Volume 9 , Number 7 , Spring 1987
A major concern running through the body of American literature from late in the eighteenth century to the present is the question of American identity. Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur, a Frenchman turned American, in Letter III of Letters from An American Farmer, asked "What is an American?" That was in 1782, near enough the end of the American Revolution to serve as a declaration of independence in American literature. Just as political independence had been declared in 1776, and just as statesmen and soldiers had devoted their lives to making that in-dependence a reality, after the achievement of political independence, writers of American literature turned to create a real American literature, distinct from English literature by its definition of things American, especially national character. American writers who gave particular attention to defining American character are James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, and Henry James in the nineteenth century; and in important ways, almost all twentieth-century American literature continues this national quest. The result is a body of fiction and poetry which self-consciously treats the identity of American character. Coexistent with that body of mainstream and "great" American literature is a body of quite unself-conscious literature which defines American character by region. Those characters, subject to the myriad of conditions imposed by different physical and social regions in the vastne~ss of the American continent, seem far more familiar to us than the larger character generalizations of national literature. That coexistent body of literature is oral literature, more commonly called folktales; unlike great literature, folktales are shared in some way by every woman, child, and man in a region to which they are indigenous. Also unlike great literature in its form, oral literature is fluid; it changes rapidly as it is told and retold in infinitely varying form, adapting constantly and quickly to new conditions as it moves into new territory. Different landforms, different trees and plants, different springs and rivers and ci~eeks, different wild and domestic animals, andwhat is most important heredifferent social and economic conditions are the natural settings to which oral literature must adapt to in new regions. The result is regional oral literature in which Americans define their own characters in their own regional physical and social milieus. Ozark foildore as a case in point is a literature which leaves little doubt about the Ozarker1s ideas of what family structure was right and necessary in the premodern, rural Ozarks; it leaves little doubt about the demands of masculine performance; and it leaves little doubt about moral codes, especially those pertaining to sex.
Three stories, chosen because they have particularly long histories and because they are well known and documented, serve to illustrate these points. Because they have been known for centuries, they dramatically point up the fluidity of the oral tale as it adapts to new territory. As these tales have been adapted, they have been made to reflect the character of those who relate them, in this case Ozarkers. The first, a story much older than Shakespeare, is a variant of the taming-of-the-shrew story. The second is a variant of the Anglo-Saxon verse epic, Beowuif. The third is a variant of the millers tale, one of four Chaucerian tales collected in the Ozarks.
The taming-of-the-shrew in the Ozarks is about a married couple, a husband properly adapted in character to the land he lives in who marries a girl who has not properly adapted to her land. During the course of the story, she adapts. The first paragraph is so important for cultural interpretation it must be quoted entirely:
One time there was a fellow named Creekmore that was part Indian, and he never had much to say. The folks was all surprised when him and Rose Ballard got married. Rose was a good girl, but kind of high headed, and used to having her own way. Everybody said she was the prettiest girl in the whole country, and could have got any man she wanted. Lots of them boys that came to see her was better looking than Creekmore, and had more money. The Ballard family didnt like it much, but Rose went ahead and married Creekmore anyhow.
After they married, Rose took a little dog to their new home. The first day, it bit Creekmore, and Rose acted like it was Creekmores fault. He said, "Thats one." A week later, the little dog bit Creekmore again; he responded by slapping the little dog across the room and saying, "Thats two." Rose "raised quite a holler," but Creekmore didnt say another word. About a month later, the little dog bit Creekmore again. He said, "Thats three," pulled out his pistol, and shot the dog dead. Rose "flew off the handle and throwed a regular temper tantrum. She cussed Creekmore for everything she could lay her tongue to, and finally she hauled off and slapped his face hard as she could." Stolidly, Creekmore looked at her and said, "Thats
one." He went out to bury the dog, leaving Rose sitting on the porch "looking mighty thoughtful." When he came in at night, the kitchen was cleaned up, a good supper was cooked, and the dog never mentioned again. "Pretty soon they blowed out the light and went to bed. And thats all there was to it." The storyteller moralizes at the end (another characteristic of Ozark folktale telling):
The folks figured that them two would never make a go of it, but the fact is they got along pretty good. Rose settled down to canning fruit and having babies, and Creekmore raised more cattle than anybody else in the neighborhood. There was only one pair of britches in the family, and it was Creekmore that wore em. Him and her didnt see eye to eye, maybe. But they never had no quarrels and squabbling, like lots of married people do nowadays. (Randolph: 71-73)
First of all, the story clearly delineates a social difference between the bride and groom, one which was creating a particular problem for the married couple, a problem which must be overcome if the couple is to be successful as a farm family in the hard agricultural enviromnent of the Ozarks. Rose, being a Ballard, a presumed better than the Indian Creekmore. Not only do her family and the community think so, but so does Rose, a fact clearly shown by Roses pride and her apparent belief that anyone as common as Creekmore should not object to her little dogs biting him. The dog itself is the best evidence in the story of Roses being spoiled and pampered; the dog is worse than useless to Ozark farmers because it is neither a working stock dog nor a working hunting dog.
