Haunting Narratives: Folklore’s Contribution to Narrative Studies

This year the American Folklore Society, as an allied organization, has decided to offer two sessions, both of which focus on how a grounded ethnographic approach to narrative transmission can, in highlighting the dialogic nature of most forms of narration in lived contexts, reveal the contested, and thus vulnerable, nature of narrative. The paper session, which itself is framed as a dialogue with the keynote session, focuses on the haunted nature of narrative in discourse about American folk and popular cultures. Together, these examinations of narrative of people and things at the margins reveal in their own way what is central in American discourse. That is, what is vulnerable also informs analysts about what is strong, sure. But narratives of what is marginal also reveal that not only do vulnerabilities lie there but also people and things that make the center feel vulnerable, that threaten the center in some fashion, and thus must be displaced to the margins in order to contain the threat, which may be direct or it may be the more indirect threat of erosion of the center.
In “We Have Always Slain Dragons: Negotiating Empathy and Villainy Through Narrative Study,” Shelley Ingram notes that a funny thing happened while teaching Shirley Jackson’s novel “We Have Always Lived in the Castle.” In a class of advanced undergraduates, her students rejoiced when she introduced Vladimir Propp’s “Morphology of the Folktale.” Why? She argues that many of them were able to use Propp’s formalist methods as a way to actively work toward a moral redemption of the novel’s murderous protagonist. Using this dramatic moment where formalism recoups a morally ambiguous narrative as a starting point, Ingram explores the interplay between the narrative constructs of two works of fiction, Jackson’s novel and Bonnie Jo Campbell’s short story “Bringing Belle Home,” as well as her student’s constructions of empathetic counter-stories to the narrative proper. These counter-stories reveal a complicated “belief language” of morality, filtered through and shaped by cultural narratives of gender and heroism, trauma and redemption, beasts and dragons.

In “Then there’s a pair of us!: Fetishism and the Construction of Ghostly Folk in and through Literature” Todd Richardson begins with the common experience of folklorists in teaching their subject: getting people to accept that they do, in fact, have folklore. And even after offering myriad examples of contemporary folklore and folk groups, many students stubbornly insist that they share no traditions, no connections with anyone, that they are irrevocably singular in their culture and customs. After years of fighting against this negative assessment by students of their own culture(s), Richardson has started taking the insistence “I have no folklore” more seriously, trying to understand how this perceived absence of folklore plays out. It is this endeavor that he discusses in his paper: his attempt to understand the ways in which people who claim to have no folklore and to participate in no folk groups, nevertheless generate a sense of belonging, generally through narrative. Two works feature prominently in Richardson’s analysis: Daniel Clowes’ “Ghost World” and Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House”. Each of these works features a chronically disconnected character — Enid Coleslaw in “Ghost World”, Eleanor Vance in “Hill House” — who represents an alternate way of understanding “folk-ness.” Unable to connect with those around them, both characters negotiate their loneliness through the construction of fetishes, objects acting as “ghostly folk” with whom they can better relate. Such an approaches to belonging within the narratives are mirrored in the narration itself: the characters function as “ghostly folk” for alienated readers.

Finally, John Laudun takes up haunted narratives in the form of legends about treasure within a regional culture in “At the Intersection of Land and Water: Using Topic Models and Morphologies to Understand Folk Narrative.” Beginning with a survey of collections of Louisiana folk narrative, Laudun describes an interesting trend in legendry: that supernatural occurrences, often tied to potential economic windfalls, are routinely located at the edges of lakes, in marshes, or other places where land and water intersect. While the national imaginary of southern Louisiana might hold that such intersections are unavoidable, there are plenty of other forms and topics where the interplay of land and water are not so prominent. Laudun maps out the relationships between the two that run through a number of legends drawn from both published collections as well as those documented by the author himself over the course of ten years of fieldwork in south Louisiana. The goal of this study is both to determine if there are any stable topologies that are present in the corpus as well as to assess if there is any necessary relationship between this particular pair, and their relationship, and the legend as a form itself — that is, if land and water figures in other forms, does it figure differently enough that one can confidently predict that if the figure of land and water appear in one such fashion that it is most likely legend and in another fashion then something else? In addition to this topological inquiry, the essay also seeks to establish the grammar of such narratives and to understand how such a morphology might reveal to analysts of folk culture in general and Louisiana ideologies in particular how narratives are shaped by the landscape from which they draw and upon which they are performed.

All three of these presentations take into consideration not only the texts of the narratives themselves, but the locus of their understanding. The situatedness of narrative transmission is, of course, central to folklore studies, but all three of these presentations, in turning to formalist analyses, complicate the dominant paradigm in folklore studies that privileges situation over all other forms of meaning making. In doing so, these presentations have their own story to tell, their own margins from which to interrogate the center, to make it vulnerable. The question before this session, and the keynote session which is their companion, is this: does a discipline founded on such a dynamic make itself vulnerable at the wrong historical moment?

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