Legends live on

I wrote yesterday about Henry W. Shoemaker and his efforts to conserve oral stories and put them into print in his era of mass written and visual communication. But why collect things like American Indian folklore and early Anglo settler stories? What was the point? On Oct. 26, 1922, Henry Shoemaker delivered an address to the Keystone State Library Association in Central Pennsylvania. In his speech, “The Importance of Collecting Indian Legends,” he puts it this way:

The librarians, though they handle the finished product of the historian’s perseverance and skill, may still have a hand in bringing in the raw materials. This means a closer co-operation with influences outside and apart from the library walls, a broadening of the sphere of influence of library extension. It is the outside, legendary oral form of human annals that lasts longest. How sad to stand within the four roofless walls of a ruined library such as the one at Timgad, in Mauritania. Not a vestige of book or manuscript or parchment left. Only the tablet of pink marble telling of the donor’s business successes and his generosity in giving it to the city — now all dead and still these two thousand years. Yet the history of Timgad lives on among the wild tribesmen in the surrounding hills and in books and manuscripts thousands of miles away. The building may perish, but the thought, the legend, lives on. It is hard to blot out a thought once launched. It is dangerous to launch a bad one. Let us hope that this modest inspiration or thought, now expressed, to collect more of our unwritten history of Pennsylvania, will open up new and happy channels of research and indirectly create wider opportunities for the use and benefits of libraries and the able and cultured men and women who direct their destinies!

Knowledge of self and of others consists in encounters with them, and what we lead out of each another. The American Indian legends Shoemaker shared seemed to help do this across the generations for the first Americans.