193).
In his Archer Taylor Memorial Lecture, “Perhaps Too Much to Chew?,” Bascom told how he had become interested in the search for Africanisms.
As a student of Herskovits I had thought that this century-old debate had been settled long ago. But Dorson says that in his own collection of over one thousand Negro narratives, primarily from Michigan and Arkansas, there is only one motif that surely came from Africa. Not even one tale type or even one folktale!
(Bascom 1981d, 289)
Of the series of articles on “African Folktales in America” Bascom added, “I began this project with very little knowledge of Afro-American folktales.” He continued,
in this first article [“The Talking Skull Refuses to Talk”] I said, “I believe that I can show that more than twenty folktales must have come to the United States from Africa rather than from Europe.” I now think that the number will exceed fifty. In fact, I am currently examining ninety tale types.
(Bascom 1981d, 289-90)
Bascom noted that a number of these tales he had found in Dorson’s own collection.
In his work on Afro-American tales, Bascom included all of the Americas. He pointed out that the existence of the same tale type in other areas where African slaves were transported would add credibility to “the argument for the African sources of tale types in the United States” (Bascom 1981d, 290). Of his approach to the study, Bascom said, “My method is simple.” He searched the literature for folktales that had been recorded both in the United States and in Africa. Then he referred to Thompson’s Types of the Folktale and to his Motif-Index of Folk-Literature. “If I do not find such a tale type in either of these two indexes, which provide good coverage of Indo-European folktales, I conclude that it could not have come from Europe and must have come from Africa.” Bascom did not claim to be providing the origin for all Afro-American narratives. He notes, “Fifty, or even a hundred tale types from Africa do not represent a majority of the folktales in the repertoire of the Negroes of the United States” (Bascom 1981d, 291). Included in this repertoire are also tales from Europe and tales that originated in the United States.
In the Archer Taylor Memorial Lecture, “Perhaps Too Much to Chew?,” Bascom read twelve tales which were grouped into six tale types. For each tale type, he gave versions from Africa and from the United States. He preceded this presentation with the comment, “I assume that many of you will be familiar with the American folktales from Harris, Fortier, and Dorson, but that fewer will know their African counterparts” (Bascom 1981d, 292). In the first, “Inside Elephant’s Belly,” Bascom read a version from Upper Volta which involved the characters Hare, Elephant, and Hyena. Hare makes Elephant laugh, enters his body through his anus, and stuffs himself with Elephant’s fat. The next time, Hyena joins Hare, and they both enter Elephant’s stomach to steal fat. Elephant falls dead because Hyena does not follow Hare’s instructions—he pierces Elephant’s heart. It is only through his quick wits that Hare escapes and Hyena is beaten to death. Immediately following the reading of this African tale, Bascom read a tale from Arkansas that was taken from Richard Dorson’s Negro Tales from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and Calvin, Michigan. In this tale, Rabbit took a bucket of lard from Elephant. Bear joined Rabbit and they both jumped in Elephant’s mouth to gather fat. Elephant died. Rabbit through his quick wits escaped and caused Bear to be beaten to death. The similarity between the tale told in the Upper Volta and the tale told in Arkansas cannot be denied.
Bascom noted that Dorson had linked this tale to “Tom Thumb” and “Jonah and the Whale.” Tom Thumb was the tiny hero swallowed by a cow; and, of course, Jonah ended up in the whale’s stomach. Bascom continued: “Dorson says of his Arkansas tale, ‘The substitution of the elephant for the cow ... is curious.’ There is nothing curious when it is recognized that his tale came from Africa, where the animal involved is usually an elephant or a cow” (Bascom 1981d, 294).
After Bascom had delivered the Archer Taylor Memorial Lecture, one prominent folklorist remarked, “I don’t know how Dick [Dorson] is going to counter that. I think he’s beat!” Yet Bascom in his address disclaimed this competitive aspect of the dispute:
Some students and colleagues have seen it as a personal attack on Richard M. Dorson, but it is not. I see it as a possible way of helping to end the century-old debate about the African sources of American folktales. The evidence has been sitting on library shelves, waiting to be analyzed. It is a challenge that I have not been able to resist.
