Oral Tradition

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Editors: Janet Gabler-Hover and Robert Sattelmeyer
Date: 2006
American History Through Literature 1820-1870
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 6
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Between 1820 and 1870 the United States was home to a rich oral culture, enhanced rather than eclipsed by the rising dominance of print culture. Older oral traditions of narrative, proverb, and song continued to circulate orally and were further disseminated in print forms. Jacksonian politics promoted vernacular forms of classical oratory; the belles lettres art of conversation flourished in a new female tradition that was noted as characteristically American by visitors such as Alexis de Tocqueville; and both these rhetorics were extended through expanded public schooling, a proliferation of rhetoric texts, conduct literature, and journalism. Large popular audiences enthusiastically received anthologies of speeches and sermons and some eventually came to accept women's public speaking on religious, political, reform, and cultural topics.


The period generated new oral forms, such as the lecture, and institutions, such as the lyceum and the female literary associations that laid the ground for the later women's club movement. It also generated dialect fiction and poetry, forerunners to the regional traditions that would flourish in the second half of the century. Ethnic oral traditions, particularly those of Native Americans and African Americans, gained increasing publicity outside of the folk group of origin, and transcriptions of these traditions appeared, varied in their authenticity. Literature circulated oral culture, promoted it, and drew on its forms and subject matter as resources for literary art. Literary texts represented features of contemporary oral culture, debated aspects of it, influenced it. These texts were in turn influenced by oral culture.

Despite long-standing argument that the United States had no characteristic, unique oral traditions, and despite ongoing debate over both foundational terms of the classification "oral traditions," as well as over a methodology for approaching them, the contours of academic study of American oral traditions have remained remarkably stable across the past century. Scholars have debated questions of the origins of oral traditions in the United States (American or European and African?), of whether there is a single American tradition or multiple ones, and of whether the differences or the continuities between literary and oral traditions should be emphasized; they have addressed problems of defining genres, of the authenticity of translation and transcription, of aesthetic status, and the relations between oral and literary traditions. Yet what has constituted oral tradition for literary study has remained relatively undisputed. Literary histories and anthologies that attend to oral tradition between 1820 and 1870 tend to focus on Native American myth, legend, and oratory; African American spirituals and oratory; Anglo tall tales, especially Southwestern humor; and folk songs (mostly about men's work and politics). Women's expressive culture has been, arguably, the most neglected aspect in the study of historical oral traditions. While scholarly understanding of the "oral" character of traditions shifted from an emphasis on origins to the mode of transmission, and "traditions" came to be understood as signifying less the surviving relics of a receding past and more thePage 822  |  Top of Article
Illustration from Godeys Ladys Book, October 1862. The title of this picture is Plotting Mischief; the attitudes of the group suggest rapt attention to a storyteller. GRADUATE LIBRARY, UNIVERSITY OF MICHHIGAN

Illustration from Godey's Lady's Book, October 1862. The title of this picture is Plotting Mischief; the attitudes of the group suggest rapt attention to a storyteller. GRADUATE LIBRARY, UNIVERSITY OF MICHHIGAN
performances of living traditions with differing functions within specific contexts, a male-centered perspective has continued to limit the understanding of oral culture and its relations with literature.

The narrow map that academic study would draw after 1870 of the largely oral culture flourishing in the early national period would likely have surprised contemporaries. Samuel Knapp's (1783–1838) Lectures on American Literature (1820) voiced the assumption shared by contemporaries that oral forms of expression were a significant part of the literary field. Knapp discussed colonial hero legends about both women and men, songs of whaling and war, and Indian laments and oratory, and he mentioned novels, poetry, and plays. Rhetorical culture held an important place in Knapp's mapping of literature, not only the oratory that American men practiced in the pulpit, bar, and legislature, but also the social eloquence of the American fireside and drawing room, where both women and men combined learning with a new, more natural style of expression. The American mother, in Knapp's view, was responsible for laying in the nursery and domestic circle the foundations of a national art of speaking. Other commentators located any claim to unique American literary achievement in ethnic oral traditions, without resolving the challenges posed to notions of nationalism and a national culture by the forced displacement of the indigenous peoples and the forced immigration of slaves.

