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Explaining Traditions: Folk Behavior in Modern Culture by Simon J. Bronner (review)
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As folklorists know, tradition as both process (traditio) and product (traditum) is among the most important concepts in their discipline. It has, in fact, been central to many definitions of “folklore,” even in those approaches to folklore studies that stress synchronic components of specific performances. Simon J. Bronner’s book deals with the concept of tradition in such a comprehensive, effective manner that every folklorist must welcome its publication. This is a book that one can recommend to colleagues who want to know what the study of folklore involves, especially those who might tend to be dismissive. Among other things, the book is an argument for the importance of what folklorists do, even in an age in which tradition seems to have been supplanted by an ever-renewing mass culture.

Bronner’s first two chapters should be required reading for every folklorist. The first looks at what the term “tradition” denotes and connotes, exploring its meaning from several perspectives. In a particularly useful section of this chapter, Bronner identifies eight approaches to defining “tradition,” advanced by thinkers from a range of fields. The second chapter looks more specifically at the concept of tradition in folklore studies, and he traces its emergence as a primary defining characteristic of folklore, especially in American folkloristics. Bronner also articulates a methodology for studying folklore that culminates in explaining how particular traditions serve as instruments for “knowing and navigating through social life” (p. 92). These chapters operate as an effective intellectual history of this foundational concept in folklore studies and point toward the rest of the book, which demonstrates ways in which specific traditions effect and affect social and personal identities.

The remaining eight chapters are case studies of tradition’s importance within modern American life. Although several of them represent work that has been previously published, Bronner has updated all of them, incorporating the most recent scholarship into the book’s focus. Bronner’s range is broad. He treats architectural tradition by examining construction of the sukkot, the temporary shelter used during the Jewish Feast of Booths, barn raising among the Amish, and the use of “found” materials (for example, beer cans and bottles) for decorative purposes by vernacular architects in Houston. Invoking Longfellow’s village blacksmith and bricolage, he examines crafts and arts such as Hmong textiles, basketry, and roadside memorials. Bronner also explores children’s games, rhymes, and jokes, as well as attempts to preserve and revive Yiddish culture and its folklore. One chapter explores storytelling by an African American father and son in the Mississippi River Delta, while another looks at Pennsylvania “Dutch” scatological lore. Bronner also takes on the role of football as a particularly American sport and concludes the volume by making the case that the Internet should be considered a “folk system.”

Each of these chapters provides plenty of material that demonstrates the importance of tradition. Bronner has carefully chosen his specific cases to include examples from people conventionally considered to be “the folk,” such as the Amish, and from aspects of American life that seem far removed from the usual expectations of where folklore flourishes, such as the Internet. His explanations and interpretations, though weighted toward psychological factors, draw upon many sources. When he is dealing with the specific storytelling repertoires of a father and son, Bronner looks at the ways in which the traditions they employ relate to the particulars of their social positions. When he is dealing with the perceived decline of Yiddish, he considers historical factors that have affected Ashkenazic Jews in the United States. When he is dealing with the lore of the descendants of German immigrants in Pennsylvania, he considers the role of that lore in Europe as well as its survival in this country. When he is dealing with the Internet, he involves sociological and communications theory.

Alan Dundes’s influence infuses Bronner’s work. This book explores some of the same subjects that Dundes subjected to often controversial symbolic analysis—for example, German scatological folklore, children’s lore, and football. Rather than unquestioningly following his lead, though, Bronner uses Dundes’s ideas as catalysts for his own thinking. Consider football. Bronner does not reject Dundes’s famous speculations about the...


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