[(essay date June 1998) In the following essay, Nash considers the use and function of folklore in Tess.]
In 1957, when Richard Dorson joined with other prominent folklorists to describe the nascent study of folklore and literature, he used the pages of the Journal of American Folklore to criticize the shallow manner in which most scholars were writing about lore in imaginative works.1 Dorson noted that much of what was being written about was not really folklore because a number of literary critics were confusing "folksy" with "folklore." Surveying the same field eight years later, Alan Dundes observed the disturbing scholarly notion that there should be "one method for studying folklore in literature and another method for studying folklore in culture."2 The problem, according to Dundes, is that literary critics cannot identify items of folklore, and folklorists know too little about literary criticism. He concludes, "Either folklorists are going to have to educate their literary ... colleagues in the mechanics of identifying folklore, or they will have to undertake some of the problems of interpretation themselves."3
For the most part, the folklorists and literary critics have continued to ignore each other. Although vastly oversimplified, it is useful to place the articles contributed since 1957 into two piles. In the one pile are articles written by fieldworkers and trained folklorists, these efforts concerned mainly with the search for origins and sources. Typically these authors are interested in whether Melville or Bellow enjoyed any "direct contact" with legends and superstitions or whether the influences were flawed and indirect, probably literary. The folklore fieldworker often sees a poem or play merely as a vehicle for transmitting folk culture; therefore, Thorpe's "Big Bear of Arkansas" and Faulkner's The Bear, although remarkably different in literary value, tend to get stacked together because they share common origins in the folk tradition. In the second pile are articles written by literary folklorists, who see folklore as an element of setting. These critics, often ignorant of folklore theory, like to talk about "local color" and "folk style," but they seldom recognize the particular superstitions, legends, and rituals in a story; further, they tend to equate the presence of folk motifs with "primitive" or "pastoral" literature.4
The problem of interpretation is probably most pressing for the trained folklorist who teaches courses in literature-and-folklore. Experienced folklorists tend to rush through passages of description and narration, anticipating the parts where Huckleberry touches the snakeskin or where Sam Fathers paints Ike McCaslin with the blood of the boy's first deer. At that point, it is tempting to savor the moment, to tell tales of taboos in Somalia and rituals in Tahiti. It is not unusual for the folklorist to begin the hour talking about Frost's "Mending Wall" and to conclude, some fifty minutes later, framed by chalkboard drawings of split-rail fences in the south of Wales. The seductiveness of comparative folklore is great. And yet, it should come as no surprise to learn that discriminating students recognize a...