Folklore and Literature
It is no easier to interpret a folklore text than a literary text. The process of interpreting is a complex and demanding one in either case. Methodologies that scholars use to interpret literary or folklore texts are increasingly sophisticated and microscopic. Among literary critics, the influence of deconstructive analysis and reader-response theory has assured this hallmark of complexity, and among folklorists, the rise of performance theory has also determined that the interpretation of texts will never again be a simple matter.
Both literary critics and folklorists have developed methodologies that allow them to identify and explore the complex relationships that produce the resonance of meaning in a literary or folkloristic text. In this study I am proposing an interpretive methodology that integrates these two contemporary approaches. This perspective—“literary folkloristics”—is an interpretive scheme that capitalizes upon the complexity of and basic similarity among the theories of folkloristic performance, deconstructive criticism, and reader-response theory. Literary folkloristics is an integrative criticism which identifies the many private or collective traditions that function as meaningful allusions in the reader or listener’s interpretation of a literary or folkloric text. Exploring the relationship between these traditions and the listener/reader’s interpretation of the text is the objective of this kind of criticism. Its aim is to demonstrate how specific textual interpretations evolve for given interpreters of a “literary” text.
In contrast, earlier folklore-and-literature studies have generally been applications of standard critical approaches either to verbal texts that can be studied as though they were literature—e.g., the ballad, the fairy tale, the fable—or to works of literature that are assumed to “contain” folklore. For example, one might consider the works of Mark Twain and endeavor to identify folklore as (1) the basis for certain mythic themes or motifs, (2) the basis for the plot or subplots, (3) the basis for narrative form (e.g., the tall tale), (4) the source of “local color” in the stylization of each work, or (5) the traditions that are used throughout the works as common allusions. In 1957, Richard M. Dorson proposed a system for identifying folklore in literature, and in the three decades since then, identification studies using some adaptation of this system have made up a large portion of the total research on folklore-and-literature topics (Dorson 1957; for examples, see Jones 1984 and Baer 1986).
Methodological Characteristics of Literary Folkloristics
Literary folkloristics as a methodology builds upon this research background but offers a radically different perspective vis à vis the agent (person) presumed to be identifying these traditions and the process of interpretation. In theory, it is the listener who identifies the traditions, and it is the experience of hearing the text that is translated into an interpretation. Literary folkloristics does identify traditional elements in a text, but it goes beyond conventional folklore-and-literature studies in asserting that the range of traditions significant in the listener’s hearing of the story is larger and more inclusive than previously assumed and that the process of hearing the text is a creative act in which the listener’s own large store of cultural and personal resources is used to produce a unified resonance of meaning. This perspective does not adopt wholesale the well-es-tablished system of literary semiotics (though it does benefit from a number of its insights); rather, it integrates the perspectives of folkoristic performance theory, reception theory, and deconstructive criticism by examining the relationships among (1) cultural and private frames of reference, (2) the allusions growing out of those frames, (3) the text, (4) the experience of hearing the text, and (5) the listener’s interpretation of the text or performance.
Critical methodologies presuppose some guiding theoretical inquiries. In this case, literary folkloristics could be characterized by its conceptual concern with the issue of text versus context, by its analytical attention to the practice of hearing the text, and by its fundamental attachment to lore or tradition.
The Issue of Text versus Context
A primary characteristic of this methodology is its ambivalence toward the issue of text versus context. This issue is not one that literary folkloristics presumes to solve; rather, the controversy is simply a primary segment of the background necessary for understanding why this methodology seems an appropriate replacement for earlier analytical schemes. Among folklorists, the issue has grown out of a perception of “oral literary” performances presented within specific situations or contexts. As Alan Dundes suggested two decades ago in his article “Texture, Text, and Context,” there are three analytical domains that should concern the folklorist, but it is the text that has most often been the basis of study (1964b). In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the “contextualists” brought a new focus to folklore research, and this new perspective in turn sparked a series of reactions calling for a reappraisal of the importance of the text (see Ben-Amos 1972; Wilgus 1971; Jones 1979; Georges 1980; Zan 1982). In literary studies the controversy has been incorporated into the very fabric of deconstructive criticism. One of the best examples of this is Barbara Johnson’s essay on Derrida’s reading of Jacques Lacan’s reading of Poe’s “Purloined Letter,” in which each piece of writing serves as a frame for the next (1980:Essay 7). Whether designated a “frame” or a “context,” increasingly the surroundings of the text vie for attention equal to if not greater than that given to the object supposedly at the base of the study.
