Florida Folklife Program

Folk Heritage Awards Recipient: J. Russell Reaver


J. Russell Reaver, . Courtesy of Florida Folklife Program/Department of State..
J. Russell ReaverCourtesy of Florida Folklife Program/Department of State.

J. Russell Reaver (1915 - 2002) - 2002 Florida Folk Heritage Award

By Gregory Hansen, from Journal of American Folklore 117(464); 191-2

Joseph Russell Reaver was born on August 4, 1915, in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. His family came from a long line of Pennsylvania Dutch and Quakers, whose folk culture inspired Reaver’s lifelong appreciation for folklore as a vibrant component of community life. He grew up hearing the folktales, dialect, and musical traditions of southeastern Pennsylvania, and he maintained this appreciation for folklore as an essential part of everyday life by researching and writing about Florida folklife during his tenure as a professor at Florida State University. A pioneering scholar of folklore, Reaver’s contributions include important writings on legends and other narrative genres as well as contributions to public folklore as a founder of state folklore societies and the Florida Folk Festival.

After completing his Ph.D. in Ohio State University’s English department, Reaver briefly taught at the Citadel in South Carolina and at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign. From the early l950s, he spent his career at Florida State University in Tallahassee, where he established the university’s first courses in folklore. In addition to his books and journal articles on subjects ranging from folktales and belief to music, Reaver was also highly regarded as a scholar of American literature. In particular, his work on Ralph Waldo Emerson is an important contribution to scholarship on American transcendentalists.
Russell studied folklore before the discipline was officially established within American universities. He credits Benjamin Botkin’s writing with pointing him toward folklore as a subject for academic research. During his early teaching career, he creatively used folkloristics within his literature courses, and he discovered ways to teach about folklore by integrating stories and folklore scholarship into his lectures. Building on a groundswell interest in folklore that he had largely created, Reaver established the first courses in folklore at Florida State University and directed numerous folklore studies in undergraduate and graduate courses.

When he was initiating folklore classes in Florida, Reaver recognized that the state offered fascinating opportunities for fieldwork. As a young professor, he received a research grant to document folklife throughout the state, and he completed research throughout his career. His research with the Minorcan community in St. Augustine fifty years ago provided the first major contribution to Minorcan folklore scholarship in America, and Reaver also completed pioneering research in the Florida Keys. Throughout his research, he strove to develop careful and accurate documentation, focusing particularly on ways to study folklore as verbal art. His major folklore publication, Florida Folktales (1987), remains the most extensive collection of legends from the Sunshine State.

In the 1950s, folklore was also taught at other universities throughout the state. Reaver recognized that, with his courses in Tallahassee, folklorists could build a statewide network of researchers. As a result of his organization efforts, folklorists created the Florida Folklore Society (FFS), a base for important contributions in folklore scholarship. Members of the FFS began documenting local folklore, hosting annual conferences, and publishing books and articles on the state’s folk cultures. Although the organization fell into decli