Tall Tales (American History Through Literature)
Tall tales, oral and written, and one of America's oldest and most popular narrative forms, flourished in the nineteenth century, especially on the frontier. A combination of reality and fantasy, usually told in the first person as a true story and frequently disguised as a personal narrative or anecdote, the tall tale typically depends on the storyteller assuming a straight-faced pose, purporting to be relating fact but enlarging the plot with fictive and outlandish details, which cumulatively create an incredible and fanciful yarn. The intent of the tall tale is humorous, its humor stemming from absurd situations intended to entertain through amusing stretchers or comic lies. Moreover, according to Henry B. Wonham, tall tales promote communal identity, solidifying the connection between the yarn spinner and his listeners when the latter "respond instantaciously with appropriate recognition and understanding to the rhetorical game he is playing" ("Character Development of the Ring-Tailed Roarer," p. 272) Those who catch on, comprehending and appreciating the tale as fiction rather than as truth, who enjoy the storyteller's artful reconfiguring and embellishment of details in creating the preposterous, and who thereby subsequently avoid embarrassment and humiliation, comprise the tale's in-group. The victim, on the other hand, often an outsider and naïf, hears the tall tale as fact and regards it as true and plausible. And his gullibility contributes to the amusement of the tale's narrator and of the rest of the knowing audience.
An antecedent of the tall tale is the seventeenth-and eighteenth-century promotional tract, books like William Wood's New England Prospect (1634), John Josselyn's New England Rarities Discovered (1672) and An Account of Two Voyages to New England (1675), George Alsop's A Character of the Province of Maryland (1666), and John Lawson's A New Voyage to Carolina (1709), which feature deliberately exaggerated and spurious descriptions of flora, fauna, climate, and Native Americans. For example, Lawson describes the fertility of the Carolina soil, humorously noting that "eating peaches in our Orchards makes them come up so thick from the kernel that we are forced to take a great deal of care to weed them out; otherwise they make our Lands a Wilderness of Peach trees" (p. 115); Josselyn reports among New England's rarities radishes that grow "as big as a man's arm" (p. 336), a frog as large as a man, a goose with three hearts, and a wild cat with six whole geese in his stomach. Exercises in humorous hyperbole, these promotional tall tales not only accentuated American self-identity that came to be associated with the American frontier but also satirized English ignorance and gullibility about America. Earmarks of the tall tale also show up occasionally in William Byrd's 1728 The History of the Dividing Line when he describes alligators that swallow rocks to make themselves heavy enough to pull cows underwater to drown them and then afterward to regurgitate the rocks and squirrels that cross a river on pieces of bark, using their tails as sails.
While oral tall tales flourished on the American frontier in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a crucial development in the evolution of the tall tale in its written form was a foreign import, the widely popular pamphlet Baron Munchausen's Narrative of His Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia (1785), by the German Rudolph Raspe. By 1800 Baron Munchausen's Narrative had been translated into five languages, and by 1835 it had gone through twenty-four editions in the United States, the latter a reliable indicator of its popularity here. In fact, early editions of the baron's fantastic adventures and exploits were brought to America and reprinted, but with some distinctive Americanizations added. Numerous nineteenth-century American yarn spinners seemed to imitate some of Raspe's tall-talish methods in their stories, including featuring deadpan prevaricators who were purporting to be recounting their tales orally to a community of listeners comprised of persons gathering around campfires, congregating on steamboats or in saloons, or attending political barbeques. Moreover, many of these raconteurs, among them James Kirke Paulding's Nimrod Wildfire, Thomas C. Haliburton's Sam Slick, Thomas Bangs Thorpe's (1815878) Jim Doggett, Hardin E. Taliaferro's Fisher's River story-tellers, George Washington Harris's (1849869) Sut Lovingood, and William Gilmore Simms's Sam Snaffles, sometimes adopted variants of narrative techniques, appropriated plots and motifs, and in some cases even produced reincarnations of Munchausen tales. As a catalyst for the emergence of the written tall narrative in America, Walter Blair has observed, "the baron's tales about hunting and fishing in Russia . . . were ready made for American appropriation and naturalization" ("A German Connection," p. 133).
