Is the Tall Tale a Dying Art?

Posted: February 9, 2015 in Uncategorized
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Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, John Henry… If you grew up in America no doubt you’ve heard these names before. They fell trees with a single chop of their ax and hammer steel spikes faster than steam-powered machines. They’re the tales America was built on, the larger than life heroes of old.

Intriguingly, none of these tales are told as though anything is out of the ordinary. Paul Bunyan was a mountain of a man, but he was never described as a giant, despite being much larger than his companions. His blue ox, Babe, was so colored because it had been so cold when the ox was born that it turned her blue. This seemed perfectly plausible when I first encountered the story because it was told with an air of authority. In fact, despite Paul Bunyan being larger than life in a laundry list of ways I never would have labeled it a fantasy story. He’s a stretch of the imagination, but nothing about the way its told ever goes beyond the kind of yarn spun around a fishing trip and the whopper that got away.

Paul Bunyan belongs to the elite group of folklore known as a tall tale, and it’s a form of storytelling I haven’t seen much use of in a modern world. Its also one that I hadn’t given much thought to until reading Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli.

As soon as I read the first chapter I knew what I was in for: a tall tale.

Maniac Magee is told by a first person narrator who has heard all of the stories, of the extraordinary Maniac, and is pleased as punch to tell it all to you complete with all the exaggerations. It’s a fun way to begin a book, leaving no question in my mind that I was going to hear some miraculous stories of Maniac’s prowess and though it may seem unbelievable the narrator assured me it was all 100% true. I could suspend my disbelief for that.

When I was finished I couldn’t help but browse the reviews at Goodreads. The ending lacked the punch I had been hoping for and I was wondering if others felt the same. Instead of reviews detailing a disappointing ending I instead was met with reviews that seemed disappointed at the genre.  Several reviewers stated that the story seemed far-fetched, or that they were upset that the book never told them it was a fantasy. These reviews made me do double-takes.

Maniac Magee isn’t a fantasy as we know them now. There is no magic, no monsters, just a boy who seems a little too wonderful to be believed. Yes, the story is far-fetched but that’s the nature of the whopper-of-a-beast. It seemed odd to me that the book hadn’t been identified for what it was: a tall tale.

Then I took a step back and realized how often I’ve experienced stories of this nature.

Well, there were the folktales such as Paul Bunyan to be sure, but those I hadn’t looked at since I was in elementary school. In the culture of today the closest thing I had experienced was the movie Big Fish, which is all about a guy’s dad who has been relating the amazing details of his life as tall tales which we see come to life on the screen. It still maintains the essence of a tall tale, however, because there is a narrator telling you its all true, no matter how unbelievable.

I started talking to my friends. Where have the tall tales gone?

Truthfully, I’m not sure. In a time when everything fits into neat categories and amazing tales happen all the time in a variety of media we have lost the narrations that give it all that flavor of a tall tale. My boyfriend and I went back and forth over superheroes and if they were our modern day version of the genre: “normal” people doing larger than life things.

Bruce Wayne as Batman was my ultimate example. The Batman transcends even himself. He has a mythology wrapped around him so thick he’s become more than he is. Then I was reminded that his persona is only larger than life within the confines of Gotham city. Here in the real world we know he’s a fictional character, so he’s out of the game.

We discussed the stories that a friend of ours tells of the exploits of his youth. The stories he tells are amazing, and at times are just a little too perfect to be 100% true. He steps into the realm of the tall tale when he exaggerates his reflexes at catching items while in a dead sleep, but he never fully crosses over to telling a tall tale, it’s just a bit stretched is all. It borders into being a tall tale, but as his stories are only legendary to himself and his close circle of friends it didn’t seem to fully satisfy the bill.

After hours of discussing with people I know I’m no closer to an answer than I was when I started, and so I open it up to the internet for debate. Do we live in a culture where there are no tall tales? Is it a byproduct of living in an era where stories are written and performed but almost never told face-to-face? Has the tall tale changed and evolved into the superheros we are so enamored with but know to be purely fiction?

Now’s the time to weigh in and solve the mystery that has been on my mind for months.


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