A book that sits on every shelf

At the Indiana University Folklore Institute, a copy of the Handbook of American Folklore can be found in most offices. Over the past five years of visiting faculty and staff as a graduate student, I could always spot it fairly quickly. Adorned with bright red text set on a jet black background, the spine and cover stand out among other books on the shelf.

Curiously enough, I have never read the Handbook from front to back. I don’t consider this a fault, though. This is the sort of book that defies linear inspection. There are sixty-eight short chapters within, and that doesn’t include the several introductory essays and headnotes. It is a handbook in the true sense of the word: written and organized for quick consultation by those who want brief synopses of the sorts of things that folklorists do, from common topics of research to strategies for publication.

The coordinating energy behind the Handbook was monumental, as I have recently learned. Thousands of documents exchanged between the late 1970s and early 1980s attest to the work it took to get this piece released. Those documents are accessible now, in the latest collection to be made available through University Archives and Records Management. Any interested party is invited to learn about the process—or the ordeal, some might say—that preceded the publication of the Handbook in 1983.

Richard M. Dorson

Richard M. Dorson

Originally scheduled to be a publication of McGraw-Hill, the Handbook was entrusted to the Indiana University Press after a change in management at the former company. With the publishing house secured, editors next faced the challenge of coordinating drafts, revisions, and payments among dozens of contributing authors. In the midst of these activities, the project faced its greatest setback—the death of lead editor and Folklore Institute luminary Richard M. Dorson. His passing on Sept. 11, 1981, created a major hurdle in the publication process, as well as a vacuum in the discipline of folklore studies at large. Known colloquially as the father of American folkloristics, Dorson’s career output included 24 books and 250 articles. In a piece of correspondence included in this collection, Handbook contributor Robert C. Toll described the gravity of the situation: “Dick’s passing is a great loss. It is fitting that this project, which would not have gotten off the ground without the force of his intellect, vision, and persuasion, be completed and published.”

That the Handbook rests on so many bookshelves today is a testament to the dedication of the remaining editorial staff. Without the commitment of Associate Editor Inta Gale Carpenter and Assistant Editors Elizabeth Peterson and Angela Maniak, the project would have stalled. It is something of a letdown, then, that when the Handbook was finally released, it was met with mixed reviews. For each compliment that the volume received, it also seemed to endure a criticism. In a 1984 issue of the journal Ethnomusicology, reviewer James Porter lauds the volume’s “expert topic résumés by accomplished professionals,” but he also notes that “this disappointing book could have been saved, one feels, by greater attention to depth.”

As a folklorist, I feel a defensive pang at these words, but it is not necessarily a defense of the Handbook itself. It is more a defense of Dorson, whose influence pervades life at the Folklore Institute even 33 years after his death. Maybe because we are folklorists and not accountants or chemists, we tend to recognize his impact in commemorative, almost totemic terms. Each year, two graduate students receive a prize in Dorson’s name, either for excellence in scholarship or to support fieldwork excursions. Similarly, the annual Richard M. Dorson Memorial Folklore Lecture brings a distinguished folklorist to campus for a formal lecture and, usually, a number of informal talks and meetings. Dorson’s gravitas also persists away from university officialdom. Some faculty and staff have suggested that his spirit still resides in the department where he spent so much of his professional life.

The Handbook fits into this mix as a tangible reminder of Dorson’s accomplishments, and it is made more potent because he passed away before it was finished. The criticisms of the book are reasonable. They are also probably prescient, given the disciplinary wherewithal that it takes to write an academic book review like the one quoted above. It is hard to swallow the criticism from a personal standpoint, however, because the book serves as Dorson’s swansong. For better or worse, the Handbook punctuated a career during which folklore studies turned from an intellectual aside to a viable academic discipline, in no small way because of Dorson’s sheer force of will. Many disciplines benefit from near-legendary scholars like this. Their devotion is total, and their ambition seems to know no bounds. The point I want to make here is simply that Dorson is our legend, and this book is his farewell.