The southwestern humorist Hardin E. Taliaferro (1811875), the author of Fisher's River (North Carolina) Scenes and Characters (1859) who was born in Surry County, North Carolina, but who spent most of his adult life as a Baptist minister in Alabama, has the affable Uncle Davy Lane, an actual Surry County storyteller, recount two tales in this collection, "The Pigeon's Roost" and "Ride in the Peach Tree," which employ folklore motifs first popularized in the Munchausen tales. In "The Pigeon's Roost," Uncle Davy relates how his horse, which he has hitched to the limb of a tree where a large flock of pigeons is roosting, is suddenly lifted forty feet into the air after he begins shooting at the birds, a variation of the Munchausen story where the baron, when caught in a snowstorm, ties his horse to what he believes is the stump of a tree, only to discover the next morning when the snow has melted that he had tied his horse to the weathercock of a church steeple. In "Ride in a Peachtree" Uncle Davy recounts a hunting story, built on a popular Munchausen motif, in which he describes having shot at a deer, using a peach stone for ammunition (the Baron had used cherry stones) and discovers sometime later that the deer he shot has a peach tree growing behind its shoulders.
Another widespread appropriation from Munchausen by American storytellers is the motif of the wonderful hunt, an element recast in numerous nineteenth-century American tall tales featuring hunting adventures, one of the best of which is William Gilmore Simms's (1806870) "How Sharp Snaffles Got His Capital and Wife," published posthumously in Harper's Magazine in 1870. Based on an actual hunting excursion in the autumn of 1847 when Simms and some of his friends traveled to the Balsam range in southwestern North Carolina, "Sharp" (Sam) Snaffles seems to be drawing, if only indirectly, on the wonderful hunt pattern established in some of the Munchausen tales. In Simms's variant, he has Sam Snaffles describe in a straight-faced manner how he snared twenty-seven hundred geese by placing a large net on a pond, and when the geese get entangled, they fly away with him, eventually dropping Sam into a hollow stump loaded with honey. Then when a bear comes down the stump and threatens Sam's life, he kills it, the bear providing him with four hundred and fifty pounds of meat. With geese, two thousand pounds of honey, and an enormous quantity of bear meat, Sam has, with little intentional effort on his own, managed to acquire the capital to attain respectability and ultimately to marry the woman he desires for his wife.
DAVY CROCKETT AND MIKE FINK
Through their adventures and exploits on the American frontier, Mike Fink (1770823) and David Crockett (1786836), both real-life frontiersmen, literally invented themselves as larger-than-life characters. Furthermore, their fictionalization in numerous tall tales, many by anonymous journalists, helped to popularize Fink and Crockett as mythic heroes. Tales featuring them were widely circulated both orally and in print, the print versions appearing in almanacs, plays, gift books, newspapers, and magazines. In 1828 Morgan Neville in "The Last of the Boatmen" featured Fink as a half horse, half alligator kind of man, and Timothy Flint, Thomas Bangs Thorpe, John S. Robb, and anonymous authors of the Crockett Almanac sketches further enlarged Fink to legendary status. Born in Fort Pitt on the Pennsylvania frontier where he served as an Indian fighter and scout in the 1770s, Fink later migrated to the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers where he worked as a keelboatman and eventually moved to the Rocky Mountains to become a hunter and trapper. In actuality a rowdy, fearless, reckless roughneck, violently cruel and already a legend before he died, Fink, in fictionalized accounts, was reconfigured as a man who could drink a gallon of whiskey in twenty-four hours but without impairing his physical mobility or slurring his speech, who boasted that he "could out-run, out-jump, out-shoot, out-brag, out-drink, and outfight, rough an' tumble . . . any man on both sides the river from Pittsburgh to New Orleans an' back ag'in to St. Louiee," who could ride a moose like a horse, and who even beat Davy Crockett in a shooting match ("Mike Fink's Brag," p. 2056; "Mike Fink Hunting a Moose," p. 211; "Col. Crockett Beat at a Shooting Match," p. 65).
Crockett was born on the Tennessee frontier, fought in the Creek War, served in the Tennessee legislature and in the United States Congress, and later fought heroically for Texas independence before being killed at the battle of the Alamo. Through self-promotion and as a subject of numerous tall tales he was elevated to iconic status, even while still alive. Acknowledging his mythic status, in part attributable to his own invention in his pseudo-autobiography and the imaginative lore featured in biographies and in tall tales by anonymous folk journalists and almanac writers, Congressman Crockett wrote,
I have met with hundreds, if not thousands of people who have formed their opinions of my appearance, habits, language, and every thing else. . . . They have almost in every instance expressed the most profound astonishment at finding me in human shape, and with the countenance, appearance, and common feelings of a human being. (Blair and Hill, p. 122)
Tall tales, many the work of anonymous writers in the Crockett Almanacs (1835856), comically and hyperbolically celebrated Davy Crockett's exploits, including such fabricated boasts that he drank dry the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, rode his pet alligator up Niagara Falls, unfroze the earth frozen in its axis with hot bear oil, escaped a tornado by mounting a streak of lightning, and saved the United States from destruction by wringing the tail off Haley's Comet and throwing it back into outer space.
