The Meaning of Folklore: The Analytical Essays of Alan Dundes

By Oring, Elliott | Western Folklore, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

The Meaning of Folklore: The Analytical Essays of Alan Dundes


Oring, Elliott, Western Folklore


The Meaning of Folklore: The Analytical Essays of Alan Dundes. Edited by Simon J. Bronner. (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2007. Pp. xv + 444, preface and acknowledgments, inuoduction, photographs, chapter bibliographies, index. $49.95 cloth.)

The Meaning of Folklore may be the last anthology of essays by Alan Dundes (19342005). Editor Simon Bronner was concerned to select from Dundes 's prodigious output "essays that . . . had stood the test of time" and diat "remain useful to students and scholars working in folklore today" (x). He assembled from a variety of sources - folklore and anthropology journals, literary and alumni magazines - more than twenty Dundes essays and notes, not to simply dig up "buried treasures" but to represent Dundee's "core ideas" without replicating what has appeared in more recent anthologies of his work (xiii). Bronner's introduction discusses these core ideas and each essay in the volume is preceded by a substantial headnote.

Part I, "Structure and Analysis," contains essays that register Dundee's plea for the analysis and interpretation of folklore (e.g., "The Study of Folklore in Literature and Culture"), not simply its collection and classification. Also included is "Metafolklore and Oral Literary Criticism," a fundamental statement on kinds of data critical to the interpretive task. (Because Dundes dealt with texts, he could make use of metafolklore in his own work, but of oral literary criticism, which depends upon living informants, he made no use at all.) Most of the essays in this part focus on his most important contribution to folklore studies - structural analysis. There is general theoretical statement (e.g., "From Etic to Ernie Units in the Structural Study of Folktales") as well as analytical demonsUation (e.g., "On Game Morphology"). Structural theory, though often pronounced dead, remains an important resource for textual and event analysis. The best parts of dead dieories live on as metiiods.

The essays in Part II, "World View and Identity," are meant to demonstrate the importance of folklore in ascertaining aspects of world view. The essays range from general theoretical exposition ("Folk Ideas as Units of World View") to close analysis of the expressions of particular societies, ranging from small occupational groups ("Viola Jokes: A Study of Second String Humor") to entire nations ("As the Crow Flies: A Straightforward Study of Lineal Thinking in American Folk Speech") . Part III: "Symbol and Mind," consists largely of essays that employ a psychoanalytic metapsychology as the frame for interpretation. These interpretive efforts invoke anal eroticism, Oedipal fantasies, pregnancy envy, and projection - or what Dundes called "projective inversion" - as major explanatory concepts.

In The Meaning of Folklore, Bronner has reprinted key essays that researchers and students of folklore should read, and while the three sections capture three major thrusts of Dundes's scholarship, one is notably absent: his critical writings on the field of folklore itself. That is why "The Devolutionary Premise in Folklore Theory" uncomfortably placed in Part I, can find no happy home in any section of die book. There could have been - should have been - a Part IV: "Reflections on the Field," diat included not only die "Devolutionary Premise" but also a couple of the following as well: "The American Concept of Folklore" (1966); "Defining Identity tiirough Folklore" (1983); "The Fabrications of Fakelore" (1985); and "The Anthropologist and die Comparative Method in Folklore" ( 1 986) . Although several of these were reprinted in Folklore Matters some twenty years ago (Dundes 1989), they constitute a dimension mat cannot be omitted from a volume that purports to offer a comprehensive representation of Dundes's scholarship. …

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