Before we get to the ballads, there is a short biography of Francis James Child written by his former student and successor George Lyman Kittredge. What follows is my reaction to Kittredge’s writing. If you desire a more straightforward biographical sketch, I recommend this one from Harvard Magazine.
As much as I wanted to learn about Child’s life, I had a hard time getting through this biography because of the way it was written.
Upon the first reading, I found myself wondering whether it contained any actual information of if it was just a deluge of praise. Kittredge obviously liked Mr. Child and wanted to speak well of him, but the reverent tone was too much for my cynical 21st century brain. There were, however, a few things that stood out for me the first time I read it.
He was a great reader, and his tastes in reading were mature. He read for learning as well as for amusement, but he did not waste his time or dissipate his mental energies on worthless or pernicious books.
-Kittredge quoting Child’s classmate C.E. Norton
This quote catches my attention because I am curious what books were considered “worthless” in 1882. Was he referring just to “penny dreadfuls” and romance novels, or did this definition extend to books that would be considered classics today?
I also wonder why Kittredge felt the need to include this in the introduction to the crowning achievement of Child’s life. Why did he feel such a strong need to convince the readers that Child had not read any trashy novels as a student? Was he trying to hold up Child up as an example to the youth of the day not to read bad books? Was this just the standard way of introducing people in the 1800s?
The quote from Norton goes on to say:
His class oration was remarkable for its maturity of thought and style. Its manliness of spirit, its simple directness of presentation of the true objectives of life, and the motives by which the educated man, whatever might be his chosen career, should be inspired, together with the seriousness and eloquent earnestness with which it was delivered, gave his discourse peculiar impressiveness and effect.
That’s a lot of words used to praise the “simple directness” of a graduation speech. I’m starting to think that Child’s colleagues admired his “simple directness” because they were completely incapable of exercising the trait themselves.
All snark aside, I did learn some interesting things about Child that I had not known previously:
– He almost didn’t go to college at all
Francis James Child was the third of eight siblings. His father was a sail-maker who had not planned to send him to college. He enrolled in the local “English High School” until he was noticed by Epes Sargent Dixwell, the headmaster of the Boston Latin School, who was impressed with his intelligence and suggested that he be transferred to the Latin School. Dixwell also lent Child the money to pay for his education at Harvard.
– He was mostly working with material that had already been collected
Again, with “Songcatcher” being my main source of information on the subject of collecting traditional ballads, I expected to be reading about Child going around to remote villages and collecting songs from people who had learned them through the oral tradition.
He did apparently do some of this, or he got other people to do it for him. Kittredge writes:
Mr. Child made an effort to stimulate the collection of such remains of the popular traditional ballad as still live on the lips of the people in this country and in the British Islands. The harvest was, in his opinion, rather scanty; yet, if all versions thus recovered from tradition were enumerated, the number would not be found inconsiderable. Enough was done, at all events, to make it clear that little or nothing of value remains to be recovered in this way.
However, most of the Child ballads were gathered from already existing books and manuscripts which Child simply put together into one big collection. His major task in this collection was to make the contents of private manuscripts available to the public. Many of the owners of these manuscripts did not want to allow anyone else to examine them, and convincing them took a lot of persistence on the part of Child and his colleagues.
The Percy folio is the main example that is used in the introduction. Kittredge writes:
This made Child suspect the reliability of other ballad collections, and after this he made a point of examining all of the original manuscripts for his sources.
– Collecting and commenting on the ballads the way he did required a comprehensive understanding of the history of the English language as well as fluency in several other languages.
Child’s main academic interest early on was the history of the English language, and this helped him to distinguish the real “ancient ballads” from the fakes and to tell when a modern person had added their own verses to a song.
He also used his knowledge of other languages in comparing the ballads he collected to similar traditional stories and ballads from around the world.
In writing the history of a single ballad, Mr. Child was sometimes forced to examine hundreds of books in a dozen different languages.
From Percy’s day to our own it has been thought an innocent device to publish a bit of one’s own versifying, now and then, as an ‘old ballad’ or an ‘ancient song.’ Often too, a late stall copy of a ballad, getting into oral circulation, has been innocently furnished to collectors as traditional matter.
A forged or retouched piece could not deceive him for a minute; he detected the slightest jar in the genuine ballad tone
I still can’t help but wonder if one or two got past him.
– The ballad collection was the major focus of Child’s career and he died having barely finished it.
He had finished his great work except for the introduction and the bibliography. The bibliography was in preparation by another hand and has since been completed. The introduction, however, no other scholar had the hardihood to undertake.
I wish that Child had lived to write the introduction himself. I suspect that he would have been both more informative and more humble. Kittredge certainly lays on the praise with a trowel. I don’t know if his portrayal as an adulterous douchbag in “Songcatcher” was accurate either, but seeing such a complimentary account of a person makes me wonder what is being left out.
My cynicism notwithstanding, the man described here sounds like a very admirable person who worked hard and had a good sense of humor, apparently unlike some of his contemporaries. I wish that Kitteredge would show rather than tell more, and that he would get to the point instead of using such fluffy language, but I supposed he is just writing in the style of the time.