Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Thoughts on American Fairy Tales

Cover from Puffin Classics Rip Van Winkle & Other Stories , artist unknown
I wanted to add a little note to the American Folktale Character Map post about American Fairy Tales but realized my 'little note" really needed a post of it's own. So consider this sort of a Part II - inspired by and following on from that post.

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
So it seems to me that the values and principles considered important in the folklore and tales that this country was built on are almost the opposite of what it means to be American today - at least on the surface. How does that happen? Likely there is a map that will show that evolution too, but for now it's interesting to see where the American imagination started, and what the driving force is today. I'm sure there's a path that leads from one to the other that makes sense but it's difficult to see at first. 

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
Although it's fairly easy to track Tall Tales in the US,  the idea of 'real American fairy tales' seems to remain elusive. America is very prolific in creating literature about itself, and yet books on American fairy tales are few. The ones that you can find are often very regional, for example the Appalachian Jack tales, or collections from the Deep South, but tales that could be considered to represent the country as a whole, seem to be difficult to track down, though it's not for lack of American writers trying to write uniquely American fairy tales.

Rags Habakuk and his blue rats- Michael Hague illustration
from "Rootabaga Stories" by Carl Sandburg
Why is this?

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
*Additional Note: Here's the description of the main book I've been referencing:
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.


  1. I read an article on European vs. American fairy tales a while back, and while I found the premise to be interesting, I didn't find that the examples actually supported the main point. That was: because of class separation and poverty in Europe, most fairy tales are about gaining class status-through marriage, luck, or whatever means, but the end goal was to obtain royalty, or at least wealth; and no one can really blame the peasants for dreaming of such a life. In America, being founded on democracy, our tales supposedly reflect hard work getting us success because it's actually possible to work your way to a better life. But, while the author mentioned Cinderella and how tales transformed when they came to America, I don't know that Cinderella is told much differently here than in Europe, or with more of an emphasis on hard work. Maybe this is true of the specific American fairy tales you mention, though

    1. I read something similar about fairy tales around the world in general as opposed to American tales, however, instead of the 'hard work' ethic that results in bettering oneself, which *is* present in a lot of fairy tales from all over the world, the difference in American ones was that *no* change in status was needed - life is good, right here, being average (the implication is "average in America") is actually a great life - you don't need the other stuff (beauty, money, status). Instead, you need to recognize what you have, and that's usually the tale's journey - realizing what's right in front of you - and claiming that for yourself. The early American tales I read through seemed to back up this idea too. Things have definitely changed in terms of the American POV, though. Instead of success and happiness being realized at home in one's current situation, it's become about *making* your life and home 'a fairytale'/ideal - not that, like early tales imply, life here is already is better than a fairy tale. Interestingly, though, there is definitely a pervading sense of "if you're an American/living in America, why would you want to be anywhere else? This is the best place in the world..." (please note: I'm not saying it isn't great! But so are other places.) I'm simply curious about what the American flavor of fairy tales is, along with finding 'original ones' (which will have their own folkloric roots - homegrown and inherited - of course). The Cinderella tale type in America is definitely different from Cedrillon in France, Aschenputtel in Germany and Cenerentola in Italy and so on, but it's pretty clear America has it's own version - and that's really interesting to me. For instance, there's definitely a reflection of the "anyone can grow up to be President' idea in there, though that's not the only thing, I like seeing what the different flavors say about the peoples. I think we can learn something from each of them - they're all as valid as each other.

  2. It's interesting you should post this. I'm sitting here looking up at my schedule of posts for the month and I see I have a "Fantasy Literature Rewind" about Carl Sandburg's Rootabaga Stories scheduled for next week. I'll have to remember some of the bits you said in this post when I start writing that. I plan on writing pieces about the works of L. Frank Baum (Oz tales and beyond) and Frank Stockton at some point in the future too. One thing I would like to remind people is that the word "fairy tale" was basically synonymous with "fanciful story for children" during the times when those men were writing. So, their tales don't necessarily follow the same form as the old European folk tales do.

