The personal narrative is an anomaly in the folk narrative taxonomy; its content is not easily classified as traditional. The notion of “tradition” implicit throughout this book would seem to be somewhere between what Dan Ben-Amos (1984) identifies as a concept of “tradition as canon” and one of “tradition as mass.” However, it would be unfair to assume that a full-blown definition of tradition has been presupposed in discussing the personal narrative. Quite the contrary, because the focus has been upon oral literary texts only, the concept of “tradition” involved is roughly equivalent to the notion of “embedded folklore” long in use among folklore-and-literature scholars. The allowance for what constitutes folklore has been expanded, yet this expansion has occurred only within the confines of what might be construed as traditional or folkloric material embedded within an oral literary text.
From the perspective of literary folkloristics, as Richard M. Dorson suggests, the folklorist “must prove that the saying, tale, song, or custom inside the literary work possesses an independent traditional life” (1957 : 197). Dorson demanded such “corroborative evidence” from critics presuming to interpret literary texts based on folklore materials. Alan Dundes (1965b) pushed the requirement one step further and called for the identification of “folklore in culture.” What Dundes in fact presented by way of demonstration was a narrative text he collected from a Prairie Band Potawatomi in Lawrence, Kansas. He then discussed various details of the text as either borrowings from European culture or overlays from Potawatomi culture and pointed to the advantage an interpreter of the text has in knowing what elements of the story represent the storyteller’s own cultural interpolations. In effect, Dundes has demonstrated that the folklorist’s task is the same in studying either a literary or an oral literary text, and that task is, first, to identify the folklore embedded in the text.
Both Dorson and Dundes regarded the identification of embedded folklore as an objective, scholarly activity, something folklorists are especially well trained to do. The folklorist must be prepared to undertake, as Dorson suggests, a “tedious search through glossaries, indexes, field reports, town histories, and other available sources” in order to properly “corroborate” embedded folklore (189). From my own perspective, this identification of tradition is not nearly so empirical as practitioners have claimed, though certainly skill does come with practice. Instead, the recognition and identification of folklore, as well as the formulation of an interpretation, involve subjectivity in ways I have tried to demonstrate throughout this study—in the selection of focus, in the recognition of conceptual, nonverbalized folklore, in the identification of private folklore, in the contextualizing of the instructional text.
An individual listener/interpreter responds to a narrative performance from the perspective of personal reality, and that personal reality is grounded in a multifaceted social base, as Richard Bauman (1972a) has suggested with regard to folklore generally. Especially in the personal narrative, the embedded folklore is perceived by the listener as a thick web of shared traditions connecting the teller’s personal reality and personal sense of history to those of the listener. Identifying these traditions is the listener’s first step in responding to the narrative. Though the listener may be unaware of this process of identifying folklore, the listener may well experience a redundancy of meaning, a feeling that these same embedded items or processes have meant something personally before now.
In all communications some commonality of meaning is assumed. Julienne Ford (1975) identifies this common frame as a “social world”: “A social world is a set of taken-for-granted-meanings” (171). Someone listening to a personal narrative projects this assumed meaning onto the storyteller and basks in the resultant sense of community, of shared tradition. As Roger Abrahams (1963: 107) says: “When the experience can be shown to be extrapersonal, the narrative achieves psychological importance for the group as well as the individual. Thus we can relate the implicit values of the story to the lives of those in the group.”
For the teller of personal narratives and the listener, tradition represents a leap of faith, a belief that personal reality has been shared. More often for the folklorist, tradition is, as Dan Ben-Amos (1972:13) argues, an “analytical construct.” It is a scholarly abstraction devised by the folklorist—usually for the purpose of demonstrating evolutionary theories.1 The process of abstracting significant, redundant content from a narrative and identifying it as tradition is a basic, but subjective, skill essential to the discipline. All of the tools of folkloristics—the type and motif indexes, the ballad catalogues, the riddle and proverb dictionaries, the compendiums of folk belief, children’s rhymes, dances, games, and customs, the taxonomies of house types, farming tools, quilt patterns, even the bibliographies, libraries, and archives—all serve this one basic objective, to aid in the identification of tradition in that whole range of artistic, social, communicative activities usually called folkloric.
Among the consequences of the rise of reception theory, deconstructionism, and performance theory is an uneasy ambiguity about the role tradition can play in the interpretation of texts.2 As folklore-and-literature scholars have insisted repeatedly, the identification of folklore or tradition does not in itself constitute an exegesis. Furthermore, the subjective nature of criticism (see Bleich 1978) prohibits the easy assumption of collectivity with regard to the meaning of traditional content or pattern when it is identified. It has, however, been my contention throughout this study that tradition is significant in the individual’s sense of personal reality. Tradition informs the interpretive context in which an individual listener hears potential texts, such as personal narratives. By identifying tradition in a given listener’s interpretive context, the scholar creates an instructional text, which in tum allows the process of interpretation itself to be examined.
In my interpretations of “Koo-Nar, King of the Rats” and “The Canary, or The Yellow Dress,” I devised instructional texts with the objective of disclosing the process of selection and response essential in any hearing of verbal performance. What was selected was a personally significant mass of traditions accepted as allusions within an aural text. Only then was I able to offer an interpretation or review based on the cumulative effect of having selected those allusions as meaningful. That elaborate interim step of identifying the traditions and analytical frames that guided my interpretation was an essential part of the literary folkloristic methodology I have invoked. It is this step which distinguishes this interpretive practice from an exegesis based on a conventional analytical scheme alone. To have argued only that Larry’s story represents a self-imposed initiation ritual or that my mother’s story offers a symbolic assessment of the trauma of leaving home to find a mate would have fallen far short of our goal of interpretation.
Interpretation begins with the identification of patterns, continuities, traditions, allusions. Identifying tradition in the personal narrative is not so easy as recognizing as traditional even a garbled version of the ballad “Barbara Allen” or an extremely localized version of an urban legend such as “The Boyfriend’s Death” or “The Vanishing Hitchhiker.” Nevertheless, the successful effort to do so demonstrates more dramatically than would attention to more conventional genres the unique role folkloristics plays in the study of the human environment. It is the folklorist’s charge to identify and describe tradition in the materials and processes of nonprofessional, everyday activities. The continuities they identify may be in abstract terms such as style, content, theme, form, function, or event, or they may be the kind of cultural allusions I identified in chapters 4 and 5. Ultimately the goal of folkloristic research is to demonstrate a continuity or collectivity that can reassure us all that we are each individually connected to the generations of humanity born in the distant past or living even now in unfathomable numbers.
In a secular age, folkloristics is part of a modem academic mythology, an explanatory system even the learned and skeptical can tolerate.3 By identifying tradition in personal narratives, folklorists affirm the discipline’s role in validating this new mythology of culture. Personal experience is transformed to cultural experience through the telling of personal narratives, and folklorists document this transformation. They help the world witness an individual’s most fundamental yet difficult task—the momentary “breakthrough” from personal reality into cultural reality.4 Stories of personal experiences represent one of the most impressive displays of cultural breakthrough. Through them, individuals assert their connection with other people, the social base of even these original accounts of seemingly idiosyncratic experience.
Hearing tradition in personal narratives is a professional response made possible through a literary folkloristic methodology. Only after this step can the researcher categorize the narratives as cautionary tales, as expressions of attitudes or values, or as self-characterizations and offer persuasive interpretations of the meaning he or she hears in the stories. This is the folklorist’s contribution to the enterprise of cultural explanation and social philosophy—to hear tradition even in tales of experiences that are rein personliche,5 to listen always with a resonant ear.