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.

The folklorist’s progress at University Archives

The interview for this job wasn’t even an interview. Assistant archivist Carrie Schwier sat me down in a conference room and told me the position was mine if I wanted it. Even for part-time summer work, that’s a pretty smooth ride. I suppose that my academic background was convincing enough for the task at hand. I am a folklorist, and University Archives and Records Management has a backlog of folklore collections ready for processing. I had been referred by a colleague, also a folklorist, who attested that even though I have no library science training, I “know about folklore,” and am “smart.” Boy, what she doesn’t know.

Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, Indiana University - Bloomington
Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, Indiana University – Bloomington

Nonetheless, I’ve reaped the benefit of my colleague’s testimony for about a month now. Carrie hired me on, and I have spent my days elbow deep in the history of my home department, Folklore and Ethnomusicology. The bulk of my work has been with a series of special projects undertaken between the late 1970s and the early 1990s, a period of tremendous intellectual momentum. Having already distinguished itself by granting the first Folklore Ph.D. in the United States in 1953, and by graduating a number of respected folklorists who took faculty and professional positions across the country and abroad, the department went on to become a moneymaking machine. Tens of thousands of dollars in grant money funneled in for special projects. One of these focused on the uses of ethnicity among Hungarian-Americans in the Chicago Region. Another facilitated a Bloomington-based symposium bringing together U.S. and German folklorists to discuss contemporary issues in the field. Yet another encompassed a variety of ethnographic projects focusing on Hispanic folk poetry. It is personally thrilling that the latter project directly benefited my advisor, John Holmes McDowell, as he completed research that contributed to his 2000 book Poetry and Violence: The Ballad Tradition of Mexico’s Costa Chica, which explores the uses of narrative song in a region that has historically been saddled with patterns of social conflict.

As much as they are exciting, such thrills are simultaneously humble. While IU’s folklore doctoral program has been recognized as the best in its field, according to a 2010 report by the National Research Council, the discipline of folklore studies comprises a relatively small number of academic experts. Our gaze is global, but our numbers are few relative to, say, historians or sociologists.

Yet the benefit of working in a small discipline is the spike in familiarity that occurs almost immediately upon entering it. When folklorists are few relative to other sorts of scholars, it is possible to have direct contact with a greater proportion of the most successful figures among them. In this regard, sorting through these boxes sometimes feels like flipping through a family history. I know or have met many of the people whose activities are documented here. To read about the awards they earned in past decades feels different from simply reading their publications, which can be accessed far more easily. The archival materials are rarer, and they include professional correspondence, budget documents, and fieldwork reports, sometimes written in the scholar’s own hand. These bits of data remind me that even among the veterans of our field, every project grows from a group of people with a good idea and the inclination to try to make it real. This is heartening for a doctoral candidate like myself, as I begin to wade into the perennially challenging academic job market. If I can at least hold on to my good ideas, perhaps I will be in better shape.

These notes are my attempt to explain why University Archives and Records Management is a positive resource for folklorists, and for those who want to learn more about our small but tightly-knit discipline. As I have taken pleasure in tracing the activities of my mentors, I have wished the same for others. So, come check it out. Just, uh, give me a little more time to process these collections.