The anonymous author of "The Language and Literature of America" (North American Review, September 1815) claimed that everyone found the oral literature of the aborigines original and that it most properly constituted the literature of the country. The specimens of Indian oratory and legends that circulated in journalism, anthologies, school texts, and the collections of Indian agent and scholar Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (1793–1864) gave evidence of indigenous traditions and art, lending support to the North American Review and countering the opposing contention that Indians, as savages, had no valuable literary tradition. The abolitionist Theodore Parker (1810–1860), however, thought slaves' narratives marked the first original American expressive form, and another anonymous commentator, in Putnam's Monthly (January 1855), arguedPage 823  |  Top of Article that the poetry of Negro minstrelsy should be given pride of place in American literature after authentic oral tradition was sorted from the impostures of white composing, a project begun with the publication by William Francis Allen, Lucy McKim Garrison, and Charles Pickard Ware of spirituals in Slave Songs of the United States (1867). Antiquarian interest in the traditionary lore of the colonizer groups, especially the English and Scottish, prompted collections such as John Fanning Watson's (1780–1860) popular Historic Tales of Olden Time from New York and Pennsylvania (1832, 1833) while, as the pursuit of literature turned professional, writers including Washington Irving, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Nathaniel Hawthorne capitalized on oral traditions with retellings of legends from European and settler sources.


By the 1880s, oral culture was displaced from literature in the instituting of American literature as an academic field and, further, was narrowed into "oral traditions" on one hand and oratory on the other as oral culture was progressively divided between the emerging fields of folklore and rhetoric. Charles Richardson's American Literature (2 vols., c. 1886–1888) equated literature with Anglo belles lettres writing, pointedly denying literary status to Native American oratory and poetry and ignoring other oral culture aside from Anglo men's oratorical forms. Concurrently, William Wells Newell, editor of the Journal of American Folk-lore, announced in his first issue a new folklore study whose focus would be on "oral tradition. . . . understood as the complement of literature" and whose aim would be to preserve traditional ballads, tales, proverbs, superstitions, jests, riddles, dialects, and such in four departments: the relics of Anglo Americans, Southern Negroes, Indians, and other European American groups (Journal of American Folk-lore 1 [1888]: 3–7).

Subsequently, scholarship has debated the boundaries and relations between the two fields, especially the hierarchy of values that privileges what is defined as literature and its study over oral traditions and folk-lorisitics. Tensions also emerged within folklore studies between those that followed the narrowly aesthetic system of Richardson's American Literature and others that, like the Cambridge History of American Literature (4 vols., 1917–1921), promoted a more comprehensive historical construction that included some mention of oral tradition. Yet the developing fields of literature, folklore, and rhetoric all came to agree that the oral culture selected as the subject of their anthologies would be overwhelmingly male in provenance and values. "Fairy tales, beast fables, jests, by scores. . .on the lips of mothers and nurses" (Journal of American Folk-lore 1 [1888]: 4) in the early nineteenth century, like the other expressive art that flourished in women's oral culture, seldom attracted the attention of collectors and commentators. Instead, they were assimilated into men's oral traditions, as if indistinguishable, or were attributed to male sources and collectors, as in the case of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft's (1800–1841) transcriptions of Ojibwa legends, which appeared in works by her husband, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. The Cambridge History was more concerned with explaining away the value of popular songs emanating from women's culture, as in the case of "Mary Had a Little Lamb," attributed to the editor of Godey's Lady's Book, Sarah Hale, than to understand such songs' long-lived centrality in oral tradition, and it construed the intersection of rhetorical and literary culture exclusively in terms of men's oratorical and sermonic practice. Increasing professionalization discouraged folklorists' collection of women's oral traditions. The reduction of nineteenth-century American literature in the modernist canon to a handful of men and Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) fed a similarly narrow reconstruction of oral traditions in literary history.


The work of scholars John Lomax and Constance Rourke, both informed by the now discredited frontier thesis of American history (that is, the notion that the confrontation of savagery and civilization at the edge of western settlement shaped a uniquely democratic and individualistic American culture), especially influenced the construction of oral traditions that most obtains in current literary history and anthologies. Although Lomax, as the pioneer collector of American folksongs, preserved and discussed a rich range of songs from the nineteenth century, literary history reflects more the focus of his first book, Cowboy Songs and Frontier Ballads (1910) and the typology he sketched in the Journal of American Folklore (1915) that equates American folksongs largely with men's work and African American tradition—the songs of miners, lumbermen, sailors, soldiers, railroaders, cowboys, and fieldworkers; only his category of outcasts imagines any place for women's songs. Rourke, a historian and American studies pioneer, in The Roots of American Culture points to some of the exclusions in such a scheme—the expressive traditions of women's domestic work and social rituals (weaving, spinning, corn husking) and those of marginalizedPage 824  |  Top of Article groups in which women predominated, such as the Shakers—but it was her thesis of American humor that more than any other theory has given shape to what literary history takes as "oral traditions."

