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UC Berkeley Press Release

Alan Dundes Alan Dundes, professor of folklore and anthropology, pictured several years ago (Saxon Donnelly photo)

Alan Dundes, UC Berkeley professor and world expert in folklore studies, dies

| 31 March 2005

– Alan Dundes, a popular and award-winning University of California, Berkeley, professor of anthropology and folklore who earned an international reputation for his Freudian deconstruction of everything from fairy tales to football to the Book of Genesis, died Wednesday (March 30). He was 70.

 Alan Dundes
Alan Dundes (Deborah Stalford photo)

Dundes collapsed Wednesday afternoon at Giannini Hall on campus while teaching a graduate seminar on folklore theory and techniques. Students called 911, and he was rushed to Alta Bates-Summit Medical Center in Berkeley, where officials said he was pronounced dead upon arrival of an apparent heart attack.

"To call Alan Dundes a giant in his field is a great understatement," said George Breslauer, a professor of political science and dean of the Division of Social Sciences in UC Berkeley's College of Letters & Science. "He virtually constructed the field of modern folklore studies and trained many of its most distinguished scholars. Anyone who has ever taken a class with Alan Dundes knows that it was an unforgettable experience."

Simon Bronner, Distinguished University Professor of American Studies and Folklore at Pennsylvania State University in Harrisburg and editor of the Encyclopedia of American Folklife, said Dundes "will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the most influential folklorists, indeed one of the most influential minds, the world has known. That mind had an incredible range, reaching into cultures around the globe, and all manner of material including literature, narratives, art, customs, speech and games. His specialty was not in a single genre, but in the provocative interpretation."

Delighting in what he called "the wit, humor and amazing creativity" found in folklore, Dundes said most people think folklore is found only in superstition, ritual, myths and fables. But he also studied contemporary cartoons, poems, jokes and other lore passed along from one person to another. In his book, "Never Try to Teach a Pig to Sing," he and co-author Carl Pagter analyzed modern folklore including T-shirt slogans, ethnic and sexual remarks, scatalogical humor, and exchanges distributed via office photocopy machines.

Dundes began teaching at UC Berkeley in 1963. His knowledge about cultural studies -- along with his unmistakable wit and charm -- made him a favorite among students and the media alike. Reporters knew to call him for help explaining the mystique of the vampire, the allure of violent sports, holiday traditions and even why the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492.

In the classroom, Dundes earned a legion of fans among the thousands of students who took his courses, easily among the most sought after on campus. Dundes made such an impression that, in 2000, one of his undergraduate students from the 1960s sent him a check for $1 million. He used the anonymous gift to establish a UC Berkeley distinguished professorship in folkloristics.

Dan Melia, a UC Berkeley professor of rhetoric, called Dundes a "very meticulous scholar" who was "intellectually and personally generous."

That generosity was remembered by Beverly R. Ortiz, a lecturer in anthropology at California State University, East Bay, and a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at UC Berkeley. She met Dundes in his narrative folklore class during her first semester on campus in 1993.

"Perhaps Professor Dundes' most important academic legacy is the time he took to get to know his students as individuals," she said. "During office hours, students lined up to speak with him, and he always had sound, practical advice and a plethora of citations to share."

Under his guidance, UC Berkeley's anthropology department established a master's degree in folklore program that houses an archive of more than 500,000 items relating to folklore.

Dundes became one of the most cited scholars in the world, and many of the prolific author's writings are required reading for students in a number of fields, Bronner said.

Dundes is the author of more than 250 scholarly articles and a dozen books, including "Parsing Through Customs: Essays by a Freudian Folklorist," "The Vampire: A Casebook," "Cracking Jokes," "Holy Writ as Oral Lit: The Bible as Folklore" and "The Shabbat Elevator and Other Sabbath Subterfuges: An Unorthodox Study of Circumventing Custom and Jewish Character."