To access the archive of the Folklore Institute’s Handbook of American Folklore project, visit the University Archives and Records Management website at http://libraries.iub.edu/archives, or call (812) 855-1127.

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Toyoaki Uehara: Unboxing 38 Years of Correspondence (Part 2)

(For Part 1 of this series from Archives Intern Jeannine, see: https://blogs.libraries.indiana.edu/iubarchives/2015/10/30/uehara1/)

The exploration of the Uehara correspondence continues.  I am currently about midway through the process of removing the documents from their containers and placing them into labeled 3folders.  Upon release from their decades-long confinement, the stacks of letters swell slightly, as though they have been waiting to breathe.  The sheer volume of the materials is somewhat overwhelming – there are thousands of letters contained within the collection, each one of which will need to be unfolded and examined, but the end results will be worthwhile.  What I have uncovered so far has been interesting, informative, and sometimes even beautiful.  It truly is a time capsule of correspondence.

We have chosen to file the letters according to year in order to maintain original order as much as possible.  Though we cannot keep the materials in the tissue boxes we received them in due to conservation issues, retaining Mrs. Uehara’s filing “system” will allow us to retain something of their original context.  Also, filing according to correspondent would be very difficult for our staff, as more than 50% of the materials are written entirely in Japanese.9

The types of correspondence Uehara received over the years is remarkably varied.  There are politely-worded notes from students dropping his language class or requesting letters of recommendation, letters inquiring about his health and family, postcards from travels, family photos, and even formal letters from the Japanese Consulate.  One frequent correspondent is Floyd H. Ross, professor of theology at the University of Southern California, who wrote to Uehara about various topics in religion and language.


Kagemusha poster, 1980.

Standing out from the crowd are a few more personal or visual items, including a small paper poster of Kagemusha, a famed Akira Kurosawa film.  The poster was one of several forwarded to Uehara by an employee of a local film store to help promote the movie.  The note written on the poster begins: “Professor Uehara – Just thought I’d drop this note to let you know that this film will finally show in Bloomington.”  The film had come out a year before, and apparently staff and students alike were itching to see it!  With this item, as many others, there is little information given beyond the signature at the end of the note, which does not make it easy to find out who this person is or was and his relationship to Dr. Uehara.

When it is possible to identify a specific correspondent, it’s very exciting! Dr. Uehara received frequent letters discussing travels, teaching, research, and various other topics from someone who signed his missives simply as “Pete.”  Then, I hit gold in the form of a photo postcard.  Now some actual investigation! Far from 78a faceless friend, Pete was Peter Metevelis – an exchange fellow, teacher, researcher, East Asian folklorist, and author of several books and articles about Japanese myth and culture.  In the postcard he mentions an article he had written, which unfortunately was not to be found in the collection, as well as his need to shorten his name so people from the local P.T.A. could pronounce it (first or last name, one wonders?).  It’s just so interesting to discover one of the real people behind these letters.






The letters in the Uehara collection come in an amazingly wide variety of shapes, textures, and sizes.  Among the oversized materials are several lovely hand-caligraphied “scrolls,” one over three feet long.


My work on the collection continues, so stay tuned!

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The Scrapbooks of D. Joan Richards Neff

For much of the twentieth century, scrapbooking was all the rage for college women. The impulse still exists, even if the medium has changed – what is a Facebook wall or an Instagram feed other than a type of digital scrapbook? The scrapbooks of D. Joan Richards Neff, in IU’s University Archives, offer a glimpse into the life of an IU student in the late 1940s.

Residents of Sycamore Hall. Joan is 4th row, 8th from left. This image appears on page 366 of the 1948 Arbutus yearbook.

Residents of Sycamore Hall. Joan is 4th row, 8th from left.
This image appears on page 366 of the 1948 Arbutus yearbook.

