BOTKIN, BENJAMIN ALBERT (1901–1975).
Folklorist, social historian, and poet, Benjamin Albert Botkin was one of the first American researchers to deny that modern society was the mortal enemy of folklore. Although the child of poor Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, Botkin, born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1901, had a career in American cultural studies that took him from the urban Northeast to Oklahoma and the Southwest and back again to the Northeast. Botkin received degrees from Harvard (B.A., 1920), Columbia (M.A., 1921), and the University of Nebraska (Ph.D., 1931), and was an English professor at the University of Oklahoma from 1921 to 1939. He held important positions in governmental cultural programs, serving as national folklore editor of the Federal Writers' Project (1938–39), FWP chief editor of the Writers' Unit of the Library of Congress Project (1939–41), and head of the Archive of American Folksong (1942–44).
Botkin offered the University of Oklahoma's first courses in contemporary poetry and became president of the Oklahoma Poetry Society and Oklahoma Folklore Society. This led him to participate in the Southwest literary renaissance and to publish the interregional Folk-Say anthologies (1929–32). In Folk-Say he published lore from America's diverse regions, scholarly analyses of folklore, and the works of creative writers using regional lore. These anthologies reflected his interest in approaches to folklore that did not separate the lore from the life of the folk who created it. While most folklorists and regionalists thought of folklore as rural survivals, Botkin insisted that "there is not one folk [in America] but many folk groups—as many as there are regional cultures or racial or occupational groups within a region."
Drawing on his fieldwork in Oklahoma, in The American Play-Party Song (1937) Botkin described the play-party as a hybrid genre produced by the interaction of a heterogeneous, not a homogeneous, group of Americans meeting on the frontier. The play-party, he pointed out, incorporated materials from written sources as well as from oral tradition, from popular as well as from folk culture, from English and Scottish ballads as well as from native song. It was living proof that American folklore was not produced in the distant past by a pure isolated folk but was continuously being recreated. The interviews Botkin included in this work were also a pioneering example of the use of that medium to document social history.
When Botkin was asked to serve as national FWP folklore editor, he established living lore units in Chicago, New York City, and New England. These experiments in folklore, oral history, and creative writing attempted to deal with the relationship between American nationality and pluralism, to explore and redefine the meaning of American identity and community. Although it was possible to publish only a little of this material at the time, more of it has been rediscovered and made available to the public.
Working at the Writers' Unit of the Library of Congress, Botkin tried to organize and preserve the FWP's legacy and succeeded in having the interviews with former slaves microfilmed. With the commercial publication of A Treasury of American Folklore in 1944, he ventured beyond using the university and government agencies in his efforts at "giving back to people what rightfully belongs to them." Over the remainder of his life he produced a series of regional and topical, including urban and occupational, folklore treasuries.
After Botkin left the Library of Congress, he moved to Croton-on-Hudson, New York. Nevertheless, he never forgot that he was, as he put it, "a former Oklahoman by adoption." In his work as a public (folklore) intellectual, he drew on both his Oklahoma and FWP experience in his call for "applied folklore" and in his relationship to the folksong revival.
Although during the last phase of Botkin's career some academic critics labeled him a "fakelorist" and tried to marginalize his influence, they were never entirely successful. Since his death in 1975 scholars have begun to reassess and reclaim the legacy he left them and the general public. As a result, most of his folklore anthologies remain in print.
Benjamin A. Botkin, Lay My Burden Down: A Folk History of Slavery (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1945).
Benjamin A. Botkin, A Treasury of American Folklore: Stories, Ballads, and Traditions of the People (New York: Crown Publishers, 1944).
Jerrold Hirsch, "'Ancillary to the Study of People': The Presence and Absence of B. A. Botkin at Point Park College," Journal of Folklore Research 35 (1998).
Jerrold Hirsch, "Folklore in the Making: B. A. Botkin," Journal of American Folklore 100 (1987).
Jerrold Hirsch, "'A Yorker By Preference, A Folklorist by Persuasion': B. A. Botkin, Public (Folklore) Intellectual," New York Folklore 21 (1995).
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Jerrold Hirsch, “Botkin, Benjamin Albert,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=BO024.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.