Jack Be Nimble

By Linda Shapiro

I think, therefore I provoke might well be Jack Zipes’s motto. An internationally renowned scholar and translator who has published prolifically, he’s also a cultural activist who motivates children to question the traditional stories they’ve been told and helps them create new ones. In the process, he has fundamentally reshaped the way we think about folklore and fairy tales.

Zipes made his reputation challenging the conventional wisdom governing the meaning of folk and fairy tales and the role they play in our lives. “I don’t look at them in an isolated way, but I try to see their relationship to society," he says. “It’s an interdisciplinary approach to explaining the tales in terms of how they have influenced us politically, psychologically, and aesthetically."

His wide-ranging interests allow him to approach diverse fields with more openness than specialists would dare to show. “I was not trained as a folklorist, a Germanist, or a specialist in children’s literature. Therefore, I can approach these fields in innovative ways. I can go where my heart and mind take me, which is all over the map," says Zipes, who has published nearly 50 books and more than 100 articles.

“Jack is a true intellectual,? says Eric Weitz, chair of the history department. “He’s incredibly erudite in literature, history, and philosophy and able to draw on scholarly research in any of these areas.? Zipes unapologetically refers to himself as an autodidact who absorbs, writes about and teaches subjects that stimulate his voracious curiosity. “I had to make up for a terrible undergraduate education—most of what I learned, I learned on my own. Even if I wasn’t trained in a particular field, I always felt that if I had the desire and the perseverance, I could learn enough to articulate my point of view,? he says.

Moving Out
Zipes’s peripatetic career has taken him from his native New York City, where he received a Ph.D. in English and comparative literature at Columbia University in 1965, to Germany, where he became interested in children’s theater and began to research folk literature. After teaching stints in Munich and at New York University, where he was urged to look for a job somewhere else because he led a student strike in protest against the Vietnam War, he migrated to the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee in 1972.

At the time, the move to Milwaukee “felt like being exiled to Siberia," Zipes, a diehard New Yorker, acknowledges. “But you could do things there, because you weren’t competing against the big-timers as you would be in New York or Chicago. It gave me the opportunity to experiment." Over the next 14 years, he co-founded New German Critique, which became one of the most significant interdisciplinary journals of German studies, directed a children’s theater, and worked in the public schools as a storyteller. He accepted a position as professor of German and comparative literature at Minnesota in 1989. For many years he has spent time in Europe every summer and has taken off every third year “to question what I’m doing," he says.

Telling Tales
An ornery individualist who approaches folk and fairy tales from multiple perspectives, Zipes has produced books with provocative titles like Breaking the Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales and Don’t Bet on the Prince. Across time and place, Zipes says, fairy tales reflect certain universal concerns. “These stories get to the bottom of our natural inclinations and desires, critical issues such as mating, rape, incest, and inheritance that are germane to the human species and all societies," he says. And, it seems, the tales serve similar functions in society. Says Zipes, “We tell tales to communicate, to understand the world, to bring about some sort of social identity. Throughout history, stories of various kinds were told in ritual ways to socialize children, give them a sense of identity, calm their fears, and explain natural phenomena."

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on June 27, 2008 5:00 PM.

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