    1. I totally agree that people confused fairy tales with 'fanciful stories for children' - both writers and readers, so we have a ton of those (wonderful) stories too, (the eighties seemed particularly prolific for this as well as the turn of the 20th C) but it's not what people 'thought' were fairy tales, that I'm interested in, but the closest thing to whatever definition we agree on is a fairy tale. You see, all around the world it's not too difficult to find fairy tales that are non-European (Indian, Arabic, Caribbean, Mexican, Japanese, Singaporean etc). Some of them overlap with folktales (like often - but not always - in Africa) but there are distinct non-European fairy tales found everywhere that still fit the definition . In the US, however, it's a more difficult thing to nut out. I think this country has the most amazing collections of literary 'American' fairy tales (thanks to writers like Jane Yolen, just for starters), but these generally haven't been circulating like fairy tales have tended to do in other countries. Some of it, I think, is because America is so young and oral storytelling was quickly superseded by print, periodicals and radio but it's not just that. The regional tales I mention DO fit the definition of fairy tale - it just doesn't seem to hold true for the country as a whole.
      I'm curious to see what your librarian-extraordinaire research skills uncover in your investigation. I know this subject is slightly touchy for American folklorists but I think they're important questions. See, I do believe there are American fairy tales. I think we're just not great at recognizing them - yet.
      PS I didn't realize Howard Pyle was American until I wrote my other post. I've loved The Wonder Clock for years but I do think it's more a European-influenced version of tales rather than 'real American' ones (whatever that means - I think it has yet to be properly defined).
      I do find a certain 'type' of American immigrant tales (that have that element of Wonder) to be very fairy tale-like though - and they're uniquely American with mixed heritage flavors. Those, apart from the mountain and bayou tales, are probably my favorites, with their unique signature of 'otherland-American (eg Korean-American, Italian-American, Polish-American, Jewish-American etc). There's also that 'breed' of urban legend in America (not always scary) that skirts the fairy tale definition too - especially with regard to those children tell each other. I'd really like to see someone tracking these down and noting their importance.

      Looking forward to your Sandburg, Baum and Stockton posts!

    2. Note to readers: I am copying and pasting the comments from where they were originally made on the pervious Folklore Map post, though they're actually addressing what's written here. Please excuse the double up in people here as I copy and paste so it's all kept together!

      AdamYJ -- April 8, 2015 at 12:16 PM
      You see, I tend to be ultra-inclusive in what I use. That's a post for another time, too. Something about the quirks of language and why I choose to include all that I do. Anyway, the US is a young country and our history isn't so far away. We're also a country that came into its own through industrialization. So, we tend to be more awash in legends, tall tales and ghost stories than fairy stories of the sort you're thinking of. Even then, our folklore is influenced by elements that other folk traditions aren't. For example, many of the legends about characters like Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickock were spread not by word of mouth but by newspapers (back in a time when news from far out west was kind of "stretchy" in terms of accuracy) and dime novels. Heck, Deadwood Dick was created exclusively for dime novels but for years many were convinced he actually existed.

      InkGypsy -- April 8, 2015 at 4:17 PM
      I've read over the comments a few times but I'm still not sure what you're referring to with regard to being 'ultra-inclusive'. Curious to know what you mean..
      Re the tall tales, ghost stories and legends - Australia has a lot of the same thing, and for the same reason, including the wild stories in the papers that people believed were real. [See? We're not completely different. ;) ] It's only recently that people are now looking to see where the fairy tales in Australia were and are - and they *are* finding them; both Australian versions of popular tale types found round the world, as well as 'original' ones. It just wasn't immediately obvious and it's opened a whole new and interesting branch of study that's ultimately different from the rest of our stories, though they are often related as well.
      It would make sense that America - which is older than Australia, though not by much - would have some of the same challenges with regard to fairy tale identification.