UC Berkeley News


Remembering Alan Dundes
Expert in folklore studies died suddenly last week

| 06 April 2005

Alan Dundes (Deborah Stalford photo)
Alan Dundes, the popular professor of anthropology and folklore who earned an international reputation for his Freudian deconstruction of everything from fairytales to football to the Book of Genesis, died March 30. He was 70.

Dundes collapsed that afternoon at Giannini Hall 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 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, professor of political science and dean of the Division of Social Sciences in the 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."

Dundes online
Upon learning of Dundes' death, colleagues and former students e-mailed tributes from as far away as China, which are compiled in an online "memorial forum". A video interview with Dundes is also online.
Simon Bronner, a professor of American Studies and Folklore at Pennsylvania State University 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 the next. 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, scatological humor, and exchanges distributed via office photocopy machines.

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

Dundes' courses were easily among the most sought-after on campus. He made such an impression on students 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 distinguished professorship in folkloristics.

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

That generosity is recalled by anthropology Ph.D. candidate Beverly Ortiz, a lecturer in anthropology at CSU East Bay. 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 says. "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, the anthropology department established a master's degree folklore program with an archive of more than 500,000 folklore-related items.

Prolific author

Dundes became one of the most cited scholars in the world, and many of his writings became required reading for students in a number of fields, Bronner says. He authored 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 - on subjects ranging from cockfighting to the evil eye, the relationship between anxiety and humor, and Cinderella. In 1965 he edited The Study of Folklore,in order, he said, 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 edited by Dundes. In his last book, Recollecting Freud: Isidor Sadger, Dundes edited and introduced what he called a personal and insightful account by one of Freud's earliest students.

Bronner says 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," he adds, "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."

In 2002, Dundes delivered a Commencement Convocation speech to campus graduates at the Greek Theatre that exemplified his gift for rapid delivery as well as for imparting sage advice and nonstop laughs. At the end of his address he fired off a long list of folk wisdom, one-liners, and 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 also won the campus's Distinguished Teaching Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was named a senior fellow of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

His wife of 48 years, Carolyn, says 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 play again in the Rose Bowl, she says.

Wanted to keep teaching

A native of New York City and the son of a lawyer and a musician, Dundes was born in 1934. 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. He received a Ph.D. in folklore at Indiana University in 1962. He taught English at the University of Kansas for one year before coming to Berkeley's anthropology department.

His wife says 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 says, he planned to continue teaching as long as he could.

Dundes' 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; and six grandchildren.

Memorial contributions may be made to the UC Berkeley Library Fund, 131 Doe Library, Berkeley, CA 94720-6000. Include a note that it is in memory of Professor Dundes; University Librarian Tom Leonard will decide, in consultation with the family, on an appropriate use in light of Dundes' interests.

Details on a campus memorial event will be announced at a later date.