The text/context dichotomy has stimulated discussion of “What is the text?” in both literary and folkloristic scholarship. And it has provoked a much more careful consideration of what the author or teller uses—what he invents or borrows or adapts—and presents through the performance we recognize as a text. Particularly the “rhetorical” literary theories of Wayne C. Booth (1961) and Kenneth Burke (1941) have assumed that the author’s use of various “resources” determines what the text becomes. And among folklorists, Roger Abrahams and Richard Bauman have been primary advocates of a textual criticism that assumes cultural and individual control of the rules and resources available to the teller in the performance of a text.1 Even when it has not been clear what constitutes the text, there has been a consistent assertion that the relationship between the text and the context is intimate and significant. In studying either folklore or literature, the scholar’s hope has been that with careful attention one can discover the “rules” and content resources the performer uses to tell or write an effective story in a given context. Like Dell Hymes’s research (1960; 1975) into an “ethnography of speaking,” performance theory and rhetorical criticism have aimed at the identification of the tacitly shared rules of effective narrative performance tapped by the successful storyteller in either medium.
The problems inherent in this growing effort to identify and demonstrate in the fullest detail what is in the text, or in fact what is going on in the performance represented by the text, are impressively addressed by Elizabeth Fine in her book The Folklore Text: From Performance to Print (1984). Fine discusses a number of schemes people have tried in their efforts to represent on the printed page the actual, observable behavior involved in the performance of an oral narrative. And she peers below the surface of each scheme to see what conceptual expectations are influencing each scholar to select the scheme he has chosen. She demonstrates and defends her own scheme as well, but in every case, it seems, the printed page inevitably fails to do what the collector-transcriber hopes it could do. No text, not even one weighted with intricately coded analytical information, can demonstrate even the relatively well understood relationship between the specific text and the context of a conventional performance ethnography. And for other kinds of context, the frustrating complexity is even more striking.
It is easy to see why a concern with context would arise as theorists explored those aspects of the text apparent to scholars but not easily made visible to other readers of a given text. In folkloristics, this inadequacy of the text is clearest in studies of proverbs. For example, a proverb such as “Look before you leap” is nearly meaningless without some indication of the context in which it is used. This is context in its simplest, clearest sense. Even more striking is the effect of varying contexts on the actual verbal makeup of a narrative text. Richard Bauman, in his excellent study of Texas storytellers, compares three separate tellings of the same story by one man. He accounts for some of the apparent differences from one telling to the next by pointing to changes in the storyteller himself (over the ten-year period involved), changes in the setting and audience, and changes in the aesthetic requirements of storytelling (1986:78-111).
Literary scholars deal with contexts of an even less obvious sort. Contexts, in this case, are conventionally recognized categories of influence, and for any specific literary performance these contexts will be perceived as exerting pressure within the creative process and ultimately influencing the text. The writer’s skill in invoking effective rules of rhetoric, his familarity with his chosen genre, his awareness of current tastes, even the quality of his personal life all affect the performance which becomes the text others read as literature.
The separation of such contexts from the texts under scrutiny, while never achieved in actuality, is continually invoked in heuristic exercises in the hope of learning more about how writers or tellers are able to tell their stories. One significant contextual concern shared by literary studies and folkloristics is the identification of genres or “generic context” and the conventions it implies. For most literary critics, a text must be identified as intentionally representative of a specific genre before it can even be approached for the sake of interpretation. An immediate problem arises, however, one which is directly tied to the perceived relationship between the concept of any genre and its representative texts. Paul Hernadi (1972) identifies the problem as “Müller’s remarkable quandary,” to wit: “How can I define [a genre] before I know on which works to base the definition, yet how can I know on which works to base the definition before I have defined [the genre]?”2 For the scholar it is not at all clear from the text which came first, the genre or the text. Nevertheless, because of the frame of “text versus context,” literary critics are compelled to identify a generic context which has influenced the storyteller. The problem is, as Müller’s quandary suggests, that the generic context cannot be known until a representative text is known. The text and context are mutually dependent.
