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Folklore in Literature
From: Wilson, Charles Reagan, and William Ferris, eds., Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1989. Used by permission of the publisher.

With the exception of Native American lore, folklore, like language and literature, came to this country as part of the cultural baggage of the various waves of its settlers. In the South its sources were mainly British, African, and French, with important admixtures of Spanish and German, and touches of almost everything else.

From the beginning, new experiences and a new environment eroded this imported lore and reshaped it to new purposes. Erosion and adaptation may be rapid, but the emergence of a new folklore, like the development of a distinctive and significant literature, is always slow. It was slowed further in the United States by increasing literacy, mobility, urbanization, homogenization, and the influence of the mass media. Forces at work in the South, however, and not alone its geography and history, reduced the effect of such inhibiting factors while encouraging the evolution of a southern folklore and easing its incorporation into its literature. The result was to enhance the regional flavor of southern letters.

If the Puritans of New England were a people of the book, then southerners harkened enthusiastically to Pentecostal tongues—and to the silvery words of their politicians at the hustings, the tall tales of their hunters and riverboatmen, the animal stories of their slaves, the brags, songs, and sayings that were part of the life of what came to be folk communities. Mark Twain charmed audiences all over the world because he knew from his memories of folklife that the way the tale is told is as important as the tale itself. Style, the manner in which things are said and done, was prized, whether on a bear hunt in the backwoods or at a Mardi Gras ball. In short, the living word and the performance, the marrow of folklore, were likewise the marrow of southern culture.

The most obvious feature distinguishing the South from the rest of the United States was its racial composition and the resulting historical developments provoked by profound sectional difference. Like others who crossed the Atlantic, Africans brought with them their myths and their music, their beliefs and their words. Folklore travels in the heart of humankind and therefore had the power to survive even the horrors of the middle passage and the merciless process of annihilation of African traditions that took place upon arrival. The archsurvivor, Brer Rabbit, was born in Africa.

People forget their victories and virtues but never their defeats and sins. Thus, southerners were hypersensitive to the past, for it included racial repression and the loss, on their own precious soil, of the bloodiest war in American history, followed by a decade of military occupation. Original sins and lost causes can be the cement of a culture and the germ of its folklore and literature.

As the North raced into the Industrial Age, the South seemed to stand still. Its folk traditions remained in place. Such southern writers as George Washington Cable, Joel Chandler Harris, Mary Noailles Murfree, and Charles Chesnutt—local colorists for whom folklore was a vital element—won national recognition. From the viewpoint of the Gilded Age, the postbellum South was backward. It valued old ways more than new dollars. The South's literary success may be attributed to its reluctance to deny its past. It refused to run away from its history, traditions, and reverence for form.

Folklore in literature is not folklore in the raw. Certainly a folktale told in its natural habitat is art of its own kind, but literary art is another kind of performance. The explorer John Lawson, who included folk materials in his descriptions of the interior of Carolina, was a sophisticated writer using what he found to render his account vivid or incorporating what he saw and heard because it was too good to pass up. The contributors of frontier sketches to the Spirit of the Times, a popular sportsman's journal in the antebellum period, were mostly lettered men—doctors, lawyers, college presidents, army officers—with a taste for the earthiness and oddities of folklore, and a talent, not untrained, for storytelling. Professional writers who employed folklore, such as William Gilmore Simms, bent it to an immediate purpose. Even such classic American writers as Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, and William Faulkner were less concerned with folklore as such than with the ways it could serve their art.

