Remembering Dell Hymes
by Jason Baird Jackson
While no obituary has appeared yet, there seems to be conclusive understanding via the moccasin telegraph that Dell Hymes has passed away. So soon after the death of Claude Lévi-Strauss, this is another significant loss in the fields of Native American studies, anthropology and folklore studies. Dell Hymes was a amazingly influential folklorist, anthropologist, and linguist who revolutionized the study of language in (/and) culture in general, and of Native American narrative traditions in particular. He made important contributions to the history of anthropology, to descriptive and theoretical linguistics, to sociolinguistics, to folkloristics, and to Native American studies. He essentially created the areas on inquiry known as (1) the ethnography of speaking and (2) ethnopoetics and he played a key role reshaping linguistic anthropology from the 1960s onward. His work is at the root of the performance orientation central in contemporary folklore studies and he directly influenced the work of a great many folklorists, including Richard Bauman, Henry Glassie, and Lee Haring, among many others. His influence in the field as practiced in the United States is pervasive.
Dell Hymes was an especially central figure for his fields of study at Indiana University, where I earned my Ph.D. and to which I returned in 2004 to join the faculty in Folklore and Ethnomusicology. At Indiana, Hymes earned his Ph.D. in 1955, studying under Carl Voegelin, a student of Alfred Kroeber and Edward Sapir, both themselves students of Franz Boas. He was deeply immersed in the Americanist tradition and he took the task of understanding, enriching, and conveying that tradition to new generations to be a key task. When he left Indiana for jobs at Harvard, California, Pennsylvania and Virginia, his impact and influence kept flowing back and influencing the faculty and students here. At Pennsylvania in particular, he worked closely with scholars that have gone on to play a key role in shaping the IU Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology. Evidence of the breadth of his influence and his commitment to the Boasian vision for the study of language, culture and society can be seen in the fact that he served as president of the American Folklore Society, the American Anthropological Association, and the Linguistic Society of America.
More coherent and elaborate remembrances will be written by scholars and friends who knew him well, but I wanted to acknowledge his passing and record my appreciation for his many contributions that have enriched the fields of study in which I work.
Monday, November 16, 2009
This is the first of what will be many remembrances of Dell Hymes: