Stith Thompson

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Stith Thompson
Stith Thompson.jpg
Born(1885-03-07)March 7, 1885
Bloomfield, Kentucky, United States
DiedJanuary 10, 1976(1976-01-10) (aged 90)
Columbus, Indiana, United States
Alma mater
Known for
Scientific career

Stith Thompson (March 7, 1885 – January 10, 1976)[1] was an American folklorist. He is the "Thompson" of the Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index, which indexes folktales by type, and the author of the Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, a resource for folklorists that indexes motifs, granular elements of folklore.


Early life[edit]

Stith Thompson was born in Bloomfield, Nelson County, Kentucky, on March 7, 1885 the son of John Warden and Eliza (McClaskey). Thompson moved with his family to Indianapolis at the age of twelve and attended Butler University from 1903 to 1905 before he obtained his BA degree from University of Wisconsin in 1909. For the next two years he taught at Lincoln High School in Portland, Oregon, during which time he learned Norwegian from lumberjacks. He earned his master's degree in English literature from the University of California, Berkeley in 1912.

Graduate education[edit]

He studied at Harvard University from 1912 to 1914 under George Lyman Kittredge, writing the dissertation "European Borrowings and Parallels in North American Indian Tales," and earning his Ph.D. (The revised thesis was later published in 1919).[2][3] This grew out of Kittredge's assignment, whose theme was investigating a certain tale called "The Blue Band",[a] collected from the Chipewyan tribe in Saskatchewan may derive from contact with an analogous Scandinavian tale.[4][5]

Post-graduate, tenure[edit]

Thompson was an English instructor at the University of Texas, Austin from 1914 to 1918, teaching composition. In 1921, he was appointed associate professor at the English Department of the Indiana University (Bloomington), which also had the responsibility of overseeing its composition program.[2] He collected and archived traditional ballads, tales, proverbs, aphorisms, riddles, etc. The parallels and worldwide distributions of these could be studied using his motif cataloguing apparatus leading him to publish the first volume of his Motif-Index which was printed in 1955.[4]

He organized an informal quadrennial summertime "Institute of Folklore" beginning in 1942 which lasted beyond his retirement from tenure in 1955. In 1962, a permanent Institute of Folklore was established at Bloomington, with Richard Dorson serving as its administrator and chief editor of its journal publication. For nearly twenty years after his retirement, Thompson continued to work on his Motif-Index of Folk-Literature and The Types of the Folktale while also taking time to collaborate on projects with other folklorists such as Jonah Balys' The Oral Tales of India and Warren Roberts' Types of Indic Folktales. He even produced an anthology at the age of 83, One Hundred Favorite Folktales.[6]

In 1976, Thompson died of heart failure at his home in Columbus, Indiana.[7]

While Thompson wrote, co-wrote, or translated numerous books and articles on folklore, he became arguably best known for his work on the classification of motifs in folk tales. His six-volume Motif-Index of Folk-Literature (1955–1958) is considered the international key to traditional material.


Thompson's 1954 article for The Filson Club History Quarterly entitled "The Beauchamp Family" continues in use by genealogists as of 2011.[8] In this article Thompson states that he is descended from a Costin Beauchamp (b. 1738) from Somerset Co., Maryland which extends back to John Beauchamp one of the members of the Plymouth Company.[9]


Explanatory notes[edit]

  1. ^ The tale that Pliny Earle Goddard collected and published in Chipewyan Texts (1912) is "The Boy who became Strong". The tale Kittredge refers to is the parallel, Müllenhoff (1845)'s tale "XI. Der blaue Band" from Marne in Dithmarschen, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, translated by Benjamin Thorpe (1853) as "The Blue Riband".


  1. ^ Contradictory information is given about Thompson's deathdate: January 10 or 13, 1976, according to different sources. January 10 is the date given by Peggy Martin, Stith Thompson: His Life and His Role in Folklore Schlolarship, Bloomington, Indiana, Folklore Publications Group, Indiana University, [c. 1976 to 1979], p. 17; it is confirmed by the Obituary in The New York Times, titled "STITH THOMPSON, FOLKLORIST, DIES; Former Indiana Professor and Author Was 90 Organized Institutes", dated January 12, 1976: "Dr. Stith Thompson, a past president of the American Folklore Society, who retired in 1955 as Distinguished Service Professor of Folklore at Indiana University, died Saturday in Columbus, Ind. He was 90 years old." One may think that January 13 was the date of Thompson's funeral service: indicated in a tribute article, it could have been erroneously repeated.
  2. ^ a b Richmond 1957
  3. ^ Dundes, Alan (1966). "The American concept of folklore" (snippet). Journal of the Folklore Institute. 3 (3): 240. doi:10.2307/3813799. JSTOR 3813799.(pp. 226-249)
  4. ^ a b Thompson 1996, pp. 57–58=Thompson 1994, "Distinguished Service 1953–1955", pp.19-20
  5. ^ Thompson 1946, p. 114 (Repr. 1977, 2006)
  6. ^ Dorson 1977, p. 4
  7. ^ Warren 1976, p. 145
  8. ^ Genealogies of Kentucky Families, Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc, pages 9-47, 1981.
  9. ^ Genealogies of Kentucky Families, Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc, page 10, 1981.



External links[edit]