Introduction to Folklore and the Literature of Louisiana

By Shelley Ingram


The first time I taught a course on Louisiana literature, I was a little overwhelmed by choice. Should I stick to the canon and teach George Washington Cable's The Grandissimes, Kate Chopin's The Awakening, and Walker Percy's The Moviegoer? Could I venture into the realm of the popular and have students read James Lee Burke's hardboiled classic The Neon Rain or Loraine Despres's delightfully soapy, and deceptively complex, The Scandalous Summer of Sissy LeBlanc? What about the sprawling historical fiction of Lalita Tamedy? Or the boundary-crossing gothic horror of Poppy Z. Brite? There are short story collections, like A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler. There are poems by Yusef Komunyakaa, Brenda Marie Osbey, and Darrell Bourque. And all of these texts would have to fit around my personal favorites, Ernest Gaines's The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire (because I consider it a sacred duty to introduce young people to Marlon Brando). Every time I sacrificed one text on my syllabus for another, I had to remind myself of that oft-repeated bit of literary folklore: you have to kill your darlings.

But the difficulty in deciding course content was really the result of a larger struggle: what, exactly, did "Louisiana" mean when slotted next to the word "literature"? Novels set in Louisiana? Poems written by Louisiana natives that otherwise had little to do with the region? What about books by writers whose parents were from Louisiana, but who had never really lived here? What about authors who moved here for a year or two and then left? Clearly, I had more questions than answers. But through it all, one text stayed put–Lyle Saxon's Gumbo Ya-Ya, that complicated chronicle of Louisiana folklife. Thinking back, the simple fact of Gumbo Ya-Ya's centrality reveals a relatively grand idea: for me, at least, there is no Louisiana literature without Louisiana folklore.

The study of folklore and literature is one that is also defined by questions. How exactly does one go about studying folklore and literature? One of the first important critical works to explicitly tackle this question was Richard Dorson's 1957 Journal of American Folklore article "The Identification of Folklore in American Literature," part of the published proceedings of an MLA forum on the subject. Dorson typified the early approach to studying folklore and literature, which most often involved a type of "genre hunting" in which the critic searched out particular pieces of folklore in literary texts, like ghost stories, ballads, folk tales, or representations of folk crafts. In this article, Dorson set out a methodology for studying folklore and literature, one which called for three types of evidence to "authenticate" a work of literature: biographical, which would establish whether or not the author would have had access to folklore; internal, springing from the text itself, which would "indicate direct familiarity of the author with the folklore;" and corroborative, which would require scholars to consult extant collections of folklore to verify whether or not the lore had a life independent of the fiction (1957:5-7). If a scholar could not produce this evidence, then the folklore in the literature was inauthentic and, he argued, the literature not worthy of a folklorist's time.

The next twenty or so years of scholarship produced variations on Dorson's theme, until the redefining of folklore as not only something that is (a text, whether the text is a tale or a quilt), but something that is done at a particular time in a particular place–folklore as a performance. When and how the tale is told or the quilt is made became as, if not more, important than the text itself. Thus the idea that one could "salvage" folklore, that one could "pry the folklore away, expose it, and preserve it as though it were a wooden icon" in our texts, somehow "saving" it from disappearance, had become antithetical to the study of folklore, both in literature and in culture (Lawless 2002:93). If this is true, then the idea that folklore could be in literature, that it could exist to be identified and classified, is false, because if folklore is a performance of folklore in context, for it to be captured on a page renders it, well, not folklore. It would seem we were at an impasse.

And yet: Louisiana folklore begets Louisiana literature. Louisiana literature, in its turn, begets Louisiana folklore. This connection did not go away the moment folklore scholars gave us a book with some new perspectives. And those who study folklore and literature knew it. Folklorists, cultural theorists, and literary critics like Bruce Rosenberg, Susan Stewart, Trudier Harris, and Cathy Lynn Preston knew it when they kept pushing us to consider and then reconsider the connections between folk cultures and literary production. The anthropologist Kamala Visweswaran knew it when she recognized the beautiful, and important, symmetry of two photographs, one of Ruth Benedict reading Virginia Woolf, the other of Virginia Woolf reading Ruth Benedict. Marcia Gaudet knew it, when she said in the pages of this journal that the study of folklore is "vital and central" to the study of literature.

Frank de Caro and Rosan Augusta Jordan certainly knew it when they wrote Re-Situating Folklore: Folk Contexts and Twentieth-Century Literature and Art, a book that has influenced the authors of each of the essays in this special issue. I remember the day I first read Re-Situating Folklore. I was sitting in the commons of Memorial Union at the University of Missouri, waiting to meet with one of my graduate school mentors. I had a notebook with me, a pretty one that I had picked up for ten cents at a salvage store, dark red with blue paisley on its plastic cover. That cover makes the notebook easy to find now when I look at my bookshelf, as I still reach for it and all the frantic notes I took that day. Yes, I remember thinking, and then thank you. I see the impact of Re-Situating Folklore not only in the works cited pages of these essays, but in the almost sublimely simple way that we all seem to accept the idea that writers are re-situating folklore into their art and that such a process creates meaning. So yes, we all say, and then thank you.

The essays in this special issue thus take as their task an exploration of the deep connections between folklore and the literature of Louisiana. They represent new and exciting ways to meld folkloristics with other literary approaches, from the linguistic to the ethnographic to the geographical. In the process, these authors ask questions that can never be fully answered with biographical, internal, and corroborative evidence, questions such as: What does it mean for an outsider to read about Louisiana? To write about it? How does one word, whether it be malice or catfish, invoke entire unspoken, even fugitive, histories? How do the politics of space and place, from a pre-Civil War to a post-Katrina Louisiana, impact the finely-drawn narratives of lives lived here? How does literary and poetic structure speak, in some fundamental way, to and with the processes of folklore? Each of the essays that follow trouble the boundaries between literary and lived cultures, refusing to see folklore and literature, or life and literature, as irrevocably discrete spheres of discourse. But most of all, they reiterate what I believe to be truth: there is no Louisiana literature without Louisiana folklore.

Works Cited

De Caro, Frank and Rosan Augusta Jordan. 2004. Re-Situating Folklore: Folk Contexts and Twentieth-Century Literature and Art. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

Dorson, Richard. 1957. The Identification of Folklore in American Literature. Journal of American Folklore 70(275): 1-8.

Gaudet, Marcia. 1995. Louisiana Folklore and Literature: An Introductory Thumbnail Sketch. Louisiana Folklore Miscellany 10: 1-7.

Harris, Trudier. 1991. Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

Lawless, Elaine. 2002. Out of the Ashes of Folklore Rises the Phoenix of Folkloristics. Southern Folklore 57: 91-3.

Preston, Cathy Lynn, ed. 1995. Folklore, Literature, and Cultural Theory. New York: Garland Publishing.

Rosenberg, Bruce. 1990. Folklore and Literature: Rival Siblings. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

Stewart, Susan. 1989. Nonsense: Aspects of Intertextuality in Folklore and Literature. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

---. 1994. Crimes of Writing: Problems in the Containment of Representation. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Visweswaran, Kamala. 1994. Fictions of Feminist Ethnography. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

This article was first published in the 2016 Louisiana Folklore Miscellany. Shelley Ingram is an Assistant Professor of English and Folklore at University of Louisiana at Lafayette.