tall tale

tall tale, extravagantly and humorously exaggerated story of the backwoods exploits of an American frontiersman. Originating in the 1820s, the genre remained popular well into the 20th cent. One of the earliest heroes of this type of folklore, Colonel Davy Crockett of Tennessee, boasted:

I'm that same David Crockett, fresh from the backwoods, half-horse, half-alligator, a little touched with the snapping turtle; can wade the Mississippi, leap the Ohio, ride a streak of lightning, slip without a scratch down a honey locust, can whip my weight in wildcats … .

These bold deeds were made famous throughout the West by Crockett's Autobiography (1834) and by his Almanacs (1835–56). Crockett also popularized the deeds of the gigantic Mike Fink, “King of the Mississippi Keelboatmen,” who was said to have once slain with a single shot both a deer and a Native American who was pursuing it. From Canada came the tales of the hero of the lumberjacks, Paul Bunyan, whose Blue Ox “Babe” was “forty-two ax handles and a plug of chewing tobacco between the eyes.” The cowboys' hero was Pecos Bill, who “taught the bronco how to buck,” and Southern blacks told tales of John Henry, the railroader and steamboat roustabout who once won a contest against a steam drill.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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