Lawrence Rodgers & Jerrold Hirsch, editors,
America's Folklorist: B.A. Botkin & American Culture
(University of Oklahoma Press, 2010)

B.A. Botkin, who died in 1975, was perhaps the best and most prominent folklorist America has produced. In fact, he is the man who gets the credit for making the study of folklore what it is today.

Until Botkin came along, the academy enforced a narrow and restrictive version of what folklore actually was, a definition that excluded anything being done in the present time and anything that could be traced to an author or that used electronic transmission, such as phonograph records. Botkin insisted that if the material originated in the folk culture -- if it came from "the people" -- then it was folklore.

Today that position is self-evident, but in Botkin's day it was revolutionary and had to be defended from the more strictly academic folklorists, such as the major thorn in Botkin's side, fellow folklorist Richard Dorson, who spent years trying to destroy Botkin's reputation ... especially after Botkin's major work, A Treasury of American Folklore, was published in 1944.

Botkin's Treasury was a monster, selling more than 400,000 copies and still selling steadily today. In it, Botkin collected traditional folk tales and songs, ghost stories, proverbs, insults and children's street games. American readers were fascinated by this portrait of themselves, and Botkin was elevated to folklore sainthood, a development that drove Dorson crazy.

America's Folklorist if the first major look at Botkin's life and career. A collection of essays, it is divided into three parts. The first examines Botkin's biography and traces his growing interest in all aspects of America's folk culture. Part two takes a look at Botkin and his contemporaries, examining his relationship with such figures as the Seegers, African-American poet Sterling Brown and others. The third part collects some of Botkin's own work, concentrating on his essays and poems.

America's Folklorist is a fine work, bringing a fresh focus to a man who, even as his work continues to spread throughout our lives, is largely forgotten. It belongs in every college and university library but also deserves to find a wide readership among ordinary people -- the "folk," as it were.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

11 December 2010

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