In American Humor (1931), Rourke, assuming German philosopher Johann Herder's (1744–1803) premise that any national aesthetic literature stems from powerful folk origins, underwrote the notion of a unique, valuable culture in the United States by elaborating a folk tradition of humor underlying the modernist canon of high American literature that scholarship was then consolidating, a folk tradition that alienated women as subjects, she observed, and as origins and disseminators. Later critics fixed on the three character types from popular theater and print sources that Rourke argued likely evolved from oral traditions (a mix of English regional dramatic types, Indian legends, Gaelic anecdotes, the era's proliferation of oratory, Southern lawyers' storytelling combats, and minstrel shows) and which, she claimed, represented the comic spirit of American culture in the early national period: the Yankee, the backwoods-man (including the boatman), and, especially, the Negro.


Rourke influenced critics who had the most impact on the writing of literary history and the making of anthologies. Her study buttressed, for example, F. O. Matthiessen's Renaissance thesis of American literature (American Renaissance, 1941), Richard Volney Chase's romance thesis of narrative fiction (The American Novel and its Tradition, 1957), and Daniel Hoffman's method of myth criticism that seeks folk traditions behind canonical writers (Form and Fable in American Fiction, 1961). While critics note that the tall tale tradition is overstudied, literary history and anthologies, backed by such criticism and by Rourke's thesis and viewing history through a lens distorted by the extraordinary status accorded later writers such as Mark Twain and William Faulkner, continue to overrepresent the significance of the form, its mode of humor, and protagonists (Davy Crockett, Mike Fink), along with the writers later grouped as Southwestern humorists (Augustus Baldwin Longstreet [1790–1870], Johnson Jones Hooper [1815–1862], George Washington Harris [1814–1869]) and the Big Bear school following from Thomas Bangs Thorpe (1815–1878) with its hunting fables that pit men against nature writ large. None of these featured centrally in the oral culture of the period or in contemporary analyses of it.

Literary history's investigation of the relations between oral culture and literature generally has tended toward the assumption shared by Rourke and her followers that oral traditions are most interesting and valuable as a background or foundation of literary art, or as Daniel Barnes put it, as matter an author uses to create literature. The operation of this assumption in literature studies and often in folklore studies as well, although it has generated no established methodology for studying the two fields together, has focused a large body of criticism that teaches more about nineteenth-century canonical men's appropriations—or approximations—of oral motifs than it does about historical oral traditions. In addition to extending the links that Rourke observed between her construction of oral tradition (particularly the frontier matter) and the writing of canonical male writers (and, incidentally, Dickinson), critics have worked to identify and interpret oral materials in these texts.

Studies have discussed in particular Washington Irving's and Edgar Allan Poe's reworking of legendary tales of the supernatural or macabre, about the knowledge and use of the oral traditions of Indian tribes and Anglo frontier traditions in James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking romances, Henry Wadsworth Long-fellow's poetry, and Henry David Thoreau's prose, and about the retellings of New England legends by John Greenleaf Whittier and Nathaniel Hawthorne, especially the latter's address of witchcraft and other superstitions. Melville's work, particularly Moby-Dick, (1851) has been mined for evidence of his use of sea chanties, legends, songs, and proverbs, in addition to frontier matter, and Ralph Waldo Emerson's work excavated for his use of folk expressions and proverbs. Otherwise, folk material, including dialect tales and poetry, has largely been positioned as a feature of regional literature, which repeatedly was rated as lesser than canonized masterwork. While there has been decreasing interest in claiming the oratory of some figures, such as Daniel Webster (1782–1852), as literature, more claims are being made for other figures, such as Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) and Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), and inquiry continues into ways that the conventions of oral traditions, such as oratory and storytelling, inform the writings of canonical male writers.

No equivalent body of criticism addresses the question of whether women's writing, too, might open a window on contemporary oral tradition, although that writing offers parallel opportunities, including the fictional use of ghosts and other supernatural motifs in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851–1852); Alice Cary's "Ghost StoryPage 825  |  Top of Article Number II" (1855), which rehearses neighborhood legends in a conversational narrative frame attentive to various modes of storytelling; and Harriet Farley's Happy Nights at Hazel Nook; or, Cottage Stories (1854), which presents tales of fairies, wizards, and ghosts told in a family writing club; Lydia Maria Child's version of Native American and European legends in her short fiction; Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), with its invocation of slaves' songs and legends; and Margaret Fuller's reworking of proverbs and legends, including the Ojibwa tale of Muckwa or the Bear in Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 (1844), a book that advocates the systematic compilation of Indian lore by a native collector so that the textual representation of native tradition might indicate the philosophy, symbol system, and values of indigenous peoples.