The Crockett Almanacs also featured frontier women, aptly designated as "riproarious shemales," an "inversion of the then current ideal of femininity," according to Michael A. Lofaro ("Riproarious Shemales," p. 117). Though not given voice so as to be able to celebrate their own superhuman exploits orally, these women, almost all of whom were single, displayed extraordinary abilities, such as independence, physical strength, courage, and self-confidence, typically the attributes ascribed to legendary frontier men. Lotty Ritchers, "The Flower of Gum Swamp,"
THE TALL TALE: AT HOME IN THE SOUTH
The chief period of prominence of the tall tale was 1830 to 1860, and the principal practitioners were professional men living in the South, typically only writers by avocation, who were known as the humorists of the Old Southwest. Many tall tales in this traditionumorous sketches, mock letters, and anecdotesegan appearing in the 1830s in newspapers such as William T. Porter's the Spirit of the Times, New Orleans Picayune, St. Louis Reveille, Mont-gomery Mail, Louisville Courier, Cincinnati News, and Columbia South Carolinian. Writers of southern frontier tall tales usually adopted a frame or box structure, which re-created the oral tale-telling situation and which featured a refined and educated narrator who would establish the preparatory social context for the tale and introduce the vernacular storyteller, often a colorful backwoodsman and an artful and likable liar, who would then recount the tall tale. Moreover, many tales were so outlandish and incredible that most readers did not readily identify with the backwoods raconteur, nor did they vicariously attach themselves sympathetically to him.
One of the best known, most entertaining, and most absurd Old Southwestern tall tales that employs the frame device is Phillip B. January's "That Big Dog Fight at Myers's," which appeared originally in the Spirit of the Times. In it, Uncle Johnny graphically and retrospectively recounts an action-packed, fictive adventure about Old Irontooth, who, when drunk, amused a tavern crowd by getting down on all fours and fighting Myers's dog with his teeth and hands. In confronting the dog before the fight, Old Irontooth, Uncle Johnny humorously observes, assumes doglike characteristics, "walkin' backards and forards, pitchin' up the dust and bellerin like bull," but when Myers's dog begins to "see our animal strut up to the gate and begin to smell, then, like another dog, he got fairly crazy to git thru at him; rarin', cavortin', and tarin' off pickets" of the fence (Cohen and Dillingham, p. 250).
An even better example of the written frontier tall tale that replicates the zestful and hyperbolic quality of oral storytelling and that employs both frame and vernacular narrators is Thomas Bangs Thorpe's "The Big Bear of Arkansas" (1841), which was also published in Porter's Spirit of the Times. Jim Doggett, Thorpe's tall-talking raconteur from Shirt-tail Bend, masterfully manipulates a crowd of male gentlemen travelers on a Mississippi River steamboat with amusing and extravagant claims about how large everything is in Arkansas, including potatoes, beets, corn, mosquitoes, turkeys, and especially bears. One bear, in particular, Jim describes as eluding him during a hunt that lasted for three years. In the surprising, perfectly timed, and skillfully executed anticlimactic moment of Jim's story, when Jim's "creation" bear, which by this point has assumed mythic proportions, suddenly appears, Jim is literally caught with his pants about his ankles, engaging most inappropriately and unheroically in a bowel movement in the woods. Jim's listeners have become so engrossed in his story that they set themselves up to be deceived by their own vanity and preconditioned expectations concerning how they believe Jim's tale will end.
The tall tales of George Washington Harris feature improbable incidents as told by an untutored East Tennessee mountaineer and prankster named Sut Lovingood who is given dominant voice with little or no intrusion from the authorial narrator. In fact, Sut has full control of the fictive world he describes as in "Sut Lovingood's Daddy, Acting Horse" when, after the family's one plow horse has frozen to death, Sut's father has himself harnessed to plow the corn patch (Cohen and Dillingham, p. 203). Moreover, the frame in a typical Sut Lovingood yarn, such as this one, emphasizes that Sut is only telling a story rather than performing an action and that he is encouraging both his frame audience listeners as well as the readers outside the narrative to participate vicariously, becoming, if only in an imaginative sense, a part of the oral tale's audience.