(Bascom 1981d, 291)
Florence E. Baer in Sources and Analogues of the Uncle Remus Tales says,
A century has passed since publication of the first serious collection of American Negro folktales—Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings, 1880. The book contains thirty-four tales in the dialect in which they were told. Folklorists at once began the search for parallels from other countries and cultures.
(Baer 1980, 7)
Baer notes that in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, the tales were accepted as genuine folklore, though the sources were disputed. It was in 1919, that Elsie Clews Parsons decided Harris had rewritten the tales in Uncle Remus Returns. “She quickly disposed of the matter of origins; one was not a true folktale, three were of European provenience, and one had analogues in Africa and the West Indies” (Baer 1980, 9). The majority of the scholars in the twentieth century followed Parsons’s judgment, and viewed Harris’s writings as his own creation.
Baer’s is the first systematic study of Uncle Remus tales. Other scholars, though convinced of their position, have offered us only speculations. After a consideration of “Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908), an ‘Accidental’ Folklorist,” Baer presents the tales along with Thompson’s tale type and motif numbers for each and notes discussing analogues and possible origins. In the explanation to Table I, “Uncle Remus tales with tale types, motifs, distribution of analogues, source,” Baer says,
Of the 184 separate tales there is evidence that the immediate source of 122 (66.3%) is Africa. Twenty-eight (15.2%) probably came from Europe (this includes the British Isles); seventeen (9.2%) seem to have arisen in the New World . . . three are too synthesized to determine a predominant influence; four could have come from either Europe or Africa; and for nine I have found no analogues, and in some cases must question whether they are true folktales.
(Baer 1980, 168)
She also notes that “there is one myth, three folktales and two tales that contain American Indian elements.” Baer suspects that the influence of the American Indians might well have been much greater than indicated by her survey, but this she cannot substantiate.
The debate over the origin of Afro-American folktales did span the century. Perhaps now with Baer’s definitive work on the Sources and Analogues of the Uncle Remus Tales and Bascom’s convincing compilation of Afro-American tales with African analogues, scholars will recognize the undeniable, that African oral narratives have a significant place in Afro-American folklore.
One aspect of the debate was soon to be over, the dialogue between Richard Dorson and William Bascom. On September 11, 1981, these two great folklorists died. And yet the debate was not quite through. In November 1981, Bascom’s twelfth article in the series “African Folktales in America” appeared, this one on “The Dogs Rescue Master in Tree Refuge.” And his last contributions in this series were published in the 1982 issue of Researches in African Literatures.
In the myth-ritual debate and in the conflict over the origin of Afro-American narratives, a new dichotomy was emphasized, that of the folklorist and the anthropologist. This latter is not just a subtle change of phrasing from what had been referred to as the split between the literary and the anthropological folklorists. In essence, Hyman and Dorson were denying the validity of the anthropological perspective to the study of folklore. Hyman was explicit about this. Anthropologists were lacking; they could not adequately study folklore. Dorson explained it another way: “the anthropologists have enough of their own work to do; the point is that they are not equipped to do the work of folklorists” (Dorson 1963b, 2).
Dorson’s attitude toward Boas was ambivalent. He held him in high esteem. He talked of “the massive figure of Boas” and referred to “the heroic age of Boas” (Dorson 1963b, 101; 1963d, 2). Yet, he resented his position of power. Consistent in Dorson’s accounts is the separation of the anthropologists from the folklorists. On one occasion, he refers, with all politeness, to “our anthropological friends.” And he remarks, “The tradition of American anthropological friendliness to folklore goes back to Boas, who edited our journal from 1908 to 1923” (Dorson 1971a, 18). Dorson portrays Boas as an outsider, one who was not seriously interested in folklore.
In the foreword to American Folklore, Dorson presented the anthropologists’ contributions to the society and to folklore studies not as an act of friendship, but as an usurping of the folklorists’ concerns: “After an initial thrust of interest propelled from England, which led to the founding of an American Folklore Society in 1888, the subject languished, going by default to the anthropologists, who concentrated on North American Indian tales” (Dorson 1959a, 2). Dorson dismissed the study of folklore when anthropologists were involved. Folklore “languished” with the anthropologists—that would be Boas, Kroeber, Lowie, Swanton, Dixon, Parsons, and others who were working with such diligence and dedication toward the development of a myth concordance, a catch-word index, and the thorough study of American Indian narrative tradition. In truth, Dorson provides a very selective view of what is and what is not part of American folkloristics. Without concern of omission, he could skip the period between 1888 and 1910, and continue his account, “In the first two decades of the present century interest picked up, with the publication of cowboy songs in 1910 by John A. Lomax and of old English ballads from the southern Appalachians by Cecil Sharp in 1917.”
