In the Blood: Cape Breton Conversations on Culture

By Burt Feintuch. 2010. Logan: Utah State University Press. 290 pages. ISBN: 978-0-87421-779-7 (soft cover).


Reviewed by Gregory Hansen, Arkansas State University

[Review length: 1338 words • Review posted on August 25, 2011]


Gary Samson's vibrant seascape adorns the cover of Burt Feintuch's In the Blood: Cape Breton Conversations on Culture. The image's brilliant colors suggest a sunrise over the Atlantic—as well as the use of a large format camera and a filter. The image is an iconic representation of the book's content as Samson's beautiful black-and-white images elegantly emerge as readers flip through the texts of Feintuch's ethnographic interviews. The imagery beautifully illustrates this volume, and a careful scan of the images also suggests interesting ambiguities that permeate the entire project. In the spirit of continuing a cultural conservation that Feintuch has initiated, I can't fully separate the artifice of the methods from the content of this interesting project. The author envisioned the book as a work that would blend boundaries between a scholarly study and an art book. The ambiguity works well when we read the eloquent reminiscences, reflections, and stories of the book's twenty-two raconteurs. The approach, however, suffers when readers look for broader academic generalizations and contributions to scholarship. Just as the photos are a series of highly selective images, subject to the sophisticated manipulation of a skilled photographer, the ethnography also is a sample of highly selective conversations that are cast brilliantly through a wide range of scholarly filters.

Feintuch effectively writes in the second person to introduce readers to Cape Breton. He then switches into the first person by describing his first visits to Cape Breton in 1996. A fiddler himself, Feintuch gained the opportunity to work with Smithsonian Folkways to record "The Heart of Cape Breton: Fiddle Music Recorded Live on the Ceilidh Trail." His book originated in the research that he conducted for this excellent CD. After completing the liner notes, Feintuch returned to the island to continue to interview islanders, holding a wide-ranging series of conversations about Cape Breton's culture in general, and its fiddling tradition in particular. He provides a fine rationale for the variety of people he interviewed and included in the book. Interviews with the writer Alistair MacLeod, the virtuoso fiddler Buddy MacMaster, the poet Rita Joe, a retired coal miner named Danny Moran, and Evelyn Moraff Duff, a business owner— and one-half of the Jewish community of Whitney Pier—are especially strong. The approach is derived from ideas offered in the cultural conservation movement as the topics of discussion pertain to issues relevant to the blending of intangible cultural heritage into the wider discourse on historic preservation. Recently, in folklore studies, this interest in cultural conservation has transformed into a looser movement of "cultural conversation." The central idea is to bring a range of voices into highly reflective discussion about cultural issues, especially as they relate to important ideas such as sustainability, ecology, and governmental policy. In opening up these cultural conversations and fostering multivocal dialogue, folklorists and other cultural specialists can serve as catalysts for creating new ways of using local heritage resources to address a range of social issues within communities. In holding cultural conversations, folklorists often emphasize process over content, and frequently they give up some of their scholarly authority to (theoretically) give voices to those who often are excluded from academic discourse.

Feintuch's raconteurs are excellent. Their profiles are interesting to read, and they have rich and insightful discussions of life on the island. Their insights into ways that residents of Cape Breton deal with a post-industrial economy, out-migration, a folk music revival, language loss and renewal, and tourism are excellent and articulate contributions to cultural conversations that engage academics and lay people. Feintuch's skills as both an interviewer in the field and as an editor in his study are remarkable. There's a rich and cogent flow to the placement of the interviews, and careful readers will discover deeper insights into central themes by comparing and contrasting the array of perspectives he offers. Feintuch also gives a fine overall context to the book, and his clear presentation of historical and social contexts throughout this volume sets the stage for readers to engage in their own dialogue with his conversational partners. As a reader, I felt like the style invited me to be a part of a conversation with Feintuch, Samson, and the twenty-two interviewees.

In this cultural conversation, however, I began to feel that the book's artfulness was filtering out, even obscuring, a richer understanding of important elements in Cape Breton's social and cultural life. The post-industrial nature of Cape Breton's landscape is only hinted at in the photographs. Samson explains that his focus is on landscapes and portraits, but the photographs do not really depict the island as post-industrial. The same is largely true of the highly selective content of the interviews. There are rich discussions of changes to the fishing industry, the demise of mining and industry, and the ever-present problem of young people migrating off the island. These topics are well discussed by the interviewees who give us their own responses to these types of island dynamics. Feintuch also gives us a highly selective series of portraits of the islanders, focusing mainly on musicians, business leaders, and even politicians in a format that excludes the voices of those who are not necessarily enamored with life on Cape Breton. We also rarely find discussion of the experiences of members of the working class struggling to endure in economically stressed communities. While we do read about the lives and experiences of workers in the fishing and mining industry, Feintuch's understandable emphasis on Nova Scotia's iconic industries excludes important voices in the cultural conversation, especially those who are seriously disenfranchised and even alienated. A more critical reading also raises serious questions about scholarly authority and responsibility. The author tends to raise relevant and important topics, explain that there is a huge academic discourse on key issues such as the commodification of culture, authenticity, and tourism, and then ask a series of rhetorical questions. While this approach can open discussion in the classroom and further goals of cultural conversation, it falls short as too facile a rhetorical device within a scholarly study. I'd like to know what Feintuch thinks about these most interesting and important topics, and I was looking for his own contributions to analysis and interpretation of a range of thorny issues.

The title In the Blood comes from an oft-repeated cultural theme that shows up in island discourse. The phrase articulates that an understanding and appreciation of Cape Breton's culture is a visceral, deeply felt connection to the place, its community, and history. This mood clearly emerges in the book, and readers will gain a deep sense that Feintuch and Samson are enamored of the place. This is an exceptional accomplishment, and the documentation will serve as important contributions to scholars. Perhaps the rhetoric of cultural conversation, here, adds another filter that skews academic insight and analysis. The focus on dialogue over academic argument suggests that there are limits to accepting any cultural conversation at face value. The book includes sections of interviews where the narrators contradict each other. Their perspectives may not necessarily be grounded in more sophisticated understandings of culture. The rigorous methodology of historians, ethnographers, and other academics could problematize various points raised in the conversation, and cultural critiques would challenge some of the ideas asserted by the interviewees. The book could greatly benefit from a tighter focus on reasons why this conversation matters.

While viewing the photographs and reading the text of In the Blood, I couldn't help but reflect on criticisms of Richard Avedon's exceptional book of photographs titled In the American West. Avedon's skill as an elite and creative artist makes the book a visual delight, yet Avedon's imagery also gives readers a highly stylized portrait that reflects a highly manipulated representation of culture under the guise of realistic portraits. This critique is complicit with a range of issues offered within the writing culture movement, but Feintuch's book would have made a stronger contribution had he used a more reflective and reflexive awareness of the ethnographic process and brought his own voice as an academic into the discussion.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.