Tall Tales and Sketches of the Old Southwest
Tall Tales and Sketches of the Old Southwest
American Humor. Tall tales and humorous sketches depicting life along the frontier of the Old Southwest flourished from the 1820s until the Civil War. Characterized by comic exaggeration and vernacular language, reveling in superhuman feats and hoaxes, these tales
popularized a uniquely American brand of literary humor. In response to European and Eastern travelers who depicted Westerners as crude illiterates living in squalor, these humorists celebrated the rugged frontier with flourish and extravagance. At the same time, they often parodied the naïveté of greenhorns and the hypocrisy of authority figures. In this way tall tales became expressions of regional and national identity.
The Tall Tales. The tall tale, according to the literary scholar Carolyn S. Brown, is a “comic fiction disguised as fact, deliberately exaggerated to the limits of credibility.” Or, as the scholar Walter Hill puts it, the tall tale is “a beautiful lie.” Two of the most popular tall-tale figures of the nineteenth century were Mike Fink and Davy Crockett. The real Fink was a famed scout, hunter, keelboat-man, and storyteller. His adventures were enlarged and embroidered by oral storytellers, folk journalists, and even playwrights. He was a “helliferocious fellow” who epitomized a rough-and-tumble vision of the frontier. Fink, it was said, could outshoot, outfight, and outdrink any and all comers. “I’m a regular tornado,” Fink boasts in an 1842 story by Thomas Bangs Thorpe, “tough as a hickory withe, long-winded as a nor’-wester. I can strike a blow like a falling tree.” Davy Crockett, like Fink, was also an historical figure. Born into poverty in Tennessee, and with little schooling, Crockett served in the Creek War under Gen. Andrew Jackson, where he became renowned as a hunter, soldier, and storyteller. He was elected to Congress in 1827 and again in 1833. As a politician Crockett made a virtue out of his lack of schooling and polish. “I ain’t used to oily words; I am used to speak what I think, of men, and to men,” he told an audience in Boston. After his political career ended, Crockett moved to Texas, where he fought and died in the battle of the Alamo. During his lifetime tall tales were told about his adventures, and after his death they appeared in “Crockett almanacs,” popular collections of tall tales and comic anecdotes. Crockett was, in these tales, comic storyteller, frontier politician, hunter, and fighter extraordinaire. “I’m the same David Crockett,” he tells a tavern audience, “fresh from the backwoods … can wade the Mississippi, leap the Ohio, ride upon a streak of lightning … whip my weight in wildcats … and whip any man opposed to Jackson.”
Lincoln. Perhaps the most famous frontier politician and storyteller was Abraham Lincoln. Like Crockett, Lincoln often played on his image as a simple bumpkin from the Western plains, and he had a reputation as a “backwoods humorist.” Nathaniel Hawthorne, during an 1862 visit to Washington, met Lincoln and remarked on his yarnspinning. Hawthorne reports laughing heartily at a story Lincoln told, a story that Hawthorne could not, however, repeat for the pages of The Atlantic.
Humor. Along with tall tales, sketches depicting backwoods comics and con men also flourished. Some of the important collections of these sketches are Augustus Baldwin Longstreet’s Georgia Scenes (1835), William Tappan Thompson’s Major Jones Courtship (1843), Johnson Jones Hooper’s Some Adventures of Simon Suggs (1845), Thomas Bang Thorpe’s Mysteries of the Backwoods (1846), John S. Robb’s Streaks of Squatter Life (1847), Joseph M. Field’s The Drama in Pokerville (1847), Henry Clay Lewis’s Odd Leaves from the Life of a Louisiana “Swamp Doctor” (1850), Joseph B. Cobb’s Mississippi Scenes (1851), Joseph B. Baldwin’s The Flush Times of Alabama and Mississippi (1853), and George Washington Harris’s SutLovingood’s Yarns (1867). Many of the sketches in these collections were first printed and popularized by the New York humor and sporting magazine, the Spirit of the Times, edited by William T. Porter.