Dorson gave a more impartial representation of the contributions of anthropologists to the study of folklore in “Current Folklore Theories,” perhaps because the essay was written for an anthropological audience, the readership of Current Anthropology. Here he refers to Boas’s position as editor of the Journal of American Folklore, his influential studies in the folklore of nonliterate cultures, and the continuation of his scholarly tradition among his students: “Through his students Benedict, Parsons, and Herskovits, and in turn through the students of Herskovits, the Boas line of American anthropology has valued the tales and other oral traditions of Indians and Africans” (Dorson 1963b, 101). He remarked that after Boas, the number of cultural anthropologists who were “sensitive and sympathetic to folklore has steadily decreased” (Dorson 1963d, 2). Many “drew apart from folklorists” and turned “to such questions as social organization and personality and culture” (Dorson 1963b, 102). Further, Dorson says, the anthropologist is often “blind to the very existence of folklore” (Dorson 1963d, 2).
In “Current Folklore Theories,” Dorson refers to “the widening gap” between folklorists and anthropologists. In an earlier article, “A Theory for American Folklore,” he spoke of this division and of Bascom’s attempts to draw the two sides together. “Recently Bascom has attempted to close the widening gulf between anthropological and humanistic folklorists in a series of meaty papers. No humanist has accepted his invitation to respond in kind, and his articles underscore the difficulty of cross-disciplinary communication” (Dorson 1971a, 18). Bascom’s articles to which Dorson referred were “Folklore and Anthropology” (1953), “Four Functions of Folklore” (1954), and “Verbal Art” (1955). In the first article, Bascom spoke of “the intellectual isolationism” that existed between the literary folklorists and the anthropological folklorists. He hoped “to bridge the gap by presenting the anthropological approach to folklore” and he invited a reciprocal response from folklorists in the humanities (Bascom  1965a, 25-26). “Four Functions of Folklore,” Bascom’s presidential address to the American Folklore Society, followed by one year his invitation to the literary folklorists to present their approach to the study of folklore. His opening remark echoed this plea: “In a paper at the El Paso meetings last year I expressed the opinion that the most effective way to bridge the gap between the anthropological and the humanist points of view towards folklore is through a common concern with common problems . . .” (Bascom  1965b, 279). This, Bascom thought, would be more effective in unifying the two approaches to folklore than the traditional reliance on a shared body of material. He was convinced that an open discussion, if conducted “moderately and rationally,” would ultimately be beneficial for the American Folklore Society.
In “Verbal Art,” Bascom once again attempted to clarify the position he held of an anthropologist who studied folklore. The term “verbal art,” suggested by Bascom and Waterman (1949, 398, 403) as an appropriate frame for an anthropological approach, had stirred up resentment against the anthropological folklorist. Bascom attempted to assuage the offended:
I agree . . . that it is unfortunate that anthropologists have tried to pre-empt the word folklore to designate a portion of the total body of culture. I am willing to go even further and say that anthropologists were somewhat presumptuous in twisting the meaning of folklore to fit in with their own needs in classifying the aspects of culture.
(Bascom  1981e, 66)
Bascom stressed that the term “verbal art” was “meant to encompass only a segment of folklore and a segment of culture, and not the whole of either.” He reiterated his point made in “Folklore and Anthropology,” that Thoms had defined folklore twenty years before Tylor had defined culture. “We are even more presumptuous if we refer to verbal art as ‘folklore proper,’ or if we suggest that folklorists as a whole should accept the anthropological definition of folklore, when the responsibility for these terminological difficulties seems to lie clearly with anthropology” (Bascom  1981e, 66).
