Storytelling, Myths, and Tales
Abstract and Keywords
Folktales (fictional stories, told orally) have been popular generally for various reasons, as have myths (orally told stories about creation and the gods). They offer models for human behavior and in particular give the message that people must use their wits to trick others when necessary. Folktales can be analyzed from this viewpoint, although they can also be interpreted using psychoanalyis and other methods (much of the scholarship on them has been concerned with collecting and “typing” them) to determine what they mean. In the United States, several kinds have been popular, including tall and other humorous, hero, John and Old Marster, animal, and fairy tales. There have been well-known tellers of such stories, though they have not received their due, because they have chosen to be performers of existing tales rather than creators of new ones, although they may have created new ways of narrating.
Storytelling (the oral telling of stories) is the heart of folklore studies, although the art of storytelling (the strategies for telling stories) has received comparatively little attention, compared to the scrutiny accorded written narratives, from either scholars or the general public. Storytelling has, at least insofar as traditional stories are concerned, been relegated to a second-class position, probably because the stories being told are not original to the tellers but are “just” being “passed on,” even though the narrators may put considerable effort into shaping their own versions of these tales. That is, they may shape versions of stories that are traditional (that is, which come out of a tradition of storytelling and which are not original but are being “passed on”) by changing slightly the plot, by emphasizing the role of certain characters, or by the added use of dialogue, to mention only a few of the possible methods of enhancement. Folklorists have historically been most interested in stories as told in their “natural” contexts (contexts in which stories are normally told by members of the groups which tell them), which differ from “organized” events, and they will continue to take an interest in the use of traditional stories by those who specifically organize storytelling (such occasions may be publicized for specific audiences and may involve the use of stages and microphones). Folklorists will continue to consider the use of traditional tales by storytellers, and how traditional and other stories are told in this new context. That is, folklorists will include in their purview storytellers as talented tradition bearers who may use folk materials in new ways.
Folklorists look at existing folktales from, say, a psychoanalytic perspective, choosing to identify symbols as projections of anxieties and analyze meanings in terms of the ins and outs of the human mind, as Alan Dundes (2007), Michael Carroll (1992), Eric K. Silverman (2016), and Simon Bronner (2011, 319–349) have chosen to do. Or they examine additional or the same folktales in different ways, parsing them to determine meanings in accord with other paradigms. They may find, however, that in the end human trickery is the most important element.
Oral fictional tales can be of significance in determining the cultural values of a society, just as written fiction can be. Psychoanalytical approaches, such as those promoted especially by Dundes (see, for example, Dundes 1976 and 1978), can be quite revealing. Though writers may be attempting to use this approach to reveal psychological insights, in the process of doing so they may also reveal cultural truths, the psychoanalytic approach to the unconscious brought to bear upon cultural meanings (Briggs 2015; Dundes 1976). A criticism of psychoanalytic approaches, however, is that they are limited in what they reveal of particular cultures and their values, so it may be that other avenues can be more valuable. For example, I analyzed stories relating to American Indian tragedies and, largely by looking at earlier work relating to the subject, was able to see a structural pattern that supports the view that these stories are meant to assuage white guilt about having displaced the Indians who once occupied places now occupied by whites (de Caro 1986). By closely examining the stories that may fit a particular pattern, folklorists can arrive at the meanings these stories are meant to convey; that is, they can determine meanings that may go beyond the surface of the narrative. By looking at the trickster figure in many African American tales, Lawrence Levine (1977) was able to determine the historical significance of such figures. They not only provided entertainment but also lessons about the need for trickery in slave societies, where one group was subjugated by another and thus in need of weapons—in the case of trickery, a weapon that could be employed indirectly. A careful examination of folktales generally may reveal a more general promotion of trickery and the use of one’s wits to triumph. Of course, researchers can also determine more obvious meanings, such as the meaning of the relationship between husbands and wives, or the view of lawyers that a society may have.
Stories, whether originally oral (“folk”) or written (whether literary or “popular,” that is, whether written as literature or for consumption by the masses), have various uses to human beings. They may provide models for human action. In fact, folklorists need to pay much closer attention to how folktales (fictional oral narratives) establish models for behavior. For example, many stories establish the importance of using one’s wits to trick others. Not only do African American trickster tales establish the importance of trickery in a slave society, but so too do hero tales such as the well-known “Jack tales,” which I will discuss later in this essay, establish the importance of tricks and using one’s wits in a very different context. In the story of “Mutsmag” (Chase 1936, 40–50), one of many collected by Richard Chase, Mutsmag does not fall asleep and as a result is able to save herself and her companions from being eaten by a giant; that is, she uses her resources, her cleverness, to trick others because the offspring of the others are supposedly wearing caps, which she removes. In the story of “A Death-Bed Scene” (noted later and given in full in Korson 1938, 73–74, reproduced in de Caro 2009, 158–159), the chief protagonist must use his wits to create the situation whereby he is in the center of the three, in order to bring about his punchline and fool those who would only have his money. Even tall tales, although the protagonists may achieve their results through luck as much as by design, establish the importance of tricks. One should take a chance and fire seeds at a deer if you are out of ammunition (as in the story noted later) and maybe you will in the future encounter a deer with a tree growing out of it, that is, encounter something extraordinary.
Stories provide history, telling people where they came from and how they got here. John and Old Marster tales may, for example, tell African Americans about their past in slavery, when it was wise to be clever and tricky. Tales entertain. African Americans in the twenty-first century may appreciate the clever trickery of their slave ancestor John. Or tall tales (see de Caro 2009, 174–185, for some examples) may entertain despite the fact that listeners think of them as too dependent on coincidence, by presenting stories of extraordinary events. And stories tell about the actions of others, whether in situations like our own or in situations of their own making. Tall tales are likely to strike listeners as being set in a world different from their own, though they can still enjoy them. What else tales do for people is also something which should be considered by folklorists.