He co-authored or edited more than 20 books -- tackling subjects including cockfighting, the evil eye, the relationship between anxiety and humor, and Cinderella -- and in 1965 edited "The Study of Folklore" to fill a void of textbooks about folklore. The book has since gone through 26 printings.

In the past year, the London-based Routledge publishing house issued "Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies," a mini-library about folklore that was edited by Dundes. "Anyone who reads these four volumes will know what folklore is," Dundes recently said. "There's nothing like this. This sort of stakes out the field."

His last book was "Recollecting Freud: Isidor Sadger." Dundes edited and introduced what he called a personal and insightful account by Sadger, one of Freud's earliest students, about the controversial psychoanalyst.

While Sadger was a devoted follower of Freud, he was considered more of a participant observer than a member of his inner circle. Freud and others were critical of Sadger's work, and after Sadger published his memoir about Freud in 1930, it essentially became lost.

Dundes learned of the book and searched around the world for one of the few remaining copies, which he located in a Japanese research library.

Bronner said Dundes' ideas, "captured in lively publications, will certainly live on for many generations to come because they are so incisively far-reaching, but we will miss his sharp wit and ready humor, the gleam in his eye after hearing a good 'text,' his distinctive quick-paced vocal delivery and most of all, his passion for knowledge exuberantly evident wherever he made an appearance," said Bronner.

In 2002, Dundes delivered a Commencement Convocation speech to UC Berkeley graduates at the Greek Theatre that exemplified his gift for rapid delivery as well as for imparting sage advice and non-stop laughs. At the end of his address, he fired off a long list of folk wisdom one-liners and a few other tips including: "For every action, there is an equal and opposite criticism," "If at first you don't succeed, destroy all evidence that you tried," and "It may be that your sole purpose in life is simply to serve as a warning to others."

With characteristic caring, he told students to "take time to enjoy the present, savor the moment, take pleasure in 'now,' not worrying yourself to death about tomorrow ... American culture seems to denigrate and demean the present in a never-ending push towards a future which may or may not ever materialize."

Dundes was the first folklorist to be elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2001 and won the Pitré Prize, an international lifetime achievement award in folklore, in 1993. He said he was very proud to have won UC Berkeley's Distinguished Teaching Award in 1994. Dundes was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1966 and named a senior fellow of the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1972.

His wife of 48 years, Carolyn, said his hobbies included "work and more work." He also liked to watch baseball and football and wanted to live long enough to see the Cal Bears make it back to the Rose Bowl, she said. Dundes also loved books, she said, and every nook and cranny in their Berkeley home is filled with them.

Years ago, he wrote a centennial song for UC Berkeley that was played at one of the Bears' football games, his wife said. He wrote pieces for the San Francisco Opera for programs with folklore themes, such as "Little Red Riding Hood," she added.

A native of New York City and the son of a lawyer and a musician, Dundes was born in 1934.

Dundes studied music at Yale College but switched to English after two years. He earned his B.A. in English in 1955, was in the U.S. Navy for two years and returned to Yale to earn his M.A. in the teaching of English there in 1958. Carolyn Dundes said he was drawn to the material in literature and opted instead to pursue folklore studies. He earned a Ph.D. in folklore at Indiana University in 1962. He taught English at the University of Kansas for one year before coming to UC Berkeley's anthropology department.

His wife said he was teaching just one course this spring semester and planned to teach two classes for the first time during Summer Sessions. Although he sometimes talked about retiring, she said, he planned to continue teaching as long as he could.

The Dundes family suggests that memorial contributions be made to any UC Berkeley library.

Details of a campus memorial event will be announced later.

Survivors include his wife, Carolyn of Berkeley; son, David of Walnut Creek; daughters, Lauren Dundes Streiff of Owings Mills, Md., and Alison Dundes Renteln of Altadena, Calif.; and six grandchildren. Dundes' son is an information technology manager. Dundes Streiff is a professor of sociology, and Dundes Renteln is a professor of political science and anthropology.