In one of the more significance developments in the evolution of the Southwestern humorous tall tale, Taliaferro in Fisher's River (North Carolina) Scenes and Characters gives an actual marginalized character, Charles Gentry, a Surry County, North Carolina, African American slave preacher, extended narrative voice in two comic oral folk sermons, "The Origin of Whites" and "Jonah and the Whale." In the frame, Taliaferro presents Gentry in a highly complimentary manner, mentioning his goodness, cleverness, and originality and showing a respectable understanding of and toleration for his extreme revisionist theology. For example, in his tall-talish alteration of the standard biblical text of the Cain and Abel story, Gentry voices a comically original, liberating, and imaginative alternative script, fabricating a dialogue between God and Cain concerning the whereabouts of Cain's brother Abel, whom he has killed. In Gentry's version, Cain reacts to God's query by turning "white as bleach cambric in de face, and de whole race ob Cain dey bin white ebber since" (p. 189) Beneath the surface of Gentry's lively and inventive yarn is Taliaferro's affirmation of the black man's capability as a storyteller.
AFRICAN AMERICANS AND THE TALL TALE
The use of African American narrators of tall tales was more widespread in local color writing of the 1880s. Uncle Remus is employed cautiously yet subversively by Joel Chandler Harris (1848908) to challenge the racial status quo in the South in allegorical, comical tales pitting small animals like Brer Rabbit against predators like Brer Fox, animals who talked and acted like people. Charles W. Chesnutt's (1858932) Uncle Julius, in tall tales like "The Goophered Grapevine," which Julius humorously narrates in dialect, cloaks or detracts from the story's subtext, which offers a serious social commentary on the economic exploitation of slaves. Jake Mitchell, another African American storyteller, likewise cleverly told entertaining tall tales to white people, sometimes to manipulate situations outside the narrative to his personal advantage and empowerment. Mitchell's collaborator Robert Wilton Burton, a white Auburn, Alabama, bookseller, wrote the frames to the thirty-six Jake stories published in Alabama newspapers from 1886 to 1891.
The major beneficiary of the legacy of the Old Southwestern tall tale was Mark Twain (1835910), who also represents the culmination of this tradition in nineteenth-century American literature. Some of Twain's most memorable writings display tall-talish features that Twain has refashioned and refined into creditable liter-ary art. Among these are "The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" (1867), featuring Simon Wheeler, who, in a spontaneous recollection tells about the compulsive bettor Jim Smiley's fantastic animals; some of the episodes from Roughing It (1872), including the amazing tale in which George Bemis recounts being chased up a tree by a wounded buffalo and Jim Blaine's loose and rambling tale purporting to be about his grandfather's old ram but is not; "Baker's Blue-jay Yarn" in A Tramp Abroad (1880) in which Jim Baker, a lonely California miner, humanizes blue jays and recounts a blue jay's attempt to fill a hole in the roof of a cabin with acorns; and "The Raft Chapter," originally intended as a section in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), showcasing competitive verbal boasts of two ring-tailed roarers. In these texts, modifications of the frontier tall tale, Mark Twain created some lively, engaging characters who are masters of spinning an oral yarn and/or of replicating tall talk. Twain's tall tale raconteurs masterfully adopt a deadpan pose, realistically mimicking the orality of backwoods yarn spinners as they accentuate events to incredible, hyperbolic proportions, using vernacular dialect to create incongruous comparisons and embellished descriptions in their accounts.
With the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, the same year of the demise of the Spirit of the Times, which for thirty years had been the leading outlet for humorous backwoods tall narratives, and the close of the southwestern frontier, which had formerly provided conditions conducive to the creation and proliferation of humorous yarns, the prominence of the literary tall tale was greatly diminished. But in Mark Twain, William Faulkner, William Price Fox, Fred Chappell, Roy Blount Jr., Garrison Keillor, and other American writers, the tall tale has enjoyed resurgence and has continued to remain a vital and engaging literary form.
See also "The Big Bear of Arkansas"; "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County"; Folklore; Humor; Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs
Chesnutt, Charles Waddell. The Conjure Woman and Other Conjure Stories. Edited by Richard H. Brodhead. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993.
