Commentary, Literature

A Legendary History of our Humorous Heroes

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As the imminent Fourth of July holiday ushers in the annual paeans to American independence and editorials about the importance of remembering its history, several momentous chapters in our national story—including the temporary misplacement of America, the unfreezing of the Earth, and the invention of the prairie dog—are once again missing from the familiar Independence Day narrative.
So it’s a good thing that, just in time to correct these grievous oversights, we rediscovered in the vault Walter Blair’s Tall Tale America, a classic of American humor that features as its chief historical figures not presidents, military leaders, and tycoons but folk heroes and popular characters such as Davy Crockett (and his pipe-smoking pet bear Death Hug), Old Stormalong, Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, and John Henry.
More traditional characters do make brief appearances: Blair briefly tells the story, for example, of when Thomas Jefferson “put on one of his oldest suits of clothes, just to show he was one of the folks.… walked from his boarding house through the mud up the hill to the brand new Senate chamber, and started to run the country.” But the tall tales of “Daniel Boone’s Discovery of Kentucky and His Other Puzzling Habits” and “Seaman Tom Smith’s Theory about Dry Oceans”—not to mention their accompanying illustrations by John Sandford—are, if we may say so, much more interesting.