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.
Simon J. Bronner
Born in 1931 in Lorain, Ohio, as Chloe Ardelia Wofford, the woman who is now Toni Morrison has experienced a life of great depth, length, and breadth—ranging from working as a housekeeper at age 12 to winning the Nobel Prize in Literature when she was 62. Extraordinarily, now 87 years old, Morrison has continued to write. She was named Woman of the Year by Ladies Home Journal in 2002 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2012. But what stands out the most are her books. In writing challenging novels about abused children, ghosts, enslaved mothers, bankers, beauty-supply salesmen, hoteliers, veterans, nuns, fashion models, and child brides, Morrison dives deeply into black culture, black history, and black love. While fulfilling her primary goal of bearing witness for her target audience, African American readers, her novels also provide readers of other races rich and varied glimmers of understanding into African American life, history, and culture. Morrison’s works are brave, unvarnished, direct, gutsy, earthy, and true. Her oeuvre includes eleven novels; nine children’s books; several books of analysis, literary reaction, and cultural critique; one libretto; one book of poems, one short story; one published play; one unpublished play; dozens of essays; and numerous edited books. Her most acclaimed novel, Beloved, was published in 1987 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988. Ten year later, in 1998, it was adapted as a movie produced by and starring Oprah Winfrey. Her most obscure work may be the co-authored College Reading Skills, published in 1965. In addition to becoming an acclaimed author, Morrison has been an accomplished editor, a university professor at Princeton and Harvard, and she has been a guest curator at the Louvre in Paris. She has a brilliant mind, an irreverent sense of humor, and a youthful sense of self, having said on more than one occasion that even at her age she feels exactly 23 years old inside. With her former husband, Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect whom she married in 1958 and divorced in 1964, she birthed two sons, Harold Ford, an architect, and Slade Kevin, an artist who died of cancer in 2010. She has two granddaughters, Nidal and Safa, and a daughter-in-law, Cecilia Rouse, who worked in the Obama White House. Now in her 80s, she is long retired from teaching. Because of back trouble, she is mostly wheelchair bound, but she is thinking clearly, and she is writing, with at least two more books in the works—a book of essays as well as her twelfth novel, tentatively titled Justice. While some have called her the “conscience of America,” she manages to be simultaneously regal and down-to-earth, and she still calls herself “Chloe.” Toni Morrison is all of these things and more; she and her esteemed novels and nonfiction demonstrate the breadth of her varied interest as an artist and as one of America’s most important public intellectuals.
Joseph M. Ortiz
William Shakespeare entertained many ideas about music, some of them conflicting, and he frequently represented these ideas in his plays. Music was a multifaceted art and science in early modern England, and debates over the nature and interpretation of music played out in a variety of contexts: academic, religious, political, commercial, and aesthetic. At the same time, music was a vital part of Shakespeare’s theatrical practice. He made use of his company’s musical resources to include performed music in his plays, and his characters frequently sing and quote popular ballads and songs that would have been recognized by his audiences. The combination of words about music and musical performances gave Shakespeare the opportunity to test various theories of music in complex and original ways. His plays are especially demonstrative of the ways in which certain views of music were connected to other ideological perspectives. Shakespeare’s most modern idea about music is the notion that musical meaning derives from its contexts and conventions rather than from an inherent, universal nature. Taken together, his plays provoke skepticism about unified theories of music. At the same time, they demonstrate that the seeming universality of music makes it an extremely powerful tool for both the polemicist and the dramatist.
Stephanie Burt and Jenn Lewin
Ideas about song, and actual songs, inform literary works in ways that go back to classical and to biblical antiquity. Set apart from non-musical language, song can indicate proximity to the divine, intense emotion, or distance from the everyday. At least from the early modern period, actual songs compete with idealized songs in a body of lyric poetry where song is sometimes scheme and sometimes trope. Songs and singers in novels can do the work of plot and of character, sometimes isolating songwriter or singer, and sometimes linking them to a milieu beyond what readers are shown. Accounts of song as poetry’s inferior, as its other, or as its unreachable ideal—while historically prominent—do not consider the variety of literary uses in English that songs—historically attested and fictional; popular, vernacular, and “classical”— continue to find.
Angélica J. Afanador-Pujol
In the area known as Mesoamerica (Mexico, Guatemala, parts of El Salvador, Honduras, and Belize), indigenous writers between the 13th and 16th centuries produced manuscripts using both pictographic and alphabetic-based texts. They worked closely with noble and priestly elites to meticulously design and paint manuscripts. Before the arrival of Europeans, writers worked on a variety of media, from animal hide and textiles to paper. They folded long sheets into accordion-like manuscripts, covered them in a lime plaster, and, using rich natural pigments, recorded complex writing systems. These books contained historical, religious, political, scientific, and cultural knowledge. They not only recorded information, but guided the lives of individuals and communities. Only fourteen of these manuscripts are known to survive, as Spanish conquistadors and friars destroyed the vast majority of them in their effort to eradicate indigenous religions during the conquest of the region in the 16th century. In the years following the Spanish invasion, Mesoamerican artists and scribes had to adapt to new demands from their indigenous patrons, the viceregal government, and the Catholic church. They learned to use the European alphabet and artistic conventions to produce new materials containing ethnographic, religious, and historical information. In addition, they transcribed and wrote speeches, songs, and poems, and produced legal documents to fight for their own rights and those of their communities, rulers, and patrons. Modern-day scholars have made great strides deciphering pre-Columbian writing systems and understanding the make, medium, and function of manuscripts. The vast corpus of colonial-era manuscripts has also been a productive field for understanding Mesoamerican thought, cultural practices, and the social and political forces that shaped colonial life and its literary production.