American folklorist Harold Courlander (1908-1996) was not a familiar name to most people during his lifetime. By preserving the history of Native Americans, as well as Asians, Indians, and countless African tribes, his work became crucial to an understanding of the paths traveled by world civilization.
In 1967, Harold Courlander published a novel called, The African. Many people were more familiar with the author Alex Haley's book, Roots, published in 1978. It was developed into the most popular television mini-series of the 1970s. What connected the two stories, and the two men, was the court case that occurred when Courlander brought suit against Haley.
Courlander claimed that plots in Haley's Roots were directly lifted from The African. Haley argued that the story was exclusively that of his own family's rise from slavery in America. The lawsuit made headlines throughout the United States during the summer and fall of 1978. After six weeks of testimony, Haley offered to settle the case. He expressed his regret to Courlander, and made a financial settlement. Haley's reputation was damaged, while the integrity of Courlander was maintained. For a brief time, Courlander's name was noted outside the small circle who had always been familiar with his work.
Boyhood Friendships Paved Career Path
Harold Courlander was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on September 18, 1908. His parents were David Courlander and Tillie Oppenheim. Both families were of European Jewish origin. His father's family arrived in America by 1840. His mother had been born in England, where her Russian-born parents had lived briefly. Courlander was the youngest of three children, having two older sisters, Bertha and Adelaide. His father's hard work led to a successful tailoring business. But in 1913, he took on his brother-in-law as a partner, and his business began to fail. The family started over again, with a move to Detroit, Michigan when Courlander was five years old.
In her biography of Courlander targeted for the young adult audience, A Voice for the People, author Nina Jaffe noted that among Courlander's classmates in his Detroit neighborhood, there was not only the expected melting pot of European immigrants, but also "the children of black families who had migrated from the farms and small towns of the Deep South." They all came to Detroit in search of the American dream of a better life in the steel and auto factories. Courlander became fascinated by the stories his black friends knew and shared with him. A few years later, when his father became bedridden with a severe bout of rheumatoid arthritis, he would gather his children to his side and spin tales that kept them entertained for hours. The family struggled financially. Yet Courlander remained captivated by stories he heard.
When he was ten years old, Courlander was sent to an "open air school" in order to recover from a chronic illness. He spent much of the day outside in the fresh air in an attempt to regain strength. During that time, Courlander started writing stories and publishing his own newspaper, that he shared with his extended family. He knew that his future would be in writing.
Courlander was editor of his high school newspaper, an activity that often consumed his interest. After high school, he attended Wayne State University in Detroit for a couple of semesters. By 1927, he had transferred to the University of Michigan where he studied English literature and received a B.A. in 1931. A classmate of his, Betty Smith, would go on to write the best-selling novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which was made into a popular Hollywood movie in the 1940s. While at Michigan, Courlander's first play, Swamp Mud, won the prestigious Avery Hopwood award. Actor/director John Houseman produced the oneact play for performance in New York in 1941.
Courlander left New York City almost immediately following graduation. He intended to become a playwright, buoyed by his success in college. He also hoped to study with well-known Yale drama teacher, George Pierce Baker. Courlander took on whatever small jobs he could find, often writing book reviews. Jaffe reported that a book, The Magic Island, by William Seabrook caught his eye one day in a bookstore. His thoughts turned to the Caribbean and to the island of Haiti, as portrayed in the book. The exotic rituals of the Haitian people captured his imagination. When he discovered that Baker was out of the country and that his plans to study with him would be delayed, Courlander decided on another course. He bought a ticket on a steamer and sailed for Haiti.
Explored Lives and Cultures
Courlander's trip to Haiti would be the beginning of a pursuit that would last his entire life. He had planned to write a novel. Instead, he spent six months talking to the people, getting to know them and their culture. He listened to their songs and their stories. He found the Creole language of the islanders a new experience to savor. As he would continue to do throughout his life, in many different countries and civilizations, Courlander began to understand the nuances of the language: "It crossed my mind to put down on paper some of the things I was hearing. I wasn't too clear why I was doing it, but that was all part of learning the language, too," noted Jaffe.
On October 2, 1937, the slaughter of thousands of innocent Haitian families-men, women, and children-living across the border in the Dominican Republic shocked the world. Rafael Trujillo, the army general who had taken control of the Dominican government in 1930, had ordered the brutality. Courlander responded to the news with the same horror. A friend had written and recounted his own experience in the aftermath of the killings. Courlander, who was living in New York City at the time, returned to Haiti. He traveled to the Dominican border where he received first-hand accounts from the survivors. He wrote an article in the New Republic, the following month. Courlander began to realize how important his writing could become, in telling stories no one else would tell.