Instead of attempting to lessen the gap, as Bascom had done, Dorson emphasized it. Referring to the students of Boas, Dorson says, “In their addresses we see the Boasian emphasis on folklore as a mirror of culture—a mirror that distorts as well as reflects—and on folktales as an art form” (Dorson  1971a, 18). This reference most likely was to Bascom’s presidential address to the society, “Four Functions of Folklore,” and “Verbal Art,” the latter first presented at the sixty-sixth annual meeting of the American Folklore Society in December 1953. For Dorson, the anthropologists were not part of the folklore circle. They were apart, on the other side of the divide that separated them from what Dorson calls “the American folklorist.” As he says, “Some of [Herskovits’s and Bascom’s] counsel lights up the distance between anthropological and American folklorists.”
The mark of Boas was on the anthropological folklorists. And the new breed of scholars who claimed the identity of folklorists resented the past control of the American Folklore Society and the Journal of American Folklore by Boas and his students. This would not be forgotten. Indeed this resentment is still felt. In his 1980 dissertation, “The History of American Folklore Scholarship to 1908,” William K. McNeil, a student of Richard Dorson, refers to the stranglehold of the anthropologists on the Journal of American Folklore. Michael Bell said that with the demise of the Chicago Folklore Society folklore became “the handmaiden to anthropology.” And at the 1981 business meeting of the American Folklore Society, a leading folklorist made a passing, but telling comment. With reference to the plans for future sites for annual meetings, he shrugged and said, “Now that we have sold our souls to the American Anthropological Association. ...” The American Folklore Society had contracted the American Anthropological Association to arrange future meeting sites. This was perhaps a bit too reminiscent of the past control of the American Folklore Society by anthropologists.
In light of this continued resentment directed toward those in anthropology, it is interesting that a recent theory in folklore should derive inspiration from anthropology. In performance theory, those who stress the importance of context for the creation of the event are amplifying on an anthropological concern. In the concluding remarks to Frontiers of Folklore, Richard Bauman says, “To make explicit what is probably clear from my remarks thus far, the frontiers of folklore as I conceive them are bound up largely with anthropology and linguistics” (Bauman 1977b, 128).
In the introduction to New Perspectives in Folklore, Bauman discusses the “highly self-conscious reorientation” in the study of folklore. This involved a movement from the stress on text, to a stress on the context; “from the traditional focus upon folklore as ‘item’—the things of folklore—to a conceptualization of folklore as ‘event’—the doing of folklore” (Bauman 1972, xi). As Ben-Amos says in “The Context of Folklore,”
The aim of the “new perspectives” is the discovery of the possible and acceptable varieties of folklore performances by the members of a society, and the explanation of existing differences and similarities in folklore in terms of self-regulatory rules, with reference to social structure, cultural cosmology and symbols, and general verbal behavior.
(Ben-Amos 1977a, 37)
Clearly the “new perspectives” draw from anthropology, as from linguistics with the study of the social aspects of verbal behavior. And, of course, the “new perspectives” are situated within the discipline of folklore.
Dan Ben-Amos notes that former definitions have all grouped folklore either as a body of knowledge, a mode of thought, or a kind of art (Ben-Amos 1972, 5). An alternative that stresses the mode of transmission—the oral nature of folklore—does not, according to Ben-Amos, solve the problem. Past definitions and theories have all perpetuated the “dichotomy between processes and things.” This dichotomy is eliminated in performance theory where the item, or text, and the process, or context, are united in the whole.
Those who formulated performance theory constantly reiterate the importance of context. Bauman says, “The kind of focus on the doing of folklore, that is, on folklore performance, is the key to the real integration between people and lore on the empirical level” (Bauman 1972, 33). Ben-Amos says, “In sum, folkore is artistic communication in small groups” (Ben-Amos 1972, 13). Elli Köngäs Maranda takes an extreme position. She emphasizes that culture is a living thing and that folklore forms cannot be fixed: “folkloric utterances are created whenever they are made” (Maranda 1972, 60). Abrahams stresses the need for a close observation of individual performances in their social context. But he also cautions that limiting the study of folklore to performance alone would diminish the understanding “of the relationship between traditions and the uses of traditional expressions” (Abrahams 1972, 29).