Another kind of context literary critics have in the past pursued with great energy is the biographical context represented by the author of the text. What in the lives of Dickens, Hemingway, Lawrence, Dickinson, or Joyce allows us to understand their texts more fully? In fact, isn’t Stephen really Joyce, isn’t Nick Adams really Hemingway, isn’t the “I” of Dickinson’s poems really Emily Dickinson? Or to reverse it, isn’t “truth” represented by the author and “fiction” by the works he or she creates? Isn’t the author’s biography the real text and the works he or she creates simply an “effect” of the text at work in a literary medium? A study such as John Livingston Lowes’s Road to Xanadu (1955) could be written only by someone who viewed Coleridge’s intellectual and personal life itself as the text he investigates.
For critics willing to look to the author of a text, the problem of distinguishing text and context becomes very muddied indeed. For the biographical context of a work is not so much an influence on the work as it is inherent in it and, like poor Antonio’s blood, inseparable from the precious pound of flesh it sustains. Any influence study that assumes real historical connections, any biographical study that views the author of a work as anything other than an unconscious medium at the service of some greater god, must finally, or better yet initially, tear through the false membrane that separates text from context. And yet a holistic text, such as that envisioned by Elizabeth Fine or even more ambitiously by Roland Barthes (1970), frustrates even the most painstaking analysis.
One essential assumption in literary studies is that a text may be, in fact must be, viewed within its aesthetic context, the context of contemporary stylistics or taste. Arnold’s famous “touchstone” theory is implicated here.3 The aesthetic context not only suggests what choices are open to the creator of a text but also determines what characteristic choices are deemed “good” by the people who receive and appreciate the text. Thus, a written piece is called literature if it fits easily into the canon representative of a standard aesthetic context or current taste—even at the extreme where a written piece was not intended as a literary work, as in “found” literature, which is simply perceived as bound to an identifiable aesthetic context (see Strelka 1978).
Similarly, in folklore studies, texts are often separable from their conversational context only on the basis of the researcher’s recognition and use of an aesthetic context. John McDowell (1974), for example, identifies “informal narratives” in the midst of ongoing conversations through reference to the presumed canons of coherency and delight. The stories are described as autonomous narratives through an appeal to the aesthetic context. This context requires that the storyteller make stylistic choices that maintain coherency and produce delight for an audience that has supposedly long since incorporated these same canons as touchstones in their sense of aesthetic preference. Nevertheless, even such a tacitly recognized notion of “style” is not a clear concept. Like genre, style is a domain or context that cannot be identified apart from the text that illustrates it—the “remarkable quandary” once again. As Bennison Gray (1969) has demonstrated at great length, ultimately there is no such thing as style, or more precisely for our purposes, the aesthetic context is simply a heuristic convention that helps us identify an artistic text.
And since the rise of reception theory and deconstructionism, the very notion of “text” has been challenged, or rather transformed, to identify not the printed words or recorded performance but rather the intangible “mind” that reads or hears. Context and text, if they are separate in our analysis, are subsumed within the mind of the individual—whether that individual is the creator of the story or the reader/listener. In the past, in anthropology, for example, one spoke of an item in its ethnographic context, its historical context, its psychocultural context. And in folklore studies, a primary consideration has been the context of tradition perceived as maintaining the item within the active memory of at least some individuals. A contemporary holistic study of an item will take into account all of these contexts—ultimately to the effect that the distinctions between text and context become invisible to the researcher.
The contexts do themselves “deconstruct” if they are used too rigorously as tools for understanding the text. Thus Dan Ben-Amos (1972) contends that there is no such thing as “tradition,” Bennison Gray (1969) that there is no such thing as “style,” Robert Georges (1969) that there is no such thing as “the story.” Instead, the context of tradition is, as Ben-Amos suggests, an “analytical construct.” Likewise the style of a narration or, in fact, the very notion of a distinguishable item such as a story—these are as well simply reflective of the scholar’s view of “the item in context.” Philosophically both the item and the context are conceptualizations, neither one more real than the other and neither one a more virtuous abstraction than the other.
