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AFS Review: In Memoriam

Linda Dégh (1918-2014)

Tuesday, August 19, 2014   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Jesse A. Fivecoate

By Sabina Magliocco (California State University) — 

For the last four decades of her life, Linda Dégh occupied the position of grande dame of folklore studies. It is difficult to think of another scholar who revolutionized American folklore studies to the extent that she did – ironically, considering that she lived the first five decades of her life in Hungary, the nation of her birth.  Born March 18, 1918 in Budapest, to Károly and Jolán Doktor (her surname was later changed to Dégh), Linda was the youngest of three children. Her siblings were already in their teens when she was born, and she was raised by a series of governesses whom, according to her stories, she tormented until they resigned in desperation.  In stories of her childhood, she emphasized her outrageous naughtiness and mischievous pranks, like the time that she and her young cousins pushed the parked car of a visiting dignitary into a pond on the family’s property – but also a sense of alienation from her immediate family, and a great thirst to make her mark on the world.

Linda studied folklore and European ethnology under the great Hungarian folklorist Gyula Ortutay at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, where she also began her teaching career. Her early work was on the narrator Péter Pandur; she went on to work with the Bukovina Székelys of Transylvania, concentrating on the transmission of folk narrative and focusing especially on the artistry of narrator Szuszanna Pálko.  This work became her first book in English, Folktales and Society, in 1968, beginning a disciplinary trend that focused on tradition-bearers’ performance.

In 1965, Linda was invited by Richard M. Dorson to teach at Indiana University’s Folklore Institute as its resident Europeanist and folk narrative scholar.  Her encounter with American culture pushed her scholarship in exciting new directions which set her scholarly agenda for the rest of her life.  She turned her sights on the legend, a form of folk narrative that flourished in the United States, along with the folk culture of Hungarian immigrants on the Canadian plains, in Chicago and in the upper Midwest, and the beliefs of a Bloomington Pentecostal congregation. There was no context in which Linda could not find some kind of folklore.  A consummate fieldworker, she had a remarkable ability to adapt to her environment, seamlessly blending with the surrounding culture and absorbing its expressions; I sometimes thought that if she were dropped into the ocean, she would grow gills and begin to study the folklore of fish.  She was among the first scholars to write about technology and the mass media in the dissemination of folklore.  In her final monograph, Legend and Belief: the Dialectics of a Folklore Genre, she examined the globalization of the legend.

If American culture expanded Linda’s areas of interest, she had a huge influence on American folkloristics in turn.  Her presence brought the stimulus of European ethnology to the Institute, and her students have gone on to research and publish on a plethora of topics, from ethnic folklore and adolescent ghost stories, to disaster narratives and the rituals of modern witches.  Her relationships with her students were not always easy: she could be protective and supportive, as well as overly critical and disparaging.  She was known for never praising students to their face, and many of us lived in terror of her stinging remarks, which cut us to the bone.  For a legend scholar, she was also the subject of an extraordinary number of legends, not all of them flattering.  According to one hinted at by Ian Brodie in his blog “Vulgar Art,” “there were good odds she would never, ever die.”

There’s a kernel of truth to that legend.  With 18 books and over 200 peer-reviewed journal articles, book chapters and essays, a distinguished professorship and a long list of fellowships, recognitions and honors to her name, including the prestigious Giuseppe Pitré Sigillo d’Oro Prize, the Ortutay Medal from the Hungarian Ethnographic Society, an honorary doctorate from the University of Debrecen, and the American Folklore Society’s Lifetime Scholarly Achievement Award, Linda Dégh’s contributions to the field of folklore studies will long outlive her.  She goes forth shining; what is remembered lives.

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