This is about to get personal

The archive of a long-term ethnographic study of Hungarian ethnic identity is now available for perusal at University Archives and Records Management. The study, facilitated by Indiana University’s Folklore Institute in the early 1980s, examined the ways that Hungarians in both Hungary and the American Midwest maintained senses of community through everyday customs. This project led to an academic conference, a special issue of the Journal of Folklore Research, and a rich collection of photographs and fieldwork reports. And that’s where the official story starts to get personal, at least for me.

Sorting through the papers of the Hungarian-American project over the past couple of weeks was an exercise in self-reflection. As the research team documented ethnic foodways and days of religious observance among Hungarian culture groups, I recalled my own encounters with similar sorts of traditions during my childhood. My mother’s side of the family has always held on to certain pieces of its Slovak heritage, from the practice of Roman Catholicism to the hearty peasant food that characterizes our communal meals. Sauerkraut, sausage, and the sign of the cross are comfortable bedfellows in my mind.

In fairness to the academic persona that I’ve spent the past five years cultivating, this kind of musing makes me recoil a bit. Though they are neighbors, Hungary and Slovakia are distinct nations with distinct cultures. From a scholarly standpoint, it does not do to lump them together so indiscriminately. On the other hand, the human in me gravitates toward what I recognize as a resounding articulation of home. The people I grew up with behaved like the people whose lives are documented in the Hungarian-American project archive. It was impossible for me, while browsing these papers, not to be reminded of grandparents, aunts, and uncles.

Mary Slota
Mary Slota

Here’s a case in point: My great-grandmother, Mary Slota, left Slovakia for northeast Ohio in the early twentieth century. One of my favorite family photos shows her in her kitchen, proudly displaying a ring of homemade hurka, or blood sausage, probably harvested from a hog that was raised on the small farm where she lived with my great-grandfather. One of the hundreds of photos in the Hungarian-American project archive shows a widow in the Hungarian village of Cserépfalu. Babushka tied around her head, she leans over a bowl while plucking a chicken, presumably in preparation for a meal. Captured in the photographic frame, both women illustrate the cultural moment they inhabit. They wear floral patterned aprons and work with ingredients that exemplify a farm-to-table attitude long before that phrase became trendy among the culinary elite. And while Mary Slota and the villager from Cserépfalu spoke different languages and lived in different places, their everyday lives were more like than unlike.

Cserépfalu villager
Villager from Cserépfalu, Hungary – from the Hungarian-American project archive

That the archival material of the Hungarian-American project speaks so insistently to my own experience is, in my opinion, an indication of its success. Project researchers mindfully collected images and words to produce a body of data that is greater than the sum of its parts. While the project’s focus was Hungarian ethnic identity, the amassed data recalls the larger experience of eastern and central Europeans in the twentieth century. One can come to this conclusion on a personal level, as I did with my photo comparison, but it is also possible to approach the issue conceptually. Apart from the photos, the Hungarian-American project archive contains many documents that attempt to analyze the immigrant experience. Here are some of the questions they pose: What does it mean to be “ethnic,” anyway? Are Hungarians only ethnic once they have left Hungary? Is culture something people inherit or something they create? What about tradition? Does it have to stay the same, or are we allowed to change it?

There isn’t enough space to describe the researchers’ conclusions here, but the good news is that six boxes of documents await anyone who wants to know more. To gain access, or to view the finding aid that indexes the Hungarian-American project archive, visit our website at, or call (812) 855-1127.

Contagious magic and the accomplishments of Linda Dégh

The principle of contagious magic states that personal energy can travel through objects. If a master potter creates a pitcher, part of her expertise then lives in that pitcher, and can be transferred to the next person who touches it. In this process, the potter’s life force is like a contagion. It exists independently of her and can affect others who come into contact with it.

Social scientists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries used contagious magic to explain the importance of totems among so-called primitive societies. That line of thinking has thankfully gone out of fashion, as “primitive” often served as a euphemism for “not as advanced as us,” or worse, “non-white.” Contagious magic survives today, though. In everyday life, many of us place extra value in the object that seems to transmit the energy of its previous handlers. Think of a departed ancestor’s wedding dress, or the cap and gown worn by a child who has grown up and left home. The closer we get to these artifacts, the closer we feel we are getting to the people whose hands once touched them.

Working in an archive provides a daily experience of contagious magic. The material an archivist deals with distills the energy of the inaccessible realm of history. Archival documents are letters from the past, both figuratively and literally. They provide detailed information about what people were thinking decades or even centuries ago, and often enough, they are made up of written correspondence from days gone by.

Linda Dégh
Linda Dégh

I had a rather potent encounter with contagious magic on a recent site visit with Dina Kellams, director of University Archives and Records Management. In late May, Dina and I spent time in the home of Linda Dégh, an eminent Indiana University folklorist who passed away in 2014. Our task was to collect the material that best serves to illustrate and honor Dégh’s career in folk narrative and belief studies. Her house was packed with it. Especially on the ground floor, a multi-room study where every available space was filled with books and paperwork, Dina and I had our work cut out for us.

As we sorted through the materials, we kept in mind how various types of documents would look if they were to be included in an archival collection. Of prime value were many of the thousands of photos Dégh shot over the years. The same was true of her hundreds of audio recordings, both cassette and reel-to-reel. Once processed, these will provide an intimate portrait of Dégh’s activities as a fieldworker. More specifically, they will allow users to partake in her point of view. To imagine holding the camera or pressing the record button is to effectively inhabit the perspective of this star of the field. The experience is doubly alluring for one who is familiar with Dégh’s work, as I am. The contagion of her career, which spanned most of the twentieth century, reaches me today, as if by magic.

The trouble with contagious magic in this case is that it applies to a much greater collection of materials than those that are appropriate for archiving. What of the many dissertations that Dégh supervised? Some of these sit in stacks in her basement. Several are still in their original envelopes, mailed decades ago by former students for her review. I know that these works are published elsewhere, probably in much handsomer formats. Still, I can’t help thinking of each of them as the physical incarnation of years of hard work and careful mentoring. If mental toughness looks like anything, it looks like a printed-out dissertation. Trust me. I just finished one. But to put such a document in the archive would unnecessarily expand its scope, as well as duplicate publication efforts made elsewhere. Therefore, the dissertations stay on the shelf, despite the energy and relationships they represent.

Just as Dégh’s work is far too voluminous to archive in total, it is too extensive to fully describe here. However, it is nicely summarized in her obituary from a recent issue of the Journal of American Folklore. Elizabeth Tucker writes: “Linda was such a star of folktale and legend studies, such a force of nature; how could she not be with us anymore?” The point is well taken. Dégh’s is a tremendous loss. Yet I am compelled to mention the comparably tremendous energy left behind in her papers. Through careful effort, perhaps our archiving project can capture a measure of that energy for posterity–a force of nature organized, indexed, and made available for public perusal.