Jan Harold Brunvand

Jacqueline Thursby

One of the most widely published folklorists of his generation, Jan Harold Brunvand is now retired from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City where he taught for thirty years (1966-1996). He is internationally recognized for his work on urban legends, though he has also researched, taught, and written on a myriad of topics including regional lore, folklore in literature, and European folk studies. Elected a Fellow of the American Folklore Society in 1974, Brunvand served as editor of the Journal of American Folklore (1976-1980) and president of the American Folklore Society (1985). He continues to be an active member of several regional, national, and international folklore societies and is a popular speaker at universities and conferences.  He is also an active member, indeed a Fellow, of CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal); he has published in the committee’s journal, Skeptical Inquirer, spoken at its conventions, and received in 2003 its Distinguished Skeptic Award.

At the 2000 Fife Honor Lecture, given in June at the Fife Folklore Conference at Utah State University in Logan, Brunvand told the audience, “What I collect from newspapers and what I will focus on here are the examples of living folklore that find their way into contemporary newsprint, especially in quotations from news sources, in letters to the editor, in advice columns, and sometimes in cartoons and comic strips” (“Folklore in the News” 51). His energetic interest in contemporary lore and the popularity of his publications have added the words “urban legend” to the lexicon of phrases common in the popular media both in the United States and abroad.  Though Brunvand has made it clear that he did not invent the term, he has been one of the key players in its popularization.

Brunvand was born in 1933 in Cadillac, Michigan, to parents from Kristiansand in southern Norway. When he was very young he and his mother, then expecting her second child, traveled to Norway on an old ship, The Stavangerfjord. Brunvand’s brother Tor was born after they arrived, and the three of them lived with the boys’ grandparents there for quite a while, possibly more than a year. Another brother, Dick, was born after their return to the United States. When he went back to Norway as a twenty-year-old and later on a Fulbright, he said that people remembered him and thought that he should still speak Norwegian. Though he was not deliberately taught Norwegian in his childhood home, he picked up a good bit of it, which allowed him to put it to use in his graduate studies and eased his ability to learn the language later on.

Brunvand’s father was a highway engineer with the state of Michigan. Most of Jan’s early life was spent in Lansing, the state capital, where he was educated in the public schools and where English became his best subject. Deciding to major in journalism at university, he went to Michigan State University and there fell under the spell of folklore through a course taught by Richard M. Dorson. Brunvand, in a 1990 interview with Everett L. Cooley, remembered the experience as “great” and “wonderful.” Assisting Dorson with archiving and organizing papers, Brunvand’s academic direction for the future was set.  Still an undergraduate, he was able to take two graduate courses from Dorson and then decided to continue his studies with a master’s in English.

In the summer of 1953, he attended a summer school program for Americans at the University of Oslo and returned in 1956-57 on a Fulbright scholarship accompanied by Judy, his bride of four days. For both his undergraduate studies with Dorson and his graduate work in English at Michigan State, Brunvand pursued Norwegian folklore as a topic. Under Dorson’s tutelage, he first collected lore from his Norwegian father and then researched folklore and folktales at the University of Oslo, gathering information about Askeladden or “ash lad,” a symbol of rags-to-riches success, what is popularly called “the Norwegian male Cinderella.”

At the beginning of the 1957 academic year, both Brunvand and Dorson moved to Indiana University at Bloomington, Dorson as the new director of the Folklore Institute and Brunvand as a Ph.D. student in English. After one year in that program, Brunvand changed his major to folklore and worked as a research assistant in the folklore library followed by a two-year stint as the folklore archivist. Brunvand’s first article, about Norwegian folklore, was published in Midwest Folklore; his second, which appeared in the Journal of American Folklore, was drawn from his research in Norway on “Askeladden.” He completed his Ph.D. in 1961 with a historic-geographic dissertation on the folktale background of The Taming of the Shrew (Aarne Thompson type 901), a study based on more than four hundred versions of the tale. It was published by Garland in 1991.

After graduation, Brunvand took his first faculty position at the University of Idaho at Moscow where, over time, he taught folklore, American literature, composition, literature of the American West, and a humanities course and established a folklore archive in the library for the housing of student papers. His own research and publications continued during this time, including collecting stories about regional Münchausens (local characters who develop a personal autobiography of aggrandizement based on tall tales and exaggerations). Brunvand’s article “Len Henry: North Idaho Münchausen,” describing a character he learned about from a student, was published while he was in Idaho, and has been reprinted several times since. At the same time, Brunvand was challenged finding an adequate folklore text for his students. Encouraged by a book representative from W. W. Norton, he began to write his own textbook, The Study of American Folklore, first published in 1968 and now in its fourth edition.

Changes in the administration, the heavy workload at the University of Idaho, and little money for travel prompted Brunvand to accept a faculty appointment in the English Department at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville in 1965. There he was promoted to Associate Professor and given a lighter teaching load with time for research. After a year of teaching, doing research, and drafting the folklore textbook, Brunvand moved on to the English department at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, replacing Barre Toelken, who was moving back to Oregon. Brunvand had learned to ski when he was four years old and had begun fly fishing in Idaho, and Salt Lake City and the region around it offered him the sports that meant the best in recreation to him. The Brunvands, not LDS, were often asked how they felt about living in the predominantly Mormon culture of Utah. “We feel quite welcome,” Brunvand said in his interview with Cooley. “When we came with four cute small children, we looked like the average local family. The missionaries and the home teachers came around, and they were very nice . . . we were never pestered by anyone.”

