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Image: Benjamin Botkin
Benjamin A. Botkin. Photo courtesy of the National Council for the Traditional Arts.

Benjamin Botkin's Legacy-in-the-Making

By Jerrold Hirsch
Truman State University, Kirksville, Missouri

An essay about Ben Botkin's legacy must be an exploratory exercise rather than a definitive accounting. What did Botkin wish to leave as an inheritance and to whom? Who is interested in claiming Botkin's bequest--and to what end? It is necessary to talk about the historical legacy, the emerging legacy, and the legacy in the making--categories of inquiry that parallel those Botkin used in his study of American folklore.

In the course of a career that took him from the urban northeast to Oklahoma and the southwest, to the nation's capital, and back again to the northeast, Botkin worked to broaden the subject matter of American folklore and the role of the American folklorist. He always insisted on approaches to folklore that did not separate the lore from the folk who created it. He saw the study and use of American folklore as contributing to creative writing, an understanding of history, and cultural renewal. Botkin sought to reconcile a legacy of romantic nationalism with an emerging emphasis in the social sciences of the 1920s on cultural pluralism. He worked to overcome the division between literary and anthropological approaches to folklore, and to break down the separation between scholarship and what he initially called utilization and later called applied folklore. He attempted to formulate an approach to the study of American folklore that took into account the nation's different regions, races, and classes, and showed the interrelationship between folk, popular, and high culture. In his work on the interregional Folk-Say anthologies (1929-32), as national folklore editor of the New Deal's Federal Writers' Project (1938-39), as chief editor of the Writers' Unit of the Library of Congress Project, (1939-1941), as head of the Archive of American Folksong (1942-45), and as the author of numerous folklore treasuries, beginning with A Treasury of American Folklore (1944), Botkin continuously sought new ways to achieve his vision for the role of folklore and the folklorist in American culture.

Beginning in his Oklahoma years, Botkin challenged what throughout his career was commonly referred to as "the science of folklore." He rejected traditional folklore scholarship's privileged hierarchies regarding what constituted the object of study--the lore over the folk, the past over the present, the rural over the urban, the agrarian over the industrial, survivals over revivals, older genres over newer emergent forms, oral transmission over technological media, homogeneous groups over heterogeneous ones. He denied the validity of a hierarchy that refused to grant legitimacy to studying phenomena that he thought were key aspects of the life of modern folk. Thus he had every reason to ignore, or to try to subvert, other folklorists' hierarchical claims regarding the authentic and the spurious, the traditional and the non-traditional, the pure and the "contaminated." As a professor at the University of Oklahoma, as a government official, and as a self-employed professional writer from 1944 until his death in 1975, Botkin used the institutions of the university, the federal government, and commercial publishing to produce his experiments in cultural representation and to further his goal of affecting public discourse about these matters. Thus, he also challenged the privileged hierarchies of academic folklore discourse--the scholarly versus the popular, pure research versus applied studies--and the value of the traditional academic divisions between literary and anthropologically oriented folklorists.

Botkin working
		      in his Victory Garden, Washington, DC, June 1943
Botkin working in his Victory Garden, Washington, DC, June 1943. Photo by Joseph A. Horne. Library of Congress photo.

Many of the positions Botkin took regarding the material folklorists should study are now widely accepted. An increasing number of folklorists--especially public folklorists--see themselves as fulfilling the role Botkin advocated American folklorists undertake. This has had important consequences regarding Botkin's legacy. There is now a tendency to assume that positions that Botkin held and fought for make him the precursor of folklorists who later developed similar positions. In fact, the story is more complex and interesting. The search for ancestors and legacies is always an ongoing activity in scholarly fields and the choice of ancestors and legacies reveals much about those making the choices and their needs. It can also block exploration of Botkin's unclaimed legacy, aspects of which may still be controversial. Noting and celebrating the pioneering aspects of Botkin's view of folklore as more than survivals in a rural homogeneous community and his efforts to put these ideas before a large public as well as a scholarly audience has been an important development among folklorists in the last fifteen years. However, that does not mean that scholars--especially since the 1960s--arrived at these positions by reading Botkin's work.

