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Writing the Storyteller: Folklore and Literature from Nineteenth-Century France to the Francophone World


Nineteenth-century modernity, according to Walter Benjamin and other critics, kills storytelling. Instead of treating this as a real disappearance, I consider how writers continually reinvent this death to work through historically specific questions about tradition, memory, and cultural transmission. In nineteenth-century France, for example, the recurrent belief in the end of tradition prompted movements for folklore collection--like Napoléon III's decree for the preservation of poésies populaires--as well as broad reflections about the future of cultural expressivity. Nodier, Nerval, Mérimée, and Champfleury, all combined literary creation with folklore study for the eclipse of oral tradition was, paradoxically, the very foundation of modern literature as it was coming to be defined. Thus, Nerval appends to his Sylvie a folklore collection so as to mark the distance between the written and the oral, reaffirming literary modernity while mourning tradition. Though far-removed from folklore, Barbey d'Aurevilly's short stories and fragmented frames that impede narrative transmission also question the very possibility of storytelling. In addition to such formal innovations, writers also revisited earlier storytelling topoi. In the early eighteenth century, when Antoine Galland introduced Les Mille et une nuits to the West, Schéhérazade's life-or-death storytelling stood as commentary on the tyranny of audience demands as the patronage system was breaking down. But nineteenth-century writers returned to this ancient storytelling sultana to think about the demands of newspaper editors, growing readerships, and the transformation of literature into mass market entertainment. Finally, interest in folklore fades on the mainland, but debates about preservation of traditions and ownership of cultural goods--debates once linked to France's colonial projects--become central to post-colonial Francophone literature. Patrick Chamoiseau and other proponents of créolité spotlight the paradox of preserving Creole storytellers' legacies in writing--or in French. Assia Djebar even intersperses her bloody tale of a modern Algerian Schéhérazade with fragments from Galland's eighteenth-century text, foregrounding the question of what happens to the voice and to stories after a storyteller dies. In short, folklore has a long history of being a reference point for thinking about the very notions of literature or modernity that supposedly spell its demise. Literary depictions of storytelling tell a story less about oral culture than about literature itself. And concern about who is no longer telling stories often reveals a deeper cultural anxiety about who is now writing or reading stories.

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