Creekmores solution to the dog or bride problem is not a summary solution. He gives Rose two free chances to curb the dog and her pride. She doesnt. He does. In effect, the storyteller points up Roses wrong perception of relationships. Once that wrong perception is clarified, then the story can go on with the establishment of right relationships. Thus, once the dog has served to establish the error in Roses pride, Rose and Creekmore can move on to the relationship necessary in family structure in premodern, rural Ozark settings. (I must emphasize that his is a story from the Ozark past and that its inherent chauvinism does not fit into contemporary Ozark settings, neither rural nor town, as it may have to some degree until about mid-twentieth century in the "survivalist" environs of Ozark agriculture). Rose and Creekmore solved their social and family problems, a necessity if they were to become a successful farm family or even to survive in the hard Ozark environment. As the storyteller says, "And thats all there was to it."
As the taming-of-the-shrew in the Ozarks deals with average or normal Ozarkers, the second story is about an Ozark hero, a character type almost completely alien to Ozark thought. This story in its adaptation has condensed from short book length to about six hundred words, to such a point that almost the entire story must be repeated to show its direct adaptation of key details from the original Anglo-Saxon epic hero to the Ozark hero-or anti-hero (italicized passages indicate key details common both to Beowuif and to this Ozark story):
One time there was a fellow named Tobe that lived up on the Cowskin, and he was the stoutest man ever come to this country. He was near seven foot tall, and weighed three hundred pounds. Tobe was a good worker and a terrible fighter, but not very smart. He would do whatever you told him, so long as he didnt get mad, and then he was liable to do most anything. One Sunday he throwed a fiddler pretty near half way across the river. The fiddler would have drowned sure, only some of the boys swum out and got him.
The country was full of bears in them days, and a great big bear got to nosing around the Widow Tarkeys smokehouse. It would bust in the door, and gobble up everything in sight. The widow lived all by herself, and she was scared pretty bad, so she asked Tobe to come over and kill the varmint. He come over all right, but he didnt bring no gun. "The bear aint got no gun, has he?" says Tobe. "That makes us even, and I aim to fight him fair."
Tobe was one of them fellers that goes to sleep whenever he sets down, and thats what happened on the widows porch. But when the bear busted the smokehouse door it woke him up, and he run out there. Him and the bear fought something terrible, and the Widow Tarkey figured Tobe would get killed sure. But after while he come back up the path. "Did you kill the critter?" says the Widow. "I reckon not, maam," says Tobe, "but he wont bother your smokehouse no more," and with that he throwed about fifty pounds of bear-meat down on the porch. Tobe had tore one of that bears legs right off, just pulled it out by the roots!
Next day the boys foliered the trail down the river bank, and they found the bear in a cave, but he was dead. One of his front legs was gone, all right, tore off right at the shoulder. The varmint had spilled a barrel of blood, and thats what killed him.
Mostly the folks figured it was a lie, because
everybody knows there aint no man stout enough to pull a bears leg off like it was a June bug. They seen the leg all right, nailed up over the smokehouse door, with claws a-sticking out four inches long. "That dont prove nothing," says Wes Gaibraith, "they got elk horns nailed on the tavern at Pea Ridge, but nobody claims they tore em off a live elk bare-handed." There was considerable talk about it. Tobe says this is a free country, and folks can believe whatever they want. But if anybody calls him a liar he will pull their arms and legs off one at a time, right in front of the courthouse. Wes Galbraith and them Rutledge boys didnt have no more to say after that.
Nobody ever did find out just what happened, and Tobes been dead for fifty years. But theres old settlers around here yet that believe Tobe did pull the bears leg off, just like he told the Widown Tarkey. (Randolph: 17-18)
Although an obvious variant of a story first written down about the year 1000 A.D. after some 200 years of oral circulation, this story was told for the truth: "Tobes been dead for fifty years . . . old settlers around here yet believe Tobe did pull the bears leg off. . . "Although Tobe may not have fought the bear exactly as the story describes, the story certainly presents very real prescriptions of identity in the Ozarks.
