Home  »  Volume XVIII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART III  »  § 1. Interest Attaching to Floating Literature

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXVII. Oral Literature

§ 1. Interest Attaching to Floating Literature

BOTH literary and historical interest attaches to the songs and rhymes which pass from region to region and from generation to generation in oral tradition. They have value as social documents. They reflect not only the fading life of the past, its events, its scenes, and its heroes, but the life of the society which inherits and so often transforms them. The great body of this floating literature consists of old ballads and songs, nursery jingles, game songs, and popular satires and sentimentalities. Occasionally such material exhibits a touch of real literary genius or of illuminating imagination; and these flashes of quality are eagerly sought for by the lover of poetry. Especially, such material affords opportunity to the critical student to study the literary instinct in its elementary expression. The main interest of oral literature is historical. From it may be seen how songs and verse tales develop, how themes and styles are transmitted from generation to generation, and from one region or land to another.