In 1940, Courlander traveled to Cuba to continue his study of the indigenous people of the Caribbean islands. His work with the Office of War Information took him to Africa and India. According to American Folklore, An Encyclopedia, Courlander was a tireless worker in the "field," out among the people he studied. He told the stories of the Haitians, the Cubans, and the Ethiopians through his novels, his poems, folklore collections, and nonfiction. From this initial work, he produced nine record albums, through the Folkways Ethnic Library Series, serving as collector, editor, and compiler. In 1947, he worked with Moe Asch to help establish Folkways Records in New York City.
What was most remarkable about Courlander during this time, and throughout much of his career, is that he usually held regular jobs, with nine to five schedules. Courlander spent many years as a commentator with the Voice of America and as an analyst with the United Nations. He served as editor of the United Nations Review, from 1956 to 1959. He had to his credit, either as author or editor, over 30 volumes of folk tales. His geographical areas of interest spanned the globe: Haiti, Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, Indonesia, the Pacific Islands, and the American Southwest. Courlander was also well-known for his compendium of folk songs and tales from the African-American population. In 1956, some of that work was produced as a six-volume set for Folkways as Negro Folk Music of Alabama. A 1952 grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation enabled him to travel to Alabama, where he collected his material.
In 1960, Courlander published what was likely to be his best-known book. The Drum and the Hoe: Life and Lore of the Haitian People. At the time, it was hailed by critic James G. Leyburn as a "fine example of bookmaking and a tribute to Courlander's perceptive respect for the culture." Other major books to his credit were People of the Short Blue Corn: Tales and Legends of the Hopi Indians, in 1970, and The Fourth World of the Hopis, in 1971.
A book he edited for Hopi elder, Albert Yava, Big Falling Snow, in 1978, related stories of Hopi religious beliefs and practices from the perspective of the natives themselves. His other books and stories included: The Son of the Leopard, in 1946; The Fire on the Mountain and Other Ethiopian Stories, in 1950; The Tiger's Whisker and Other Tales from Asia and the Pacific, in 1959; and his last novel, The Bordeaux Narrative, in 1990. For that novel, Courlander went back to his love of Haiti. In it, he examined the world of voodoo in the late 19th centruy. Folkore author, Stephen D. Glazier noted in 1992, that, "The Bordeaux Narrative, serves as an excellent vehicle for its author's vast knowledge of Haitian folklore as well as an opportunity to demonstrate his keen eye for ethnographic detail." Ironically, this was his first novel about Haiti. Courlander told Jaffe that he wrote it when he realized that he had never written a novel about Haiti, the place where he had begun his first and most life-changing years of fieldwork.
Jaffe wrote an article for the September 1996 issue of School Library Journal, which was published a few months after his death. She reflected on Courlander's work. He often had to argue with editors who continually classified much of his work as children's literature. Courlander had said that, "We think of folklore as children's literature, which it isn't, or wasn't, originally. It was for everybody. In African cultures especially, there is no distinction between young and old. Stories are … for older people and younger people. Everybody listens in. If the young people want an explanation, they get it from the tellers." Courlander did not believe that the important folk tales should be changed in order to make them more understandable to children. All folk tales were about the lessons and proverbs of life that involved the conversation between the storyteller and the audience who was listening.
Courlander often had to fight for the right simply to tell the stories of cultures different from his own, or different from what his editors thought should have been the moral. What was special about him is the way he walked into foreign worlds, observed but did not intrude. These cultures affected his life, to be sure. Yet he walked back into his own world, with its own stories. The respect for other cultures, the fascination and beauty Courlander found were the elements that made his work meaningful. He was a narrator, really, a mere writer, who saw the importance of making note of others' lives so different from his own.
Courlander was married twice. His first marriage was to Detroit social worker, Ella Schneiderman in 1939. The couple had one daughter, Erika, born in 1940; they divorced after World War II. His second wife, Emma Meltzer, was an artist he met during the war. They married in June of 1949 and had two children, a son, Michael, in 1951, and a daughter, Susan, in 1955. Emma Courlander and their children often accompanied him on his many field trips, especially throughout the American West.
Courlander died at his home in Bethesda, Maryland, on March 15, 1996, less than a year after his final trip to Haiti. His life spanned nearly the entire 20th century. He brought to his readers and other students of folklore, many centuries of civilizations-through his recounting of splendid oral traditions and music. The legacy he hoped to provide was a window into the sacred worlds of thousands of people, bringing them the notoriety he believed they deserved.
Further Reading on Harold Courlander
American Folklore, An Encyclopedia Garland Publishing, 1996.
Jaffe, Nina A Voice for the People, Henry Holt and Company, 1997.
American West, November-December 1982, p. 70.
Horn Book Magazine, August, 1982, p. 419.
National Review, June 13, 1980, p. 743.
School Library Journal, September 1996, p. 132.