"Much is Published, but Little Printed": Folklore, American Studies, and CJAS Mark J. Noonan
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Recently, American literature scholars, on an email discussion board, puzzled over this passage, particularly the reference to the "circular form" that is printed "but not published." Their confusion was a result of not thinking as folklorists. In an email, I proffered my contention that in this passage Thoreau articulates that most knowledge about human activity is locally informed (in folklore terminology, "esoteric") and can often only be "read" via direct access to privileged forms of transmission. In other words, the "verses" of the jailers' attempted prison escapes, rather than appear in The Heath Anthology of American Literature, were solely communicated "in circular form" by word of mouth (i.e. gossip), successively. As an outsider, Thoreau would not have been privy to these private histories. Only by being in jail can he supplant his "exoteric" knowledge of prison life, with an insider's understanding.
In an attempt to define folklife, Mary Hufford in "American Folklife: A Commonwealth of Cultures" (1991) writes that it islodged in the various ways we have of discovering and expressing who we are and how we fit into the world. Folklife is reflected in the names we bear from birth, invoking affinities with saints, ancestors, or cultural heroes. Folklife is your grandfather and great-uncles telling stories of your father when he was a boy. It is the secret languages of children, the codenames of CB operators, and the working slang of watermen and doctors [...]. It is African-American rhythms embedded in gospel hymns, bluegrass music, and hip hop [...]. It is the evolution of vaqueros into buckaroos, and the variety of ways there are to skin a muskrat, preserve shuck beans, or join two pieces of wood [...]. It is [...] engraved in the split rail boundaries of Appalachian "hollers" and in the stone fences around Catskill "cloves"; scrawled on urban streetscapes by graffiti artists; and projected on skylines into which mosques, temples, steeples, and onion domes taper. (238)
With Thoreau, Hufford calls attention to the fact that folklife is ubiquitous yet somehow easily missed and generally taken for granted. Nonetheless, as Hufford advises, scholars need to be on the alert for "community life and values, artfully expressed in myriad interactions" to see how "it enriches the nation and makes us a commonwealth of cultures" (238).
Apparently, the Columbia Journal of American Studies has been publishing folklife to a specific folk group (academia) for over a decade—without consciously being aware of this fact. For example, in our 2006 issue, which devoted a section to American Leisure Time, appears "Consuming NASCAR's Rationalized Yet Reenchanted Spectacle" by avid fan and scholar Jaime Noble Gassman. Gassman writes about how corporate sponsors project an image of enchantment onto NASCAR's fans, who, in turn, make a highly commodified and standardized experience uniquely their own. From the outside looking in, NASCAR racing appears to be drenched in impersonality and marketing, but from the standpoint of the typical fan "wearing Gordon/Pepis/Dupont/Chevrolet gear from head to toe," he or she is as differentiated as can be. For, as Gassman writes, "autonomy comes when a fan/consumer assembles a collage of signifiers that forms his or her unique self-expressing identity" (151). In "Race to the Top: Marathon Participation, Leisure Credentials, and Meritocracy" by Matt Delmont, we learn of another in-group expressing its own communal identity and set of values: marathoners. From my perspective (and surely I am not alone!), pounding pavement over the course of 26 miles is pure, unadulterated masochism. But from the inquisitive perspective of Delmont (a marathoner himself), this activity "that involves blisters, cramps, chaffing, nausea, and light-headedness, requires four months of training, and a $100 entry fee" is a badge of social distinction, a leisure credential as important in some circles as an ivy league education or a job as a law clerk to an eminent Court Justice. As Delmont explains, "marathon participation fosters both social cohesion with certain social networks as well as social exclusion for those without access to these select networks" (168). By looking closely at the lived experience of folk groups such as NASCAR fans, marathoners, and yes, people whose idea of a revitalizing vacation is visiting a nuclear historical site (see Jenna Berger's "Nuclear Tourism and the Manhattan Project"), we discover that culture truly is, as Raymond Williams famously articulated, "ordinary." Indeed, with Alan Dundes, CJAS has "believed deeply that folklore is a pervasive, integral, and significant aspect of social existence and that its documentation and study can provide important insights into the essence and dynamics of culture and human behavior" (qtd. in Gürel 122).
Clearly, in our interest in locally realized identity, culture, and power as well as our focus on the quotidian, CJAS has been "doing" folklore since our inception over a decade ago. But what happens now that we are aware of our connection to the aims and interests of the long-standing field of folkloristics? As our special section hopes to show, the methodologies, terminology, and insights of professional practitioners of folklore are both profound and unique but also useful for moving our own field forward. From these articles, our aim is to begin a better-informed interdisciplinary focus on subjects of shared inquiry, a topic Perin Gürel explores further in the essay that follows. Rather than reinvent cognitive wheels, let us collectively understand just how the study of folklore can help us in the age of globalization and identity politics. In the process, we may learn that American Studies' true role is to remain forever alert to the many movements across myriad fields so that much of what is published does indeed get printed.
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 editor of The Place Where We Dwell: Reading and Writing About New York City (Kendall/Hunt, 2005).