For years now, I have harbored this deep, slightly crazed affinity for tall tales. Paul Bunyan, John Henry and their ilk populated my childhood in St. Louis, a city that identified itself with Westward expansion and called itself “The Gateway to the West”, but I don’t remember feeling strongly about the stories or their characters. They were just there.
Later, as an adult and a second grade teacher, Sid Fleischman’s goofy and charming McBroom stories triggered a new interest in the genre. Around that time, too, I stumbled on Roger Welsch’s book, Tall-Tale Postcards: A Pictorial History. The postcards’ visual hyperbole hit some odd nerve and pushed me over the edge into full-blown fandom.
Tall tale postcards feature hyperbolic fish, oversized tomatoes and monstrous ears of corn.
In an age when few photographs aren’t manipulated, the postcards can now seem quaint. They aren’t surreal images that rely on jarring juxtapositions, and neither are they digital manipulations so seamlessly crafted as to try to hide their artifice. In fact, their often obvious splicing and the boldness of the resulting exaggeration are key to their charm.
Tall tale postcards were produced to tell stories — stories about places — rural places where the natural resources were BIG and BOUNTIFUL. Most common in the central, agricultural portion of the country, there is a sense of salesmanship to many of them: the makers want to convince you just how great things are “around here”.
Tall tale postcards’ popularity peaked in the decade between 1905 and 1915, when a perfect storm of forces conspired to bring them to prominence. Photography, while still a novelty, was establishing itself as a more broadly accessible art, so practitioners were proliferating. Too, the U.S. Postal Service’s infrastructure had developed to a point where postcards had become a timely, affordable and viable means of communication: postcards of all sorts were exploding as an easy way for a migrating population to share news and information with friends and family across the country. Tall tale postcards, more specifically, picked up on a certain frontier mentality and oral tradition linked to westward expansion, that was still strong in this period of immigration and homesteading.
The postcards are usually one-liners. But their predecessors, tall tales stories, trade in more complex narratives of the vast, wild landscape of the American West and the settlers who moved out into those territories. The tales are filled with myth-making and peopled with outlandish folk heroes who execute superhuman feats. Though by the early 1900’s the tales could be found in newspapers and other printed media, they were originally oral affairs, boldly relating their unbelievable elements as if factual or true, with their tongues nonetheless planted firmly in their cheeks. Building on the sense of grandeur, vastness and plenty that characterized even the earliest European settlers’ descriptions of North America, the tall tale feels like a narrative species indigenous to these shores.
That the tales are invariably first person narratives stands to reason, given that they began as oral stories: their exaggeration and hyperbole almost requires a non-neutral, “I was there” sort of voice that would be hard to achieve with another form of narration. Their narrators often excuse the incredibility of their stories at the outset — as in Glen Rounds’ Old Paul: “Some of these stories you may find a mite hard to believe, but you must remember that folks who do things that are easy to believe don’t often have stories told about them.” Or at the start of Sid Fleischman’s McBroom and the Beanstalk: “Never and no sir! Me enter the World Champion Liar’s contest at the county fair? Why, hair’ll grow on a fish before I trifle with the truth!”
In addition to the late Sid Fleischman, other modern tall tale tellers include, in the picture book realm: Anne Isaacs (Swamp Angel, Dust Devil), Jerdine Nolen (Thunder Rose, Big Jabe), Phyllis Root (Paula Bunyan), Pat Mora (Dona Flor) and Steven Kellogg (who has done many re-tellings of traditional tall tales). (It’s worth noting that these newer tall tales broaden the field to include more women, Latinas, and African Americans in a world that, save for John Henry, was traditionally dominated by white men.)
And up the line, of course, is the inimitable Richard Peck (A Year Down Yonder, Here Lies the Librarian, A Long Way from Chicago, A Season of Gifts, etc.) Peck’s A Year Down Yonder and its companions — while not tall tales through and through — are filled with tall narrative bits. And like so many in the genre, they share what historians identify as one of the original drivers behind the telling of tall tales: humour as a push-back in the face of hardship, and as a way for tellers to feel some modicum of control when faced with forces so much more powerful. Peck’s narrator, Mary Alice, stares down the Great Depression and the trials of living in the sticks with her idiosyncratic grandmother with wry tales of great hilarity — just as settlers before her threw outlandish stories back into the faces of the various natural challenges they faced on the frontier.
The bragging contests that took place out on the frontier among gatherings of men in bars and the like is also cited as a starting place for the tales. In either case, the stories hew to Mark Twain’s observation that “The human race has only one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.”
Along with first person narrators, other particularities recur in the language of tall tales too. All make generous use of metaphor and, more particularly, simile. Richard Peck, in Here Lies the Librarian, writes “She had skin on her like a peach,” “I felt like grain of wheat in a box full of rat droppings,” and “Judge Ransom circled the room like a bald-headed buzzard campaigning till the last dog died.”
Peck, like many other tall tale writers, also makes use of ‘old fashioned’ or ‘country’ vernacular, deploying great phrases like “dadburn it!”, “thrown in the pokey”, “doggonedest”, “all eyes”, “who in the dickens”, “near enough”, “a straggle of houses”, “chick-a-block” etc. The folksy language helps anchor the stories in a time of yore as well as in their typically rural environs.
A favored tall tale construction that also shows up frequently is the “she/he/it is SO ‘A’ that ‘B'”, where ‘A’ is an adjective or adjectival phrase and ‘B’ is some sort of outlandish or hyperbolic claim. In that vein Alvin Schwartz, in Whoppers: Tall Tales and Other Lies, describes a pond freezing so fast that the ducks got frozen in place, a woman who is so tall that she gets wet ten minutes before everyone else when it rains, rain that is so hard that people have to jump in the river to keep from drowning and weather so cold that people’s shadows freeze in place. (Schwartz, by the way, begins his book: “To be truthful, this book is a pack of lies. I counted them just a minute ago and there were exactly one hundred and forty-five. I know thousands more, of course, but I don’t have room for them.”)
I’ve always been curious whether or how a writer might stretch a tall tale into a different historic period, or even into an urban setting. (I’d love to see examples if you can think of any!) My sense is that the form — in large part because of the particularities of the tall tale voice — may be too deeply rooted in the era and place of its origin, though, which is why the newer tall tales of Anne Isaacs and others harken back as they do.
Last summer in Missoula, Montana I stumbled on a collection of contemporary postcards from Montana-based DuckBoy Inc. Duckboy calls their cards ‘Redneck style’, and in some (above) the tall tale sensibility is alive and well. While I was happy to see the tall tale postcard a little bit modernized in the “Tougher Golf Holes” one, it was no surprise that the cards sprang into being in Montana. Montana, after all, is where large wild mammals — like bear and big horn sheep — almost certainly still outnumber humans. And Montana, too, is where the rivers are so crowded with fish that all you need to catch them is a boat: paddle out into the water and loads of fish looking for wiggle-room will just jump right in.