A question which this unresolved controversy raises for this study is whether the same ambiguity prevails when one considers how a story is heard (or read) rather than how it is performed or created. That is, if the methodology is contrived relative to the listener or reader rather than the teller or writer, is there still a problem in identifying what is the text? I would say the problem is indeed the mirror image of the previous one. The historical development of the text/context question on this “response” or “reception” side of the creative performance is closely tied to the emergence of reader-response theory and a recognition of the problems in identifying the text.
Consider, for example, the chain of arguments tied to the essay by W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley (1954) titled “The Intentional Fallacy.” In criticizing Wimsatt and Beardsley’s essay, Frank Cioffi suggests that “once [one is] in possession of biographical data it is difficult to be sure what is in the work itself’ (1973:231). Within these “biographical data,” Cioffi includes a number of contexts mentioned above, especially as those contexts are conceived of as functioning frames of reference in the author’s mind. The distinction between what Wimsatt and Beardsley call “internal” and “external” evidence becomes untenable. If Eliot’s notes to The Waste Land become internal evidence—“part of the poem”—then what is not part of the poem? Cioffi asks, “Does it follow that since the effectiveness of certain lines in Prufrock depends upon familiarity with Marvell’s Coy Mistress, then Marvell’s poem should be considered part of Eliot’s?” (223). Or, less peevishly, is it a part of our sense of the “meaning” of Eliot’s poem if we know that Eliot knew Marvell’s poem?
Where is the text and where is its meaning? Literary critics are not yet ready to make the text the inclusive body of internal evidence that helps create meaning, that puts “a field of force round a work,” as Cioffi says. Biographical context is in theory still separable from text in literary studies. However, the related notion of “the author’s intention” or “the text as repository” [of an intended and permanent message] has come seriously under fire. In other words, though some literary critics, such as E. D. Hirsch (1967), are willing to accept the idea of “authorial intention” as a necessary convention in any interpretation of literature, others—the reader-response critics—are not convinced that the notion is an essential one. They contend that since the “intentional fallacy” prohibits anything but pure speculation about what the author really meant, we should turn instead to the reader.4 Similarly, in developing a literary folkloristic methodology (Stahl 1985), I have emphasized the listener’s response as an alternative point of view, one that might benefit our efforts to interpret oral literary performance.
Hearing the Text
Zealots of reader-response criticism argue that meaning is in the mind of the reader; that is where meaning is created, and it is there (in the reader’s mind) that the critic must look for the meaning associated with a particular text (i.e., meaning does not reside in the text). The closest a critic can come to the “seat” of meaning, according to reader-response critics, is in a new kind of text—the critical or responsive exegesis of “the reader.” Thus David Bleich (1975) and Norman Holland (1975) solicit new texts from readers of varying degrees of literary sophistication and in turn use those texts (the readers’ responses) in their own integrative discussion of meaning growing out of this expanded presentation of the text.
In folklore studies this emphasis on meaning articulated by the audience rather than the author of a text was anticipated in Alan Dundes’s suggestion (1966) that the fieldworker collecting texts should also try to elicit “oral literary criticism” in response to the text. Such oral literary criticism, Dundes contends, could come from the storyteller himself or his audience. In either case the implication is that the text belongs to “oral tradition” and that the folk who tell or listen to it are—in this instance—the ones who must “read” or interpret the text.
Implicit in this is the assumption that some (not all) significant meaning that can be associated with the text is present and discoverable in the minds of those who receive the text in a natural (typical) situation. Or more precisely, the folklorist analyzing an oral text may—in fact, should—expand his text to include the commentary of typical listeners. We cannot, in other words, simply assume that the significant evaluation of a story is contained in the teller’s text. Rather, the meaning is “housed” in the listeners’ usually unspoken interpretations of the text. If the fieldworker can elicit these interpretations, then the text he offers will be more complete. Oral literary criticism is not simply secondary or corroborative data to be used by the scholar; it is a real and significant part of the item (text) the scholar must now address.
