Legend and Belief: Dialectics of a Folklore Genre (review)
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Journal of American Folklore 116.462 (2003) 492-493



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Legend and Belief: Dialectics of a Folklore Genre. By Linda Dégh. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001. Pp. viii + 498, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index.)

Linda Dégh's scholarship on legend is familiar to folklorists through her illustrious series of publications, especially the 1973-1983 articles written with her late husband, Andrew Vázsonyi, on legend and belief, the memorate, the multiconduit hypothesis, truth in modern legends, and ostensive action. Underpinning all is a conviction that "the self-collected item is the crucial first step toward scholarly interpretation" (p. 25). On the first page of this new book Dégh introduces the metaphor of legend telling as a lawsuit: "Like the plaintiff and the defendant in a legal process, advocates of belief and non-belief face each other in the course of the legend process." The metaphor continues with references to disputability, rules of law, and testimony (pp. 3-4), and this massive review of legend transmission and scholarship develops this framing concept throughout her book. In chapter 2, Dégh's working definition concludes with, "The legend is a legend once it entertains debate about belief" (p. 97). This view of legend dialectics is argued by means of reviews of previous scholarship, details from the author's fieldwork, and texts from interviews, questionnaires, correspondence, student papers, newspaper articles and letters to editors, advice and commentary columns, tabloid stories, radio and television talk shows, films, advertising, cartoons and comic strips, Internet texts, and even the claims of professional "psychics" and the actions of members of religious cults.

Chapter 3, "Legend as Text in Context," minimally defines the subject as "a plot unit regardless of the lack of formal cohesiveness of its variants" (p. 102) and explicates examples, both narrative and nonnarrative, oral and printed (or broadcast). Criticizing folklorists' use of a "complicated system of signs for [legend] transcription" (p. 135), which she finds "almost illegible," Dégh is at her best interpreting more informally transcribed legend material from conversational and community traditions. Certainly, her references here to legend themes in Hollywood movies could be supplemented by including independent films such as The Blair Witch Project and Urbania, as well as Hollywood's recent The Mothman Prophecies.

In her next chapter, titled "Legend-Tellers" Dégh focuses on reciters of legends in everyday contexts or at special events (like a "Psychic Fair"). Narrating groups and their repertoires are reviewed with particular emphasis on "BarBara Lee, Exorcist" and her network of clients [End Page 492] in Gosport, Indiana. Reiterating her devotion to texts in context, Dégh criticizes "naive" folklorists (citing Brunvand and Sanderson) who believe "that we can assemble variants of media legend-texts for a Finnish School-type comparative study . . . to establish historical continuity and trace the origins of legends" (p. 309). Actually, Richard M. Dorson was the only folklorist I know of who claimed to use the Finnish Method on modern legends; in fact, both Sanderson and I criticized his method and conclusions about "The Death Car," which utilized that method. Although comparative approaches are still very much part of the basic toolbox of the folklorist, few use these methods today to seek origins.

In Chapter 5, "The Landscape and the Climate of the Legend," Dégh focuses on beliefs, quoting lengthy written personal accounts of "haunted houses." Dégh questions whether such descriptions truly are folk legends but "tentatively" assigns them the label "autobiographical haunting legends" (p. 362), a category some folklorists would reject as genuine folklore. While noting that the Motif-Index validates many details as folkloric, Dégh lists no motif numbers, suggesting, rather, that "interested readers should let their fingers do the walking" (p. 378). Surprisingly, after criticizing folklorists for presenting summaries rather than actual transcribed texts, Dégh herself uses three dozen "brief excerpts" instead of "fully contextualized performances" to present another major example, legends of typical haunted sites (pp. 389-92).

The last chapter of Dégh's book, "Texts, Contexualized and Processed," takes Dégh's definition of legend about as...


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