The Best Turnips on the Creek

Folklore in America

selected and edited by Tristram P. Coffin, by Hennig Cohen

To many of its enthusiasts, folklore is a matter of survivals, an assortment of “living fossils” out of which a quaint world of magic, primitive emotions, and pastoral simplicity can be reconstructed. This sentimental nostalgia is fairly innocuous when it merely stimulates a pleasing escapism or even when it encourages cultural infantilism. Unfortunately, however, the Arcadian America of the nostalgic folklorist betrays more disquieting symptoms. A Negro, for example, rarely appears as a cowboy on TV, though, as Philip Durham and E. L. Jones have shown, a quarter of the cow-punchers on the great trail drives of 1866-89 were Negroes. Even in somewhat more serious folk reconstructions, like those of Stephen Vincent Benét, the atmosphere imperceptibly becomes suffused with cozy feelings of racial and national superiority.

But this nationalistic abuse of folklore is neither peculiarly American nor particularly new. Two centuries ago, Herder advanced the idea that each ethnic strain has a distinct set of characteristics given it for its mission of advancing humanity. High culture, being cosmopolitan, is woefully contaminated, according to Herder, and therefore a poor guide to a nation’s psychic identity; whereas the expressive arts and pastimes of the folk, since they are endemic, spontaneous, and uncultivated, reflect the essence of the race in a relatively pure form. Significantly, the word “folklore” itself has a built-in racial bias: the Englishman who invented the term in 1846 was proud of having created a “good Saxon compound” instead of a compound of the Greek -ology or -ography.

DIFFICULTIES ARISE, however, for anybody who tries to distill the psychic essence of America from its folklore. For though much genuine folklore has been collected in the United States, it can be plausibly argued that, strictly speaking, we have no national folklore because literacy became widespread before a homogeneous folk culture could develop. Moreover, the waves of migration and immigration further inhibited its development. Variant forms of most folk-tales, folk ballads, proverbs, riddles, etc. in America also can be found throughout the world, and the folk symbols and beliefs collected here are so obviously universal that one is almost convinced that they are indeed the products or intimations of the collective unconscious. The swastika, which we associate with Nazi flags, appears, in clubbed form, on Pennsylvania Dutch barns and Mycenaean sword pommels and, in angular form, on Navajo belts and Polynesian food bowls. The horseshoe as a symbol of good luck which seems to be distinctively American can be traced back to the Eastern custom of nailing the genital organ of a cow or mare over barn doors to ward off the evil eye: small-town Americans bless sneezers with “Gesundheit!” and their children sing counting rimes, derived from French rimailles. Indeed, American versions of a ballad or tale may exhibit distinctive differences induced by cultural conditioning—there is, to cite one instance, a peculiarly Horatio-Alger design to the career of the American Jack and the Beanstalk, but an impressive case can scarcely be built on such differences.

Those critics, from the …

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Letters

Aunt Jake & the Professors May 23, 1968