|Cover from Puffin Classics Rip Van Winkle & Other Stories , artist unknown|
In the book American Fairy Tales, compiled by Neil Philip*, are these interesting notes extracted from the preface by Alison Lurie:
"The idea of an "American fairy tale" may arouse disbelief. Fairy tales, for most of us, are theEuropean ones we read as children...
However, Americans were writing fairy tales - though, like the European ones, the seldom contain actual fairies. Sometimes these tales featured old-fashioned props and characters: magic potions and spells, dwarves and witches, princes and princesses. But often they also included contemporary objects and figures: hotels and telephones, mayors and gold miners. And even from the beginning many of the best AMerican stories had a different underlying message than the ones from across the Atlantic.
...In American fairy tales, there is often not much to be said for wealth and high position, or even good looks. The witch in Hawthorne's "Feathertop" turns a scarecrow into a fine gentleman and sends him out into the world, where he exposes the superficiality and snobbery of the well-to-do. In L. Frank Baum's "The Glass Dog", the poor glass-blower manages to marry a princess, but she "was very jealous of his beauty and led him a dog's life."
|Rootabaga Stories Part One by Carl Sandburg, 1990 reprint cover illus by Michael Hague|
The implication of such stories is that an American does not need to become rich or "marry up" in order to be happy; in fact, one should avoid doing so if possible. Happiness is all around one already, as the boy in Laura Richards' "The Golden Windows" discovers: his farmhouse already has "windows o gold and diamond" and the setting sun shines on it. Today there is so much pressure on Americans to want more fame, power and expensive objects, to feel dissatisfied with themselves and their possessions, these American fairy tales still have something to tell us." (Alison Lurie - Professor of American Literature, Cornell University, from the Preface of American Fairy Tales: From Rip Van Winkle to the Rootabaga Stories compiled by Neil Philip, illustrated by Michael McCurdy)
|by Niklas Asker|
My impression is that these original 'new American' tales (that is, non-native-American tales) have these things in common with the current sense of American imagination and what might be called American fairy tales now:
1) both then and now, Americans see their people as 'big', that is, being larger than who they were told they were and not subject to where they ended up (sometimes this is literal in the tales, sometimes it's not)
2) both then and now, American fairy tale characters want to change things around them, including, but not limited to, the institutions, the laws, the land and old values passed down from pre-American generations
3) both then and now, rather than look to history, lineages and heritage, American fairy tales prefer the 'now', complete with the use of contemporary places and objects in their tales, rather than 'alternate lands' or heirlooms passed down over centuries
This is just my personal impression only, of course.
|Bee-Man of Orn illustrated by P.J. Lynch|
|Rags Habakuk and his blue rats- Michael Hague illustration|
from "Rootabaga Stories" by Carl Sandburg
Perhaps I've missed a whole wing of the library, so to speak, with regard to this subject but if I have then I know I'm not alone.
In talking to American teachers, American artists and American history buffs, when I bring up this question I initially get the reply "Wizard of Oz" and "Disney". Yet they realize straight away that the Wizard of Oz is just one story, not 'tales plural' (in the collective consciousness, that is, although the story is originally part of a series - it seems most people haven't read or aren't even aware of this) and most of the stories Walt Disney retold weren't American at all, not to mention fairly recent in America's history. After that there's usually a lot of silence with baffled looks and creased foreheads.
In the afterword of the same book, Neil Philip writes: "One of the defining themes of the American fairy tale is this sense that ordinary life is something the fairy tale hero must learn to value and enjoy, rather than something from which he must escape."
Yet today's American tales and stories are all about escape, escapism and taking back "theirs". The "American life experience" that early fairy tale authors in the US held above any fairy tale fantasy, has been superseded by this need to, in a very odd way, make life the fairy tale - at all costs. It's become the measure of success. Even the current use of the phrase "a fairytale life" (fairytale being one word, a state of being instead of tales referenced) is uniquely American. And the pressure to do that is putting people under such severe strain that their lives are falling apart.
I believe the remedy to this 'dis-ease' lies in tales - both the ones we all bring from our varied heritages all over the globe and the native tales of the people of the land, as well as these "new-American identity" literary fairy tales that showed that optimism and love of life. To take the medicine, though, somehow, we need to find our way back to those tales first.
America is still a relatively young country compared to most nations so perhaps it's as simple an issue as there hasn't been enough time yet. There have been writing movements (for want of a better term) that attempt to address this, and there are certainly modern anthologies and collections that have all the hallmarks of literary fairy tales and are uniquely American, but (sadly) most of these aren't tales people know collectively in the US and grow up with. Despite wonderful writing and storytelling, these tales are not disseminating through popular culture and the national collective consciousness the way fairy tales tend to. So how do you create (and nurture) a real American fairy tale?
I know my thoughts on the subject here are incomplete but it's a huge subject. I haven't addressed fractured fairy tales, mixed up fairy tales, the influence of Hollywood or the tales told in New York, and I've barely touched on Disney and Oz, but I think those are thoughts for another day.
|The Apple of Contentment by Howard Pyle|
American Fairy Tales: From Rip Van Winkle to the Rootabaga Stories
Compiled by Neil Philip, Illustrated by Michael McCurdy, with a Preface by Alison Lurie:
An impressive collection of 12 stories representing the development of the American fairy tale from 1819 to 1922. Leaving behind the gloomy atmosphere and more formal language of their European counterparts, these literary selections reflect the landscape, egalitarian philosophy, and forward-looking optimism of America. Washington Irving's "Rip Van Winkle" is firmly placed in the Kaatskill Mountains, while Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Feathertop" is filled with New England superstitions. The contentment of ordinary life is emphasized in Horace E. Scudder's "The Rich Man's Place" and Laura E. Richards's "The Golden Windows." The heroine of Louisa May Alcott's "Rosy's Journey" is solidly self-reliant, and the protagonists in Howard Pyle's "The Apple of Contentment" and Ruth Plumly Thompson's "The Princess Who Could Not Dance" are cheerful and independent. L. Frank Baum's "The Glass Dog" and Carl Sandburg's "How They Broke Away to Go to the Rootabaga Country" portray inventiveness and the pioneer spirit. Sandburg's tale, as well as M.S.B.'s "What They Did Not Do on the Birthday of Jacob Abbott B., Familiarly Called Snibbuggledyboozledom," employ a unique American idiom with their zany words and phrases. Independent readers may find the archaic writing of some of these selections difficult to deal with; others are quite readable. Each story is introduced by information about the author; sources are included. McCurdy's skillfully executed black-and-white woodcuts, both full-page scenes and vignettes, illustrate each tale. This volume provides a rich read-aloud for families who like quality literature, and will also be of interest to children's-literature students and folklorists.