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Tall tales and tall talk.

Constance Rourke was probably correct in setting down the Rev. Samuel A. Peters in her American Humor as a conscious rather than unconscious humorist, in which case his General History of Connecticut (1781) may be said to contain some of our earliest specimens of satirical lying. Had he not been conscious of their satiric effect, his entries would exemplify the form of tall talk that motivated Benjamin Franklin, originator of so much else in American civilization, to write the first spoof for a newspaper. On May 20, 1765, Franklin wrote a letter to a London newspaper as a satirical reply to statements being made about the American colonies. His letter called attention to the origins for these statements in a collective wish to believe in a fabulous, rather than actual, America. He mentioned particularly the story "in all the papers last week" that the people of Canada were preparing to set up "a cod and whale fishery this summer in the upper lakes"; he noted that "the grand leap of a whale in that chase up the fall of the Niagara is esteemed, by all who have seen it, as one of the finest spectacles in nature."

Peters' satiric lies and Franklin's satirical reply expose the source of the tall tale in a wish to trick a reader or listener into belief in a deception. When the gull for the tale is a stranger, his gullibility structures the difference between the members of the community who are in on the game and an outsider whose entry into the community coincides with his being taken in by the tale. The American tall tale made its formal bow in Washington Irving's History of New York by Diedrich Knickerbocker (1809), with its profile of Governor Wouter Van Twiller, for example, who was "exactly five feet six inches in height and six feet five inches in circumference." Generally, however, it is held that the tall tale first began to flourish on the Western frontier, a land without history about which travelers were eager to believe anything. The backwoodsman, represented by such historic figures as Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, would supply endless wild tales of his exploits, some of them true and others exaggerated. To match the fooleries of Crockett, the West invented Mike Fink, king of the flatboatmen, whose vast hyperboles made other men's boasts seem like understatement. The Crockett Almanacs, about fifty of which appeared between 1835 and 1856, purported to be the work of Crockett himself or his heirs, and told many tall tales about Crockett, Fink, Boone, and others. This tall talk had a deep influence on many writers, including Twain and Whitman. Fine examples are given in Twain's Life on the Mississippi (1883), whose effect James Cox described in The Fate of Humor as the narrator's converson of "his humiliation, failure, and anger into a tall tale which will both move and rouse the listener . . . move him to laughter and rouse him to skepticism."

The Yankee never went to the lengths the Westerner did. His humor was still spare and comparatively restrained. Richard Dorson found "the casual lie" characteristic of Yankee humor. His Jonathan Draws the Long Bow (1896) covers a wide and constantly entertaining range of supernatural stories; yarns of greenhorns, tricksters, and originals; tall tales of hunting and fishing, strong men, and the constantly reappearing sea serpent; and literary folk tales. Dorothy Canfield Fisher, in an article entitled "Old Salt and Old Oak," in the Saturday Review of Literature, May 22, 1943, mentions another class of New England tales, those that give a vivid glimpse into the tangled brain of somebody who isn't quite all there. A familiar one concerns a hired man who hears someone talking about a dead body found near a river. He asks anxiously, "Did it have on a brown coat?" "Yes," comes the answer. He shrinks back, then asks, "Did it have on black buttoned shoes?" "No." "Oh, then, 'twan't me." The chief folk hero of New England is Captain Stormalong, the sailor giant and hero of the sea. He appears in an old sailors' shanty and in Walter Blair's accounts in Tall Tale America (1944). Lewis Pendleton endeavored to rival the exploits of Stormalong in Down East: The Remarkable Adventures on the Briny Deep and Ashore of Captain Isaac Drinkwater and Jedediah Peabody (1937).

Paul Bunyan is the greatest mythical hero America has provided. Tales about Bunyan have been gathered in several books, for example, H. W. Felton's Legends of Paul Bunyan (1937). Other folk heroes--some of them modeled on actual persons--are <IR> JAMES BRIDGER </IR> , <IR> FEBOLD FEBOLDSON </IR> , Gib Morgan of the oil fields, <IR> PECOS BILL </IR> , <IR> JOHN HENRY </IR> , <IR> TONY BEAVER </IR> , <IR> BILLY THE KID </IR> , and <IR> BIG-FOOT WALLACE </IR> . Other real people whose size has been magnified in American narratives include Captain <IR> JOHN SMITH </IR> , <IR> JOHNNY APPLESEED </IR> , <IR> WILLIAM F. CODY </IR> , <IR> ANNIE OAKLEY </IR> , <IR> JESSE JAMES </IR> , the pirate <IR> LAFITTE </IR> , and <IR> KIT CARSON </IR> . Mody C. Boatwright, discussing "The Art of Tall Lying" (Southwest Review, Autumn 1949), suggested that the men who moved west with the frontier had "in the tall tale developed one of America's few indigenous art forms." H.L. Mencken, in The American Language, 4th ed. (1936), found in the grotesque metaphors and far-fetched exaggerations of American tall talk the source of a great many Americanisms.

There have been numerous collections of regional tall tales, or stories about individual heroes. Among these are J.H. Ingraham, Lafitte, the Pirate of the Gulf (1836); John C. Duval, Adventures of Big-Foot Wallace (1870); W.N. Burns, The Saga of Billy the Kid (1926); Percy MacKaye, Tall Tales of the Kentucky Mountains (1926); Frank Shay, Here's Audacity! American Legendary Heroes (1930); F.J. Meine, Tall Tales of the Southwest (1930); Roark Bradford, John Henry (1931); Walter Blair and F.J. Meine, Mike Fink (1933); Bernard De Voto, Mark Twain's America (1932); James H. Daugherty, Their Weight in Wildcats (1936); A.P. Hudson, Humor of the Old Deep South (1936); Vincent McHugh, Caleb Catlum's America (1936); C. Bowman, Pecos Bill, the Greatest Cowboy of All Time (1937); Richard Dorson, ed., Davy Crockett: American Comic Legend (1939); Harold W. Thompson, Body, Boots, & Britches (1940); B.A. Botkin, Treasury of American Folklore (1944), Treasury of New England Folklore (1947), and Western Folklore (1951); M.C. Boatwright, Gib Morgan, Minstrel of the Oil Fields (1945); Ben C. Clough, The American Imagination at Work: Tall Tales and Folk Tales (1947); Paul R. Beath, Tall Tales from the Great Plains (1948); Vance Randolph, We Always Lie to Strangers: Tall Tales from the Ozarks (1951); J. Frank Dobie, Tales of Old-Time Texas (1955); Bill Gulick, White Men, Red Men, and Mountain Men (1955); John J. Flanagan and Arthur Palmer Hudson, American Folklore Reader: Folklore in American Literature (1958); James M. Cox, The Fate of Humor (1966); and Neil Schmitz, Of Huck and Alice: Humorous Writing in American Literature (1983). ( <IR> See HUMOR IN THE UNITED STATES </IR> .)
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Author:Pease, Donald E., Jr.
Publication:Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature
Article Type:Reference Source
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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