The Meaning of Folklore: The Analytical Essays of Alan Dundes

The Meaning of Folklore: The Analytical Essays of Alan Dundes

The Meaning of Folklore: The Analytical Essays of Alan Dundes

The Meaning of Folklore: The Analytical Essays of Alan Dundes

Excerpt

In a reflective moment upon reaching forty years of age, Alan Dundes introduced his first collection of essays with the declaration, “My principal research interests focus upon the analysis of folklore” (1975g, xi). His emphasis of analysis signaled an unusual take on intellectual purpose. Most scholars respond to the question of interests with a genre, period, or location. Dundes, however, committed himself to the broad mission of uncovering and understanding meaning. Folklore is crucial to a knowledge of human experience, he observed, because “as autobiographical ethnography,” it permits a view “from the inside-out rather than from the outside-in.” That is, the advantage of folklore is that it conveys what people think in their own words and actions, and what they say or sing in folklore expresses what they might not be able to in everyday conversation. Dundes argued that in folklore, more than in other forms of human evidence, “one finds a people's own unselfconscious picture of themselves” (xi). That picture is not always pretty, as Dundes exposed in studies of anti-Semitic folklore, ethnic slurs, and abusive initiations. He insisted that uncensored, untethered scholarship was necessary to get beyond the popular urge to romanticize lore. His cause was to confront the harsh realities in expressive traditions, toward the twin goals of knowing ourselves internally (that is, psychologically) and externally (or socially and politically), and of righting wrongs in the world.

Dundes did not think of traditions as a relic of the past, and often took to the lectern to show that folklore was very much part of the modern technological world. When asked to speak, he gave a generic title of “Folklore in the Modern World” to cover contemporary joke fads, customs, and speech that reflected current issues and conditions. In this concern for the emergent nature of folklore, Dundes was a champion of the modern view that folklore is an artistic process rather than a dusty artifact, since, in his words, it is “something alive and dynamic” rather than “dead and static.” It is not something relegated to primitivized others—historically or socially—but rather a behavioral pattern that everyone exhibits. Lashing out at the Victorian elitist characterization of folklore as “meaningless survivals,” he emphasized that “folklore is a rich and meaningful source for the study of cognition and values” (1975g, xi-xii). Rhetorically, he then linked analysis to the uncovering of that which people cannot see—mind and belief—so as to find a meaningful understanding of “ourselves.” Stated succinctly in his first collection of essays, his goal was to “bring unconscious content into consciousness” (xi).

Thirty years later, he was still promoting analysis and raising consciousness. During that time he gained a horde of students, colleagues, and followers—and a good number of detractors. But one thing for sure, he could not be ignored. His provocative analyses forced scholars from a wide spectrum of fields to think with as well as about folklore. That is, Dundes time and again pointed out that in addition to folklore being distinctive . . .

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