Gershon Legman: The Folklorist Nobody Knows (SCOWAH Chronicles, no. 4)

Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1917, Gershon Legman was a classmate of the great urban activist Jane Jacobs. As a schoolboy he collected jokes and learned the art of origami, later promoting this ancient art in the West through a series of exhibitions in Amsterdam and New York.

Legman graduated from Scranton's Central High School in 1934, and sometime in the mid- to late 1930s he moved to New York where he became a researcher and bibliographer, practically living in the Columbia University Library and New York Public Library. It was at the New York Public Library that he first became acquainted with the writings of the Renaissance jokester Poggio (1380-1459). “Here was the perfect model for Legman. Reading Poggio’s Facetiae and Boccaccio’s Decameron showed him that his present-day joke collections were linked to a long oral and literary tradition reaching back before the Renaissance in Europe, and even drew on a global cultural fund.” --Susan Davis, “Wise Fools, Foolish Virgins, and Dirty Tricksters: Gershon Legman and American Folk Humor,” Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore, vol. 34 , Spring-Summer 2008.

Legman worked as a bibliographer for Alfred Kinsey, as well as the Arkansas folklorist Vance Randolph, and established a mail order publishing business. This was eventually the cause of his persecution by the U. S. Postal Service (for the publication in 1949 of Love & Death: A Study in Censorship). Controversial and harassed, by 1953 Legman went into a self-imposed exile in France, where he and his family found sanctuary in the hills of Southern France. He continued his research into the folklore of the unprintable, and won critical acclaim for his books, especially The Rationale of the Dirty Joke (1968). Although his valuable research suffered at the hands of a disapproving academy, after his death in 1999 the tide would eventually begin to turn. Folklorists around the world have now come to respect the distinguished scholarship of Gershon Legman.

Legman is credited with coining the expression “Make Love, Not War.”

Selected reading list:

Funny peculiar: Gershon Legman and the Psychopathology of Humor by Mikita Brottman (Analytic Press, 2004)

Martha Cornog and Timothy Perper, "Make Love, Not War: The Legacy of Gershon Legman, 1917-1999,The Journal of Sex Research, Vol. 36, No. 3 (Aug., 1999), pp. 316-317

Sex and Humor: Selections From the Kinsey Institute, edited by Catherine Johnson, Betsy Stirratt, and John Bancroft (Indiana University Press, 2002)

Stop Me If You've Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes by Jim Holt (W.W. Norton & Co., 2008)

Gershon Legman teaching origami, Amsterdam 1954
Photo courtesy Judith Legman

SCOWAH Chronicles is a series of profiles featuring some of our favorite characters, based on the exhibition The Objects of Our Affection: Wonderful Characters from the Schmulowitz Collection of Wit & Humor. Every year on April Fool's Day the San Francisco Public Library presents a themed exhibition celebrating this extraordinary collection. On view now in the Skylight Gallery, Sixth Floor, through May 31.