The collection includes four scrapbooks, one from each year Joan was at IU. Her time here was spent not much differently than students today, though of course with a distinctive 40s flair: there were football games, birthday parties for friends, trips to local state parks for picnics, dances and parties at various fraternities and sororities, music concerts and theater productions, dates with different boys (eventually settling on the one she would marry upon graduation, Franklin Neff, IU class of 1949) and of course schoolwork and meetings with professors. Joan typically saved a small token from each of these events for inclusion in her scrapbook, always making sure to include a short note of explanation.

Some tokens are obvious choices: football programs, name tags, ticket stubs, photographs, pressed flowers. Others are meant more to simply spur a memory: napkins, matchbooks, the corners of dollar bills, a water cup from the train. And then there are the items that are a conservator’s nightmare: a whole cookie(!), a frog eye lens extracted in Zoology class, a friend’s chewed gum (“a special offering for my scrap-book”), the edge of another friend’s panties from her wedding (“which she trimmed to keep the ridge from showing”).

Looking through each scrapbook is itself a wonderful trip through one student’s unique somewhat quirky IU experience. To view the scrapbooks in person, contact the IU Archives.

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What changes is what stays the same

Christopher Columbus has fallen from grace in recent decades. At issue is the explorer’s persistent prestige when his 1492 arrival in what is now the Bahamas spurred more conflict than cooperation. A variety of critics have addressed this concern. Native Americans publicly resist Columbus’ veneration at an annual protest in Denver. Humorist Matthew Inman suggests that we direct our attention away from Columbus and toward the Spanish cleric Bartolomé de las Casas, whose legacy is not tainted with violence. Coverage in other media outlets has begun to explore the growing support for “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” as a preferable alternative to Columbus Day. These criticisms are a far cry from the historical figure formerly most famous for having innocuously sailed the ocean blue.

Columbus and the Indian Maiden

Columbus and the Indian Maiden by Constantino Brumidi – on display at the U.S. Capitol

The prevailing view here is that the Columbian landing marked the beginning of a dark time for indigenous people. It is curious, then, that the Indiana University Folklore Institute’s Columbian Project, a series of ethnographic studies undertaken in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was organized in conjunction with the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage in 1992. It makes little sense that such a commemoration could be organized by a group of folklorists, whose work often focuses on the everyday artistic practices of marginalized populations.

However, the files of this project, which are now available for public inspection through the University Archives, reveal that the focus was less on Columbus himself and more on the cultural collision that his voyage symbolizes. What the folklorists who worked on the Columbian Project wished to discover were the artistic traditions that arrived as a part of the conquest. Despite the trouble that the Columbian landing brought, it also caused the sort of ethnic mixing that leads to folkloric innovation. Consider, for example, the mélange of French, Italian, Spanish, and African culinary traditions that is Cajun cuisine. A similar collaboration occurred with the conquest of the so-called New World. Along with martial force, European explorers also brought their artistic traditions, which then changed in accordance with the new environment.

The particular aim of the Columbian Project was to investigate the endurance of Spanish forms of folklore—specifically, of oral poetry—in those parts of the colonized world that were claimed by Spain. Even though the conquistadors arrived long ago, project researchers argued that their artistic legacy lived on in the late twentieth century. In an overview of his contribution to the project, folklorist and ethnomusicologist Ronald R. Smith states that the Spanish stanza known as the décima “still flourishes” in Panama. Similarly, anthropologist Judith Seeger notes that the romanceiro, a poetic form grounded in Spanish oral tradition, constitutes “living evidence” of continuing colonial influence in Brazil.

These notes suggest the durability of Spanish folk poetry in central and south America. They also get at the core of what many people think folklorists do: locate examples of really old artistic stuff, document it, and put it in a book. This is accurate to some extent. The volume of collected folklore is a venerable format. Yet a more common way of undertaking folklore research today is to do what the participants in the Columbian Project did: go to the field, find examples of really old artistic stuff, and consider how it has stayed the same over time—but also how it has changed. The idea of tradition pivots on this point. As much as it is fixed, it is fluid. In folklore studies, the arts that are most traditional are those that provide a direct link to the past while simultaneously mirroring their contemporary social context.

