Academic journal article Generations

The Grand Generation: Folklore and the Culture of Aging

Academic journal article Generations

The Grand Generation: Folklore and the Culture of Aging

Article excerpt

The older artist often reaches back into his youth to the old people he knew then.

The field of folklore has been built from the memories of older people. Folklorists have long collaborated with the "grand generation" to fix in writing-and more recently on tape and film-traditions that otherwise would have been forgotten with the passing of their bearers. For centuries, classic collections of ballads and folktales, proverbs and riddles, and games and customs have been harvested from individuals who have lived long and remembered much.

Even when younger performers were the actual source of the information, famous collectors often assumed that a venerable narrator would make the tales seem more authentic. The Brothers Grimm created the illusion that their star storyteller was an older peasant woman, when in fact the Grimms had collected most of the stories from their own middle-class, literate friends, and family (Ellis, 1983).

As folklorists shifted their attention from cultural relics of the past to the process of creating tradition, they came to realize that older people are more than custodians of heritage. They are active in the present and experts on what the later period in the life cycle is all about. To focus on elders in the present is to discover their creative cultural responses to advancing years, with all of the challenges age brings, and to rethink our basic assumptions about the nature of memory, tradition, and old age.

What are some of those assumptions? The author Bess Lomax Hawes (1984) asked a number of older people. Reflecting on the infirmities that come with aging, Eliza Dargan of Darlington, South Carolina, said, as she reached her 70s, "If this is old age, I don't want any part of it." Though we would all like to live a long time, no one looks forward to the physical decline and social stigma of growing old. It is ironic that the one thing often admired about elders is their "youthfulness." As Moishe Sacks, a Bronx baker in his 70s, mused, "The business of the old is to be young." Although vigor is certainly to be admired, folklorists have long appreciated what older adults have to offer-not in spite of, but because of, their age. As Hawes wrote, "So much of the gerontological literature . . . basically treats the elderly as a problem. . . . In folk arts, the elderly are, generally speaking, thought of as the solution. . . ." (p.3i). Similarly, many people tend to assume that elders, having accumulated so much experience and wisdom over many years, are more connected to the past than the present. To the contrary, Rosina Tucker, a 104-year-old civil rights activist who appears in The Grand Generation (Wagner, Zeitlin, and Hunt, 1990), a 16 mm film, is fond of telling about the time a young man asked her what the world was like in her day, to which she replied: "My day? This is my day!" Older people are thus poised precariously between the stigma of infirmity and the romanticized image of wisdom, serenity, and eternal youth.

Older people also suffer from conflicting views on reminiscence. Is the inner experience of renewing one's life in old age an aspect of the pathology of advanced years or a therapeutic and culturally important part of aging? New directions in social gerontology, and particularly the pioneering work of Robert Butler (1986), now place as much emphasis on the constructive and adaptive dimensions of reminiscence as on the pathological aspect so often emphasized in the psychological literature. Building on this work, folklorists stress not only the value of reminiscence, hut also the variety of forms that it can take, from vivid stories to memory paintings (Kaminsky, 1984). Culture is age-related in a number of ways. Like ethnicity, gender, geography, religion, and social class, age is one of the variables that helps define culture tor an individual in any given time and place. We progress through the life cycle individually, but we are bound into communities by sharing in the life cycles of others. …

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