NEW YORK FOLKLORE
Vol. 11, Nos. 1-4, 1985
40th Anniversary Issue
EARLY DAYS OF THE FOLKLORE RENAISSANCE IN NEW YORK STATE
by Louis C. Jones
The first recognition that there existed in New York a long tradition
of folklore came from the country’s first two masters of narrative:
Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper. As between
literature and scholarship, in New York folklore has been closer to the
former than the latter. Many of those who have collected and
published and taught folklore have been teachers of English or
American literature. It is only recently that trained folklorists have
replaced them, but it should be remembered that the trained folklorist
in America is a late comer.
Washington Irving came to American literature with a professional
admiration for Richard Steele and Joseph Addison and especially
Oliver Goldsmith. He too would write a clean, uncluttered prose,
project a gentle, humane humor, a patient sympathy with the vagaries
of the human mind. His awareness of folklore, as Harold Thompson
has pointed out in Body, Boots & Britches (1939:1.18),came with his genes
and his upbringing. Having a native Scot for his father and a Scotch
maid to sing ballads and tell him tales of the old country when he was a
child gave him a taste for the folklore he discovered rambling along the
Hudson, dawdling in coves and Dutch villages. Later he came to know
Sir Walter Scott and to wish to do for the Hudson what Scott had done
for the Tweed.
Irving made adoptive use of the folk motifs he found current in the
Hudson Valley. Interestingly enough these same types and motifs
were still current as recently as the 1930’s and ‘40’s when Harold
Thompson’s students and mine were collecting in New York State.
Pirate lore and tales of buried treasure such as he used in Tales of a
Traveller and the Devil as seen in “The Devil and Tom Walker” were to
be heard of in scores of current folktales. The ghosts and evil spirits
encountered in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and especially the
major motif, the hoax, loom large in our archives...
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