Sincerely Yours: The Origin Story of Folklore at IUB

For a vast majority of the world, 1942 was a year to remember.  However, history wasn’t just being made overseas fighting in World War II; it was also being made right here at Indiana University Bloomington.  During the summer of 1942, Indiana University was host to what would be the first of many Folklore Institutes. The Institute was created by Professor Stith Thompson, who had long-held the dream of bringing together like-minds from all over, both faculty and student, to meet and discuss the field of folklore; both folklore itself and the future of the field.  This eight-week gathering was so successful that they continued to meet every summer.

This edition of ‘Sincerely Yours’ showcases correspondence with Herman B Wells  following the conclusion of the first Institute in 1942.  The first piece of correspondence comes from Jacob A. Evanson, Special Supervisor of Vocal Music for Pittsburgh Public Schools.  His letter describes the success of the first Institute as “historic” and notes it as a cultural progression.  This letter provides a perspective of the importance and impact of the Folklore Institute outside of Indiana University.

Stith Thompson, May 1955, Archives Image no.

The main correspondence is from Stith Thompson to Herman B Wells.  The correspondence opens with a list of resolutions from the members of the first Institute.  These resolutions include the declaration of a “permanent” Folklore Institute of America, and that the Journal of American Folklore be declared the official channel of news distribution.  Also included is the Institute’s purpose statement: to  bring together faculty, students, and fellow workers to create a “professionally-minded group” for study and consult not included in ordinary curricula.

This letter also contains an impassioned speech by Thompson in which he reflects on the experience of the Institute.  Additionally, Thompson briefly discusses the issues at present within the field of folklore, and plans for the future of folklore in terms of professional organization, public relations, and academic development .   He talks about the need for researchers to cease their reclusive ways and come together in circles like the Institute to help the field prosper through internal collaborative efforts and understanding, and by forming relations with the public.  Also discussed is the implementation of proper techniques surrounding the  collection and classification of folklore, from the individual collector to the establishment of a fully functional national archive.

Thompson’s description of the impact of folklore from a local to a national stage, and even a global one is captivating.  He states that the support of local folklore organizations can help to further the development of larger, national folklore directives by organizations.Also addressed is the presence of folklore in the academic field.  Thompson states that the presentation of folklore by universities should be done in such a way that will “infect” students and whether they be teacher, doctor, lawyer, etc., they should show interest in the traditions of their community.

Thompson closes his letter by reaffirming the purpose of the Institute by saying that research rather than teaching is the main goal, and that its value lies in its existence as the only place (at the time) to foster collaborative and individual research,and the overall growth of the folklore field.

The best part of this correspondence lies in its last few pages in the form of a poem.  Nearing the closure of their time together, this group of scholars pooled their creativity to construct a retelling of events of events that they could carry with them in memory.  The result of their collaborative efforts was a poem reminiscent of famous epics of the past such as the Odyssey and Aeneid.  This goes to show that even heavy scholars have a humorous side, even if it may be a little high-brow.

From C213 President’s Office records – Herman B Wells, Folklore Institute 1941-42 folder. 

The Folklore Institute would go on to meet yearly until the early 1960’s. It was at this time, and through the endeavors of professors Richard Dorson and Stith Thompson, that the Folklore Institute became an established department at Indiana University under the same name of the Folklore Institute.  Though not in the same manner as its origin, the Folklore Institute is still present at IU Bloomington and is known by scholars throughout the world.  To learn more about the Folklore Institute from its beginnings to today, visit the IU Archives in Wells Library to see the current exhibit, ‘Collecting Folklore: The History of the Folklore Institute at Indiana University.‘  This exhibit will be up until January 26th, 2018.



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, or call (812) 855-1127.