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 down to it, with no squeamish reservations and with germanic faith, happily, in the great mystery of accurate detail, the primitives, with few exceptions, had been either wiped out or mentally reconstituted, their literatures dissolved with the natural circumstances and self-confidence that fostered them, and nothing remained but fragments. Still, these fragments amount to an immense and ever-increasing hoard—lying inert in the Departments of Anthropology and the Folklore Libraries. They are lying inert because the anthropologists do not know what to do with them. Nobody knows what to do with them.

There have been several attempts to work them up into interesting and perhaps useful studies, as, for instance, the scholarly speculations about the global travels of story-types and motifs. But these last don’t much help the more germane speculation about the travels and contacts of the actual people. When the Bindibu were first discovered in the Australian desert they were using the word “pudjikat” for a cat. “Pussycat” had discovered them first. Wherever culture grows, the enigma of spontaneous archetypes and the banality of straight theft are inextricably meshed. Patolli was a Pre-Columban Aztec game, played with flat discs, a scoreboard, a cross-shaped playing board, several men or counters, penalty and safety stations, and the idea of “killing” your opponent’s man when you landed on a square that he occupied. In ancient India the game “Parchisi” was played with the same six characteristics. The odds against spontaneous invention separately of these two are high enough to force one to other explanations for their similarity. But tracing the paths of cultural diffusion is no more than a briefly amusing game. Frazer, Muller, Jane Harrison, Jung, Graves, Radin, and others that Mr. Greenway acknowledges, have put the material to bolder use, but their grand hypotheses proliferate like the tales themselves. Otherwise, those who come under the strong spell of this literature have to content themselves, like the folklorists, with scholarly conversation among scholars, or with the inexhaustible but useful task of codifying and collecting. From all this, the respectable anthropologist, sadly anxious for the scientific reputation of his discipline, holds back, as from a bundle of silly dreams. And when you consider that it’s common for every primitive narrator to tell a different version of the same tale, and even a different version every time he tells it, there’s no wonder the anthropologists have concentrated on other items in their vast Sargasso of miscellaneous unsorted cultural junk.


Still, the tales keep on teasing with all kinds of promises. They are generally regarded as useless for historical research, even where there’s no other material. But occasionally historical details cling on surprisingly, as in the accurate accounts of the ancient cities of India that the Rig-Vedas preserved in oral tradition for well over three thousand years, and which have been finally verified by recent excavations. Mr. Greenway mentions other examples. But anyone who tries the experiment of remembering a story, and writing down his memory of it, without reading his earlier versions, once a fortnight for five or six months, will have learned the best lesson possible about oral tradition and the folk memory and even more esteemed styles of history, and will sympathize with the anthropologist who stands baffled about how to make scientific-looking contributions out of this literature, and with the Tuomotuan tribal scholar who being caught in an inconsistency stopped and sighed:

Correct is the explanation, wrong
   is the lore.
Correct is the lore, wrong is
   is the explanation.
Correct, correct is the lore.
   Ah, no!
It is wrong, it is wrong, alas!

To yield anthropological fruits, these tales and poems call for a more imaginative approach than library anthropology permits. It takes a great tact, and that in an anthropologist who is actually on the spot, among the people who are telling the tales, to divine just how these tales do work for the society they are formed in, how they justify and fortify and explain the prevailing ethos, and just what they reveal that is otherwise secret, the deeper attitudes behind the ones that society sanctions openly. The trouble is, once the tale is brought away, into a book, we have lost that living context, no matter how good the notes are, whereupon that line of study—perhaps the most interesting possible, with this material, within the anthropological field—begins to look a little stale, and we are stymied again.

So what are we to do with them? In the end, there is a great and one would have thought obvious career on which these works have not yet started. Mr. Greenway’s two books are a vigorous attempt to promote it. This literature is still, after all, what it primarily was—imaginative art, visionary accounts of profound psychological dramas, and entertanment. Life has not really stopped and the world is not really a museum, yet. These tales are as vital for our literature as they were for their own, alive with possibilities. And it is as such that Mr. Greenway wishes to introduce them to his readers.

He tours through the principal of the literature, lingers on the chief protagonists—hero, trickster, tar-baby—and takes in the influences it comes under, and its peculiar reactions, in its ceaseless to and fro migrations through peoples, and the uses to which the various societies put it. All this is done with learning and brio, in a highly readable way not very common in this field. He ranges through all the published material and takes account of the main lines of commentary and theory (the bibliography of works he refers to runs to thirty-three pages), moving easily and even entertainingly through the complexities of the ethnological background, with a profusion of interesting detail and digression, fascinating sections on the Ghost Dance Religion and the relationship of words and music. And very properly—since he’s advancing the literature itself, not some theory about it—he includes plenty of the tales and poems on the way. Altogether, this is a first-rate introduction to just what is to be looked for in primitive literature, and incidentally covers a good history of anthropology’s dealings with it.

But once he sets out to do what no other anthropologist or folklorist has done quite so deliberately—that is, treat this literature as a form of art—his thesis reduces itself inevitably to his own standards of literary taste. And it is here, I feel, that with all his goodwill, he still doesn’t quite do his subject justice. He is widely read in literature in English, and in his amusing survey of the translations of Beowulf he shows an enlightening penetration of the virtues of the original, and a learned impatience with the translators, which gives one great hopes for his personal choice of pieces in his anthology, The Primitive Reader. This selection is, in fact, good, and contains excellent things, like the Tongan shape-changing battle, the Dyak story of the origin of jungle leeches, the Ute story of how Trickster married his daughter, the variants on the snaring of the sun and the origin of the pleiades, the superb West Indian Adam and Eve story, to mention only a few, and each tale is in a setting of copious notes. But it is not quite what I, for one, was hoping for. Somewhere in Literature Among the Primitives he makes a disparaging remark about Kafka, so perhaps it’s natural that he excludes from his selection any of those tales which are, in my opinion, the most inspired and astonishing, and in a way the most concentratedly characteristic, in the entire literature, and which resemble nothing in Western Literature except Kafka. Paul Radin’s collection African Folk Tales and Sculpture contains quite a few of the sort of thing I mean; so does his Winebago Trickster Cycle, and B.H. Chamberlain’s collection of Ainu tales. It is in the elemental autonomy of these pieces that we can detect the seminal thing that in primitive sculpture and primitive music has already operated on us.


Primitive music has altered our world, maybe radically. Primitive sculpture has been one of the chief sources of modern sculpture; it certainly led the way out of the impasse. But somehow or other, primitive literature, of one spirit with the music and the sculpture, has not arrived, not fruitfully. The only instance I know, was in the explosive transformation Radin’s African collection worked on the poetry of Sylvia Plath.

For the time being, these two books are welcome, as is Mr. Greenway’s implication that they should be required reading in any English course. If the Duende of Lorca’s famous essay is to be found anywhere in a modern library, it is in the section of primitive literature.

This Issue

December 9, 1965