Stetson Kennedy: Applied folklore and cultural advocacy

Margaret Anne Bulger, University of Pennsylvania


Folklore as an academic discipline has always possessed a complementary "popular" movement that has shaped the nature of the field and the role of the folklorist. However, until very recently, the history of the discipline has concentrated upon those folklorists who are based within the academy. As we enter the 1990s, many folklorists now work in the public sector and a few are venturing into the politically-charged arena of applied folkloristics. The historical record of our discipline is in need of revision and amplification to include our antecedents who have pioneered careers in applied and public folklore. This study traces the life and work of Stetson Kennedy, a folklorist who used his folklore skills and knowledge of traditional culture to effect political and social reform in America, especially the American South. Through interviews, extensive archival investigations, analysis of Kennedy's writings, and historical research, the life of Stetson Kennedy is shown to be integral to an understanding of folklore as a potent political tool. Kennedy's work provides a case study on how folklore materials have been used within the public documentation projects of the New Deal, in muckraking journalism, for labor organizing, in political campaigns, and in fighting fascist and racist organizations in our country. Although folklorists have been justifiably apprehensive concerning the danger that is inherent in cultural intervention and the application of folkloristics within a larger political arena, this reservation has at times impeded our discipline. By investigating the life of Stetson Kennedy, this study explores how one man has applied scholarship to political, economic, and social reform movements. The study concludes that American folklorists have yet to use the enormous power that they obtain as students of culture in matters beyond scholarship. As folklorists, we are infinitely qualified to sponsor legislation and lead policy committees within government that effect the cultural health of our nation and this study provides an historical precedent for such applied folklore in America.

Subject Area

Folklore|American studies|American history|Biographies

Recommended Citation

Bulger, Margaret Anne, "Stetson Kennedy: Applied folklore and cultural advocacy" (1992). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9227626.