Although he left the academy in 1939, in the broadest sense, Botkin had students. Even during the years when Botkin's opponents in folklore studies sought to marginalize his influence, such folklorists as Kenneth Goldstein, Bruce Jackson, Archie Green, Ellen Stekert, Richard Bauman, and Roger Abrahams sought contact with Botkin and received the encouragement they sought in resisting narrow approaches to the material of folklore studies and to the role of the folklorist in the larger culture. These folklorists were involved in the folksong revival, a development Botkin welcomed but influential academic folklorists such as Richard Dorson opposed as inimical to the status of folklore as a scholarly discipline. Botkin's various treasuries had helped introduce some of these scholars to folklore, and to what Botkin thought of as the legacy of the diverse and creative American folk of the past and the present. Botkin's lifelong openness to new currents in the social sciences fitted in with their desire to bring new perspectives to the study of the folk and the lore. In addition, Botkin provided these folklorists with a link to New Deal and Popular Front cultural politics. For them, Botkin's outsider status in the profession may have only added to the attraction they felt toward him and his work--to the legacy he was offering them.

Examining Botkin's response to the post World War II folksong revival provides insights into what he hoped his legacy would be. Observing the revival, Botkin concluded that his views regarding the direction folklore scholarship should take were not yet defeated, despite the campaign of vilification of his work that emanated from the folklore department at Indiana University. What pleased Botkin most was that the revival stimulated new questions about the meaning and use of tradition: "What is the relation of the individual to the group? of urban to rural groups? of tradition to change?" These were questions Botkin had been asking since the 1920s and 30s. By 1959, he concluded, the positive influence of the folksong revival was spilling over into the American Folklore Society and was playing a major role in encouraging new approaches among younger folklore scholars. He held on to the hope that a new generation of scholars, many of whom were deeply involved in the revival, might heal the divisions among older folklorists. He saw these divisions as standing in the way of both scholarly innovation and the utilization of folklore. This new generation of folklorists would improve academic folklore's relations with the public and move beyond what Botkin saw as false dichotomies. As a supportive critic of the revival, Botkin reiterated the main themes of his lifelong work in folklore. Botkin saw the folksong revival as a sign that the work he had been doing in folklore might be continued by others, that his legacy (although he did not use this term) would be expanded by others.

Botkin's position that the revival raised profound issues about the study and use of folklore had roots in the vision and theories he had been articulating since the publication of his first volume of Folk-Say. Even his most theoretical essays, such as "The Folkness of the Folk" (1937) and "The Folk and the Individual: Their Creative Reciprocity" (1938) were never pure theory. In these essays, he made not only theoretical points but also sought to explore what it would mean for the use of folklore if Americans (especially creative writers, historians, and folklorists) recognized and encouraged the creative reciprocity between the individual and the folk. Thus, in 1938, he boldly announced before a session of the Modern Language Association, that "if giving back to the people what we have taken from them and what rightfully belongs to them, in a form in which they can understand and use, is vulgarization than we need more of it." In keeping with his Popular Front liberalism, Botkin also told his audience that the challenge facing a democratic scholarship and art was to study and use folklore to understand and strengthen democracy: "Upon us devolves the tremendous responsibility of studying folklore as a living culture and of understanding its meaning and function not only in its immediate setting but in progressive and democratic society as a whole." Almost twenty-five years later, Botkin insisted that for the folksong revival to survive it had to "ally itself with the egalitarian 'urban majority' on the side of the dynamic creative forces of cultural pluralism and equality against the forces of conformity and reaction."

When public folklorists today look at Botkin's career they find much that they are eager to embrace. They find parallels between Botkin's work as a governmental official and their own publicly funded positions. He has left them an inspiring treasure of easily quoted phrases that they readily use and honor, such as "giving back to the people" and folklore is "public, not private property." Some of the terms Botkin readily employed, such as hybrid and emergent, are not only widely used by scholars today but especially meet the needs of public folklorists. Public folklorists can also trace a line from Botkin to themselves. At the Point Park College meeting in 1971 on applied folklore, Richard Bauman cited Botkin's call a decade earlier for creating an applied folklore center as a precedent. In time, a group of folklorists, including some who had participated in the folksong revival, and who had been brought up on Botkin's treasuries, supported (1) the establishment in 1967 of the Smithsonian Institution's Festival of American Folklife, (2) folklorist Archie Green's efforts to create an American Folklife Center (established in the Library of Congress in 1976), and (3) the creation of a network of public sector folklorists funded by the National Endowment for the Arts's Folk Arts Program, which was established in 1974.

