Literary Legacies, Folklore Foundations: Selfhood and Cultural Tradition in Nineteenth-And Twentieth-Century American Literature

By Preston, Cathy Lynn | Western Folklore, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Literary Legacies, Folklore Foundations: Selfhood and Cultural Tradition in Nineteenth-And Twentieth-Century American Literature


Preston, Cathy Lynn, Western Folklore


Literary Legacies, Folklore Foundations: Selfhood and Cultural Tradition in Nineteenth-and Twentieth-Century American Literature. By Karen E. Beardslee. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2001. Pp. xxiv + 202, introduction, notes, bibliography, index. $27.00 cloth.)

For those of us who teach folklore and literature courses, Literary Legacies, Folklore Foundations come as a welcome addition to the field of folklore and literature studies. The impetus behind the book began with an experience that many of us have had-that of being handed, at the last minute, a course to teach that was designed by someone else. In Beardslee's case the course was focused on the theme of "the search for self," or as Beardslee notes, "the impossibility of such a thing" as articulated in early-contemporary American fiction, primarily that written by white males (for example, John Updike, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow). I mention this anecdote because Beardslee's book takes up the theme of "the search for self but does so by recasting it in relation to nineteenthcentury and late twentieth-century, multicultural American literature, in which a sense of self is, as she argues, achievable "but only if the individual situates the search within his/her cultural community" (x). The relationship between the construction of individual identity and the articulation of cultural acceptance and community-based competence is thus central to Literary Legacies, Folklore Foundations.

The volume provides close readings of eight works of fiction. In each of four chapters a nineteenth- or early twentieth-century text is paired with a later twentieth-century text that inscribes a similar folk group in relation to ethnicity and gender, as well as a similar folk tradition. The first chapter's focus is on women's needlework traditions in Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1859 novel, The Minister's Wooing, and Whitney Otto's 1991 novel, How to Make an American Quilt. The second chapter takes up traditional African-American storytelling in Charles Chesnutt's 1899 The Conjure Woman and David Bradley's 1981 The Chaneysville Incident, while chapter three addresses Native American myth, legend and ritual in Zitkala-Sa's 1921 American Indian Stories and Leslie Marmon Silko's 1978 Ceremony. Finally, in chapter four, Maria Cristina Mena's "The Birth of the God of War" (Mena lived from 1893 to 1965, but her work was not anthologized until 1997) and Roberta Fernândez's 1990 Intaglio: a Novel in Six Stories inscribe a range of tradition-based figures and genres from Mena's female trickster figure and the function of storytelling through Fernândez's focus variously on scrapbook-making, dancing, storytelling, needlework, herb-lore, home altar construction, and card reading.

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