In preliterate societies orally told stories are the only kind that people have. The literal telling of stories, via the spoken word, such as those stories that existed in Native American and Native Hawaiian societies before Europeans brought writing (though Native Americans developed pictographic systems of writing), is the only kind of narration that exists (but see Bronner 1978, for tales that utilize the pictorial as well as words; there is no evidence that pictographs were ever used to record stories).
However, writing, of obvious utility, has spread rapidly and has been adopted by many cultures, so that oral stories usually exist alongside the written, and the actual telling of stories may be relegated to adults telling stories to children, to the telling of supposedly factual tales, and to groups that are less literate. In the twenty-first century, radio has become an important medium for recording and broadcasting or podcasting storytelling, through such programs as Snap Judgment and the Moth Radio Hour, though the stories told are mostly those concerning personal experience and nonfiction. Probably the most successful of such programs has been Storycorps, founded by Dave Isay, which has involved not only the broadcasting/podcasting of such stories but also their collecting and archiving. It (a nonprofit organization; National Public Radio picks up only some of the offered materials) has become the largest “oral history” project in the world, and folklorist Steve Zeitlin (2016, 214–215) has suggested that it was so successful, when similar projects failed, because of a threefold strategy: allowing everyone to tell their stories; the curation of the best stories for radio broadcast; and the creation of an interview process that allowed people to bring to their interviews their loved ones who might themselves have stories.
Written literature and oral stories may thus influence each other (though how they do so is an important question relating to matters of textualization; writing may tend to create “fixed” texts, that is, to bring about a sense that the written text is the definitive one; oral texts may enter literature by being adapted by writers in a variety of ways). In the twenty-first century (as in the twentieth) printed versions of folktales have become widely available, especially through illustrated books, such that single versions of folktales have come to be thought of as the tale, although there may be a variety of versions in oral tradition. That is, a single text may come to be thought of as the story, when in fact a number of texts may exist in tradition, told orally by a number of narrators.
But even in societies where writing exists, there may be many segments of society who do not have writing; hence, oral stories may have still played an important role. American slave society often was illiterate, usually because of the design of the slave masters, who prevented their slaves from obtaining the arts of writing and reading, lest these “infect” the subservient people with ideas that can come through reading especially. How reading and writing affect individuals are important questions, and folklorists, well aware of the uses they make of oral materials, need to theorize that too. Even more recent recordings of oral stories, such as those by Richard Dorson, the foremost American folklorist of his day, collected from African American narrator J. D. Suggs, discussed later, in the 1950s, can have their appeal (Dorson 1967). At first, Dorson did not think that contemporary African American narrators existed because he was having so little luck in finding them. Yet people did tell the stories he was looking for, because (a) those stories were part of the African American heritage, (b) such stories were an entertaining part of speech, (c) they were reflections of an African American reality (including the reality of slavery itself), and (d) they were reflections of more general truth.
Narrators and Performers
There have been a number of important narrators of the tales of the kinds that have been important to American folklore in the past. Kay Stone (Stone 2008, 91–97) has written on several narrators, who may or may not represent a North American style of narration, including Donald Davis, who has, in addition to telling stories, written a memoir and books on stories and language. Narrators of stories, whether they come from traditional backgrounds or not, often put traditional stories to use and may utilize various kinds of traditional tales (Stone 2008, 91–93).
Folklorists need not be advocates or publicists for tradition bearers, though in many cases they have been such, making known the existence of people who carry on traditional practices. This may be especially true of “public sector” folklorists, who are often employed by public agencies.
There have then been a number of excellent narrators of traditional stories who perform publicly, people who should be better known than they are for their artistry. Because they chose to be performers, to tell stories, which were usually not created by them, they have often been relegated to a kind of second-class fame while writers who have created their own stories have received more attention. No doubt many narrators of traditional tales have simply been forgotten. Even in the twenty-first century, folklorists have not given sufficient attention to those people who tell them stories, even in an age of state-run collecting projects, which aim to call attention to narrators as folk artists. Even as the National Endowment for the Arts attempts to focus on narrators in a similar way nationally, one must wonder whether the tellers of tales get sufficient attention, or whether such an emphasis on the individual performer represents merely a high-art orientation on the individual artist. As folklorists continue to record stories, they should also record as much information as possible on those who are narrators.
The members of the Hicks-Harmon family have tried to preserve the art of telling traditional tales and though they have generally told their stories privately, they have from time to time come to the attention of folklorists and a larger public. Perhaps the best known modern exemplar of traditional tale telling has been Ray Hicks, who spent his entire life on Beech Mountain, North Carolina, a factor that may suggest isolation as a key to storytelling, and that people who are isolated may be more likely to turn to storytelling as a form of entertainment. In his later years (he died in 2003) Hicks became popular as a performer, especially at the National Storytelling Festival in Tennessee and he was chosen as a National Heritage Fellow in 1983 by the National Endowment for the Arts, which by honoring Ray Hicks honored his whole family.
Folklorist Richard Dorson was good about providing information on his narrators (and was also concerned with their styles of narration and their aesthetics; see Dorson 1948). He notably provided information on Joe Woods, Mary Richardson, and J. D. Suggs. Dorson recorded and wrote about older adults for the most part. This may represent his own belief that older adults make the best narrators, but according to Brian Sutton-Smith (1981), people develop skills of narrative telling in childhood.