One would like to conclude on the happy note that, as Botkin emerges as the patron saint of the public folklore movement and as the controversy between Botkin and Dorson becomes a part of the past (no longer helping to define the identity of the folklore discipline), Botkin's vision of the role of folklore study in American culture and his life and work (including his published and unpublished research and writings) are both undergoing reassessment and reaching a new and larger audience. But that, alas, is only partially true. While one can find encouraging evidence pointing in that direction, the amount of work that has been done with Botkin's legacy has only begun to scratch the surface of what needs to be done.

Scholars in search of legitimizing ancestors are selective. Not folklorists, but literary scholars and historians, have led the way in re-examining Botkin's work. They have called attention to Botkin's Federal Writers' Project living lore and industrial folklore experiments; examined Botkin's role in the regionalist movement; pointed out Botkin's role in the New Negro Renaissance; noted his contribution to the Popular Front cultural movement; and credited Botkin with an important role in creating a popular understanding of American folk music. It is becoming increasingly clear that an understanding of the career of this Boston-born child of poor Jewish immigrants has much to tell us about American intellectual and cultural history. In the work of these historians and literary scholars, one finds an emerging Botkin legacy that has been largely ignored--a legacy-in-the-making, if others come forward to make something of it. And this will become increasingly possible, now that more than twenty-five years after his death the National Endowment for the Humanities has given the archives at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln a grant to microfilm Botkin's papers and preserve his fieldwork recordings.

Folklorists have been slow to wrestle with Botkin's work as more than a possible source of inspiration—despite the fact that he tried to call their attention to his early work and its importance as part of his legacy. His Lay My Burden Down: A Folk History of Slavery (1945) constituted both an introduction to the Federal Writers' Project ex-slave narratives and an editorial experiment in creating a work that Botkin saw as combining folklore, literature, and history. Historians initially rejected both Botkin's volume and the Federal Writers' Project narratives. When they later began to use the narratives, they gave little attention to Botkin's ideas about folklore and history. The story was largely the same with folklorists. Under Botkin's direction, the Folk-Say anthologies and his The American Play Party were reissued. In numerous articles, Botkin reviewed his role in the development of American folklore studies during his years in Oklahoma and Washington, D. C. These articles continue to offer an invitation to folklorists today to appreciate and build on his work.

Assessment of Botkin's contribution to American cultural studies has undergone several stunning reversals--some within Botkin's own lifetime. He became national Federal Writers' Project folklore editor and later worked with the Archive of American Folk Song, in part because he had the support of such important figures as Lewis Mumford and Archibald MacLeish, who valued his contributions to the study of American culture. Prominent folklorists greeted Botkin's A Treasury of American Folklore (1944) as a groundbreaking and capstone work by a folklorist, who as they put it, was versed in both the art and science of studying folklore. That assessment was dramatically challenged when Richard Dorson, in 1950, labeled Botkin a "fakelorist." In retrospect it is clear that Dorson's view triumphed only in the short run--although, given Dorson's power and prestige in the folklore discipline, this outcome was not clear at the time. Nevertheless, the circumstances that have led to yet another reassessment of Botkin's legacy have not led numerous folklorists to a re-engagement with either Botkin's writings or life in folklore.

Many who today make a saint of Botkin and who demonize Dorson often do not realize that Botkin and Dorson shared the view that there was a distinctive American folklore that needed to be studied in relationship to the nation's history and literature. And this is one example of why Botkin's legacy is still uncertain in the scholarly world. Despite a lack of scholarly attention, the lay reader has kept most of Botkin's folklore treasuries in print--a point folklorists and other students of American culture need to ponder. Given the ongoing crisis of folklore as an academic department in the university, the uncertainties surrounding the future of public folklore in times of economic downturn, and the constant ferment of a multicultural and advanced technological society, there is reason to think that B. A. Botkin, who coined the term folklore-in-the-making will continue to have a legacy-in-the-making.

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