Simon J. Bronner
Folklore in the United States, also known as “American folklore,” consists of traditional knowledge and cultural practices engaged by inhabitants of North America below Canada and above Mexico, states of Alaska and Hawaii, and the territories of American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and U.S. Virgin Islands. Scholarly and public awareness of American folklore primarily in the contiguous United States followed corpuses of myths, folk tales, and epics in Europe during the 18th century. Although European scholars considered much of the American material, especially in ballads and songs, to be derivatives of European traditions brought by settlers, many traditional forms such as tall tales, hero legends, and indigenous native customs in North America appeared distinctive. In Euro-centered folklore theory, the United States purportedly lacked a peasant class and a shared racial and ethnic stock that fostered the production of folklore. Also affecting perceptions of American folklore was the status of the United States as a relatively young nation, compared to the ancient legacies of European, African, and Asian civilizations. Further, geographically the country’s boundaries had moved since its inception to include an assortment of landscapes and peoples.
Primary folkloristic attention in 17th-century colonial North America was the otherness of Native American groups and their various myths, songs, and rituals. A major question was whether these myths, songs, and rituals reflected a unified culture diffused from Asia or a varied indigenous tribal lore. In the 19th century, awareness turned to the persistence and adaptation of expressive songs and stories of European settlers, enslaved Africans, and Southwest Mexicans. Narratives and buildings appeared to show signs of transplantation from the Old World, although as the New Republic emerged in the 19th century, intrepid Americanists presented cultural evidence of ethnic mixing that formed New World hybrids such as folk tales, games, and barns.
Although folklore in the United States was popularly associated with localized rural practices, folklorists in the 20th century pointed out emergent American traditions that suggested urban, regional, and national identities. Notable examples of distinctive expressions in the United States included the cowboy and railroader song, urban legend, and regional food. The rise of industrialism, transportation technology, and digital communication in the United States raised concerns that commercial popular culture had displaced folklore, but folklorists found that residents maintained folklore as a significant expression of various small-group or subcultural identities. Among the contexts that fostered folkloric production are college campuses, summer camps, and slumber parties. In a society like the United States that lacks collective public rites of passage to enter adulthood, folklore in the form of narrative and ritual in these contexts functioned to guide youths to adult responsibilities. The digital culture of the Internet that became widespread in the 21st century also provided frames for folkloric communication through the conduit of the social network. Although often circulating globally, many combined visual-verbal “memes” and “creepypastas” projected national anxieties. In this period, Americans could be heard and viewed using folklore rhetorically to refer to the veracity and significance of cultural knowledge in an uncertain, rapidly changing, individualistic society. Folklore frequently referred to the expressions of this knowledge in story, song, speech, custom, and craft as meaningful for what it conveyed and enacted about tradition in a socially dispersed, mobile, and future-oriented country.
Latina/o environmental justice literature, prompted by organizing against environmental racism and for ecologically linked social responsibility, emerges in the late 20th century, but environmental justice literary interpretation and critical theory examines texts from any period of Latina/o literature, engaging the nexus of nature, culture, and environmental degradation and justice. Latina/o environmental justice literature includes many genres (fiction, poetry, nonfiction, memoir, testimonio, and performance art, to name a few) and has umbilical connections to a large body of lived experience, longstanding theory and praxis, traditional environmental knowledge (TEK), and environmental justice movement activism. This body of literary poetics that followed the emergence and naming of the environmental justice movement in the 1980s had precursors in the cultural poetics of the civil rights movement and related struggles for justice, equality, nonviolence, feminisms, human rights, and environmental protection. Antecedents to Latina/o environmental justice literature are found in oral literature, pre-Columbian texts, and subsequent Latina/o writing. Definitions of environmental justice within the context of the burgeoning environmental justice movement in the latter decades of the 20th century contribute to interpretations of the literature from this period forward. The last decades of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century saw environmental justice themes emerge in many genres, and Latina/o literature made significant contributions to the broader field. Studies of cultural poetics of environmental justice contributed to that diversity. Contemporary environmental justice literary scholarship summarizes past approaches, traces ongoing work, and offers future directions—redefining and rebirthing environmental justice and climate justice poetics, given global warming and resulting climate change.
Julia L. Mickenberg
Children’s literature can be radical in its form, its content, or both. At the most basic level, radical children’s literature challenges conventions and norms—about society and, often, about childhood—and it inspires change, especially movements for social and environmental justice.
Radical children’s literature represents a paradox. On the one hand, some of the most enduring works of children’s literature are in some way subversive. Yet because of the persisting ideal of childhood innocence, “radical children’s literature” might be seen as an oxymoron, an impossibility: if it is radical, it cannot really be children’s literature. And yet, not only is “subversive children’s literature” a core thread within mainstream children’s literature, but radical children’s literature has also been an adjunct to nearly every social movement of the modern era, from abolitionism to socialism, communism, civil rights, Black Power, feminism, environmentalism, and gay liberation.
The history of radical children’s literature is tied closely to the history of children’s rights (within whose history the impulse to protect and the impulse to liberate children have sometimes been at odds: with each other, and with the real needs of children). Radical children’s literature, like the children’s rights movement, is both a reaction to “childism,” or prejudice against children, and is also vulnerable to it. Like the romantic ideal of the essential Child, the child subject or object of radical children’s literature is almost always an adult projection, thus liable to serving adults’ needs over those of children.
Within this dialectic, however, children’s literature has been a powerful force of positive change in many parts of the world, responding to and for the most part advancing the place of children in society. This has been the case even in repressive climates and under regimes hostile to change, both because children’s literature has tended to be a marginalized field, controlled by women and not seen as worthy of attention, and because of various institutional factors, from educational policies to children’s book awards that have inadvertently or actively helped promote the production and dissemination of radical children’s literature.
Like the majority of historical children’s literature, contemporary children’s literature remains predominantly an agent of embourgeoisement. Even so, the range of radical children’s literature published, especially in the past few decades—challenging racism, sexism, and heterosexism; promoting environmental responsibility, internationalism, peace, and collective solidarity against injustice and the abuse of authority; and urging children to challenge childism and to imagine other possible worlds—has been vast.