Dorson was particularly intrigued by African American James Douglas Suggs (1887–1955), who told him a great many tales (around 175 in all). Indeed, Dorson dedicated a later book to Suggs (Dorson 1967). Old World narrators, especially the males, tend to be travelers, and Suggs fit that bill nicely, though he on one occasion told Dorson that he had heard most of his stories told by his own father. His father had supposedly heard the stories from his father and from others on the Mississippi plantation where Suggs himself had been born. That is, a great many of Suggs’s stories came from a more stationary environment, though Suggs himself had joined a minstrel show in 1907 and, with other black performers, had gone to the West. Later he worked for whites in their hunting camps in Arkansas and often entertained them with his tales. Dorson found him in Michigan, where he had eventually moved. Calvin, Michigan, where Dorson, who was at the time professor of history at Michigan State, went to collect, was an African American town, founded by blacks before the Civil War, developed by freedmen helped to get there by Quakers who opposed slavery, later joined by Underground Railroad escapees from Southern bondage, still later by other black Southerners. When Dorson came to his door in 1952 looking for stories, Suggs was able to provide them. In the present century Suggs’s family reveres the man and his storytelling, as well as Dorson, who “discovered” him and gave him a measure of fame.
Jane Muncy Fugate (born in 1938) is another well-known narrator, though as a woman she did not roam about like Suggs. In general, women narrators in America have tended to tell stories in more domestic settings. She did eventually move to Florida, where Carl Lindahl found her (Lindahl 2004, I 279–333). She had become a social worker, but learned her stories in her hometown in Kentucky. The story collector Leonard Roberts had found her years before, when he was invited to set up his recording equipment at a local school. She was only eleven years old at the time but was able to contribute several stories to Roberts’s book (Roberts 1955). Her divorced father had sent her to live with his mother, who told her traditional stories during this difficult time for her. She especially liked the tales where the youngest son won. She told Lindahl, “The message to me was, you can be little, and you can be frail, and you can be the youngest, and you can be alone, but you can also be the smartest. And … you could also be happy, and you could be wise, and you can overcome. And so I thought of myself as that overcomer.” She eventually obtained a master’s degree in social work and was able to use her stories in her therapy practice to help her clients.
Abraham “Oregon” Smith (1796–1893) had died before any folklorists were able to collect from him, but his tale telling nonetheless had such a powerful influence on the Indiana and Illinois communities where he lived that folklorists were able to collect his tales years later, for people still told them and remembered Smith. Perhaps this indicates the role folklore plays in remembering the past more than providing entertainment. Because Smith had settled in Bloomington, Indiana, home of the Indiana University folklore program, he and his stories became known to folklorists. Smith was not a wanderer, but he had moved to frontier Oregon at one point in the 1850s and he set many of his stories in that fantastic place. His stories were mostly of the tall tale variety and though they had become third-person narrations by the time William Hugh Jansen wrote a dissertation on Smith (later a book Jansen 1977), clearly he had told them as first-person stories, like so many tall tales. Smith clearly made an impact on the “loafers” who listened to his stories and then passed them on to later generations, until finally they could be appreciated.
Folklorist Barre Toelken recorded a number of stories told by the Utah Native American Hugh Yellowman, son of the weaver Zonnie Johnson, and other members of his family. In the 1950s Toelken lived with the family of Yellowman and recorded some of his stories. Then in the 1960s, as a folklorist, he recorded more. Yellowman told various stories, including histories of the local Navajo and coyote stories, stories that appear on the Yellowman Tapes, a name that Toelken himself applied to his recordings and that Toelken used for teaching and publication. Yellowman was originally well known as a maker of Navajo-style moccasins and lived in a small town in Utah, though obviously he knew much hunting lore that Toelken eventually recorded from him, as well as the coyote stories, which Toelken later played for members of the family who stayed with him, though only during the proper time of year. After Yellowman died in 1997, Toelken returned the tapes to the Yellowman family, who had a claim on them, Toelken felt. Toelken also realized that they would probably be destroyed, the Navajo having little sense of documentation, fearing the power of the spoken word, and wanting nothing to do with the dead. Other folklorists insisted that he had a responsibility to the profession of folklore to preserve and study the tapes or to a future Navajo desire to resurrect the culture if it were gone. So, though Hugh Yellowman was also a prolific informant who recorded many stories, his recorded legacy is nil except for what may already have been published, and for Toelken the ethics of the situation were more important than other considerations.
Even when writing became the central means of communication for a society that may have formerly been exclusively an oral one, oral storytelling has continued to be important for historical reasons. For example, oral narratives may be thought to have possessed a powerful wisdom that predates writing and that continues into more recent times through the spoken medium. This idea, that powerful wisdom may be found in stories which predate the adoption of writing, is expressed in some of J. R. R. Toelkien’s fiction when various characters sing their songs in ways that are both committed to memory (as are oral narratives generally) and full of wise perspectives (for example, Tolkien 1954, 393–394). The use of oral language may be seen as particularly poetic and the poetic may lead to wisdom, to the expression of grand ideas that can only be found in the oral.
There may also be a closely related sentimental regard for the oral narrator as someone steeped in antiquity. That is, he or she may be seen as someone who represents an older form of communication and may be well regarded for that reason alone. Hence, the stories that he or she communicates may be viewed nostalgically and seen sentimentally as not only an older form of communication but also as putting to listeners perspectives that are appropriately ancient and to be found nowhere else.
Folkloric stories may also be seen as preserving the past, as giving listeners to such stories a vision of past times. The use of John and Old Marster tales by later African American narrators may provide just such a function for such stories, which may also remind the listeners that such times are, fortunately, gone forever. The John and Old Marster stories also play a role in the continuing use of the dialect joke, which reminds people of the immigrant experience. That is, the use of African American dialect in these humorous stories may play such a role. So too might stories told by whites remind them of olden days. The tales recorded by Korson (1938), for example, clearly tell us of an older time in the mining of anthracite coal.
