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The Role of Folklore Study in the Rise of Russian Formalist and Czech Structuralist Literary Theory


Russian formalism and Czech structuralism are understood to have initiated the study of literature as a self-sufficient discipline by applying linguistic concepts to the analysis of literary texts. This dissertation seeks to enrich our understanding of this development by examining the transition from linguistics to literary theory from an intellectual-historical perspective. My thesis is that folklore study played a crucial role in the rise of formalist and structuralist literary theory by serving as a mediating field between language and <&ldquo>high literature. Folkloristics, which traditionally approached its subject matter through linguistic theory, understood verbal art to behave like language<&mdash>--as an impersonal repertoire of poetic forms which adhere to regular laws governing their usage and evolution. This body of scholarly work provided early literary theorists with a model for theorizing literature or art as a law-abiding, <&ldquo>scientific object of study akin to language.

The transfer of ideas from the field of folkloristics to literary theory was the product of scholarly training, personal intellectual exchange, and institutional affiliations. In the first chapter I focus on Victor Shklovsky's use of A. N. Veselovsky's writings to develop a universalist theory of narrative structure in his Theory of Prose . Drawing on Roman Jakobson's The Newest Russian Poetry and his work on the Cyrillo-Methodian legacy, the second chapter illustrates parallels between Jakobson's conceptions of literary value and literary evolution and the work of his teacher V. F. Miller. The last chapter argues that Jan Mukařovský's Aesthetic Function, Norm and Value as Social Facts drew on P. G. Bogatyrev's functional structural ethnography and compares their respective conceptions of the semiotic collective.

By tracing these intersections, we can see how the emergence of theory intended to explain <&ldquo>high literature was galvanized by moments of contact with folklore studies. Highlighting the role that folkloristics played in the work of these three pioneering literary theorists (Shklovsky, Jakobson and Mukařovský) allows us to better understand the emergence of twentieth-century literary theory as an autonomous discipline.

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