A Folklorist's Progress: Reflections of a Scholar's Life

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Indiana University, Jan 1, 1996 - Social Science - 353 pages
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The Life of Stith Thompson as revealed in these pages was in some ways ordinary, in others extraordinary. Reading through A Folklorist's Progress one sees clearly the contours of an academic life in the midcentury United States. In an efficient manner, Professor Thompson portrays the rounds of an academic of the period, planning for courses, establishing and revising programs, attending international meetings and conferences, working ideas into publications. He also describes the social domain with its cycle of parties, receptions, visits, and social clubs. These autobiographical pages paint an engaging portrait of community organized around the life of the intellect. But not every scholar has the opportunity to found an academic field, and in this light the career of Stith Thompson veers toward the extraordinary. Obituaries described Thompson as "the father of folklore, " a journalistic label that, with some qualifications, epitomizes his scholarly career. While folklore studies existed in Europe well before Thompson's lifetime, it was Stith Thompson who, in 1949, conceived of a doctoral degree program in folklore, the first in the U.S. Stith Thompson's success in securing support for the unknown discipline of folklore was due to his stature in the academic community, his skill in dealing with the administrative structure of an American university, and his ties to funding agencies, the state department, and scholarly societies all over the world.

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Stith Thompson in folklore office Indiana University
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About the author (1996)

The son of a farmer, Stith Thompson was born near Bloomfield, Kentucky. In 1918 he married Louise Faust and they had two children, Dorothy and Marguerite. After receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1914, Thompson began his teaching career at the University of Texas at Austin, later teaching at Colorado College and then at the University of Maine. Finally, he went to Indiana University, where he established his prominence as a folklorist. Thompson was instrumental in establishing folklore studies in the United States, legitimizing it as an academic discipline and placing it on a firm empirical foundation. In 1950 he organized an important international conference at Indiana University, bringing together world-renowned specialists to discuss aspects of the field in order to develop a historical perspective on folklore research. He also created a center for the study and research of folklore and for the training of folklore scholars at Indiana University. The University became the first in the United States to offer a doctoral program in folklore. Using the historic-geographic methods developed earlier by Julius and Kaarle Krohn, Thompson translated Aarne's Type-Index and produced the Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, revising both in subsequent years. They remain the central indexes for the historical approach to folk tale study. Thompson gained international recognition for his writings, which were praised for both their scholarship and their style. It has been written of his work that "[it] is not dry, attenuated, dull, pedantic . . . for Mr. Thompson has . . . unspoiled direct appreciation of the zest and flavor of the best in traditional literature" ( N.Y. Times Book Review).

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