The Writing of Rebuilding an Enlightened World: Folklorizing America

Gary Dunham, director of the Indiana University Press, contacted me in September 2015 about getting together at the October annual meeting of the American Folklore Society. IU is a major publisher in folklore studies, and I found Dunham and his associate, Janice Frisch, hard at work in the convention’s book display room. Not much small talk. Gary was direct: “Would you consider writing a book about the field of folklore using the approach of your other works – that is, a book that links folklore studies to public policy and broad political themes?” I answered “Yes.”

I was quick in part because the conversation was timely; I needed a new project. But more importantly I had for years wanted to write something for general readers about the important special knowledge folklore scholars bring to observations of cultural dynamics and the character of human behavior. My talented New-York-based agent, Sarah Lazin, quickly drafted a contract for the book and we were off and running.

But not so fast. What was I going to say? It wouldn’t be enough to just talk about folklore studies. And the essential linkage between what folklore scholars understood and the public policy environment in the waning years of our Barack Obama presidency was anything but obvious. No surprise: four months into the project and I hadn’t written a word and even worse had no clear idea of what I wanted to say. This was irritating, even vexing. Every writer has his or her own approach to getting the work organized, refined, and wrapped up. For me, the moment I say “Yes” to any assignment big or small, a tiny seed is planted in the back of my brain and it begins to grow; the mature plant fills my head by the time the final draft is handed in. A nice, linear model – the seed matures, the project advances to a natural conclusion. But if the seed is sprouting and I’m stuck, discomfort arises; I end up imposing my frustration on myself and others in my company.

As the presidential campaign of 2016 kicked off, one thing was clear – terrorism, Tea Party activists, and the rhetoric of Republican candidates (most obviously, Donald Trump) mixed disdain for science, suspicion of government and all established institutions, smarmy appeals to racist and sexist motives, distrust of foreigners. And something new: attitudes toward the “deep state,” immigrants, environmental activists, members of Congress were embedded in rumor and sensational tales believed but never proven – stories circulated by word of mouth and most-tellingly spread within the accelerated world of social media and the internet.

What forces lay beneath such destabilizing change? I had just ventured out on an early-spring walk on the road behind my Lake-Superior summer home when it came to me – an idea that could be expanded into a unifying frame for my argument and the book. Here’s what popped into my head: the modern world has abandoned, perhaps even rejected, principles established by the Enlightenment; the world of ordinary people has turned against the West’s “Enlightenment consensus.” One way or another, most of the public has chosen to ignore law and regulation, substituting a pre-Enlightenment mentality of tribal loyalties, legend, ancient custom, myth. In addition, a decade of work in China had convinced me that this rising country – modernizing absent both the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution – presented a cultural challenge to long-held Western assumptions. Folklore scholars understand alternative realities and have known for decades that woven throughout the sophistication and rationality of elite civilization, traditional values and practices remain as unacknowledged but powerful determinants of belief and behavior. It is folklore scholars have best-mapped the mechanisms of informal culture – especially informal culture that competes, cheek-by-jowl, with laws, regulations, and other “official” rules.

The IU Press wanted something short – Gary and Janice mentioned 40,000 words (note to non-writing readers: this would translate to about 125 typeset pages). There would be no room for redundant documentation – it would be, “here’s an idea, here’s some supporting evidence, here’s my conclusion.”

For me, once I know where I’m heading, organizing the project is almost a “fun” activity. Blueprinting the architecture of a book, I’ve got the satisfaction of “working” while not yet mired in the land of blank computer screens, word counts, notes, revisions. The structure for Folklore (the original working title) was complex and took a little time to figure: how to organize my big idea of Enlightenment’s stumble? After a few false starts, I divided my general “Enlightenment’s end” argument into sub-themes like “identity” and “stories,” and “listening.” This structure let me comment on current affairs while weaving in a high-points history of modern folklore studies – how had global disruption interacted with the insights and values of this relatively-obscure discipline become critical to the interpretation human behavior and current affairs?

I wrote a first draft (about 30,000 words), didn’t like it much (IU Press staffers didn’t either.) I re-entered Word and rewrote the manuscript completely, giving a little more emphasis to current affairs, moving the folklore-studies story slightly into the background. I boldly bookended the text with a decade-old opinion piece written by author Neal Gabler, published in the New York Times. Back in 2011, Gabler had lamented the absence of Really Big Ideas in current political discourse. I referenced his piece; simply by dragging Gabler into my argument, I was asserting that even if my “end-of-enlightenment-and-folklore’s-rise” idea proved contentious and to some unconvincing, it was at least legitimately “Big.”

Dunham, Frisch, and others at the Press liked this new rendition. Despite my “not-finished” protestations, in the fall of 2017, they declared the work complete and encouraged me to move ahead quickly. The project became a full-time day job, and I manage to wrap up my changes by March of 2018, and it was on to notes, dust-jacket, bibliography, revisions, final title, etc. Rebuilding an Enlightened World: Folklorizing America, had expanded to about 50,000 words – more than requested but still the short volume aimed for. I was pleased that even as I worked, a progression of other interesting books about “what has gone wrong” was published; multiple theories advanced. Democracy has stumbled, globalization has failed, fascism again threatens, America has gone haywire, the world is in disarray, our nation is in a tailspin – and more. But my book (the shortest) probably advances the biggest idea. America and the world are simply experiencing a time of painful, uncertain change, as the Enlightenment (or its first iteration) fades. Old tribal ways and informal, oral culture reassert authority, handing us a new, undefined, unsettling framework that confounds and stymies both understanding and action. We’re adrift in a time of transition, but one in which the stance of folklore studies can help.

“Rebuilding…” includes a large bibliography. This is partly defensive; my assertions are bold and I wanted to demonstrate that I had “read or looked hard at a lot of stuff” along the way. But the many titles included are also an opening for others to experience what my one-time teacher, author Marilynne Robinson, called a “sober delight” – an excursion into ideas and personalities from other times and other places; a chance to think long and hard and, I hope, imaginatively about where we are and how we got this way.

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Bill Ivey
Phone: (615) 891-1500
Email: BI(at)

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