The Down-Easters Who Knew Too Much

In the November, 1958, Atlantic, one John Gould, described as a “down-East editor widely known for the pungency” of his newspaper columns, attacked me with more spite than light for collecting folklore on his preserves in the state of Maine. Mr. Gould’s comments seemed malodorous rather than pungent, as in his slander that my work was a “fraud on the American Philosophic [sic] Society,” which had given me a grant. His big pitch was that a professor (Mr. Gould didn’t have the gumption to name me outright), that bumbling funnyman of the ivyleague tower, couldn’t possibly get to know in a short time any of the old Maine-ites, because he doesn’t “belong,” like old veteran Gould, who can really get the local boys to cuss for him. The test of a real Maine story, infers Mr. Gould, is how many damns it contains.

Now I have heard this hooey ever since I began collecting folklore, a dozen years ago. But I went as a stranger to communities of Indians, Finns, Frcnch-Canadians, lumberjacks, miners, fishermen, Southern Negroes, where people had told me I could never get acquainted, and I collected thousands of folk tales. They are published in books, which Mr. Gould can read, and I explained in them how and to what end the folklorist works to record valuable and fugitive materials. The one objector I consistently encountered on these field trips was the Local Author, an inflated windbag who mulcted the natives for stale local color and bloodcurdling whimsey, and glared daggers at any poacher.

There were exceptions. In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan I met John Voelker, who possessed a deep and sympathetic interest in the folk traditions of his region and faithfully represented them, with all their gusto and salt, in his books of short stories. At that time the publishers showed little understanding of Mr. Voelker’s work, but now that he has crashed through with Anatomy of a Murder, they are reprinting these excellent earlier volumes. Mr. Voelker and I used some of the same Peninsula tales, he as a creative author and I as a folklorist.

If Mr. Gould does some reading before he flies into print again, he may learn what I really did on the coast of Maine. His remarks are based entirely on a little squib of half a dozen pages I printed in a tiny new bulletin called Northeast Folklore. The official report of my trip, a fifteen-thousand-word description of the project and sampling of the collection, which amounts to over four hundred texts, was previously published in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, but Mr. Gould never consulted this article. My enterprise was a follow-up of certain findings made twenty years earlier by field workers on the Linguistic Atlas of America.

If Mr. Gould does still some more reading, he will discover that I am the one folklorist around who has been fighting for authentic publication of obscene texts. Abuse is still showered on my head for the plain words in my article on “Folklore and Fake Lore” in the American Mercury of 1950 and in certain of my books, while the PTA chapters of Lansing, Michigan, forever barred their gates to me after I delivered to them a talk on unbowdlerized folklore.

One thing the folklorist seeks to do is trace the history of folk tales across the centuries. A lusty sailors’ yarn I recorded in Jonesport can be traced back to a striking counterpart in the Odyssey. The Kennebec legend of the wild man of Yoho Cove, who local people claim lived just down the bay, is told in the same form in Persia. Tales about a strong man from Beals Island, which I recorded, document for the first time a fullfledged American folk hero who is everything that Paul Bunyan is not, namely, a vital figure in a living oral tradition.

As for the unknowing Mr. Gould, I have on my shelves a children’s book he did in 1953 called The Fastest Hound Dog in the State of Maine. He says in his preface, “I don’t know, of my own knowledge, if this story has ever been written down before.” Right alongside that book sits The Fast Sooner Hound, by Bontemps and Conroy, published in 1942, also a children’s book on the same story of a dog outrunning a train. The helpless amateur has no idea where the tale he hears comes from, or whether it was printed the day before yesterday, or if it is a folk tale. The folklorist endeavors patiently to trace folk tales in their world-wide, ceaseless wanderings, and to shed some light on their history and travels.

The following document accompanied Mr. Dorson’s letter and article.

Richard M. Dorson Harvard A.B. 1937, Ph.D. 1943 (History of American Civilization) Teaching career:

Instructor in History, Harvard University, 1943-1944

Instructor to Professor of History, Michigan State University, 1944-1956

Professor of History and Folklore, Indiana University, 1957-present


Harvard Sheldon Traveling Fellowship, 1942-1943

Library of Congress Fellowship. 1946

Guggenheim Fellowship, 1949

American Council of Learned Societies Faculty Study Fellowship, 1952

Fulbright Visiting Professor, University of Tokyo, 1956-1957


Davy Crockett, American Comic Legend (editor)

Jonathan Draws the Long Bow (University of Chicago Folklore Prize)

America Begins (editor)

Bloodstoppers and Bearwalkers

America Rebels (editor) (American History Publication Society book-of-the-month choice)

Negro Folktales in Michigan

Negro Tales from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and Calvin, Michigan

Folk Legends of Japan (in press)

Editor, American Folklore Society

If Professor Dorson’s official fifteen - thousand-word report to the American Philosophical Society is like what he wrote forNortheast Folklore, then I think I may have been mistaken in calling it a fraud. The Society obviously must have got just what it expected.