Wisconsin Folklore

By Pryor, Anne | Western Folklore, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Wisconsin Folklore


Pryor, Anne, Western Folklore


Wisconsin Folklore. Edited by James P. Leary. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999. Pp. xviii + 542, preface, introduction, photographs, illustrations, bibliography, discography, index. $69.95 cloth, $27.95 paper)

"If it's not in Wisconsin Folklore it didn't happen! " So crows a promotional line from the back cover of the book compiled and annotated by James Leary. After reading the text, it's easy to agree with the playful hyperbole. Wisconsin Folklore is a masterful compilation of articles on the cultural core of Wisconsin. Leary has culled sources vast and arcane, but they come across as territory familiar to him. A proud native of Rice Lake, a small town in the northwestern quadrant of Wisconsin, Leary was raised on local history and ethnic pluralism. Now he's the head of the Folklore Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, forging new avenues for the study of the state and Upper Midwest region he knows so well.

Leary's knack for skillful wordplay is present throughout, starting with the title of his introductory essay, "On Wisconsin Folklore," subtly referencing the famous fight song. The essay welcomes readers to Wisconsin not via the well-traveled route of reviewing the state's lineages of indigenous peoples and immigrants, but by touring Wisconsin via regional speech, Packerlore, the ghoulish Ed Gein, and relations with neighboring states. (I'm indebted to Wisconsin Folklore for teaching me that Wisconsin's lakes outnumber Minnesota's famous ten thousand by half again!) In the rest of the essay, Leary traces the history of the study of Wisconsin folklore by key figures like Franz Rickaby, Frances Densmore, Helene Stratman-Thomas, Robert Gard and Leary's own contemporaries, ending with an homage and apology to Charles E. Brown.

The subsequent chapters continue this balance between folklore and folkloristics. The forty-eight entries date from 1907 to 1997 and are organized along lines of narrative, performance, beliefs, and material culture. They come from various types of sources: academic journals, community histories, exhibit text, memoirs, student papers, interview transcriptions, field reports, xerox and internet lore, and archived manuscripts and correspondence.

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