Anthropology and Folklore


Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State  [1884]
My impression is that this ground-breaking study remains to a great extent valid, though it is naturally dated in some regards. 

Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies  [1997]
A lucid explanation of why some societies developed certain technologies and others didn’t. In particular, Diamond demonstrates beyond any question that it had nothing to do with race and everything to do with geography and environment (e.g. which regions had the most easily domesticable plants and animals). His most striking example is the Polynesian peoples, who branched out across the Pacific and within a few centuries had developed totally different cultures (macho warriors, peaceful gatherers, etc.), depending on what types of islands they happened to colonize, though they had all originated from the same group of people in southeast Asia.

Paul Radin, Primitive Man as Philosopher  [1927]
An admirable examination of the social, psychological, and religious worldviews of primitive peoples. (Like him and many other anthropologists until recently, I am using the word “primitive” here without any pejorative implications.) Breaking with previous anthropological perspectives, which had presumed that “primitives” had mentalities qualitatively different from (and inferior to) those of civilized people, Radin presents individuals from such cultures speaking for themselves. Their commonsensical and sometimes even rather skeptical philosophies of life do not compare unfavorably with those of most civilized people.

Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture  [1934]
Classic study of three very different primitive cultures — the Zuñi of New Mexico, the Dobuans of Melanesia, and the Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island. A good antidote to fantasies that all primitive societies were like the relatively idyllic Pacific island cultures studied by Malinowski and Margaret Mead.

Colin Turnbull, The Forest People  [1961]
Sympathetic portrayal of the Pygmies of central Africa. The author was a professional anthropologist, but his book is more personal than most anthropological studies because he lived with the Pygmies for several years and wrote about them as individuals and friends.

Paul Radin (ed.), African Folktales  [1952]
An excellent collection. The original hardback edition of this book also include a fine selection of African sculpture.

C.M. Bowra, Primitive Song [1962]
A fine little book on all aspects of this topic.
      During the 1970s Rexroth had gathered a large collection of what he considered to be some of the best renderings of primitive songs from all over the world (mostly relatively literal translations originally published by professional anthropologists) and was preparing an anthology to be called The Poetry of Pre-Literate Peoples. Unfortunately, he did not complete the editorial work and the book was never published — in part no doubt because he was getting older and had a lot of other projects he wanted to do, but probably also because he noticed that his selection overlapped other recently published collections by Willard Trask, Jerome Rothenberg, etc.
      Trask’s collection, The Unwritten Song: Poetry of the Primitive and Traditional Peoples of the World (2 vols., 1967), does in fact include many of the same translations that Rexroth had gathered. Rothenberg’s collection, Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poetries from Africa, America, Asia, Europe and Oceania (1968; revised and expanded edition, 1984), also covers much of the same territory, with extensive commentaries that are both informative and provocative; but though the translations he includes are poetically lively and vivid, many of them seem so free that one wonders how close they may be to the originals.

A. Grove Day (ed.), The Sky Clears: Poetry of the American Indian  [1951]
A nice anthology and commentary. Another good one is Margot Astrov’s The Winged Serpent: American Indian Prose and Poetry. Jerome Rothenberg’s Shaking the Pumpkin: Traditional Poetry of the Indian North Americas has the same merits and drawbacks as his Technicians of the Sacred (see above).
[Rexroth essay on American Indian songs]

Theodora Kroeber, Ishi in Two Worlds  [1961]
The story of the last wild Indian in North America. The author’s husband was the renowned anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, and their daughter was the great science-fiction writer Ursula Kroeber Le Guin. Quite a family!

Jaime de Angulo, Indian Tales  [1953]
Jaime de Angulo was himself a legendary and truly remarkable character — doctor (of medicine, not philosophy); anthropologist and linguist who learned and reported on more than twenty Native American languages at a time when many of them were dying out; Big Sur rancher; friend of Henry Miller, Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan, and countless other Bay Area writers, artists, and bohemians of the period; sometimes pretty wild and a bit crazy; and a superb writer and storyteller admired by Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Gary Snyder. Indian Tales, his retelling of traditional stories from northern California tribes, is a little masterpiece. It’s an abridgement of a much longer series of tales that he read aloud on Pacifica Radio KPFA in Berkeley in 1949. (You can hear the whole 22-hour series here.) He wrote several other fine works on California Indian lore, including an endearing portrayal of some of his friends: Indians in Overalls.
      Andrew Schelling’s Tracks Along the Left Coast: Jaime de Angulo and Pacific Coast Culture is a fascinating account of his life and the legends, true and false, that grew up around him.

William and Ceil Baring-Gould, The Annotated Mother Goose  [1962]
The Mother Goose rhymes are themselves a classic of sorts. This edition goes into considerable detail about their literary and social background (some, for example, were originally political satires from the Elizabethan era). Whatever their various origins, they tended, like folksongs, to evolve into unique, sometimes almost surrealistic fantasies that remain endlessly fascinating even after we have grown up.

Alan Lomax, The Folk Songs of North America [1960]
This is perhaps the best general collection of American folksongs. As I explain in the next section, I’m not including books on music in this list, but I thought I would mention this one for its wealth of material on American folklore.

Vance Randolph, Pissing in the Snow and Other Ozark Folktales  [1976]
My favorite books of American folklore are Vance Randolph’s books about the Ozarks. Maybe this is because I myself was originally an Ozark boy. Randolph moved there as a young man and lived there the rest of his long life, hanging out with the inhabitants of what was then still one of the most isolated regions in the country (similar to Appalachia), going fishing, chewing tobacco, drinking moonshine, and swapping tall tales with folks who didn’t live all that differently from the days of Mark Twain. He was the best kind of folklorist — the kind who doesn’t sound like one. Try Pissing in the Snow (a collection of bawdy tales). If you like it, there are many other Randolph volumes in and out of print.
[Rexroth essay on Vance Randolph and other classic American humor]


Section from Gateway to the Vast Realms: Recommended Readings from Literature to Revolution, by Ken Knabb (2004).

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