John Lawson's New Voyage to Carolina (1709) exemplifies one of the earliest genres of southern literature, the travel account. He describes a thousand-mile journey from Charleston to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains with a ready eye for the inhabitants' customs and lore, which he sets down with gusto and exploits with literary skill. Thus, he provides a lively description of Indian deer hunters who disguise themselves so perfectly with antlers and skins that they sometimes shoot each other. Lawson's method here is to record a curious hunting practice and then dramatize it with a folk story. Or, he brings a gritty account of starved and abused Indian dogs to a climax with a literary application of a folk remedy: "It is an infalliable Cure for Sore Eyes, even to see an Indian's Dog fat." Or, he illustrates the prodigious power of rattlesnakes by citing their ability "to charm Squirrels . . . in such a way that they run directly into their Mouths." Lawson also contributes to the emergence of indigenous southern legend as he moves from an authentic history of the Lost Colony and speculation about its fate to a local folktale: "I cannot forbear inserting here a pleasant story that passes for an uncontested Truth among the Inhabitants of this Place; which is, that the Ship, which brought the first colonies, does often appear among them, under sail, which they call Sir Walter Raleigh's Ship." Paul Green, whose plays drew upon southern lore and legend, would use this material for his historical drama The Lost Colony (1937).

Edgar Allan Poe and William Gilmore Simms, the major professional writers of the antebellum period, each used folklore in a different, though characteristic, way. Poe saw himself as an alienated poet, ideally the resident of a dreamland "Out of space—Out of time," and his settings and sources are usually consistent with this vision. "The Gold Bug" is a notable exception. His source is the folk motif of the buried treasure, particularized in the widespread legends of Captain Kidd. His locale is Sullivan's Island, which he knew well from his military service at Fort Moultrie on the South Carolina coast. His characters, if not southern folk types, are southern stereotypes—William Legrand, the withdrawn, decayed aristocrat, and Jupiter, the faithful, comic, superstitious black servant. Even his narrator is familiar, a rational man doubting the sanity of the friend whose summons he answers. (There is much here reminiscent of the timeless "The Fall of the House of Usher." Is this, too, within the context of southern folklore?) For the black servant, the gold bug that he and his master find is an object of superstitious dread, and Poe uses it for minstrel-show effects. "I'm berry sartain dat Massa Will bin bit somewhere about de head by dat goole-bug," Jupiter tells the narrator. The rational faculties of Legrand, an amateur scientist, have been superseded by his fancies—his mind, as the narrator comes to believe, "infected with some of the innumerable Southern superstitions about money buried." These "Southern superstitions" are validated by the recovery of the pirate treasure. Poe's concern is the balance between rational method, epitomized in Legrand's solution of a cryptogram, and the irrational, here represented by a romantic legend and the inexplicable force of superstition. In "The Gold Bug" folklore is associated with poetry and revery and is a way of knowing what surpasses rational methodologies and precedes their application.

In The Yemassee (1835), one of his romances of the southern frontier, William Gilmore Simms expands Lawson's account of the rattlesnake's fabulous powers into a flamboyant set piece. The heroine, a "peerless forest flower," goes into the wilderness to meet her lover, an English officer. Entranced by the beauties of nature, she is captivated "by a star-like shining glance—a subtle ray, that shot out from the circle of green leaves." She is dazzled by its "dreadful beauty" and then transfixed with terror when she realizes that what she sees is the "fascinating gleam" in the eyes of a rattlesnake. As the snake slithers toward her and coils to strike, it is shot through the head by the arrow of her lover's Indian ally. Simms, in a footnote, doubts the rattler's "power over persons" but claims to have heard of "numberless instances," a sufficient number, in any case, "for the romancer." Not given to subtleties, the sexual implications of his serpent in Eden would have surely surprised him. Simms's end was melodrama, and a folk belief was his means.

In 1870, the year he died, Simms wrote a North Carolina mountain sketch for Harper's, "How Sharp Snaffles Got his Wife and His Capital." It is essentially a tall tale, told at a hunting camp by a backwoods trickster whose nickname, "Big Lie," indicates his qualities as a hunter, sharp operator, and storyteller. His performance, much appreciated by his backwoods peers and the gentleman hunters who comprise his audience, is presented within a descriptive frame by one of the latter. Such separation between the genteel observer who transcribes the tale and the folk artist who tells it may be a way of maintaining a distance of generation, caste, race, or political persuasion, but always a factor for the southern writer is the art of the performance itself. This was not entirely an aesthetic matter. In southern culture, the way a thing is done is significant. Simms himself, in this story, was reaching back to the frontier humor of the Old Southwest, with its folkloric situations, in order to recover his own literary capital, the northern readership he had lost during the sectional conflict; and he reached forward toward the emerging local color movement, likewise seamed with folklore.

In Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) identifiable elements of folklore give this masterpiece its flavor as they serve complex purposes, and the folklife of the Mississippi Valley, broadly speaking, provides physical and moral texture. The role of the runaway slave, Jim, is evidence of this. Poe's Jupiter, with his superstitious gibberish about the gold bug, is little more than a comic stereotype. But Mark Twain's Jim, a comparable character at the outset, becomes in the end not simply a rounded character, a stereotype humanized, but the spiritual center of the book. To accomplish this transformation (as well as to move his plot, enhance verisimilitude, and add humorous touches), Mark Twain uses superstition.

Superstitions, by definition, are the supernatural beliefs that some disdain but others accept. At the begin ning of the novel, Tom Sawyer and Huck to amuse themselves play upon Jim's belief in witches. Jim also believes in ghosts, weather signs, omens, and dreams. On the river with Huck, he becomes a free and living man, and when he puts his superstitions to work, they become effectual. This natural world has a place for the supernatural, and Jim's superstitions save his own life and Huck's and ultimately make possible Huck's spiritual salvation as well. In two other great books, Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Life on the Mississippi (1883), southern folklife also functions memorably. Seeking a cure for warts in a graveyard at midnight, as the folk remedy requires, is the occasion that initiates the plot of Tom Sawyer. Life on the Mississippi contains the classic description of the folklife of raftsmen, including their songs and dances, brags and fights, beliefs and stories. It is a genre painting, both realistic and idealized.

Like Mark Twain, William Faulkner embodied within his southern particularity a moral depth and artistry that brought him the acclaim of the world. Faulkner's novella The Bear (1942) is a capstone to a series of earlier, major works that emerged from his response to the southern cultural experience. Its motif, a ceremonial hunt of a totemic animal, is universal, but the version he adopts derives from American Indian lore and, more immediately, from countless stories of bear hunts in backwoods oral tradition. Stories of this kind had already made their way into antebellum popular culture through the media of the Davy Crockett almanacs and the sporting journals. Thomas Bangs Thorpe's "The Big Bear of Arkansas" (1841), a case in point, is essentially a literary creation originating in southern hunting lore. So is The Bear.

The Bear, like Huckleberry Finn, is an initiation story in a pristine natural setting. Sam Fathers, "son of a negro slave and a Chickasaw chief," is teacher and surrogate parent of young Ike McCaslin, in an analogue to the relationship of Huck and Jim. His knowledge of woodcraft, which he imparts to Ike, has moral validity, like Jim's old beliefs. In the end Ike learns how to hunt Old Ben, the legendary bear, and how to "relinquish" his quarry and his heritage. Though it contains specific folk elements (e.g., the hunt motif), The Bear transcends them and emphasizes folklife, the totality of the culture, rather than its details. This transcendence and extension, even as they detach The Bear from its folkloric detail, bring folklore and literature into closer proximity and make their southernness universal.

Faulkner moved beyond folklore at a pivotal time for both folklore and southern tradition generally. There are southern-style ironies in this movement to a broader context: the irony of lost causes won and regrets for the loss of old ways assuaged. Ironically, southern literature has attained its greatest eminence at a time when the South becomes more and more like the rest of the country, and its folklore, a prime source of its distinction, withers under the increasing pressure of literacy. Ultimately, at its best, literature absorbs folklore, and in this way assures its survival.

Hennig Cohen
University of Pennsylvania

Gene Bluestein, The Voice of the Folk: Folklore and American Literary Theory (1972); Daniel Hoffman, Form and Fable in American Fiction (1965); Bruce A. Rosenberg, in Interrelations of Literature, ed. Jean-Pierre Barricelli and Joseph Gibaldi (1982); Constance Rourke, American Humor: A Study of the National Character (1931).