The inevitable result of such a notion, unfortunately, is that the text appropriate for critical analysis becomes very cumbersome. And this bulkiness is simply increased by the folklorist’s sense of fair play. That is, if, for example, folklorist Tom Bums collects a text and the commentary of listeners or others who “know” the item and the teller, he is obliged to present the whole interview in which the commentary is elicited. For in fact the new text that he presents to his own readers must exhibit in a straightforward manner the presuppositions that directed his own line of questioning. His own readers must be given the “whole text,” to which they in turn can respond with such interpretations as, for example, “at this point Burns was leading his informant toward an articulation of a thematic concern the informant may not have perceived at all; what we really see here is Burns’ own response to the text, his assumption that the joke is about infidelity and that the teller projects his own concern with adulterous desires onto the character in the joke.”5
The “deconstruction” could of course go on forever. There is the danger of losing sight of the critic’s goal altogether through such an enterprise, for meaning remains hidden even in an expanded text such as this. The critic hopes to present an interpretation and persuade his readers to accept it. If he does not in some way focus his readers’ attention on those aspects of the whole text he considers meaningful, he will have simply presented a larger text; he will not have articulated even the meaning he sees in the larger text, nor will he be any closer to the “covenanted” meaning of the folklore item itself. The paradox is, as literary critics have found, that the critic cannot get into the mind of the author or even the mind of the audience or listener, and yet at every turn he cannot escape the encapsulization of his own mind. The critic can no more know the response of the listener than he can know the intentions of the author. His interpretation is ultimately subjective even if he lets oral literary criticism inform his discussion.
In anthropology, this same problem is usually regarded as a conflict between emic and etic analysis. Emic analysis is “from the native’s point of view,” while etic analysis is from the “outsider’s” cross-cultural perspective. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1976) admits to a preference for terminology borrowed from the field of psychoanalysis: Heinz Kohut has suggested the terms experience-near and experience-distant for the concepts of emic and etic respectively, and Geertz adopts these terms because to him they convey more clearly a sense of the degree of difference between rather than the polar opposition of the two concepts.6 Geertz argues that the notion of “experience-near” identifies things as “close” to the informant whenever the knowledge involved is un-self-conscious or covert: “People use experience-near concepts spontaneously, unselfconsciously, as it were colloquially; they do not, except fleetingly and on occasion, recognize that there are any ‘concepts’ involved at all. That is what experience-near means—that ideas and the realities they inform are naturally and indissolubly bound up together” (224).
A basic tenet of literary folkloristics is that there are numerous conventions or traditions that are thus used—“spontaneously, unselfconsciously” by the tellers and listeners who participate in a narrative performance. These traditions represent experience-near or emic concepts. People know how to use these concepts, but the concepts are maintained within the tacit dimension. There is little motivation to recognize or describe the concepts themselves so long as they function adequately. Genre, on the other hand, is one concept storytellers and listeners may well be aware of; they may identify the concept or its subcategories by name, e.g., legends, jokes, anecdotes. More commonly, however, important concepts remain covert functional entities. In this study of personal narratives, one very significant emic concept is what in literary studies would be called an allusion. In the academic or etic system, an allusion “is a reference, explicit or indirect, to a person, place, or event, or to another literary work or passage.”7 Within an emic system of narrative performance and reception, the allusion is assumed and relied upon as the fundamental stylistic convention supporting the narrative, its performance, and its reception.
Allusions: Perceptions of Tradition
To speak of allusions is to assume the concept of tradition, and an attachment to tradition or lore departs from the lessons of modem deconstructionism. Actually, the attachment represents the “old” ties to conventional folklore and literature study; it is deconstructionism that is a departure from this fundamental perspective. Geoffrey Hartman, in commenting on Jacques Derrida’s indelible effect upon literary criticism, says: “It [Derrida’s critical commentary] is so radical that, despite its reference to our dependence on the words of others, the contained (language) breaks the container (encyclopedic book, concept, meaning) and forces upon the reader a sense of the mortality of every code, of every covenanted meaning” (1981:xvi). Deconstructionism alone, in other words, would discount the “traditionality” of folkloristic content. Literary folkloristics serves an an antidote to such a nihilistic perspective.
