Child, Francis James


Child, Francis James
(1825-96)
   By far the most important figure in *ballad studies, his work still dominates the field. Born in Boston, Mass., Child enrolled as a student at Harvard College in 1842, and stayed there, as teacher, for the rest of his life, becoming Harvard's first Professor of English in 1876. Child had already edited books on ballads and early poetry, when he encountered Svend Grudtvig's Dan-marks Gamle Folkeviser (1853-90), and realized the potential for further work on the subject. After the Civil War Child, with characteristic thoroughness, set out to investigate all known sources of British ballad material. Aware of the poor quality of previous scholarship and the reputation that ballad collectors and editors had for tampering with the texts, he was determined to trace original manuscripts and early printed material and his success on this score is evidenced by the fact that Harvard has the best collection of ballad source material in the world, and his name is still synonymous with ballad scholarship 100 years later. The five volumes of Child's English and Scottish Popular Ballads, published between 1882 and 1898 represent his life's major achievement, and it is difficult to overstate their influence. Not only did he gather all the known key primary material and bring his own considerable knowledge and scholarship to bear on the material, but he single-handedly defined the scope of the genre, and the 305 ballads he selected rapidly became a closed corpus available for further study but not amenable to extension or diminution. Successive ballad scholars have suggested a handful of other items which could perhaps have been included, but the majority have accepted the corpus without demur. While this has had certain administrative benefits, there is no doubt that this situation has had a stultifying effect on ballad studies for many years.
   Child's scholarship is indeed impressive. For each ballad, he gives several texts, with extensive comparative commentary which discusses motifs and plots on an international scale. When he died he had finished editing the ballad texts and commentaries, and his pupil and colleague George L. Kittredge saw the last parts through the press. Unfortunately, Child did not have time to write the proposed introductory essays on balladry, and this lack of a definitive word from the acknowledged master has bedevilled ballad scholarship ever since, particularly in the realm of definition. By modern standards, Child's one major failing was that as a literary scholar he was little interested in the music of the ballads, but this shortcoming was more than compensated by Bertrand H. Bronson's The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads (4 vols., 1959-72).
   ■ English and Scottish Popular Ballads in five volumes (18821898); G. L. Kittredge, 'Francis James Child' in volume i of English and Scottish Popular Ballads, pp. xxiii-xxxi; Sigurd Bernhard Hustvedt, Ballad Books and Ballad Men (1930); Tom Cheesman and Sigrid Riewerts, Ballads Into Books: The Legacies of Francis James Child (1997).

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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