Although folklorists have considered the relations that exist between the literate and the folkloric, this has usually been in the context of particular literary works seen to have something in common with the oral, and they have not in general considered the reasons why the oral has informed the literary, that is, why folk stories have been influential in shaping written ones, a process that has continued well into the twentieth century (see, for example, de Caro and Jordan 2004) and beyond. In addition, such media as Long Playing vinyl records, which rely primarily on the use of dialect, may be an important factor here, helping to preserve the dialect but also to bridge the gap between the oral and other media. As early as the 1950s such recordings as the Bert and I records, which aimed to record the dialect and humor of Maine, were available and much has been written on the use of comic tradition by the comedians of country music (see, for example, Kingsbury 1998).
The folklorist and storyteller Kay F. Stone (2008) has written extensively upon the telling of stories in the contemporary revival of oral storytelling. (“Revival” in this context means the use of traditional materials in nontraditional settings, such as the tale-telling gathering held annually in Jonesborough, Tennessee. The storytelling revival dates from the 1970s.)
Stone suggests three categories of narrators: traditional, who grew up in a traditional folk culture and who learned their tales there; nontraditional, who mostly draw from printed texts and who may have studied storytelling as teachers or librarians (the original venues of nontraditional narration were schools and libraries); and neotraditional, who are nontraditional narrators who may use printed texts but who have also picked up tales and techniques from others, who may create their own stories, and whose tales are “emergent” (2008, 83–97). These three categories can be useful in considering storytelling and storytellers. Stone also suggests a difference between “kitchen table” narration, when we all tell stories, and organized settings, when people who are considered storytellers perform at festivals or in contexts in which they perform for many people, possibly with stages and microphones in evidence. How one comes to be thought of as a “storyteller” is a question of interest to her, and she ties this to communities. Folklorists may perhaps continue looking at the stories told by revivalist tellers (see Sobol 1999 and Zipes 1995 as well as Stone) as active shapings of the oral and as tales that still reflect an interest in the oral.
Several kinds of oral storytelling and oral stories have been important in the United States, although interest in these stories has been primarily as historical artifacts and future interest will likely remain as such. Though there are still narrators of such traditional stories, and though they may be important stories in the context of the storytelling revival, these stories are, in many ways, things of the past. It is doubtful that they will pass into the twenty-first century as anything other than relics. Complicated magic tales are likely to seem unrealistic to contemporary audiences. Tall tales are likely to seem not only unrealistic but also too dependent upon coincidence and upon the fantastic. John and Old Marster stories, with their dependence on the embarrassing institution of slavery, are likely to seem dated. Tales that are closer to possible truth, legends, are likely to become more central, and it is no coincidence that folklorists have begun to give more attention to personal narratives, stories in which a narrator tells of personal happenings, anecdotes, and jokes. Traditional tellers may switch to anecdotes and the personal, as Stone notes (2008, 174) that traditional narrator Ray Hicks has done already, more and more. This is to say that traditional folktales are primarily an historical study (though largely fictional tales of the supernatural, such as ghost stories, remain popular), while to say that newer types of stories, such as personal narratives, will need to be collected for comment and analysis is to recognize this changing situation.
Most of the scholarship thus far expended on narratives has been that of collecting such stories and upon classification and “typing” them (see later for an explanation of types). Even recent books on American narratives have been primarily collections of tales (see, for example, de Caro 2009 and Lindahl 2004). Attempts to explain and analyze stories have been mostly limited to Native American narratives. Because Native American tales have been considered notoriously difficult to comprehend (that is, for non–Native Americans to comprehend them; they may not even neatly fit the genres that Westerners are used to), attempts have been made to explain their meanings. The exemplary analyses of Toelken (2003), Jahner (1983), and Ramsey (1983) are all attempts to examine previously difficult-to-understand (for non–Native Americans) Native American narratives. Both Toelken and Ramsey examine coyote stories and point out that Coyote as a character may behave inappropriately and thus is not to be emulated. In regard to African American stories, Lawrence Levine (1977) has discussed how the figure of the trickster, important in such stories, functioned to help African Americans under slavery to understand the importance of trickery in African American oral stories. Thus, he sees the tales as significant historical documents, though he does not try to explain the ongoing popularity of tales set in slavery times. (Why African Americans tell stories about slavery times at all is problematic, for slavery was an embarrassment at the least and perhaps best forgotten. These tales may be reminders of the past.) Other commentators have not tried to analyze the possible historical significance of other tales from different ethnic groups (African American folklorist Gladys-Marie Fry , however, discusses the stories of black Americans, showing how black tales of “hants” [ghosts] led whites to become “night-riders” who frightened the local black population) or to discuss the possible meanings of particular American stories. Nathan Rabalais, following Levine, has tried to point to similar uses of trickster tales for Louisiana French narration (2015, 48–196.) Of course, it may be that folktales in general promote a model for human behavior in which listeners to the tale are expected to use their wits to trick others; the African American model may simply be the most obvious.
Orally told stories have continued to be popular even with the advent of the digital age, if this importance has gradually diminished and become more an historical fact than a present reality so far as traditional tales are concerned. The “revival” of oral telling has made for the relative popularity of fictional stories, however, as such stories may provide entertaining and even educational content (Richard Alvey  points out that originally orally told stories were seen as both entertaining and educational), even if the appreciation of such stories is primarily past oriented.