Because the concept of the allusion remains covert or unnamed in the emic system, there is little conscious resistance to the notion that an allusion is conceptually within the domain of the listener as well as the teller or writer. That is, it is not simply the teller or writer who alludes to something, but the listener, too, hears allusions, perceives references, even (and perhaps often) ones not intended (or alluded to) by the teller. The sophisticated poetry of T. S. Eliot or Ezra Pound, for example, assumes a “cultural literacy” that is shared by the poet and (he hopes) his readers. But as E. D. Hirsch (1987) has pointed out, many contemporary readers do not share the store of very specific knowledge that makes those allusions meaningful. This would not seem to be a problem with the simply told personal narrative. Not, however, because the allusions refer to a less esoteric body of information. The reason it is not a problem is precisely because listeners hearing a personal narrative tacitly recognize the role of the allusion and have faith that they can independently identify an appropriate image or tradition to match the allusion within their own frames of reference. They recognize their responsibility to perceive tradition by hearing allusions.
A literary folkloristic methodology capitalizes upon this emic endorsement of the allusion’s function. The allusion, whether cultural or private, is heard by the listener as an element of performance style—something that makes the performance an emotionally satisfying experience for the listener. The listener participates in the storytelling by hearing specific and personally meaningful allusions where an analytical outside observer might have perceived ambiguity. The listener’s task is to hear a specific text, in this case, one that is uniquely created out of the listener’s response to allusions in the teller’s performance. The ambiguity semioticians are likely to treat as an etic concept is indeed an experience-near concept assumed by listeners hearing oral narratives. The listener accepts responsibility for dispelling the ambiguity of the text. He expects to choose or hear specific allusions that when heard do simultaneously reveal the listener’s own personal sense of tradition. That expectation is crucial if the listener is going to be content with what he hears, with his own unarticulated interpretation. The listener is a natural interpreter. The challenge, then, for a literary folkloristic methodology is to document how that natural interpretive exercise is accomplished.
Literary Folkloristics and Naturalistic Inquiry
In the study that follows, I shall present background information toward such a methodology, and then, with what must be acknowledged as the reader’s patient indulgence, I shall allow a relevant demonstration to emerge in the last two chapters. The work represents a “naturalistic inquiry” of the sort identified and described by Yvonna Lincoln and Egon Guba (1985) in their study of a new holistic research paradigm. Such a study, they argue, does not pose a general hypothesis and then seek to prove it as would a positivistic study. Nor does it offer any context-free generalizations or empirical definitions. A naturalistic study is more demanding of the reader; it requires participation, patience, responsiveness, and goodwill. However, a naturalistic study does not, I hope, reflect an arrogant disregard for the reader; instead it acknowledges the complexity of the process of understanding. My aim in this study is to guide readers to an understanding of how meaning is created for the listener when an oral storyteller relates a personal narrative.
In the discipline of folkloristics, the new naturalistic paradigm has had its greatest impact on fieldwork methods. Or, perhaps it is the other way around: Folklore research has moved into the new paradigm through its growing interest in context and the essential shift in field methodology this new emphasis has required.8 In this literary folkloristic study of personal narratives, I have expanded this emphasis on context to include attention to the listener/interpreter who actively “responds” and “practices literary folkloristics” in actual fieldwork contexts. Consequently, this is not a genre study with a clear, descriptive thesis. It is a contemporary folkloristic study, a naturalistic study, and it has at best a hidden thesis. Naturalistic inquiries revolve less around a provable thesis and more around a set of axioms that are assumed to fit the needs of people-oriented research such as this inquiry into the telling and hearing of personal narratives. Lincoln and Guba list five axioms of the naturalistic paradigm and contrast these with five axioms underlying most positivistic research. Briefly, the five axioms of naturalistic inquiry are:
(1) Realities are multiple, constructed, and holistic.
(2) Knower and known are interactive, inseparable.
(3) Only time-and context-bound working hypotheses (idiographic statements) are possible.
(4) All entities are in a state of mutual simultaneous shaping, so that it is impossible to distinguish causes from effects.
(5) Inquiry is value-bound. (1985:37)
I believe these five axioms are inherent in the methodology developed in this study. The only one that tugs annoyingly at my own perception of the discipline is the fourth. Folklorists are loath to dismiss tradition as a cause in the scheme of things.