"Col. Crockett Beat at a Shooting Match." 1839. In Half Horse, Half Alligator: The Growth of the Mike Fink Legend, edited by Walter Blair and Franklin J. Meine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956.
De Remnant Truth: The Tales of Jake Mitchell and Robert Wilton Burton. Edited by Kathryn Sport and Bert Hitchcock. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1991.
"The Flower of Gum Swamp." 1841. In Davy Crockett's Riproarious Shemales and Sentimental Sisters: Women's Tall Tales from the Crockett Almanacs, 1835856, edited by Michael A. Lofaro. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 2001.
Harris, Joel Chandler. The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1955.
Harris, George Washington. "Sut Lovingood's Daddy, Acting Horse." 1854. In Humor of the Old Southwest, edited by Hennig Cohen and William B. Dillingham. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994.
January, Phillip B. "That Big Dog Fight at Myers's." 1845. In Humor of the Old Southwest, edited by Hennig Cohen and William B. Dillingham. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994.
Josselyn, John An Account of Two Voyages to New England. 1675. Reprinted in Collections. Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, 3rd series, 23 (1833).
"Katy Goodgrit." 1842. In Davy Crockett's Riproarious Shemales and Sentimental Sisters: Women's Tall Tales from the Crockett Almanacs, 1835856, edited by Michael A. Lofaro. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 2001.
Lawson, John. A New Voyage to Carolina. 1709. Edited by H. T. Lefler. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1967.
"Mike Fink's Brag." In The Heath Anthology of American Literature, vol. 1, edited by Paul Lauter et al. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.
"Mike Fink Hunting Moose." In Half Horse, Half Alligator: The Growth of the Mike Fink Legend, edited by Walter Blair and Franklin J. Meine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956.
"Sal Fink, the Mississippi Screamer, How She Cooked Injuns." 1854. In Davy Crockett's Riproarious Shemales and Sentimental Sisters: Women's Tall Tales from the Crockett Almanacs, 1835856. Edited by Michael A. Lofaro. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 2001.
Taliaferro, Hardin E. Fisher's River (North Carolina) Scenes and Characters, By "Skitt" Who Was Raised Thar. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1859.
Thorpe, Thomas Bangs. "The Big Bear of Arkansas." 1841. Humor of the Old Southwest, edited by Hennig Cohen and William B. Dillingham. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994.
Blair, Walter. "A German Connection: Raspe's Baron Munchausen." In Critical Essays on American Humor, edited by William Bedford Clark and W. Craig Turner, pp. 12339. Boston: Hall, 1984.
Blair, Walter, and Hamlin Hill. America's Humor: From Poor Richard to Doonesbury. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
Brown, Carolyn S. The Tall Tale in American Folklore and Literature. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987.
Caron, James E. "The Violence and Language of Swapping Lies: Towards a Definition of the American Tall Tale." Studies in American Humor 5 (1986): 277.
Cohen, Hennig, and William B. Dillingham. Introduction to Humor of the Old Southwest, edited by Hennig Cohen and William B. Dillingham, pp. xvl. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994.
Lofaro, Michael A. "Riproarious Shemales: Legendary Women in the Tall Tale World of the Crockett Almanacs." In Crockett at Two Hundred: New Perspectives on the Man and the Myth, edited by Michael A. Lofaro and Joe Cummings, pp. 11452. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press. 1989.
Lofaro, Michael A. "Shemales, Sentiment, and Stereotypes: A Long View of the Crockett Almanacs." In Davy Crockett's Riproarious Shemales and Sentimental Sisters: Women's Tall Tales from the Crockett Almanacs, 1835856, edited by Michael A. Lofaro, pp. 52. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 2001.
Wardenaar, Leslie A. "Humor of the Colonial Promotional Tract: Topics and Techniques." Early American Literature 9, no. 3 (1975): 28600.
Wonham, Henry B. "Character Development of the Ring-Tailed Roarer in American Literature." Southern Folklore 46 (1989): 26579.
Wonham, Henry B. "In the Name of Wonder: The Emergence of the Tall Narrative in American Writing." American Quarterly 41 (1989): 28407.
Wonham, Henry B. Mark Twain and the Art of the Tall Tale. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Yates, Norris W. William T. Porter and "The Spirit of the Times": A Study in the Big Bear School of Humor. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1957.