As such, the décimas and romanceiros of this project are not simply interesting anachronisms. They are creative incarnations of historical arts that, if they draw from the past, also fully inhabit the present. For example, Smith explains that although the words of the décima are slow to change over time, “there has grown a musical tradition that includes simultaneous vocal and instrumental improvisation.” The idea of fluid tradition takes hold here. What changes is paradoxically what stays the same.

The Columbian landing is a strange container for this sort of artistic growth. Imperious at best and murderous at worst, the colonization of the places that became the Americas is not typically remembered as a touchstone for artistic innovation. Nonetheless, folklore creeps into everyday life like ivy. Stubbornly and reliably, it finds purchase in times of war, peace, love, and hate. And upon close inspection, it can reveal that historical events are never of one meaning only. In this case, it could be argued that the colonized became the colonizers as they adapted the art forms of the conquistadors to suit their own traditions. They claimed ownership of the unfamiliar folklore that entered their lives, even if it did arrive as part of a cultural upheaval. This does not mitigate the damage done in the name of discovery. Nothing could. It does, on the other hand, represent a subtle protest, undertaken in an artistic framework, against a spurious claim of ownership.

To view the archive of the Folklore Institute’s Columbian Project, and to access the finding aid that indexes this material, visit our website at http://libraries.iub.edu/archives, or call (812) 855-1127.

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Toyoaki Uehara: Unboxing 38 Years of Correspondence (Part 1)

As a graduate student in the Archives Specialization in the Department of Information and Library Science, one of my degree requirements is to intern for a semester with a special collections repository. To fulfill this requirement, this fall I have interned at the University Archives where I have primarily focused on processing collections of University records as well as the personal papers of IU faculty and alums.

For the last month, I have been wrestling with a rich and varied collection of correspondence, sound recordings, and manuscripts of the late Toyoyaki Uehara, a longtime member of IU’s Department of East Asian Languages and Culture. Dr. Uehara moved from Japan to Los Angeles, California in 1951 on a scholarship, where he studied, taught, and founded a TenrikUeharayo church.  He began working as an assistant professor at Indiana University Bloomington in 1963 and remained until his retirement in 1990.  A respected professor and scholar, a significant portion of the collection consists of correspondence with Uehara’s former students and colleagues in the United States and Japan. Uehara also traveled frequently, and while away, exchanged letters often with his wife, son, brother, and a number of relatives over the decades.

There are ways and ways to maintain and organize correspondence. As a university professor and scholar, knowing that it was possible these materials could be deposited in a repository for preservation and research, it might be assumed that his letters would be organized in some way, perhaps in the same order as they were received, or alphabetically by correspondent.  Not in the case of Toyoaki Uehara, or rather, of his wife. Kiyoko Uehara organized and stored her husband’s personal correspondence in a rather unconventional manner – inside tissue boxes. Sometimes, she wrapped the letters in paper and tied them all neatly with Christmas 4ribbon. Compiled by year (thankfully!), in some instances more than a hundred letters were crammed into these less-than-forgiving cardboard boxes.

A quick overview of the materials shows that it will clearly take some time to open these items and arrange them in folders fit for perusal.  As one might imagine, 38 years of exchanges adds up to a fair number of letters, cards, notes, postcards and telegrams.  Any item that did not fit easily into the tissue box was likely damaged in some way – bent, torn, or crushed to varying degrees.  Delicate airmail and rice paper letters and envelopes that have been deformed and compressed for o1ver 50 years need to be carefully unfolded to avoid tearing or damaging them further (and will eventually make their way to our wonderful paper conservation folks at the Preservation Lab!).  It’s going to be a bit of an adventure bringing these missives to light, but it will certainly be interesting discovering what is hiding inside these curious containers.

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