Nevertheless, the essential thing is that tradition be identified—something folklorists do probably better than anyone. The discipline does not insist that tradition be the cause; sometimes it is indeed the effect, and often it is inseparable from its opposite, innovation. This is the basis of the “twin laws” suggested by Barre Toelken (1979:34—36).9 In a given folklore context, both tradition and innovation (or conservatism and dynamism) are at work. Usually folklorists attend to the performer—the person who tells or manufactures the folklore—and to his or her use of tradition or innovation in the performance. In this study I attend to the listener/interpreter—the person who hears or observes the folkloric performance and, consciously or not, interprets it as a meaningful communication. In either case, the construct of tradition is essential. It is the “sixth axiom” that makes this study folkloristic rather than simply naturalistic.
However, tradition aside, the emphasis placed upon the listener and the interpretation of narrative brings literary folkloristics squarely into the naturalistic paradigm. While contextual studies have been edging folkloristics into this new perspective for several years, the wholesale adoption of a holistic, subjective perspective has been slow to materialize. By incorporating the emic perspective from anthropology and the subjective paradigm from literary studies into a literary folkloristic methodology, this study demonstrates folklore’s natural right to a leading role in the continuing development of this new paradigm.
The book is constructed to allow the literary folkloristic perspective to emerge, each chapter building upon the previous one and each chapter dependent upon the reader’s familiarity with the preceding discussion for proper grounding in the issue to be addressed. In chapter 2 the genre of the personal narrative is introduced as a frame that allows a listener to comprehend storytelling, specifically the telling of personal experience stories. The genre itself is both a context and a tradition or resource which serves the teller’s performance and the listener’s interpretive participation. The genre is described with attention to structure, function, and stable content features, especially values or themes. The personal narrative is then classified according to thematic/structural types.
In chapter 3, perspectives current in poststructuralist literary criticism are incorporated into a folkoristic appreciation of the audience in oral storytelling. The shift of focus from teller to listener is essential to the proposal of a methodology in this chapter. The objective of this methodology is to produce some understanding of how a listener accomplishes a “natural” interpretation of a personal narrative. Interpretive textual studies have not been common in folklore, and the few that have been published have not been particularly well received. In this study, the adoption of a naturalistic paradigm requires that the interpreter’s personal perspective be identified, and this I have done by describing the “interpretive context.” To accomplish this, chapter 3 reconsiders the folkloristic concept of the “group” and the accompanying notion of a social base for at least some segments of reality (those we call traditional). Folklorists assume that social groups are responsible for creating and maintaining cultural resources that the individual then uses to build a personal reality. In this study I combine this folkloristic interest in social groups with the literary interest in biographical context. Together they are largely responsible for the degree of understanding a listener experiences when hearing a personal narrative. It is the particular combination of contributing social groups that is idiosyncratic for each teller and each listener. The allusions a listener hears when a story is told reflect both the shared frames of reference growing out of common groups and the intimacy of face-to-face interaction.
Chapters 4 and 5 present interpretations based on this methodology in the form of two detailed instructional texts. In the field of anthropology, the writing of cultural accounts is a growing issue in itself (Clifford and Marcus 1986; Marcus and Fischer 1986). The instructional texts in chapters 4 and 5 are offered as “cultural critiques” borne out of my own folkloristic training and personal interpretive context. The texts are thus both representations and reflexive interpretations, and they propound the fundamental folkloristic principle that all cultural exchanges depend upon shared traditions.
The Epilogue reiterates the importance of tradition as a basic axiom of the literary folkloristic perspective. The work as a whole is intended to build toward an understanding of both the chosen methodology and the subjective validity of the interpretations offered in chapters 4 and 5. Tradition is an essential concept in folkloristics and one that remains essential even within the new naturalistic paradigm. I have chosen to spotlight the personal narrative because it, of all oral folk narrative genres, is most often considered devoid of tradition. From a literary folkloristic perspective, nothing could be further from the truth. The listener hears tradition in the personal narrative. The listener enriches the text by listening and interprets the text by discovering tradition in the interpretive context.