One of the first things Brunvand did after he settled in was to visit Lester Hubbard, who had for years taught a ballad course at the university. Hubbard was retired by then but lived close to the campus. Brunvand had a role in getting Hubbard’s vast ballad collection donated to the university and transferred from plastic records to less perishable tape. He also came to know Louis Zucker, one of the founders and first president of the Folklore Society of Utah and a major figure in procuring folklore-related books for the library. Knowing that he wasn’t knowledgeable about his fellow folklorists in the state, Brunvand and his family drove to Logan to meet Austin and Alta Fife. He also familiarized himself with the work of Harold Folland, Jack Adamson, Hector Lee, and BYU’s Thomas E. Cheney. Brunvand continued to teach folklore and English courses and published prolifically on a number of topics. In 1971, in the midst of work on a variety of other studies, he published A Guide for Collectors of Folklore in Utah, and in the eighties he became seriously interested in urban legends.

Brunvand had been introducing urban legends to his students as contemporary living folklore, and then Keith Cunningham asked him to come to Northern Arizona University to speak to his folkore classes. There Brunvand gave a lecture on the topic which became the basis for a June 1980 article in Psychology Today. That first article carried a line at the bottom that suggested that it was a part of a forthcoming book because W. W. Norton had already expressed an interest in it. The popular article led to guest appearances on talk shows on both the radio and the late night David Letterman Show. Later, Norton published Brunvand’s first book of contemporary legends, The Vanishing Hitchhiker (1981), initially as a supplement to his textbook. After reviews in the public media and increasing sales, Norton converted it to a trade book backed with more advertising and placed in general bookstores. Continuing his research through correspondence, library research, and versions from the Internet, Brunvand published three more books—The Choking Doberman, The Mexican Pet, and Curses, Broiled Again!over the next nine years, and the files of urban lore just kept growing. In 1987, Brunvand was invited by United Features Syndicate to write a syndicated newspaper column which ran twice weekly from 1987 to 1992. In all, 562 columns were released, and Brunvand incorporated most of them, eventually, into books, articles, and lectures, most of them based on input from readers of his columns and books. Other urban legend collections followed: The Baby Train, Too Good to Be True, The Encyclopedia of Urban Legends, and a collection of essays, The Truth Never Stands in the Way of a Good Story.

Retired since 1996, Brunvand no longer accepts many speaking engagements, because, he says, “Frankly, I’m tired of saying much the same thing over and again.” Though most of the talks don’t pay a great deal, he said that the most he ever received for a talk was at the Broadmore Hotel in Colorado Springs:

. . . it was a convention or a gathering sponsored by IBM, for academic deans in humanities. The idea was to sell them IBM computers, I am sure, but they just wanted an after dinner speaker. . . . I flew over and stayed in a nice hotel [and] worked up a talk on the computer in modern folklore. Everybody had a few drinks before, so they were an easy audience to entertain. I had the idea of printing it all out on tractor feed paper with the holes. Then I put some scotch tape on it so it wouldn’t come apart. I just ran it off the top of the podium as I spoke, the way that the paper spills out of the computer printer. I wondered if they would think that it was funny or not. But as it got longer and longer it spilled out more and more on the floor and I got to some of the better items. It went over beautifully. So I thought that maybe I should do something, kind of a book or article on the computer in folklore. At any rate, I consider these kind of speaking things that I am telling you about as semi-scholarly. They are based on my research, but they are usually presented in a more popular way and also partly as a service. (193-194)

Brunvand and his family are avid bikers, hikers, and skiers and have traveled all over the world. Accompanied by his family, Brunvand studied folk architecture in Romania on both Fulbright and Guggenheim research grants. In 1987-88, he and Judy lived for several months in New Zealand where Brunvand continued writing and gathering stories. More recently Brunvand said (personal communication):

My own tendency lately is to do what is fun and appeals to me. Thus, I have a paper on the fractured proverbs uttered by Captain Jack Aubrey in Patrick O’Brian’s 20-volume nautical novel series for the California Folklore Society meeting, and another paper on “urban legend” as a household phrase (in popular media, etc.) for the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research. Otherwise, I just finished another urban lore book, this time on horror legends, tentatively titled Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid, which will be published in 2004 and will probably be my last such work.

In addition to his professional contributions (he has said that “I think of my career as teaching and research, especially research and writing”), Brunvand spends lots of time with his four children and five grandchildren and, as the signature block attached to his e-mail attests, “Emeritus means retired, and I take that status seriously. Look for me on the trout stream or the ski run rather than the library.” Generations of folklore students have gleaned their first knowledge of folklore from Brunvand’s textbook, and both Utah and the United States are richer in knowledge about contemporary storytelling and urban lore through the work of this distinguished scholar who lives, collects, and writes in Salt Lake City.