Literature Among the Primitives
The Primitive Reader
In this context, we are not to quarrel with the term Literature. It simply means what would be written down, in the way of imaginative verbal constructions, if the primitive authors could write and if their audience were also readers. We are to distinguish “Primitive Literature” from folklore. Primitive Literature belongs to primitive peoples, who have no other kind of literature. When such a people acquires civilized techniques and associates, they develop a new sort of literature, in emulation of the most civilized, and their old oral literature degenerates into folklore, a process that can be seen happening now in parts of Africa. Mr. Greenway, who is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado, and editor of the Journal of American Folklore, is concerned with the original primitive thing, the imagination that still shares with its society the one center of gravity.
He opens his Literature Among the Primitives with the question that has puzzled some others of us. Why is the literature of primitive peoples so disregarded? In the thriving litter of anthropological studies, it is the rickling. Current textbooks, he notes, give then times as much space to potsherd analysis as they do to the literature. This volume of his, with its companion Anthology of specimen pieces, The Primitive Reader, sets out to supply some of the deficit. He addresses himself to the general reader and to students in a popularizing style which his flexible combination of humor, eloquence, enthusiasm, and thorough knowledge of the subject, is well-fitted to bring off.
Primitive literature has been terribly unlucky in the past. The recording of it began in earnest in the nineteenth century, but by just those individuals who had come to destroy—deliberately or otherwise—the unique conditions of its flourishing. Missionaries who emasculated all they heard, even when they were eager to hear, or who inspired automatic censorship in the narrators; lawmakers who had the same effect, and amateurs who were recording simply the outlines of something curious. When the anthropologists arrived, with few exceptions they were not much better, to begin with, since by cultural tradition and scientific bent they tended to despise these tales as infantile fantasies or—at best—fairytales fit (or unfit) for children. Poetasters and writers for the nursery fell on whatever material got through, and saturated it with nineteenth-century literary manners, in which guise it was introduced to the civilized West, adjusted to the circle of ministers’ daughters that corrupted Tennyson. Mr. Greenway’s account of what happened to some of the North American Indian material illustrates what depths this meant. Even the popular presentations of the mythologies fared no better. Primitive literature hasn’t yet recovered, among the non-specialist public, from this wretched debut. That publishers still subscribe to the emasculations and prettifications and denaturings can be seen from the popular selections that still come out plentifully.
As a result of all that, the mass of the literature has been lost. By the time the modern recorders got …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.