Myth and Mythic Stories
Myths are not fictional. The events told about in a myth may be fervently believed to have actually happened by those who believe in the myth, though the fantastic happenings in myths may have led those who do not subscribe to their truth to think of them as fictional. In contemporary usage, scholars often use the term myth to mean a grand idea, as in the “myth of the frontier” in American culture. It was such restricted usage that led noted folklorist Alan Dundes (1972) to propose the term folk idea instead of the narrative myth to mean such widely held grand ideas (see the chapter by Jay Mechling on American folk ideas and worldview).
To folklorists the term myth means a sacred narrative, about the gods, especially narratives about creation or origins, particularly those set in times before the existence of the “present world.” Although most myths are known as prose narratives, a myth may be related in verse or even sung as a song or a series of songs. In the United States in the last few hundred years, given the restricted folklorists’ definition of myth, myth is not widespread and has mostly been restricted to the cultures of Native Americans (including the Inuit, who were formerly called Eskimos and are a kind of Native American but also different in many ways) and Native Hawaiians who predate the arrival of Europeans (Europeans brought the art of writing; hence, earlier societies here were preliterate and oral in nature) to North America and the Hawaiian islands. It is true, of course, that the myths of Native Americans and Native Hawaiians did not become widely known until they were written down by Euro-Americans.
Inherent in the consideration of Native American myths are the problems of myths generally (that is, of all myths, regardless of the cultures from which they come). What is the dividing line between myth and other forms of oral narrative (easier to determine for some cultures and in some contexts than for others. In his anthology of Native American tales, scholar Stith Thompson wrote that “attempts at exact definition of ‘myth’ as distinguished from ‘tale’ seem futile” (Thompson 1929, xvii). In this same anthology he has a section called “Mythical Incidents,” implying that narratives which are essentially folktales may include mythological parts (see Thompson 1946, 9). So do many stories in other sections of his anthology? How do myths affect human behavior (if one believes in a myth, the mythic characters may become models)? Can a myth be a “charter” for social institutions—that is, can it provide the justification for the existence of certain institutions and, if so, what?
The proponents of the school of “British” social anthropology, notably the Polish-born Bronislaw Malinowski, who studied the myths of Melanesia, have seen myth as “vouching for” the existence of ongoing social structures and practices, for providing a “charter” for them. That is, charter is a functional consideration, enabling the folklorist to determine how the myth is being used by a society. The myth and the belief in the myth persist because the myth explains how an institution came into being and thus explains why the institution exists by giving it a divine origin. Beyond this idea as expounded by a few anthropologists, folklorists have shown little interest in exactly how myth provides such “charters.” Myth should be seen as a worldwide phenomenon, as a kind of narrative that can be found in all parts of the world and in many societies.
Because oral traditions by definition came into existence at unspecified times, it is virtually impossible to set a date on them. Oral traditions can sometimes be dated if they appear in writing at particular times or by guessing, based on educated perspectives, how long they have been in existence. That is, those who “guess” must have a notion of how long myths have been in existence. Folklorists can date stories by their appearance in writing, but often the appearance of a story in writing has little relationship to the time of its creation, or a story may never make an early appearance in writing. Folklorists do know that the Jesuit missionaries who were active in colonial America began to write down narratives told by Native Americans as early as the 1630s. In the later decades of the nineteenth century, several institutions that affected the publication of Native American narratives, including myths, were founded. In 1879 the Bureau of American Ethnology was founded as part of the federal government, possibly because the Native American population was seen as eventually disappearing and presenting a wonderful opportunity for study while it still existed. Many texts of Native American tales can be found in its publications. In 1888, the Journal of American Folklore came into existence, and in its pages there also appeared a number of Native American narratives.
Native American narratives (myths and other kinds, and, indeed, myths generally) may be difficult for those outside Native American or other relevant cultures to understand. Literary critic Karl Kroeber notes that “most people familiar only with Western writing are baffled by traditional Indian narratives…. Their strangeness is frustrating to readers” (Kroeber 1997, 1). Folklorist Barre Toelken (2003, 110ff) suggests that Native American narratives are meant to be transmitted as a sort of drama. Indeed, the actual telling of a myth or other story is often rather dramalike, hence Toelken’s use of the concept of dramatization, with the teller possibly acting out parts of the story being told. From the 1970s, beginning with the anthropologist Dennis Tedlock’s attempt to render narratives more poetically, translations of stories have tried to reflect this by presenting on the printed page what might be referred to as scripts, intended to get around earlier presentations of mythic and other stories as merely prose tales.
For earlier collectors and translators the plot was often the key element; that is, they may have sought only an understanding of the basic outline of the narrative as a means of trying to understand Native American cultures, for the eventual purpose of destroying those cultures, as white, Westerrn society became dominant and indeed the sole culture for the nation. Or they may have recorded stories just to record language; the eventual understanding of Native American languages was seen as important because one needed to understand the “enemy,” as Native Americans were widely perceived, and some command of their language was necessary to do so. Hence, these earlier collectors (who were often also the translators) emphasized only the text of the tale itself and ignored the manner of its telling.
It is Euro-American and African American folktales (the term folktale has been used to mean primarily fictional, orally told, and passed-down prose narratives) that are the primary focus of any discussion of American folktales. I am here discussing the fictional, the oral equivalents of written novels and short stories. Legend is the term usually applied to oral narratives presented as true (see the chapter by Elizabeth Tucker on legends). The terms apply to oral narratives known beyond the United States. Many fictional stories (“folktales”) in particular have come from Europe or Africa and are hence of wider distribution than merely the United State (hence, classificatory efforts have tended to be international in scope, such that we do not have, except for Baughman’s restricted index , a catalogue of strictly American traditional stories. Fictional stories like those discussed here are primarily creations of the past. Any vision people may have of stories being told at home by the fireside is only a nostalgic one.
