Proverbs Are the Best Policy: Folk Wisdom and American Politics

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Proverbs Are the Best Policy: Folk Wisdom and American Politics. By Wolfgang Mieder. (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2005. Pp. xvi + 323, acknowledgments, introduction, notes, bibliography, indices. $24.95 paper)

Widely regarded as the world's foremost proverb scholar, Wolfgang Mieder has over the last decade devoted much of his considerable energy to the study of proverbs in political discourse. Of the books he has published on this topic (1997, 2000, 2002), the present volume is perhaps the most compelling. Although five of its eight chapters have been separately published, the essays fit nicely together and the book reads as a well-organized whole. Beyond the author's general goal of exploring proverbs in American politics, the book represents several important specific but unstated achievements. It conveys better than most folklore textbooks how central folklore has been to the developing American culture, and, without ever directly addressing the issue, its essays clearly demonstrate why folklore should be of interest to scholars in other disciplines - political science, literature, and especially history. One of the most impressive aspects of Proverbs Are the Best Policy is its minutely detailed focus on American history, which includes not just facts but fresh insights into political figures, key political issues, and defining historical moments, all of which are conveyed through the discussion of proverbs.

In the first chapter, "Different Strokes for Different Folks," Mieder argues that proverbs hold the potential for becoming a key genre in transnational study and communication, a potential derived in part from the persistence and continued evolution and popularity of proverbs in every imaginable medium. The bulk of the chapter is devoted to an exploration of one proverb, "different strokes for different folks," in particular to how the study of this proverb exemplifies the potential for a significant scholarly shift toward a focus on distinctly American proverbs. Such studies, the author agues, can enhance studies of relationships between proverbs and national character, as well as scholarship on the exchange and transformation of proverbs among different nations and cultures.

The next seven chapters explore proverbs in texts as diverse as personal letters, the Bible, political speeches, presidential inaugural addresses, poems, legal documents, and autobiographies. In each instance Mieder combines a discussion of changes in the proverbs' forms and meanings over time, examples of the proverbs in various contexts, suggestions about how the proverbs might reflect peculiarly American sensibilities, and historical, social, and political forces that influence the proverbs' uses and meaning at given moments. While all the chapters provide an abundance of information about the proverbs they consider, some of them go farther than others in integrating varying levels of information and offering humanistic insights. …