LAND OF THE MILLRATS by Richard M. Dorson


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It comes as a surprise to find the dean of American folklorists professing to have discovered the existence of an urban folklore from studying the Calumet Region of northwest Indiana--at the same time that his colleague Jan Brunvand is bringing out a primer on urban legends (The Vanishing Hitchhiker, above) and the daily paper makes reference to ""the folklore of advertising,"" and such. And Studs Terkel might have told him that Gary and East Chicago steelworkers would have a body of lore just like cowboys and lumberjacks, while any number of commentators could have apprised him of the folkways of urban ethnics, metropolitan black Baptist churches, etc. But Dorson has accomplished two things in casing ""de Region"" as if it were the Appalachians or his native Upper Peninsula: he has uncovered, however stodgily, the cultural richness of one of the most benighted areas in the US; and he has demonstrated, however self-consciously, that the folklorist (as distinct from the sociologist, anthropologist, or lay observer) has special techniques and insights to bring to its study. (It must be said, though, that his sociological observations range from the gauche to the obvious--per his finding, underscored, that ""In any given area, the residents of longest occupation demonstrate hostility toward the incoming group."") But in taping the yarns of the steelworkers, he has turned up some great, indigenous tales of mill fatalities (mercifully quick, given the heat; gruesome, given the irretrievability of the remains), of persistent thievery and goofing off and (explosive, hilarious) canteen ripoffs. And his section on the ethnics--a vigorous mix of Croatians, Greeks, Serbs, Lithuanians, Hispanics--puts forth a useful typology (of ""presentational,"" ""historical,"" ""communal,"" and ""esoteric"" traditions) by which to sort out the festivals, shops, churches, and conversations that together keep ethnicity alive. (For the complexity of today's ethnic identities, see the ""conversations"" with Greek-American students Hellenicized in the US and with the Puerto Rican organizer of a militant, multi-Hispanic theater group.) Among blacks, Dorson is rather over-whelmed--but he records some exuberantly offbeat rags-to-fiches stories; faced with ""crimelore,"" he blurs the line between personal experiences and legendary incidents. But he leaves no doubt that the Region has a character of its own--and, as an urban region, a multiplicity of cultural traditions.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1981
Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press