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At the depth of the Great Depression, a young Jewish playwright from the Midwest decided to forsake graduate training at Yale to immerse himself in the culture and people of Haiti. So began the anthropological and literary odyssey of longtime Washington resident Harold Courlander, who died March 15 at age 88. Before he died, Courlander suggested to biographer Nina Jaffe—with some understatement—that his recordings and writings “saved a few stories from oblivion.” Now Jaffe is trying to ensure a similar fate for Courlander’s own literary legacy.
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Jaffe, 43, a storyteller and professor at Bank Street College in New York City, interviewed Courlander several times for a “young readers” biography to be published by Henry Holt & Co. in 1997, its publication planned to accompany several reissues of Courlander titles; Jaffe’s own books of fables for children draw heavily on the techniques and themes elucidated by Courlander decades earlier. “He had a natural ability to connect with people,” she says. “He was sensitive to their political, social, and economic conditions. And he saw oral traditions as the way the communities and cultures bind each other together.”
Courlander was something of a maverick in anthropology, combining field research with both a journalistic and a literary bent. His work in Haiti led him to explore the oral traditions of Africa; he even managed to continue fieldwork while on the payroll of the Douglas Aircraft Co. in Eritrea. Later he studied African-American blues and gospel traditions as well as the Hopi culture of northern Arizona. Though employed much of the time by the Voice of America and other government agencies, Courlander managed to write eight novels, 15 nonfiction books, and another 15 folk tale collections. (Some of his West African stories found their way into Alex Haley’s best-seller, Roots, which led eventually to legal action and a six-figure settlement.) He also produced a raft of LPs for Folkways.
Jaffe, who visited Washington last week to peruse large Courlander holdings at the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress, said she was amazed to discover recurring motifs, such as that of the quest, even in Courlander’s earliest writings. For Jaffe, this fascination with journeys is inextricably linked to Courlander’s own. “He once said to me, ‘I didn’t do this for abstract reasons.’ He believed that character is destiny, but he also believed that fate and accident always play a role.”—Louis Jacobson