Dorson referred to the creators of performance theory as “the young Turks” (Dorson 1972b, 45). They have stirred up the community of folklore scholars. In part this is due to the stress on context—certainly an anthropological concept—and the de-emphasis on text. If there can be no text outside of context, if folklore does not exist as an item or a text, then there can be no tale type, no genre. If the emphasis is on the present, the moment of creation, then there is no importance attached to the past, to culture history in the Boasian sense or to reconstruction of the original text. Performance theory lays to rest the past concerns of both the literary and the anthropological folklorists. The genre and tale type of Thompson are no longer a crucial consideration. The collection of texts, as stressed by the literary and anthropological folklorists, is no longer a focus of fieldwork. And a reading of the past through the folkloric present, the Boasian culture reflector, is no longer central to the study.
Ben-Amos says this quite succinctly: “The ‘new perspectives’ represent a transition from historical and comparative to descriptive folklore” (Ben-Amos 1977a, 36). The thrust of performance theory is on meaning in a specific context and a specific culture. Thus, both the historical study “across time periods” and the comparative study “across cultural boundaries” are replaced by descriptions of folklore performances in their setting.
The articulation of the performance theory has led to the text-context controversy. This involves the conflict between those who insist that folklore is text, and those who insist that folklore is context. In his 1972 presidential address to the American Folklore Society, D. K. Wilgus stressed the importance of text in “The Text is the Thing” (Wilgus 1973). Steven Jones, in “Slouching Towards Ethnography: The Text/Context Controversy Reconsidered” (1979), accused those who focused on the importance of context of ignoring the traditional basis of folklore studies—the text. Dan Ben-Amos countered with “The Ceremony of Innocence” (1979), where he emphasized the importance of the study of process.2
In “Toward a Resolution of the Text/Context Controversy,” Robert Georges says “In my view, the distinction between text-and context-oriented researchers is distortive and does more harm than good. It suggests the existence of warring factions, each vying for dominance over, if not the complete annihilation of, the other” (Georges 1980, 35). Yet, Georges agrees with Jones that there are those who are “slouching towards ethnography”—indeed, there are some who “have already arrived.” “These individuals are not interested in the kinds of phenomena or questions that folklorists have considered historically. Instead, they are intent on determining the nature of culture.” They study folklore “as a means of better understanding the cultures of individual societies or social groups.” They are not interested in “the essence of narrative or narrating, song or singing, games or playing,” but rather in the concerns of the anthropologist, “the rules or dynamics of culturally-determined behaviors of groups or particular peoples.” “For all intents and purposes, they should be identified as ethnographers or cultural anthropologists, not as folklorists, for they are cultural relativists in the most extreme sense of that term. . . . Just why they call themselves folklorists ... I do not know” (Georges 1980, 36). Georges says that “the text/context controversy in contemporary American folkloristics” is “deeply rooted, complex, and varied” (p. 39).
There were those in literature who laid claim to folklore. Francis Lee Utley called the English Department the “mother of folklorists” (Utley 1970, 112). Wayland Hand, in his presidential address delivered to the American Folklore Society in December 1958, said, “As we all know, folklore’s earliest and strongest ties are with literature” (Hand 1960, 4). Hand stressed the precedent established by literary folklorists: “Long before there were folklore curricula anywhere, or even concentrations of work in the subject, students in these departments were busy writing masters’ theses and doctoral dissertations in various aspects of popular literature and folklore, foreign as well as domestic” (Hand i960, 4).
Still, while the literary folklorists were studying the ballad, the anthropological folklorists were studying myths. While Child and Kittredge taught their courses on the ballad, Boas trained his students in collecting folklore texts, Kroeber taught his course on world mythology, Lowie, his seminar on folklore, and Radin, his course on primitive literature. In the case of the study of diffusion of American Indian narrative elements and myth types, the anthropological folklorists preceded the literary folklorists and, in a sense, passed the study on to them. And certainly in terms of master’s theses and doctoral dissertations, the anthropological folklorists made substantial contributions as well.
This representation of the literary and the anthropological folklorists as parallel and powerful contributors to American folkloristics is offered as a new reading of intellectual history. It is also hoped that it has been a fair reading of intellectual history. A detrimental result of the split between the literary and the anthropological folklorists has been a tendency to divide and claim the intellectual territory of folklore. When folklorists and historians of folkloristics highlight the contributions of one group and neglect the contributions of the other, a skewed picture of the past develops.
