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Turning History’s Detritus Into Gold

Being a pioneering folklorist is no picnic. Even the groundbreaking anthologies “A Treasury of American Folklore” (1944) and “Lay My Burden Down: A Folk History of Slavery” (1945), both compiled by Benjamin Botkin, met with ferocious resistance from academic folklorists, according to a new study from the University of Oklahoma Press, “America’s Folklorist: B.A. Botkin and American Culture,” edited by Lawrence Rodgers and Jerrold Hirsch.

Botkin, born in 1901 in East Boston to an impoverished Lithuanian-Jewish émigré family, graduated from Harvard in 1920, just before that institution established quotas for Jewish students. Botkin retained his outsider status by earning a doctorate from the University of Nebraska, studying with a fellow outsider, Louise Pound, companion of novelist Willa Cather as well as scholar-athlete. Individualists both, Botkin and Pound sought the widest possible range of material in compiling a society’s folklore, including books and popular culture — a practice opposed to the narrow methodology of professors who felt that only orally transmitted tales and songs from rural areas were genuine folklore. These other scholars were, as Brooklyn-born folklorist Bruce Jackson notes, “looking for texts that could be properly annotated and indexed; [Botkin] was trying to document the soul of a land.”

So when “A Treasury of American Folklore” first appeared, Richard Dorson of Indiana University shot it down in a review as “fakelore.” Dorson further attacked Botkin’s 1944 “Treasury” as a “rehash of rehashes.” The thousands of avid readers who made the book a surprise best-seller clearly disagreed. Botkin had made such censure easier by freely admitting that he obtained some of the songs, stories and doggerel that he anthologized from printed material, rather than by collecting them exclusively from oral sources. Botkin was out to define folklore, as he described it in a later anthology, “A Treasury of Western Folklore,” as an “imaginative expression that is part of, not apart from, the main stream of culture in a given time and place,” even if that meant including such characters as the Lone Ranger and Tonto, shunned by more sober-sided academics.

Other critics were offended by Botkin’s inclusion of African-American material. The Tennessee musicologist George Pullen Jackson, in clearly racist terms, scolded Botkin’s “Treasury” for including songs by “miners, hoboes, and Negro convict-campers,” even finding “space for some of the lowest forms of song like those of Huddie Leady Belly.” The misspelled reference to the real name of folk/blues musician Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter), clearly illustrates the conceptual divide between folklorists who defined America in widely inclusive terms that included downtrodden minorities and those who did not.

Botkin’s approach, focusing on the working classes, poor emigrants and other underdogs, whether Jews or African Americans, demonstrated his strong working-class sympathies. In 1946, Botkin published an article — “Paul Bunyan was OK in his Time” — in the Marxist publication “The New Masses.” In it he identified the legendary lumberjack as an inspirational figure for America’s labor movement, alongside Joe Hill and others.

His willingness to discuss folklore in “The New Masses” caused problems for Botkin, according to a new article by the University of Illinois’s Susan Davis, “Ben Botkin’s FBI File,” in the most recent issue of the Journal of American Folklore. Describing more than a decade of “harassment” by the FBI, Davis makes it clear that Botkin, though not a communist, paid heavily for his left-wing views in McCarthyite America. The FBI interviewed Botkin’s neighbors for decades, and his file contains the observation circa 1942 from one that the Botkins have “quite a few Jewish friends” — an incriminating fact, Davis notes, since the “overtly racist” FBI “maintained the traditional suspicion of Jews as disloyal.”

Others seemed to object for aesthetic reasons, like novelist Vladimir Nabokov, a struggling Russian émigré when Botkin’s 1944 “Treasury” first appeared. Nabokov opined in his “Nikolai Gogol,” written as “Treasury” was climbing the best-seller lists, that there is “nothing more dull and sickening to my taste than romantic folklore.” Nabokov was also politically conservative, and thus possibly irked by Botkin’s left-wing politics. Some years later, Nabokov would name a megalomaniacal professor “Vseslav Botkin, a Russian and a madman,” as narrator of his 1962 novel “Pale Fire.” It remains to be proved whether Nabokov’s insane Botkin (who hides behind the inverted name Kinbote through much of “Pale Fire), really got his name from B.A. Botkin, but if so, it would be just another example of the folklorist’s undeserved tsoris. Fortunately, a solid group of affectionate friends also supported Botkin. Harold Rosenberg, the eminent critic of modern art (once described as someone “who didn’t like anybody”), said of Botkin:

Oh Ben — everybody loved him…. Ben had a clear view of how, in the midst of the Depression, America could and should be celebrated because of its plural character… a child of immigrants, a Jew at Harvard when there weren’t many, an Easterner in the Midwest, he was raised with his cultural antennae working all the time.

Despite these antennae, organized celebrations of Botkin generally waited until his centenary, which was commemorated by a celebration at the Library of Congress and with a 2001 conference at the University of Nebraska, home of his archives. With this renewed attention, the influence of Botkin’s Judaism on his work, while mentioned by all admirers, is only beginning to be analyzed in depth.

Botkin was a first cousin of George and Ira Gershwin, who creatively interpreted, as did he, American culture’s passing parade from a perspective inescapable from the Jewish immigrant experience. In 2007, Botkin was admiringly described by noted folklorist Roger Abrahams as a “second-generation East European Jew with little chutzpah but a great deal of sitzfleisch [patience], who had developed hondling [wheeling and dealing] and schnorrering to a high art.” Abrahams added for listeners who “don’t have Yiddish, which [Botkin] did — he used to write to his mother in Yiddish — it just means that he was quick at seeing the main chance and was very quick at holding out the tin cup.”

After a series of strokes, Botkin died in 1975 at Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., and a little more than a decade later, his genuine legacy started to become apparent with the founding of City Lore, an organization that, as is noted on its website, strives to “convey the richness of New York City’s cultural heritage.” City Lore’s executive director, Steve Zeitlin, follows Botkin’s 1954 advice that folklore can be found “all around [us] on the sidewalks of America.”

As we learn from Ronald Cohen’s new “Work and Sing: A History of Occupational and Labor Union Songs in the United States” from the University of Illinois Press, Jews with backgrounds much like Botkin’s were essential conservers of a material history and proponents of a musical tradition that helped the oppressed and afflicted survive their daily ordeals. Obsessed with preserving what he once called “floating material in general,” Botkin felt an urgency, particularly as a 20th-century Jew, about saving what others might discard as valueless ephemera. In a telling reminiscence reprinted in “America’s Folklorist,” a graduate student who presented him with a garbage receptacle labeled with the brand name “Beautyware Beautycan” was rewarded with a poem from Botkin, who, according to the student, “always did feel that garbage should be called [beautyware].”

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.

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