In the United States, folktales of European origin may attempt to inculcate the usefulness of trickery, especially when that trickery stems from the use of one’s own wits. Among the European folktales that have wider distribution are both stories from the British Isles, which came to the United States with the original settlers of North America, and stories from other nations, which may have come to the United States in more recent times, such as during the nineteenth century (though earlier European settlers were not exclusively British by any means; the tales may have come from various cultures, though we can seldom know precisely which). These folktales included fairy tales, as well as other stories, and in many instances they can be “typed” according to the international numbering system worked out by the Finnish folklorist Antti Aarne and the American Stith Thompson (later developed further by the German folklorist Hans-Jörg Uther, often designated as ATU plus a number) (see Aarne and Thompson 1961 and Uther 2013). Originally the reference was just AT for Aarne and Thompson, and many earlier collections of tales give only AT numbers. These scholars developed the concept of types of the folktale. According to Ernest W. Baughman “a type can be described as a tale—usually of some complexity of parts and development—having many variants and versions which differ from one another only in minor details; among the variants there is a fairly constant arrangement of motifs—that is to say basic tale elements—and anyone familiar with one variant of, say, Type 510, Cinderella, would immediately be able to recognize anther variant of the same type because of the similarity of motifs and their arrangement” (Baughman 1966, xix, n. 15). That is a reasonably accurate definition of type, which has been a key ongoing concept in folkloristics, although sometimes the arrangement and the “minor details” may vary more than Baughman implies. Sometimes the word Type is used instead of AT or ATU.
Possibly the best known kind of folktale, which in many cases came from the British Isles, is the Jack tale (though the term may be used to refer to virtually any folktale, generally magic tales, as fairy tales are known to folklorists, or hero tales in which the main character is called Jack). Many of the heroes who play a role in these stories also make use of their wits and trick their opponents. The name Jack in folktales is known to most people from the tale of Jack the Giant Killer (from the Jack and the Beanstalk story, typed as Type 328, and called in Aarne and Thompson’s The Types of the Folktale: A Classification and Bibliography “The Boy Steals the Giant’s Treasure” [Aarne and Thompson 1961]) (Lindahl 1994; see also Perdue 1987). By the eighteenth century the main character in English printed folktales was usually called Jack. However, it was in 1943, with the publication of a book called The Jack Tales that the name was brought to the attention of the American public. This book’s author was Richard Chase (actually listed as collector and editor of the tales), who evidently came upon the oral stories on which the book is based. In 1939 folklorist Herbert Halpert had recorded a number of tales from the same narrators as Chase found (see Lindahl 2004 I:7ff for information on Halpert’s collecting) and earlier still Isabel Gordon Carter (Carter 1925) had published in the Journal of American Folklore some tales told by Jane Gentry, including Jack tales, told by relatives of Chase’s narrators, mostly members of an extended family (referred to by folklorists as the Hicks-Harmon family). Carter’s informant, Jane Gentry, who had earlier recorded a number of songs for scholar Cecil Sharp, was a member of this family. But Chase’s book, brought out by a major commercial publisher that could provide publicity, gained sales and media attention. The background of the Hicks-Harmon deserves more investigation as a context for the transmission of the tales, and W. F. H. Nicolaisen has encouraged this line of inquiry by producing a detailed genealogy of the storytelling family (Nicolaisen 1994, 128–130; see also Isbell 1996). Folklorists have criticized Chase for virtually stealing the stories he was told (he does not claim that the stories are his, but presumably he collected the royalty checks for the book; folklorists have generally been willing to take the credit for their collections), for extensively reworking these stories (today folklorists are implored to repeat tales exactly as they have heard them, to preserve the integrity of the experience of them), often creating his own versions (an obvious violation of the tales’ integrity), and allowing his versions to be shaped by him (folklorists today are also expected to not bring in their own conceptions of how a story “should” be narrated).
In general, American narrators seem to like telling humorous tales, and even the adventurous doings of the Jack tales may be told with humor, and such serious topics as preachers, lawyers, and marriage appear in American oral stories as humorous. For example, preachers may appear as thieves, drunkards, and womanizers (preachers being in folktales invariably male). In the story of a deathbed scene (actually a version of Type 1860B) collected by George Korson and included in his pioneering book about occupational folklore (Korson 1938), in this case coal mining, a priest is told he is a thief (the death bed’s occupant expresses the idea that like Christ he will die between two thieves, the priest and a doctor, whom the death bed occupant arranges so that he is in the middle of these two, who mostly want his money). The chief protagonist of this story must use his wits to organize both his punchline and the two other characters. Certainly humorous tales may carry the message of the importance of using one’s wits and of trickery.
In particular, so far as humorous tales are concerned, American narrators have loved the tall tale. The tall tale is a story in which the events told about are greatly exaggerated and in which the chief character (usually assumed to be the narrator) often is shown as having undergone extraordinary happenings. Such stories may also be called windies or just lies, and they seem to have been particularly popular in frontier society, perhaps because life on the frontier (the largely rural “edge” of the nation) was itself full of the presumably fantastic. For example, in one popular American story (Type 1889C), a chief character out of ammunition shoots seeds at a deer and thinks that he has missed. The next year he encounters a tree that gets up and moves, and he realizes that the tree is growing from the deer he thought he had missed. In another (Type 1917), a harness, wet from the rain, stretches a vast distance (in fact, to its intended destination) when used to pull a load of wood. The man who has loaded the wood and harnessed the horse or mule goes to bed and finds out the next day that in the sun the harness has shrunk to its normal size, pulling the wood to its destination. Stories about Paul Bunyan, in which Paul creates or otherwise experiences gigantic things, may fall into the category of tall tales (though the development of Paul Bunyan the giant lumberjack likely came about through printed, popular culture rather than oral sources). Tall tales are not necessarily from the British Isles. In fact, the stories of the German Baron Munchhausen are often compared to American tall tales. Though fictional (and appearing first in a book published in England in 1785 as The Adventures of Baron Munchuasen by Rudolf Erich Raspe), he was based on a real German nobleman. The book provides a number of stories in which the baron tells of his fantastic exploits.
