A hundred years of walking the roads and marching the fields.
The reflections of a folklorist on reading collection diaries.

Eda Kalmre

.JPG RAHVA ja LUULE VAHEL (In Between Folk and Poetry)

Collection diaries of 1878-1996. Compiled by Mari-Ann Remmel. Ed. by Kadri Tamm and Astrid Tuisk. The 1997 Annual of the Estonian Museum of Literature. Paar Sammukest XIV. Tartu 1997. 415 p.

In Estonian language!

Biographies and diaries, as well as letters and correspondence have always had a special charm for readers. The realia and immediacy of the text results from the fact that the author, the narrator as well as the protagonist of the text are equally identifiable for the reader. That is why some people prefer them to novels, short stories, narratives. It is more trying for literary fiction to achieve the genuineness present in biographies and diaries.

For the present we have managed to file extracts from diaries written by people on the same line of occupation. The line of occupation is folklore and its collection. The Estonian Museum of Literature issued a book entitled "In Between Folk and Poetry" for the 70th anniversary of the Estonian Folklore Archives.

In the preface the compiler clarifies some principles of compilation of the book. "Something weighty, characteristic or intriguing about the region, situation or people from each period of time, notes which throw some light on the method of collection (how to gain trust, what to record and how to do it)... ". In case of such treatment of the subject one can not but acquiesce in the fragmentation of the subject as well as the subjective choice of the compiler: what image is being created and which means (i.e. texts) are used in the process. It does not really interfere with reading, because a sentence cut out of longer text may serve as a stroke of brush drawn by a painter, which expresses the reality and situation with a single detail.

Essentially, "In Between Folk and Poetry" stands for the century of history in collecting folklore, walking the roads and marching the fields through lines, the abundance of photos, samples of handwriting and drawings.
Folklorists were aware of the necessity of keeping diaries already in the first part of this century. The first `conscious' author of the first collection diary was Oskar Kallas, the first doctor of Estonian folklore, who wrote it while collecting folklore for J.Hurt and recommended it to the collectors of folk songs and tunes in the Estonian Students' Society during the first decades of the 20th century. The collection of Jakob Hurt contains a very small number of diaries and few collector's comments on the context or the informant. Hints of it may be found in the letters of correspondents, but J.Hurt has mostly chosen not to make a point of concluding them in the volumes. Therefore it is the abstract from the diary of O.Kallas from the year 1889 while he was the correspondent for J.Hurt, that was sent to the Estonian Folklore Archives (EFA) from London in 1928 and has found its place in the collection of EFA (See: the first letter pp.12-14). From the early days of the Estonian Folklore Archives, since 1930s, the writing of collection diaries or commentaries has been a regular activity, the necessity of which is hardly questionable.


The fragments of texts in the diaries have been ranked chronologically from the year 1878 up to the collection trip to Martna and Kirbla in the western part on Estonia in 1996. Apparently, this systematization is the most optimal solution in case of diaries as well as biographies. Being temporal - in a temporal gradation: from birth to death, from the past to the present day -- they, at first, present a retrospective image of a collector of folklore, a villager and the rural life in different parts of Estonia at the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century. People, places, all the problems concerning the material and collection work rank in time, all seen-interpreted through the eyes and emotions of the collector's person.
The temporal division used in the book represents the alteration of generations of collectors: during 1878-1900 the collectors were mostly amateurs; 1904-1926 the collectors are halfway professionals, students and scholarship students (Estonian Students' Society); 1928-1939 - the period of the Estonian Folklore Archives, the collectors are mainly professionals, students, scholarship students or local amateurs; 1948-1982 collectors are mainly folklorists; 1983-1996 - the generation of present-day folklorists who represent new trends in collection work. The alteration of the same decades may possibly measure the alterations in history, social life and economy, as well as the alteration in the technical means of collection.

Even in the current book the problems of discord in cultures seem to arise mostly in the diaries of the first part of the century. At the end of the last century, the collector was often an ordinary local man: a farmer or a teacher, a cobbler or a tailor. From the beginning of this century collectors were chiefly townsmen. The collector was educated and of urban culture and as could be read in the diaries he had often serious problems with connecting to people and, which is also important, finding lodging. In the diaries of the second half of the century the problems caused by cultural differences become mitigated, men of intellect were not considered total strangers which made establishing contacts a great deal easier.

Keepers of diaries

Besides professional folklorists the quantum of our folklore has been supplemented by other prominent men of culture, composers, writers, educators - this certain aspect of their lives is often unknown to the public. Not to mention the professional folklorists starting from Oskar Kallas and proceeding through several generations to the present day, whom the reader of the book is bound to come across.
It is the folklorists whose diaries contain more ethnographic and historic facts and data on persons interviewed, generalizations on the topic of local tradition, also discussions on the methods and material of collection. Rudolph Põldmäe, who started as a folklorist in 1930, a later prominent literary historian, is surpassingly good at it. Richard Viidalepp, one of the most prolific collectors of EFA, one of the communicators with correspondents and the supervisor of collection work has, probably consciously, created a somewhat humorous image of himself as a collector who constantly fails in his work. Then again, perhaps it is pointless to describe one's frostbitten limbs, the distrust of villagers and other misfortunes with grave matter-of-factness. Quite some candor and vigor is added by the comments of young people, students and scholarship students.
Several stories were spread by oral tradition in the circles of folklorists even before printing. One of them is a colorful story (p.90) of how Paul Ariste and Karl Leichter spent the whole night in Mustvee on top of the table because of bedbugs.

While reading the book another layer emerges, which may not always be recognizable amongst the emotional lines of the book. Namely, the matter of inquirer and respondent.

The topic, in fact, deserves a more thorough study. Folklorist registers a number of facts or texts, while staying himself and leaving the informant (unless he particularly reveals himself in his texts) almost outsiders. A diary helps to compensate for the disadvantage by pointing out both persons, the inquirer as well as the respondent, according to the collector's standpoint. In fact, it forms a whole where both are in the leading roles.
Rudolf Põldmäe made an attempt to work out the creative models of thought, the artistry and the expressive behavior for informants. Arguing on the different methods of collection work Rudolf Põldmäe wrote in his diary in 1958:
/.../ I let the storytellers get into the full swing and let them talk eagerly with full emotionality, at the same time trying to jot everything down as fast as I can... But in my opinion I achieve a relatively fluent course of story, which also reveals a somewhat more dynamic style and dialectal expressions; secondly, the text recorded corresponds more or less to the talk of the storyteller. But I do not wish to read lecture - recording folklore is individual and relies on his own mental abilities and assumptions.

Linda Degh, a researcher, argues that field work is an interactive product of a particular kind, where both - the informant as well as the inquirer - are participants. The cultural distance between those two reduces the quality of performance, as well as the fact that the informant is subject to the situation impromptu (American Folklore and Mass Media, Indiana University Press 1994).
Anthropologists are clearly aware of the fact that the material recorded and collected is largely determined by the collector's person, depending on to what extent can he establish a contact with the respondent, what are his professional knowledge and convictions. The cooperation as well as the conflict of two cultures becomes apparent. All of it is reflected in the result.

Summing up it could be mentioned that the book with its multiple strata is an enjoyable reading material for folklorists, to those who have had something to do with practical collection work, as well as to a common reader, because it concerns an open and emotionally explored subject, which throws light from quite a particular angle upon the cultural history of Estonia and, certainly, to us, the folklorist-collectors.