- The Marrow of Human Experience: Essays on Folklore
This book, edited by folklorist Jill Terry Rudy, combines the genres of Festschrift, scholarly article reader, and collection of career essays, to form a tribute volume to William A. “Bert” Wilson. Reviewing this volume is one of those challenging assignments that sounds good at the time of agreement, but which turns into a certain chore: how exactly does a reviewer “criticize” the work of one of the leading, and admired, figures of American folkloristics? Like many of the great folklorists, Bert Wilson has developed specializations in several areas within the field: from the history of the discipline, Scandinavian folkloristics, fieldwork theory, folklore and literature, and the politics of cultural representation, to religious folklife and Mormon folklore studies. Finally, Wilson has synthesized his appreciation of folklore into cogent explanations of what the study of folklore actually entails and how it speaks to the essence of human beings’ experience as communicators and artists. All of these areas are covered in this representative, but not exhaustive, assemblage of the scholarly work of Professor Wilson, with most of the articles themselves having originated as oral presentations to a variety of scholarly and public audiences.
Academic folklorists such as Henry Glassie, David Hufford, Richard Bauman, and Michael Owen Jones write laudatory and insightful introductory remarks to seventeen of Wilson’s articles, which are divided into three categories: “The Importance of Folklore,” “Folklore and National Identity,” and “Folklore, Religion, and Who We Are.” Bert Wilson’s daughter, Denise Wilson Jamsa, adds a biographical essay about her father, followed by a listing of Wilson’s published works. Wilson’s impressive career as a scholar is chronicled in these articles, which illustrate his sensibility and sensitivity to folklore and how he sees the field relating to a wider understanding of the humanities and the social sciences.
To appreciate Wilson’s documentation and articulation of the richness of folklore, one needs to understand the influence that his membership in the indigenous American religion known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) has played on his career as a scholar. If it were not for his effort learning the Finnish language in order to undertake his work as a young missionary, he likely would not have developed the necessary linguistic tools to accomplish substantive research, scholarship, and analyses on Northern European narrative traditions and literature, especially emphasizing the themes of authenticity, nationalism, and tradition. Showcased in four chapters of this volume are representative Wilson articles on folklore and nationalism— on the significant place that folklore and folklore research played in the complex development of Finnish national consciousness and independent statehood. Wilson’s scholarship highlights the ultimate example of a nuanced applied folkloristics, in his case, how a thorough knowledge of the way oral and written epic traditions are collected, created, interpreted, and manipulated can clarify complex developments in the history of Finnish nationhood.
While I always learn something new from Wilson’s insights on nationalism, and am energized by his beautiful explanations of what folklore is and why it is relevant to the understanding of the human condition, I am personally most fascinated by his work on folk religion and religious folklife, specifically his work on Mormon folklore, a religion of which he is an observant member. Seven essays in the volume exemplify what I admire most in Wilson’s work in these areas: attention to historical, linguistic, or ethnographic detail; a nuanced knowledge of the religious tradition under study; the balanced reflectivity of a thoughtful believing scholar; and a real attention to how mundane beliefs and practices make up the predominant threads of the fabric of tradition in the vernacular religious life.
Of course, these essays also point to a consistent concern of secular and non-Mormon [End Page 254] scholars: namely, who should study Mormon culture, and the tremendous challenges that Mormon folklorists face when writing about their own...