Tall tales often involve unexpected, sometimes lucky events, yet they might be seen as the ultimate in trickery in that the protagonist often falls into a trick whereby he is able to succeed. For example, in one such story a protagonist who has fallen into a sinkhole manages to get buzzards to fly him home (de Caro 2009, 173–174).
Other primarily humorous American stories include some of the stories told in French in Louisiana, those collected in the Ozarks by Vance Randolph, the stories popular with Pennsylvania Germans, the Eilishpiggel tales, those popular with Mormons, the J. Golden Kimball tales, parodies of older fairy tales, tales of preachers mentioned earlier, and such stories as that of the boy who manages to sell pumpkins as mule eggs to a stranger (Type 1319), a tale told by noted narrator Ray Hicks. Fools may play a role in such stories, as may mishaps.
Carl Lindahl has compared American tales to British stories and argues that such comparisons can be meaningful in terms of determining meaning and cultural differences and values. He notes (Lindahl 1994) that in European magic tales the main character often receives magical help, whereas in the American Jack stories, it is more likely his opponents who hold the magical powers, suggesting that the ordinary “can-do” person succeeds not only without magic but in opposition to it. In British tales, says Lindahl, the character who helps the main character is more likely to be a magical being, whereas in the American he is more likely to be simply a rich person who enters into an alliance with the main character, expressing an American class solidarity. It is possible that such differences are the result of more modern elements creeping in, and a comparison of more recent British examples than Lindahl uses could be instructive, but as far as they go, such comparisons can be enlightening.
American stories come from not only the British Isles and many can be traced to continental Europe. Many “types” are found in continental contexts. The folklorist Richard M. Dorson, for example, collected and published a number of stories told to him by Joe Woods, who had heard them as a boy in Poland, though he moved around a great deal once he had emigrated to the United States, working in lumber camps, for example. Dorson met Woods in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, also the subject of one of Dorson’s books in 1946 (Dorson 1952). Woods learned his first tales from a wanderer, who came to the house of Woods’s father and told stories for food and money. Woods was not supposed to listen but heard the stories anyway. “I hear it once and I remember it. I was hungry for stories,” he said years later. In his Polish-influenced English, Woods told Dorson, among other stories, a version of the tale best known to us as “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” but called by Aarne and Thompson, who numbered it 954, simply “The Forty Thieves,” in which a poor millman (a mill worker) and his daughter learn of the secret hiding place of bandits and steal their treasure. When the bandits discover the theft, they hide themselves in barrels to get the millman and his daughter, but she discovers the ruse, displaying her cleverness, and sends her father for the police, who arrest the bandits. Tales may suggest in general the need to use one’s wits to trick others, surely a significant cultural value, though it may extend to all who listen to a folktale, not just to Americans or African Americans.
Other Non–British Isles Tales
A significant number of tales have been collected from America’s non-British Euro-American traditions. As early as 1895, Alcée Fortier published a collection of Louisiana French stories, and in 1911 Aurelio M. Espinosa began publishing folktales from the Hispanic traditions of New Mexico, an endeavor in which he was followed by others. Américo Paredes’s book Folktales of Mexico, published 1n 1970, shows, if proof were needed, the portability of oral lore, and it includes tales told by Mexicans in the United States. Several collectors followed in Fortier’s footsteps and collected stories in French Louisiana, endeavors that could lead to further consideration of the creolization process in understanding American tales.
African American folktales are closely related to the Euro-American, perhaps because Europeans and Africans already shared many folktales, perhaps because black and white storytellers often heard each other narrate tales. The Africanist William Bascom, who published African Folktales in the New World in 1993, found that African tales were to be found in various American traditions. Much as Richard Chase influenced public perceptions of British American tradition, so Joel Chandler Harris influenced views of the African American, and he did so much earlier, in the nineteenth century. Harris began publishing his series of Uncle Remus tales in the Atlanta newspaper he worked for. Uncle Remus was the black man who originally appeared in a series of humorous sketches. At one point he began telling stories, and it is these stories, particularly those which concerned charming animal characters, that came to seem quintessentially African American to many whites (who of course tended to ignore the fact that these animals were usually tricksters). In 1880 the sketches were collected in a book, Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings, which brought the stories to a wider audience. Uncle Remus later appeared in other books. Years later, in 1946, Walt Disney produced a film, Song of the South, which turned the stories into cartoons, and it is from this film that many people know the stories.
As a journalist, Harris was not a folklore collector. However, he did influence others to collect stories from African Americans, and William Wells Newell, the first editor of the Journal of American Folklore, emphasized that the “Lore of Negroes in Southern States” would prove a fruitful area for collecting (Newell 1888, 3). Hence, the texts of African American tales began to appear in the pages of the Journal and also in more general periodicals in the late nineteenth century. Although many collectors worked from the idea that African American stories had ultimately African origins, Richard M. Dorson (1967), who collected in the 1950s, began to question that the stories went back to Africa. In this Dorson fought with the anthropologist William Bascom, who argued that African American tales often derived from Africa (Bascom 1992; Dorson 1977).
