MacEdward Leach and the Songs of Atlantic Canada

MacEdward Leach - Influence as a Teacher

MacEdward Leach (MUNFLA Photo P10769)Leach was widely regarded as a charismatic and well-liked professor. His roots were in the country, with the very people whose stories and songs he sought to collect, and despite his high regard in academic circles, his heart was always with "the folk." Leach's office was 110 Bennett Hall, at the University of Pennsylvania. He would hold that office for 36 years, and at the end of his career live on as a veritable legend within the department.

Leach's defining characteristic was his skill as a raconteur. Wherever he traveled, he seemed to have the ability to find himself in humorous situations, which he was then able to relate to his students. It was because of his personable, down-to-earth nature that MacEdward Leach became known affectionately among his students and colleagues as "Mac." This name never appeared in scholarly print, of course, but instead in many humorous and whimsical anecdotes about the man himself. Known for his charisma, leonine appearance, and seemingly indecipherable handwriting, he was a figure on the North American folklore scene that would not soon be forgotten.

Leach was instrumental in establishing the first Folklore program at the University of Pennsylvania in 1962. A respected medievalist involved in the study of the juxtaposition of oral and literary traditions, MacEdward Leach was a long-time supporter of the idea that the study of folklore merited as much academic attention as literature, that the two were in fact very closely related. The study of folklore however, was evolving away from textual analysis and moving into the realm of contextual and performance-based study. An early supporter of this, Leach encouraged his students to forge new paths in the discipline, despite his own reservations about some of the proposed methodologies and theories. He also encouraged students to "shake off the tyranny of the Child canon," (Utley in "MacEdward Leach") which is ironic given the fact that Leach himself was widely recognized as a collector of Child Ballads. His students would go on to study more recently indentified and ephemeral genres, such as anecdotes and urban legends, that Leach himself would never have classified as folklore. He most likely, though, would have agreed with the innovation.

MacEdward Leach never considered himself to be a romantic, but most of his ex-students would disagree. He is said to have told stories such as "Deirdre and Naoise" and "Tristan and Ysolde" in class, and most of the stories which he praised were romances. It is said that Leach loved people, and this undoubtedly contributed greatly to his teaching abilities and to his work as a folklorist.

His preparedness and consummate knowledge of his material in class was impressive. Horace Beck reports, "I remember one day in class when MacEdward made some apparently outlandish statement that irritated a student. Leaping to his feet the young man demanded, 'Sir, what is the source of your information?' 'Encyclopedia Romania, Volume II, page 210, second sentence, second paragraph." And he continued with his teaching. That is the only time I ever recall anyone challenging Mac" (in "MacEdward Leach").

Many of Leach's students went on to further studies in the field of folklore. A great number also became professors highly esteemed in the academic world. Tristram P. Coffin, Roger D. Abrahams, Kenneth Goldstein, John Greenway, Horace P. Beck, Malcolm G. Laws and Fred R. MacFadden all studied under MacEdward Leach and state that his teaching was well respected and by both students and colleagues.

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