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Richard M. Dorson
Photo courtesy of Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana
Photo by Pearl Yee Wong
2003 posthumous awardee, Bloomington (Indiana), folklife scholar and
Richard M. Dorson (1916-1981) was Distinguished Professor of History
and Folklore and Director of the Folklore Institute at Indiana University.
He was a remarkable and energetic scholar who, at the time of his death,
was the dominant force in the study of folklore. Dr. Dorson’s documentation
of Upper Peninsula and southwestern Michigan traditions is his legacy to
In 1944 Richard Dorson joined the faculty at Michigan State College;
in 1957 he left for Indiana University. During his time at Michigan State
College, he and his students conducted groundbreaking research in Michigan,
documenting everyday life and expression that have since changed or no
longer exist. In 1946, Richard Dorson drove the byways of Michigan’s
Upper Peninsula, sat in hotel lobbies and homes, in barbershops and Grange
Halls, in bars and church basements collecting the oral traditions, customs,
and beliefs of many of the region’s diverse population. The Upper
Peninsula for Richard Dorson was a microcosm of America. In this thinking,
he was well ahead of his time. Here he found a truly diverse population,
composed of different ethnicities, languages, religions, and occupations.
It was a region where the environment, economy, politics, and diverse
peoples forged the region’s folklore within the trajectory of American
Dorson’s research in the Upper Peninsula left a rich record of
folklife of a specific region at a specific moment in American history,
resulting in a number of articles and Bloodstoppers and Bearwalkers,
(1) which has been reprinted many times over the years.
Dr. Dorson also conducted important work among African Americans of southwestern
Michigan, exploring the intercultural relation of race in regional and
national culture. His research resulted in historically and culturally
important records, published in articles and books, including Negro
Folktales in Michigan (2) and Negro Tales from Pine Bluff, Arkansas,
and Calvin, Michigan. (3) He also documented the folklore
of Michigan State College students, thereby questioning the popular assumptions
about who are the folk and proving that students and educated classes
are also the folk.
Our understanding of American folklore and the cultural history of the
Upper Peninsula, in particular, would be infinitely poorer without Richard
Dorson’s work. His popular writings forced students and scholars
of culture to look closely at Michigan’s cultural inheritance and
relate it to their own experience. He brought attention to a region, culture,
and people who eluded national attention.
(1) Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1952.
(2) Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956. Reprinted 1974, Greenwood
Press, Westport, CT.
(3) Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1958.
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