Frank de Caro and Rosan Augusta Jordan’s Re-Situating Folklore: Folk Contexts and Twentieth-Century Literature and Art

While the authors of Re-Situating Folklore are concerned largely with the relationship between folklore and literature, what they describe is something that happens across the spectrum of “high art” and the vernacular: folklore, or the vernacular (which is the ultimate origin of folklore), in its forms or content, is adopted as high art, while reciprocally, literary or artistic works work their way into folk or pop culture. De Caro and Jordan cite eighteenth-century Venetian gondoliers singing portions of the poetry of Torquato Tasso, or the innumerable quotes from Shakespeare that have become such an integral part of everyday life no one quite knows where they originated as examples of the latter process, while the bulk of the book is concerned with the former. To describe this process, the authors use the term “re-situating” folklore, in which the folk elements are removed from their original context, and relocated to a new context, whether this be by mimetic reference, description, quotation, or similar devices.

De Caro and Jordan stress early on that folklore is a medium of communication, and not only a cultural repository. There are several basic ways in which folklore makes its way back into artistic expression, such as imitation of form — the authors cite the eighteenth- and nineteen-century “literary ballads,” forms taken from folk songs and translated into a literary form to the extent that it is sometimes difficult to discern origins, particularly when the literary example has worked its way back into the popular repertoire. (For those familiar with fantasy literature, Steven Brust’s Brokedown Palace is an excellent example of this: cast in the form of a traditional folktale, Brust has produced a novel with that magical sense of the “everyday fantastic” that also uses invented folktales to underscore the action. It is an excellent example of the mimetic adoption of folkloric elements.) There are also devices such as direct quotation, in which references are made to particular folkloric sources (proverbs, for example), and adaptations of plot, or, in some cases, adaptations of character. The ultimate effect is to build reality and richness of meaning by using the multivalent associations inherent in folklore.

Analysis of the examples used by the authors to illustrate the ways in which folkloric sources have been used in twentieth-century literature and art range from Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart, which portrays a culture in which proverbs act as strategies in social situations, through Jay McInerny’s Story of My Life, which among other things illustrates the role of individual memory in the transmission of folklore, to the paintings of Frida Kahlo, who used folkloric images to relate a personal to a national identity, and the photographs of Clarence John Laughlin, an artist sometimes considered an American eccentric who nevertheless used folkloric imagery for great impact in adding a dimension of the “other” to his images. (It is worth noting that Latino artists and writers, in particular, make good use of folkloric elements in their works, which the authors note in several places ans prime examples of folkloric references as a means of examining culture and identity.)

As a transition from foklore in literature to folklore in visual art, the authors devote an entire chapter to quilts, which embody history, memory, and visual and literary references, and become potent symbols both in themselves as objects created in a particular context, and as references used to define a reality, particularly a women’s reality. This chapter is particularly intriguing, investigating the idea of “quilt” as a particular woman’s medium incorporating, so to speak, a particular woman’s folklore and also emphasizing the role of that folklore as a medium of communication, typified by the beginning of a chapter from Whitney Otto’s How to Make an American Quilt: the chapter relates the story of Anna Neale, who begins by saying, “I learned to speak with needle and thread,” relating to her existence as an African-American woman denied a voice on two counts.

The idea of folklore as essentially an oral medium – witnessed by the framing of such works as Boccaccio’s The Decameron and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales as a means of providing an “oral” context to the stories – forms part of the basis of its importance in literature and the arts: there is a strong school of thought that says an oral, performance context is the original and legitimate form of storytelling. Given our propensities as social animals, I can’t fault this idea, and it is one that I personally would like to have seen developed more fully. Another point the authors make in their conclusions is that there is a larger pattern of interrelation, a synergy, in the communicative media in any culture. It seems to me that this is certainly a direct concern of this study and should have had, I think, more of a role in the discussion. One need only look, for example, at the work of Andy Warhol (think about Campbell’s soup cans) to see the circular pattern of references from pop culture becoming part of the vocabulary of high art and in turn being subsumed again into pop culture as icons with an additional layer, or layers, of meaning. This is, after all, one of the ways that folklore is created.

The topic is intrinsically interesting, and the authors do a creditable job of investigation, with a wealth of sources and examples. Indeed, this is one of the primary flaws of the book: too much information. I don’t fault the number of examples, but rather the depth in which some of them were examined: discussions of, for example, To Kill A Mockingbird or Story of My Life, while interesting as literary analysis, are so lengthy and detailed as to draw attention away from the main thesis.

I’m not sure I agree with the authors’ contention that the twentieth-century can be perceived as a period removed from folklore; part of this may be my own bias, since I am an avid reader of fantasy literature, in which folklore, historical or invented, plays a major role. Add that I grew up in the 1960s, among other things the decade of folk music as an essential substrate of popular culture. I also maintain that the relationship between “folklore” and “popular culture” is a very close one, with a much larger interchange than the authors acknowledge. An item in support of my argument is simply that the authors were able to find such a wealth of examples of the use of folkloric elements in twentieth-century art and literature. All that is needed is to kick the definitions up one step.

With the caveats mentioned, however, the book is enlightening and informative and offers what will be a new perspective to many readers of a dimension that truly is often ignored in discussions of contemporary “high culture.”

(The University of Tennessee Press, 2004)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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