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The 1940s: JAF and Zumwalt’s American Folklore Scholarship

This series of posts are not attempting to achieve the rigor of a formal article or book. I am working in incremental bits for myself looking at some of the easier-to-see data so as to better understand the changing state of Native North American studies within folklore studies in North America as reflected in the work of the American Folklore Society. The basic dichotomy at issue is Native North American Studies vis-a-vis studies of other peoples and topics. Because at the founding of the AFS in 1888 and throughout much of its history, there was a disciplinary division of labor and an internal bifurcation of the society between “anthropological” and “literary” folklorists, with most (but not all) students of Native North American topics within folklore studies coming from the anthropological side, it may seem as if I am emphasizing this aspect of the story. To a degree this is unavoidable, but it is not my purpose. When Aurelio Espinosa or Stith Thompson, for instance, spoke or wrote about Native North American topics, they produce hash marks in the Native North American studies column just as Frank Speck or Edward Sapir do and when Paul Radin wrote about Mexico, Elsie Clews Parsons wrote about the Bahamas, or Berthold Laufer spoke about China, they added hash marks to the non-Native North American studies column. But, the two issues (1) anthropological/literary and (2) non-Native North American studies/Native North American studies are closely linked.

I note this at the start because I am overdue pointing to Rosemary Levy Zumwalt’s 1988 book American Folklore Scholarship: A Dialogue of Dissent. Happily for me, the Indiana University Press has just released a beautifully produced open access edition of this key text. You can find it online here: https://publish.iupress.indiana.edu/projects/american-folklore-scholarship. The book blurb for her book fits in here, with this post. I quote it here to both motivate you to consider the book and as a set up for this post, which is about the Journal of American Folklore in the 1940s. I will get into the details after the blurb.

Rosemary Zumwalt examines the split between the literary folklorists and the anthropological folklorists during the period from 1888, when the American Folklore Society was founded, to the early 1940s, when control of the Journal of American Folklore by the anthropologists was ended. At the center of the conflict were concerns of professionalism, science, and academic discipline.

For the literary folklorists, the orientation was toward literary works and the unwritten tradition from which they derived. Folklorists also focused on the study of literary types or genres. Child and Kittredge studied the ballad; Thompson, the folktale; Taylor, the riddle and the proverb. In anthropology, study was directed toward cultures without writing, and the emphasis was on fieldwork. Boas in his own writings, and in training his students, stressed collection of every aspect of the life of a people. And part of that material collected was folklore. The literary folklorists looked at literary forms for folklore while the anthropological folklorists looked at the life of the people and saw folklore only as part of it. Although this discipline-bound focus of the two factions created friction and led the two groups in different directions, it helped shape the development of the discipline in the United States.

I hope that the connection to the issues examined by Zumwalt are clearer, even on the basis of just this blurb. I certainly urge you to read the book. For my scrap paper project, this post on JAF in the 1940s is a companion to the earlier post on AFS meetings in the 1940s. In that post, I flagged the “Report on the Committee on Policy” that was “approved by the Council of the Society, 20 December 1940” and published as the first section of the report on the “Fifty-Second Annual Meeting of the American Folklore Society” in JAF volume 54, number 211/212, the double issue covering January to June 1941. As reflected in the blurb for Zumwalt’s book, this was the watershed moment for AFS. The JAF volume for 1940 (53) was edited by anthropological folklorist Ruth Benedict, who was, in a great many ways, Franz Boas’ successor. This was her final volume as JAF editor. Volume 54, for 1941, not only published the “Report on the Committee on Policy,” it reflected the re-ballancing that that report called for. Archer Taylor (a literary folklorist working outside Native North American studies) was the new editor and older practices that Boas had emphasized, such as using JAF to publish large text collections (both Native North American and non-Native North American) were now officially off of the agenda, replaced by a formal mandate to publish shorter and more general-purpose works (theory, method, etc.).

It is easy to see (as Alan Dundes does in his Foreword to Zumwalt’s book), this shift as a positive advancement for folklore studies–particularly for his goal of an autonomous (from other disciplines) folklore studies. I am not going to argue the opposite perspective here, but I am going to keep assessing its consequences for the presence and absence of Native North American and First Nations studies within folklore studies and especially for the (virtual) absence of Native North American individuals in the AFS scholarly community. (If you have never read the report of the Committee on Policy, find it in JSTOR here: https://www.jstor.org/stable/535805.)

With all that windup, it may be surprising that I do not have a ton to say about the content analysis presented in the JAF table for 1940. The sky did not fall in 1941. Native North American-relevant content retained a place in the journal during this decade. As a matter of raw counts (which can still be deceiving, even in a era in which gigantic text collections and long dissertations are now longer being published), the 1940s are not that different from the 1930s in terms of numbers. Hiding here though is the fact that the Native North American studies works in the 1940s were smaller and, in my view, more minor works than what would have been seen earlier. Such works are more likely to be weighted towards short notes and to less prominent authors. I think that there really is a trend setting in in the 1940s. It can be seen if one looks more closely at 1949. Notice the big jump in published works overall and the new low water mark for Native North American studies in JAF (7%). I could think differently later, after more study, but I think that this is emblematic of the new normal that the 1940s initiated.

YearPublished Papers and Notes on Non-Native American TopicsPublished Papers and Notes on Native American TopicsPercentage on Native American Topics
19409110%
194118522%
194217211%
194323928%
194424927%
194529617%
1946431120%
1947281839%
194832514%
19494337%
Total2666921%
JAF Publications on Non-Native North American- and Native North American-Related Topics at During the 1940s

On the subject of Native American folklorists in the 1940s, the only data point to flag from the tables of contents of JAF in 1940 is that Gladys Tantaquidgeon (Mohegan) was back in the pages of JAF with a small note titled “How the Summer Season was Brought North.” This less than two page note summarized a Montagnais tale that she collected from Joseph Kurtness of the Lake St. John Band of Montagnais. I believe that she was the only Native American folklorist published in the pages of JAF during the 1940s. Please correct me if you know me to be in error on this point.

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