Scholarly anthologies now include work songs in the African American tradition that serve as women's expressive tradition and lullabies in Native American traditions, but neither form in Anglo traditions. As an understanding of literature as social practice gains currency, and theories of rhetorical and folk culture begin to account for women's conversational and oratorical forms of expression, inquiry is opening into the ways that literature informs women's speaking in the era, including African American activists and speaker-writers Maria Stewart and Frances Harper, and the ways that conversational traditions enter women's writing, notably Fuller's essays, the fiction of Stowe and Catharine Maria Sedgwick, and the poetry of Frances Osgood. While the texts are lacking that would illustrate reasons for the historical reputation of some women speakers, such as Lucy Terry, and the expressive innovations of others, such as Harper's recitation of poetry of her own composing in her reform lectures, reconstructed versions of the performances of other women, such as Sojourner Truth, are becoming available in literary anthologies. Women's fiction also affords a range of views on features of contemporary oral culture that were debated, including the promotion of women's rights speakers in Mary S. Gove Nichols's Mary Lyndon (1855) and Laura J. Curtis Bullard's Christine (1856), as well as the satire of oral institutions and dialects in Caroline Matilda Kirkland's A New Home (1839) and in Frances Whitcher's Widow Bedott Papers (1856).

Folklorists' repeated call for greater voice in the discussion of relations between written and oral traditions has gone largely unheeded in literary history, and with the shift in folklore study from an item-centered approach, focusing on texts and motifs, to emphasis on performance, contexts, and function of oral traditions, folkloristics shows less interest in nineteenth-century literature and more in ethnic traditions, especially in ethnopoetics, which works to understand oral traditions from a perspective and values closer to those of originary speech communities than to the Romantic and modernist definitions of literature and its aesthetic value that have informed American literary studies. Emphasis on context as well as performance has stressed the need to understand how the situatedness of oral traditions affects both their form and significance, and this emphasis informs arguments for more holistic study than literary history, ethnopoetics, or anthropological approaches have yet provided (Elliot, Prahlad), yet has not provoked much attention to issues of gender. The longstanding androcentrism in the study of Native American and African American lore, for example in the recovery and history of trickster figures—the figures in both traditions that have commanded the most critical attention—needs correcting, as Andrew Wiget (in Ruoff, p. 89) and Henry Louis Gates Jr. (p. 54) note. Yet the work of that project is just beginning, with scholars such as Paula Gunn Allen providing models for ways women's expressive culture might be viewed as equally important in the Native American oral traditions circulating through the nineteenth century. While the new scholarship brings problems of its own, it does promise a more balanced, comprehensive, and historical sense of the multiplicity of the era's oral traditions.


Primary Works

Baym, Nina, ed. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 6th ed. Vols. B and C. New York and London: Norton, 2003.

Brooks, Cleanth, R. W. B. Lewis, and Robert Penn Warren, compilers. American Literature: The Makers and the Making. Vol. 1. New York: St Martin's Press, 1973.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay, eds. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. New York and London: Norton, 1996.

Lauter, Paul, ed. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. Lexington, Mass.: Heath, 1994.

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Secondary Works

Paula Gunn Allen. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.

Barnes, Daniel R. "Toward the Establishment of Principles for the Study of Folklore and Literature." Southern Folklore Quarterly 43 (1979): 5–16.

Bercovitch, Sacvan, ed. The Cambridge History of American Literature. Vol. 2. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Chase, Richard Volney. The American Novel and Its Tradition. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1957.

Dundes, Alan. "The American Concept of Folklore." Journal of the Folklore Institute 3 (1966): 226–249.

Elliott, Michael A. "Coyote Comes to the Norton: Indigenous Oral Narrative and American Literary History." American Literature 75 (2003): 723–749.

"Folklore in Literature: A Symposium." Journal of American Folklore 70 (1957): 1–24.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Handbook of American Folklore. Edited by Richard M. Dorson. Introduction by W. Edson Richmond. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.

Hegeman, Susan. "Native American 'Texts' and the Problem of Authenticity." American Quarterly 41 (1989): 265–283.

Hoffman, Daniel. Form and Fable in American Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1961.

Knapp, Samuel Lorenzo. Lectures on American Literature. 1829. Facsimile reproduction as American Cultural History 1607–1829. Gainesville, Florida: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1961.

Matthiessen, F. O. American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1941.

Prahlad, Sw. Anand. "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner: Folklore, Folkloristics, and African American Literary Criticism." African American Review 33 (1999): 565–575.

Rourke, Constance. American Humor: A Study of the National Character. 1931. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday/Anchor, 1953.

Ruoff, A. La Vonne Brown, and Jerry W. Ward Jr., eds. Redefining American Literary History. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1990.

Spiller, Robert E., Willard Thorpe, Thomas Herbert Johnson, Henry Seidel Canby, and Richard M. Ludwig, eds. Literary History of the United States. 3 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1948.

Trent, William Peterfield, John Erskine, Stuart P. Sherman, and Carl Van Doren, eds. The Cambridge History of American Literature. 4 vols. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1917–1921.

Charlene Avallone

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3450700175