"Much is Published, but Little Printed": Folklore, American Studies, and CJAS Mark J. Noonan
But while we are confined to books, though the most select and classic, and read only particular written languages, which are themselves but dialects and provincial, we are in danger of forgetting the language which all things and events speak without metaphor, which alone is copious and standard. Much is published, but little printed. The rays which stream through the shutter will be no longer remembered when the shutter is wholly removed. No method nor discipline can supersede the necessity of being forever on the alert. What is a course of history, or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen? Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer?
—Henry David Thoreau (Walden)
On April 15th, 2006 the Columbia Journal of American Studies hosted two panels of intriguing talks entitled "Folklore Matters." That folklore does indeed matter has long been the contention of folklorists since the field first officially emerged in the United States in 1888 with the founding of the American Folklore Society. Thanks to the efforts of giants in the field such as the recently deceased Alan Dundes (to whom our set of panels was dedicated) and Simon Bronner (our distinguished speaker whose edited collection Folk Nation: Folklore in the Creation of American Tradition is a must read for us all), the importance of folklore as an established field with its own literature, methodologies, and insights is intact. Yet, for reasons that Perin Gürel lays out in "Folklore Matters: The Folklore Scholarship of Alan Dundes and the New American Studies," folklore has not yet gained the secure foothold that it deserves in the wider field of American Studies. Though the New Americanists' interest in recovering cultural and political contexts in textual analysis and their strategic positioning against earlier "hegemonic" and "exceptionalist" schools of thought have done much to reinvigorate the field, our "current folklore-blindness," Gürel warns, "may thwart the possibilities for precisely the kind of anti-hegemonic and transnational work which characterizes our vision of the field's future(s)" (121). Aside from limiting our work, Americanists' reluctance to embrace folkloristics is simply peculiar if we stop to reflect on canonical writing about American culture before folklore was even established as a discipline. Hidden in plain view, an interest in folklife and folklore has been central to the work of early American writers such as Washington Irving (who famously both documented and invented Dutch folkways and beliefs in his Sketch Book and Knickerbocker's History of New York), Walt Whitman (renown for documenting the private thoughts, lives, and loves of everyday New Yorkers), and Herman Melville (who left unforgettable portraits of law office culture in "Bartleby, the Scrivener" and an extended canvas of whale-hunting aboard the Pequod in Moby-Dick).
It is to Henry David Thoreau—perhaps our finest practitioner of American Studies—that we should turn, however, to discover the artistic and intellectual motives of these early American writers. In this essay's opening quote from Walden, Thoreau reminds the scholar that that which is most compelling—the ordinary and the everyday—is everywhere yet generally missed owing both to the poverty of our tools (language) and our inattention. Though speaking of Nature's ephemeral bounty, his point has relevance for folklore's provenance, human nature, as well. To document the amply "published" scene (or seen), we must look beyond "books, [...] history, or philosophy" and consider also the fleeting languages of sound, sight, smell, taste, and touch.
In a passage from "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau extends his ideas of a creative scholarship that can catch the imprint of lived reality. While in jail for not paying his poll-tax, the author discusses how hesoon read all the tracts that were left there, and examined where former prisoners had broken out, and where a grate had been sawed off, and heard the history of the various occupants of that room; for I found that even there there was a history and a gossip which never circulated beyond the walls of the jail. Probably this is the only house in the town where verses are composed, which are afterward printed in a circular form, but not published.
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Mark J. Noonan received his M.A. in American Studies from Columbia University and his Ph.D. from The CUNY Graduate Center. He is Assistant Professor of English at New York City College of Technology (CUNY) and has taught at New York University, the Fashion Institute of Technology, and Queens College. He is the editor of The Place Where We Dwell: Reading and Writing About New York City (Kendall/Hunt, 2005).