William Alexander Clouston (1843-96), Folklorist: Introduction and Bibliography

By Whittaker, Gareth | Folklore, December 2004 | Go to article overview

William Alexander Clouston (1843-96), Folklorist: Introduction and Bibliography


Whittaker, Gareth, Folklore


Introduction

Richard Dorson counted William Alexander Clouston among the "giants" of nineteenth-century folklore. In The British Folklorists (Dorson 1968a, 257), he placed him in his "Great Team" alongside Andrew Lang, George Laurence Gomme, Alfred Nutt, Edwin Sidney Hartland and Edward Clodd. But Clouston never sat easily in such illustrious company, neither in reality nor in Dorson's mind. [1] He was not a team player. He lived in Glasgow and took little part in the activities of The Folk-Lore Society in which the other team members were such leading lights. He was not an anthropological folklorist and, above all, he did not theorise about folklore nor take part in the controversy over the nature, origin and diffusion of folktales, which was such a conspicuous feature in folklore journals and congresses in the last two decades of the century (Dorson 1968a, 202-265 (esp. 218) and 298-307).

Dorson, at least for a while, thought that Clouston belonged in the "Great Team" because of "his sensitivity to the science of folklore, his command of the vast literature, and his development of the work of the earlier English folklorists" (Dorson 1968a, 258). He praised him for bringing "within the sphere of folklore science two species of oral narratives..., the romance of the East and the humble jest" (ibid., 263). Dorson also considered that in the chapter divisions of his Popular Tales and Fictions, Clouston "was isolating tale-types of the kind assigned regular numbers today in the Aarne-Thompson index of folktales, while in his occasional notes on the smaller elements in the narratives he was isolating motifs which have found their way into Stith Thompson's Motif Index of Folk-Literature" (ibid., 260). Finally, in summing up Clouston's contribution to folklore studies, Dorson states: "The achievement of William Alexander Clouston in rendering visible the network of popular tales and fictions between Asia and Europe has never received proper due, and that field still today remains largely his own" (ibid., 264).

All that has been published about W. A. Clouston's life is contained in the entry under his name in A Supplement to Allibone's Dictionary (1891), in the "Obituary" by Sidney Hartland published in Folk-Lore in 1897 (Hartland 1897, 94) [2] and in Dorson's The British Folklorists (1968a, 257-65). The Allibone entry is as follows:

   b. 1843, at Stromness, Orkney Islands, of an old Norse family, in
   early life was engaged in commercial pursuits in Glasgow and London,
   but relinquished these to engage in journalism and literature; he
   edited several Scotch provincial newspapers, 1871-79, and is a
   writer for the Glasgow Herald, Evening Times, &c. He has given
   particular attention to Oriental fiction and folk-lore, and
   contributed to Sir R. F. Burton's "Supplemental Arabian Nights"
   analogues and variants of some of the tales in vols. I-iii (A
   Supplement to Allibone's Dictionary 1891, 349-50).

Hartland's "Obituary" adds only that Clouston died suddenly on 23 October 1896 "at a comparatively early age," that he was "generous in his appreciation of the labours of others," that he "never refused assistance to fellow students," and that "unfortunately, life to him was throughout more or less of a struggle, in which he secured but few of the rewards that wait on worldly success" (Hartland 1897, 94).

Apart from a detailed survey of Clouston's books, the only biographical detail Dorson adds is an illustration of the struggles in his life referred to by Hartland. He quotes from an 1891 letter Clouston wrote to Alfred Nutt, which is attached to a revision copy of Clouston's On The Magical Elements in Chaucer's Squire's Tale (1890) in the library of The Folk-Lore Society. Clouston hoped that the Council would publish his revised version that included "considerable alterations and additions, so as to render it specially a book for folk-lore students" (Clouston 1891, letter 11 December) and almost begged for an immediate advance to help him recover from a "household wreck" recently suffered. …

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