NEW YORK FOLKLORE
Vol. 11, Nos. 1-4, 1985
40th Anniversary Issue
“WHEN I WAS SIX WE MOVED WEST...”
THE THEORY OF PERSONAL EXPERIENCE NARRATIVE
by Linda Dégh
Before raising questions concerning a theory of the personal experience narrative, thought must be given to its definition. This is
not easy since there is hardly any definition, classificatory principle, or
specificity pertaining to the whole or constitutent areas of the
discipline of folklore. Not one single law is known to explain the
emergence, persistence, and decline of folklore products which does
not call for reservation because of numerous non-fitting exceptions.
In view of the increasing numbers of exceptions, one begins to doubt
the possibility of imposing any kind of law. This is nothing new. It has
been noted by others, particularly those who recognized the
arbitrariness of genre terminology which is constructed by scholars
(not the folk), and applied liberally to fit diverse purposes of analysis
and interpretation (Studia Fennica 1976:13-43; Voigt 1976:485-496).
None of our definitions seem to be entirely satisfactory, not even
the most venerable and unanimously cited can go without some
qualifying, cautionary note such as “mostly,” “usually,” or “generally.”
Those who enjoy cynical word-play and paradoxy could conclude that
the only dependable law of folklore is that it is not governed by a
dependable law. Perhaps the only method to find an acceptable
compromise of terms and definitions would be to obtain an oversized
bag in which there would be sufficient room for all related concepts
and synonyms to be placed and from which those found dated, useless,
or mistakenly included, could be easily eliminated. In other words,
instead of narrowing and tightening, categories should be broadened.
Such housecleaning is necessary because the themes, perspectives,
existential conditions, and above all, the vehicles of folklore, are
radically changing almost daily and leading us to new discoveries. As
Henry Glassie has suggested to us, “Each generation must state the
definition anew, debate it afresh, because folklore’s definition is not
factual and free of value. Its virtue is that it is charged with values,
saturated with opinions ... ” (Glassie 1983:128)
Burdened with these thoughts, let us turn to the problem-complex
surrounding the currently much-talked-about genre: the personal experience narrative. If it is much talked about among folklorists,
there must be a reason. After all, academic fashions, like other cultural
phenomena, are products of pertinent social conditions. With the
personal story, as currently conceived, we face major problems of
definition, description, and delimitation. At this time, only thematic
categories are available for scrutiny and there is little else to examine
for a more comprehensive orientation into essentials. While
classifications are suggested, and thematic categories and
subcategories are identified by scholars in ever increasing number, the
whole domain of experience accounts remain vast and uncharted.....
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