Starting in the 1950s, Richard Dorson found a great variety of stories, including animal stories (hardly the sum total of African American tales, though certainly important), religious tales, a number of legends, and a cycle of stories about mermaids, which may reference the African goddess Yemaya. Though he began his collecting in the 1950s, Dorson found stories that obviously went back to plantation and slavery times, such as the John and Old Marster cycle of stories, about the clever slave usually named John and his owner, Old Marster (though the Old may suggest an awareness on the part of tellers that such stories reflect a former reality; see Hurston 1935, 3). These stories probably do go back to plantation times, as evidenced by the presence of Africanisms (language clues; the use of African words or words that have close African derivations). One story, which does not contain Africanisms, shows not only John’s relationship with his master but also depicts a slave society and the attraction that larger northern urban areas (which might also be the locus for business) had for plantation owners. The story was told to Dorson, who reproduced it on the printed page in “standard” English, by narrator Silas Altheimer, and called the tale “Master’s Gone to Philly-Me-York.” It is called “Abe and Dinah” in Daryl Cumber Dance’s later collection (Dance 1978, reproduced in de Caro 2009, 150–153). In this tale the slave John does most things for his master but likes to give parties for his slave friends when Old Marster goes away. Old Marster is warned by other plantation owners about this and on one occasion disguises himself with soot as a slave and catches John in the act. The widely diffused story (a version appears in the collection of the Grimms) Dorson called “King Beast of the Forest Meets Man,” in which several animals, notably a lion, encounter an armed human (Dorson 1967, 100–106), is also old, despite the presence of a gun, going back before plantation days.
The historian Lawrence Levine (1977) has suggested that African American stories provided not only entertainment but lessons about coping, about the use of an adaptive device such as tricksters. The term trickster has been used to mean different things, such as the folktale figure like Coyote in Native American narrations who may trick people but who is primarily a creator who is often tricked himself or who sometimes leads himself into disasters; here it literally means someone who cleverly tricks someone else. The large number of animals and humans in African American stories points to the need for trickery in a system in which powerless people are controlled by others; the trickster provides a kind of model. Thus, it can be a kind of historical document for people in the twenty-first century, helping people to see, for example, this need in the larger context of slavery. The famous tar baby story, so well known to the public from Harris’s version and from Walt Disney’s animated version, gives an excellent example of the trickery that was called for. Levine has been the exception in not being a collector of African American tales but rather a commentator on them.
Folklorists could comment on other stories’ meanings, but the meanings of most stories from most ethnic groups seem obvious. That is, the tales themselves seem to reveal meanings that will be plain to readers of the tales. For example, tales about lawyers, noted earlier, are simply comments on that profession.
Richard Dorson was hardly the last person to record African American stories (one thinks, for example, of Daryl Cumber Dance, whose Shuckin’ and Jivin’: Folklore from Contemporary Black Americans, came out in 1978; Onwuchekwa Jemie’s Yo Mama! in 2003). It certainly can be of value to analyze what folklore persists, however marginally, into that time period and perhaps later by continuing to collect, and it can be instructive to consider why oral stories have continued to be a form of entertainment and perhaps enlightenment for African Americans. Why do later African Americans, so far from slavery times and often having bad memories of those times, tell John and Old Marster stories? The answer to this question is possibly as a memory or maybe as a reminder that those times are in fact gone. The ultimate significance of traditional tales has not been considered by folklorists, though it may in fact lie in the use people make of fictional stories as models for behavior, for example, in the message that sometimes trickery is useful, especially when one uses one’s wits to produce it. To be sure, folklorists have considered the meanings of individual stories (see Minton and Evans 2001, concerning in particular the old “Coon in the Box” tale, in which a slave trickster triumphs largely by accident).
Oral Storytelling in the United States
Several kinds of oral storytelling and oral stories, then, have been important in the United States. Though there are still narrators of such traditional stories as are discussed earlier, and though they may be important stories in the context of the storytelling revival, these stories are in many ways, things of the past and any analysis of them will be of the past, as folklorists look to new types of stories for their commentary, for example as they look more toward the analysis of revivalism as it relates to narratives. It is doubtful that they will pass into the twenty-first century as anything other than remnants. The traditional stories that have been the focus of this essay may be primarily things of the past, but they relate to the present through not only their use in the storytelling revival but also through our memories of the important role such tales have often played. Folklorists look to such stories as evidence of earlier forms of (oral) communication and the importance of the oral to past societies. Such stories are reminders of the importance of narratives to people (thus, these stories need further historical analysis), such that they tell stories in the absence even of written stories, though modern people, used to various methods of recording, may find it difficult to imagine a world in which the oral plays such key roles.
Nonetheless, it does. And folklorists must look at the past as well as the present. The former prevalence of oral culture and its productions must be carefully examined in order to determine our progress (if progress it is) to literacy and the recording of our speech into writing. The art of storytelling is of course but one mode for determining this progress, but a very important one. One can use oral narratives as a means (a means not very far in the past and, indeed, protruding into the present) of marking a different age, an age of orality and of the spoken word, when stories were (literally) on our lips.
It is also important to look at fictional stories for the models they may present for human behavior. In general, folktales may present models that suggest the significance of using one’s wits to come up with tricks to fool others, human or nonhuman.
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The collection (paremiography) and study (paremiology) of proverbs has a venerable tradition in the United States. Interdisciplinary and multiethnic approaches have shown that proverbial language is characterized by its polyfunctionality, polysituativity, and polysemanticity. Proverbs continue to play a multifaceted role in the modern American environment. New field research resulting in collections of proverbs that have hitherto not been registered from various folk groups is needed, and future studies should look in greater detail at the use and function of proverbs in modern literature, film, music, mass media, cartoons, and the memes that employ proverbs on the Internet. The traditional and innovative employment of proverbs, quite often in the form of anti-proverbs, is alive in modern American society.
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