The Folklore Muse: Poetry, Fiction, and Other Reflections by Folklorists
Edited by Frank de Caro. 2008. Logan: Utah State University Press. 296 pages. ISBN: 978-0-87421-726-1 (hard cover).
Reviewed by Michael Dylan Foster, Indiana University
[Review length: 1025 words • Review posted on May 6, 2012]
I must admit that when I was first asked to review this book, I was a little apprehensive. A book composed entirely of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction by folklorists? As soon as I began to read, however, I was delighted to find that the texts collected in this volume are thoroughly enjoyable and, moreover, demonstrate thoughtful, creative, and often aesthetically accomplished engagement with the people, ideas, and methods that inform contemporary folkloristics. Even as it presents non-scholarly work by scholars, the collection also contributes innovatively to folklore scholarship.
The volume is a compilation of fiction, poetry, memoirs, and creative reflections, most previously unpublished (the book developed out of a call for contributions in the American Folklore Society on-line newsletter). They are written by individuals who were inspired by “being folklorists” and they all “engage with the folklorist’s endeavor”; as de Caro explains in the introduction, these works are “reflections on folklore and on folklorists, the cultures they study, and the matters that concern them” (2). There are some twenty-nine contributors, from graduate students to retired professors, including both academic and public folklorists as well as several published novelists and scholars--most notably Susan Stewart and Kirin Narayan--who are already established as creative authors.
With such a wide range of contributors, it is perhaps inevitable that the literary qualities will be uneven, but on the whole, these texts are well written and compelling. To be sure, a few of them may be of interest only because they are written by folklorists (and most likely will only be read by other folklorists), but others are bound to appeal to a broader set of readers as well. There are too many contributors to introduce here, but suffice it to say that many of them draw on folkloric sources and experiences as the basis for imaginative or reflective literary compositions. A short story by Matt Clark, for example, stitches together the mysterious lights of Marfa (Texas), a haunted pool of water, a local hero, a reference to La Llorona and even a comment about “ol’ Joe Campbell” (97) to create a jaunty tall tale full of folkloric inside jokes. At the same time, the writing is nimble and humorous, sharp in its meta-commentary on narrative and interpretation, and would certainly be enjoyed by readers with no explicit interest in folklore. Similarly, “Haints,” a short story by Teresa Berger, is about folk belief and conflicting worldviews, but it also tells a moving tale of very human relationships that would be accessible and meaningful to a general readership not at all concerned with folkloristic analysis.
There are thoughtful reflections and memoirs as well, such as Mary Magoulick’s contemplative account of experiences in the Peace Corps in Senegal, Kirin Narayan’s rich recollection of an old family friend, and Jens Lund’s recounting of a memorable fieldwork experience in northwest Wisconsin. The collection is also peppered with poems, many of them finely wrought and evocative both of the experience of the folklorist as well as the experiences of the people with whom the folklorist works. Indeed, many of the poems creatively strive to present the perspective--and sometimes the words themselves--of people encountered during fieldwork. There are poems about objects (quilts, pocket knives, canes), about storytelling, ballads, games, love, and death. Steve Zeitlin’s poems in particular stand out for their abundance and variety, but many of the others are equal in their eloquence.
Just as I can only mention a few of the texts compiled here, my brief descriptions also do not do justice to the broader, more implicitly explored themes of the volume--such as gender, memory, family, aging, and loss. De Caro organizes the contributions into nine short sections, beginning with rather open-ended chapter themes: “Being or Becoming a Folklorist,” “Fieldwork, Folk Communities, Informants,” “Performance,” and “The Powers of Narrative.” These are followed by sections based loosely on genre: “Legend and Myth,” “Material Traditions, Material Things,” “Children’s Lore and Language,” “Ritual and Custom,” and “Worldview and Belief.” Each section includes a short introduction, briefly describing how individual works engage with the particular theme or orientation. On occasion, however, I found these categorizations somewhat puzzling; the difficulty in distinguishing between, for example, “The Powers of Narrative” and “Legend and Myth” highlights the challenges confronting the editor/interpreter in shaping the volume. In many ways, such categorizing difficulties may be inevitable, stemming from the impossibility of lashing together into a cohesive format the wide range of ideas and approaches taken by these authors.
I wonder, then, if the challenge of effectively organizing these texts is not also a reflection of the dynamic state of folkloristics as a discipline. What folklorists do and think and write about cannot be neatly labeled. The old categories cannot hold--there is leakage between them, overlap and ambiguity, interdisciplinarity in theory and practice. In his introduction, de Caro points out that, “in recent years, folklorists, along with others in the social sciences, have moved toward new modes of discourse” (1); as a collection of explicitly literary compositions by scholars, the current volume itself represents one such alternative mode. Perhaps, then, the challenges it faces with regard to organization should inspire us to consider fresh ways to conceptualize and categorize what it is that folklorists study. In this way too, inadvertently, the book contributes to the broader scholarship of the discipline.
Another concern I had--which is by no means a criticism--is who will read this book? Certainly folklorists will enjoy it, but it would be a shame if it went unnoticed by others, because along with the inherent lessons about scholarship here, many of the contributions are simply a pleasure to read. In one of the early essays in the volume, Daniel Peretti describes putting a book on his shelf and noticing for the first time the way “the variously sized spines rose and fell like rolling hills. Each shelf in the case portrayed a different landscape with its own topography” (10). When I completed reading the volume, it was with great pleasure that I slid it onto a shelf across from my desk, where it sits now, a prominent landmark in the topography of my office.