Just such a distorted picture has developed from Dorson’s and Baker’s review of folklore courses. In “The Growth of Folklore Courses,” Dorson considered only courses taught in departments other than anthropology: “I have omitted courses offered by Departments of Anthropology, which concentrate chiefly on the traditions of nonliterate peoples. The dynamic interest in folklore in recent years has come outside of anthropology, from students of European and American culture and society” (Dorson 1950, 351). The list of folklore courses that Dorson compiled was heavily weighted toward the English departments, with a few courses offered in history, folklore, and foreign language departments. Ronald Baker, in his “Folklore Courses and Programs in American Colleges and Universities,” offers a review of folklore courses in English departments. His survey “was concerned with only ‘straight’ folklore courses and not with classical mythology or with literature or anthropology courses with some folklore content” (Baker 1971, 221). Baker notes,
The results of this survey would be much more impressive if such courses were included; however, since usually neither the material nor the approach in these units is strictly folkloristic, often the nature of folklore is distorted and the development of real folklore courses impeded, just as the development of anthropology courses and programs is hindered when anthropology is taught within sociology.
(Baker 1971, 221)
No equivalent survey of folklore courses taught in anthropology departments has been done. Rather there has been the assumption that anthropologists did not teach folklore—or, at least, that what they taught was not real folklore—an assumption that is not borne out by the record.
The inclusion of one group or one approach, and the exclusion of another, results in a weakening of the entire fabric of folkloristics. This has been evidenced in the discussion of the anthropological folklorists and their carefully executed control of the American Folklore Society and the Journal of American Folklore. While Boas and his students exercised editorial power, the anthropological folklorists had the voice. But the denial of access to power bred resentment among the literary folklorists. This resentment was reversed. The first generation of folklorists, who in large part were trained by literary folklorists, by Stith Thompson and Archer Taylor (Dundes 1966a), minimized the important contributions made to the development of American folkloristics by the anthropological folklorists.
American folkloristics is a unique hybrid, drawing from differing intellectual currents. From the literary comes the concern with recorded text, with folklore as part of the literate tradition. From the anthropological comes the focus on function and meaning in cultural context, with folklore as part of culture. Each approach, the literary and the anthropological, opened a rich store of scholarship for American folkloristics. Further, the history of American folkloristics is not merely a matter of two divergent intellectual traditions. In fact, there are many approaches to the study of folklore—literary, anthropological, historical, sociological, psychological, political—and these approaches draw from and feed into one another.
The variety of approaches, the interdisciplinary nature of folklore studies, has been both a source of creative strength and a source of organizational weakness. Certainly it has posed a problem for the identity of the folklorists. For those outside the discipline, there has been a feeling that somehow the discipline of folklore is suspect because it draws from such a wide spectrum. It crosses boundaries. And, within the discipline, there is a concern about the proprietorship of theories. Folklore “shares” theories rather than “owning” them. Ben-Amos included this critique of folklore in “A History of Folklore Studies—Why Do We Need It?” He referred to Dorson’s “Current Folklore Theories.” In this article, Dorson differentiated the folklorists from “the anthropologist, the historian, the literary critic, the sociologist, the psychologist, the historian, the political scientist” and he did this on the basis of the folklorists’ skills. “This is particularly revealing since Dorson sets out to discuss not so much the techniques as the theories of the discipline. . . . However, it soon becomes apparent that while the theories of folklore are all borrowed from other disciplines, the techniques are all its own (Ben-Amos 1973, 115). This “consuming interest with techniques” of folklore study resulted in the neglect of theories and philosophical issues. “Consequently, folklore has become a craft, not a science.” Ben-Amos related the eclectic approach of folklorists, the use of theories from other disciplines, to “an enormous academic inferiority complex” (Ben-Amos 1973, 117); folklorists quote works and borrow theories from other disciplines in an attempt to assume a higher status.
While Ben-Amos links the eclectic approach of folklorists to feelings of inferiority, a search for academic status through association, it is also possible to view the eclectic nature of folklore as a source of strength. The blending of approaches in folkloristics could be said to bring a creativity to the enterprise. Merle Curti in American Scholarship in the Twentieth Century remarks, “In the last two decades many scholars have, in thinking of knowledge as a whole, reacted against its narrow compartmentalization” (Curti 1953, 4). It has been suggested that the greatest contributions to a field of knowledge occur when a scholar crosses “conventional boundaries” and draws from other disciplines.