Grinning the Bark off a Tree
That Colonel Crockett could avail himself, in electioneering, of the advantages which well applied satire ensures, the following anecdote will sufficiently prove:
In the canvass of the Congressional election of 18—, Mr.—was the Colonel’s opponent—a gentleman of the most pleasing and conciliating manners—who seldom addressed a person or a company without wearing upon his countenance a peculiarly good humoured smile. The colonel, to counteract the influence of this winning attribute, thus alluded to it a stump speech:
“Yes, gentlemen, he may get some votes by grinning, for he can outgrin me —and you know I ain’t slow—and to prove to you that I am not, I will tell you an anecdote. I was concerned myself—and I was fooled a little of the wickedest. You all know I love hunting. Well, I discovered a long time ago that a ‘coon couldn’t stand my grin. I could bring one tumbling down from the highest tree. I never wasted powder and lead, when I wanted one of the creatures. Well, as I was walking out one night, a few hundred yards from my house, looking carelessly about me, I saw a ‘coon planted upon one of the highest limbs of an old tree. The night was very moony and clear, and old Ratler was with me; but Ratler won’t bark at a ‘coon—he’s a queer dog in that way. So, I thought I’d bring the lark down in the usual way, by a grin. I set myself—and, after grinning at the ‘coon a reasonable time, found that he didn’t come down. I wondered what was the reason—and I took another steady grin at him. Still he was there. It made me a little mad; so I felt around and got an old limb about five feet long, and, planting one end upon the ground, I placed my chin upon the other, and took a rest. I then grinned my best for about five minutes; but the cursed ‘coon hung on. So, finding I could not bring him down by grinning, I determined to have him—for I thought he must be a droll chap. I went over to the house, got my axe, returned to the tree, saw the ‘coon still there, and to cut away. Down it come, and I ran forward; but d—n the ‘coon was there to be seen. I found that what I had taken for one, was a large knot upon the branch of the tree and, upon looking at it closely, I saw I hadgrinned allthe bark off, and left the knot perfectly smooth.
“Now, fellow-citizens,” continued the Colonel, “you must be convinced that, in the grinning line, I myself am not slow—yet, when I look upon my opponent’s countenance, I must admit that he is my superior. You must all admit it. Therefore, be wide awake—look sharp—and do not let him grin you out of your votes.”
Source: Sketches and Eccentricities of Col. David Crockett of West Tennessee (London: O. Rich, 1834).
“Durn’d fools” and Con Men. While these tales were often introduced by the cultured voices of upper-class frame narrators, the heroes of these tales are just as often subversive backwoodsmen. Sut Lovingood, who admits to being a “nat’ral born durn’d fool,” takes great joy in exposing the foolishness of circuit riders, ministers, sheriffs, and prudes. Illiterate con men such as Simon Suggs make no bones about the fact that the world is an amoral place where survival and laughter are more important than ethical niceties. His motto is, “it is good to be shifty in a new country.” The earthy spirit and dark humor of these sketches contrast sharply with the more refined sensibility of New England literature. And to some readers, that was just the point—to make fun of, dupe, or offend genteel outsiders, or as Sut puts it when a pedantic listener interrupts one of his narratives to offer a correction, “yu go to hell, mistofer; you bothers me.” Nevertheless, for twentieth-century audiences there is much to take offense at in both the sketches and the tall tales; many reveal the pervasiveness of nineteenth-century racism and sexism.
Influence. In many ways these sketches anticipated the local color movement of the late nineteenth century. Though sometimes he did so with exaggeration and disdain, the Southwestern humorist attempted to realistically record local manners and customs. In their use of frontier metaphors and language (“I ladles out my words at randum, like a calf kickin at yaller-jackids,” claims Sut), they popularized a rich, earthy, boasting vernacular. The Civil War brought an end to the genre, but the tall tale and the Southwestern sketch would have an influence on authors ranging from humorists such as Mark Twain and John Phoenix to William Faulkner. Faulkner’s novella The Bear (1958) was influenced by Thorpe’s “The Big Bear of Arkansas” (1841). Faulkner, who owned a copy of Harris’s Sut Lovingood’s Yarns, once praised Sut’s honest character: “He had no illusions about himself, did the best he could; at certain times he was a coward and knew it and wasn’t ashamed; he never blamed his misfortunes on anyone and never cursed God for them.”
Carolyn S. Brown, The Tall Tale in American Folklore and Literature (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987);
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