Anthropology and Folklore


Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State  [1884]
My impression is that this ground-breaking study remains to a great extent valid, though it is naturally dated in some regards. 

Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies  [1997]
A lucid explanation of why some societies developed certain technologies and others didn’t. In particular, Diamond demonstrates beyond any question that it had nothing to do with race and everything to do with geography and environment (e.g. which regions had the most easily domesticable plants and animals). His most striking example is the Polynesian peoples, who branched out across the Pacific and within a few centuries had developed totally different cultures (macho warriors, peaceful gatherers, etc.), depending on what types of islands they happened to colonize, though they had all originated from the same group of people in southeast Asia.

Paul Radin, Primitive Man as Philosopher  [1927]
An admirable examination of the social, psychological and religious worldviews of primitive peoples. Breaking with previous anthropological practices, which had presumed that primitives had qualitatively different (and inferior) mentalities than civilized people, Radin presents articulate primitive individuals speaking for themselves. Their commonsensical and sometimes even rather skeptical philosophies of life do not compare unfavorably with those of most civilized people.

Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture  [1934]
Classic study of three very different primitive cultures — the Zuñi of New Mexico, the Dobuans of Melanesia, and the Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island. A good antidote to fantasies that all primitive societies were like the relatively idyllic Pacific island cultures studied by Malinowski and Margaret Mead.

Colin Turnbull, The Forest People  [1961]
Sympathetic portrayal of the Pygmies of central Africa. The author was a professional anthropologist, but his book is more personal than most anthropological studies because he lived with the Pygmies for several years and wrote about them as individuals and friends.

Paul Radin (ed.), African Folktales  [1952]
An excellent collection of lively tales. Some editions of this book also include a fine selection of African sculpture.

Theodora Kroeber, Ishi in Two Worlds  [1961]
The story of the last wild Indian in North America. The author’s husband was the renowned anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, and their daughter was the highly regarded science-fiction writer Ursula Kroeber Le Guin. Quite a family!

A. Grove Day (ed.), The Sky Clears: Poetry of the American Indian  [1951]
A nice anthology and commentary. Another good one is Margot Astrov’s The Winged Serpent: American Indian Prose and Poetry. Jerome Rothenberg’s collections of Indian and other primitive poetry (Shaking the Pumpkin, Technicians of the Sacred) are poetically livelier, but too unreliable for my taste. The translations are so free that the reader is left with little sense of what the original was like. (It is unfortunate that Rexroth’s anthology The Poetry of Pre-Literate Peoples was never published. It was a large collection of what he considered to be the best renderings of primitive poetry from all over the world.)
[Rexroth essay on American Indian songs]

Jaime de Angulo, Indian Tales  [1953]
Jaime de Angulo was a truly remarkable person — doctor (of medicine as well as philosophy), linguist, anthropologist, Big Sur rancher, alcoholic, transvestite, sometimes a bit crazy . . . and a superb writer and storyteller. Indian Tales, his retellings of traditional animal stories from tribes in north-central California, is a little masterpiece. He wrote several other fine works on California Indian lore, including an endearing portrayal of some of his friends: Indians in Overalls.

William and Ceil Baring-Gould, The Annotated Mother Goose  [1962]
The Mother Goose rhymes are themselves a classic of sorts. This edition goes into considerable detail about their literary and social background (some, for example, were originally political satires from the Elizabethan era). Whatever their various origins, they tended, like folksongs, to evolve into unique, sometimes almost surrealistic fantasies that remain endlessly fascinating even after we have grown up.

Alan Lomax, The Folk Songs of North America [1960]
This is perhaps the best general collection of American folksongs. As I explain in the next section, I’m not including books on music in this list, but I thought I would mention this one for its wealth of material on American folklore.

Vance Randolph, Pissing in the Snow and Other Ozark Folktales  [1976]
My favorite books of American folklore are Vance Randolph’s books about the Ozarks. Maybe this is because I myself was originally an Ozark boy. Randolph moved there as a young man and lived there the rest of his long life, hanging out with the inhabitants of what was then still one of the most isolated regions in the country (similar to Appalachia), going fishing, chewing tobacco, drinking moonshine, and swapping tall tales with folks who didn’t live all that differently from the days of Mark Twain. He was the best kind of folklorist — the kind who doesn’t sound like one. Try Pissing in the Snow (a collection of bawdy tales). If you like it, there are many other Randolph volumes in and out of print.
[Rexroth essay on Vance Randolph and other classic American humor]


Section from Gateway to the Vast Realms: Recommended Readings from Literature to Revolution, by Ken Knabb (2004).

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