Beowuif was a story of an Anglo-Saxon hero, one who was adored by his tribesmen for his great exploits, and one who was permitted, even expected, in his time to boast long and loud, even to literarily embroider his adventures. Tobe, too, is a hero of his people. He looks and acts extraodinary. People stand in awe of himof his size, his strength, his anger, his fighting ability, all components of the heroic warrior. He performs the cultural equivalent of Beowulfs fighting Grendel barehanded, and the results are the samethe beastly opponents front leg pulled out by the roots, the leg with its long claws sticking out nailed up over a door, the bear tracked to a watery cave to be found dead from loss of blood. However, while Beowult was not only permitted but expected to boast and to be imaginative enough to embroider his feats, Tobe is American and Ozarkian. American male standards do not permit boasting. In fact, quite the opposite is true. The popular American masculine hero must be strong and silent, even so modest that he deny anything extraordinary about his featswitness the characters played by John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, and Jimmy Stewart. Not only must the American hero be silent, he must be incapable of literary embroidery, almost incapable of speech itself. Wayne and Bogart in many roles stood completely silent until provoked to violence, and Jimmy Stewart could only stutter incoherently. In short, the popular American hero must appear to be barely heroic, even to verging on the comic.
Tobe, as an American hero, has all these traits. However, Tobe goes the popular American hero one better. As an Ozark hero, he clearly goes over the line on which the American hero only verges. Tobe is clearly comic. His anger runs to the ludicrous, as almost all anger does in Ozark folktales. On the other hand, his placidness, the opposite of passionate anger, also runs to the ludicroushe goes to sleep whenever he sits down. Thus it is that heroics must run to catch and overtake Tobe, the Ozark hero. He must, likewise, not only avoid boasting, but he must turn to understatement to hide his having done anything extraordinary at all"Did you kill the critter?" asks the widow. "I reckon not, maam," says Tobe, "but he wont bother your smokehouse no more.
Neither we nor Tobe, nor Wes Galbraith and them Rutledge boys, "have no more to say after that."
As the shrew story and "Tobe" fix proper marital and heroic roles an Ozark variant of Chaucers fourteenth-century "The Millers Tale" approaches character and social performance from another perspective. Rather than demonstrating sly character traits of an Ozark hero or the reformation of a shrew to proper huswifery, "Tote Out The Big Trunk" (Randolph: 99-100) is a comic parable of sexual misconduct.
The Ozark version of the Millers tale begins with a woman" who "had a fellow in bed with her." Along came another man whom she "liked better." She instructed the first man to hide in a big trunk. Then she and the second man got in bed and "was having a fine time." Next door was a blacksmith shop, and them blacksmith "was crazy about her too." The smith came to the womens window and knocked, but she would not let him in. He could not see inside, so he finally said, "Just give me a kiss." The woman stuck her behind out the window. "Soon as the blacksmith got that kiss, he knowned it wasnt her face." Returning to his shop, the smith heated an iron and returned to the window and knocked. The man then in bed decided to have his share of fun and stuck his behind out the window. The blacksmith "just up with the hot iron and burned whoevers hind end came out the window." The burned man yelled, "Fire! Fire!" The man in the trunk thought the house was on fire and repeatedly yelled, "Tote out the big trunk" and finally "Five dollars for anyone that will tote out the big trunk."
The storyteller anticlimactically moralizes:
Them two fellows made noise enough to
rouse the whole neighborhood. The woman couldnt keep em quiet no way. People came a-running to see about it, and there was hell to pay generally. The story dont say what happened after that, but it sure wasnt what you might call a happy ending.
Neither hero nor reformed shrew justify this story. Four fools are revealed to "the whole neighborhood," who "came a-running to see about it." About to be revealed as promiscuous, the woman "couldnt keep em quiet no way." The blacksmith presses his lips to what we must presume are unsavory nether lips. The second lover attempts to fool the blacksmith with a trick not even the blacksmith will fall for twice, gets his behind burned for his pains, and sets off a commotion that brings down the whole neighborhood. The man in the trunkfool for agreeing to get into the trunkbecomes greater fool in his continuation of the havoc begun by the second lover. No hero and no reformation of errant character grace this farce. It does, however, by presenting a cast of utter fools teach social morality, if not abstinence, at least discretion, both common standards.
Clearly these stories teach us the attitudes which make us Ozarkers into the characters we have been and are. From mere recognition of sexual right and wrong to acceptance of the hard roles life may demand to learning not to take ourselves too seriously or to accept ourselves withhumiity, as we grow up with these tales or tales like them, we build the complex set of values and attitudes which give us substantive character. We learn not mere knowledge but knowledge that life has meaning, meaning we recognize as real because it comes from inside us, as it has come from inside us during the thousand or thousands of years we have developed or adapted these stories to fit ourselves whenever or wherever we live. These stories come from inside, and they express us. Without them our lives would be lean and our characters thin. And without them, our identities might well be Anglo-Saxon, rather than American, or Ozark.
Randolph, Vance. Sticks in The Knapsack and Other Ozark Folk Tales.
New York: Columbia University Press, 1958.
Copyright Ó White River Valley Historical Quarterly
Next Article | Table of Contents | Other Issues
Local History Home