Dundes, like Ben-Amos, is critical of American folklore theory. In “The American Concept of Folklore,” he says, “Very few important original theoretical works in folklore have been penned by American folklore scholars.” He gives a list of the important contributions by European folklorists, and adds: “One gets the impression that not only is much American folklore—the materials—essentially transplanted European folklore, but many of the theories and methods of studying folklore employed traditionally by American folklorists are likewise European borrowings” (Dundes 1966a, 239).
While Ben-Amos bemoans the lack of theory, and Dundes identifies what theory there is as European, Dorson finds “no books of theory, no continuity, no consensus” in the history of American folklore (Dorson 1973a, 125). In the midst of this critique by folklorists, Wayland Hand asks, “Why should we be so defensive about our discipline, and why should we be so self-effacing?” (Hand 1960, 9). In part, this self-effacement, to use Hand’s term, seems to be tied to the European orientation which has been so prevalent in American folklore scholarship. Though American folklorists have adopted European methods and techniques, still they are not European folklorists. They have not done things the same way. They have followed the model, but they do not fit the mold. For Dorson, the history of American folklore lacks the continuity he was able to trace in the British Folklorists. And for Dundes, American folklorists have not made significant contributions in kind to match the European model. The pattern of American folkloristics and the contributions of American folklorists are matters for serious consideration, certainly a suitable topic for an extended work. Here it is appropriate to note the components of the comparison: American folkloristics and American folklorists have been compared to the European model and have been found lacking.
Another aspect of this harsh self-critique has to do with the proprietorship of theory. Yet theories are not “owned” by a discipline. The social sciences share theory. The functionalist theory is not solely an anthropological theory that has been pirated by folklorists. Sociologists have used it too. Psychological theory was blended with anthropological in the culture and personality school. Students of social welfare and education use it too. Structuralism, developed by the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, has had a marked impact on comparative literature, literary criticism, art, film, history, and folklore.
Three of the leading American folklorists point to serious lacks in American folkloristics, a lack of identity, a lack of theory, and a lack of continuity. Returning to Hand’s question, why is there this defensive posture and self-effacement among American folklorists? The answer might lie in the time. Dundes wrote “The American Concept of Folklore” in 1966. Dorson and Ben-Amos both were contributors to the specal issue of the Journal of the Folklore Institute in 1973. Since the time of these publications, a new generation of folklorists has been trained who have for models folklorists such as Ben-Amos, Dundes, Dorson, and others, such as Abrahams, Bauman, and Georges. This senior generation of folklorists has formulated theory and applied it in dynamic ways. Current students of folklore are enough removed from the period of emphasis on techniques—the indexing and annotation—to view it with distance. They have an established identity as folklorists. And this established identity, this sense of security in a discipline, is due to the solid scholarship, both in theory and research, of their mentors. The feelings of inferiority, if they did exist, have passed away and are replaced by feelings of independence.
Susan Dwyer-Shick notes, “there has been a shift away from the identification with either an anthropological or a literary approach . . . within folklore study in the United States” (Dwyer-Shick 1979, 4). And here Ben-Amos’s statement is apt when applied to our trio of critics, Ben-Amos, Dundes, and Dorson. The folklorists who have shaped American folklore “hardly recognize the new phase to which they themselves have brought the field of folklore” (Ben-Amos 1973, 116).
In a sense, the conflict between the literary and the anthropological folklorists was laid to symbolic rest one-half century after it first surfaced: George Lyman Kittredge died in 1941, and Franz Boas, in 1942. The dissension between the two groups continued in the 1940s; the discussion in the correspondence of the American Folklore Society remained bifurcated between those aligning themselves with the literary, and those with the anthropological.3 This was the aftermath, the residue of the battle. Stresses and strains still remain. These surface from time to time as echoes of the past when the clash between the two groups concerned a real struggle for dominance and control.
The roots of conflict have twined together and have become, as Erminie Voegelin said, “part of our strength” (UPFFA, Voegelin to Leach, 1/30/46). The creative tension—which verged, at times, on destructive force—between the literary and the anthropological folklorists has helped to forge the hybrid of American folklore scholarship.