Storytelling — The American Tradition

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Narrativium

Adam Gurri pointed me to this 1895 Mark Twain essay, How to Tell a Story, which makes the interesting claim that the humorous story, dependent for its effect on the manner of telling rather than the matter, is an American invention:

There are several kinds of stories, but only one difficult kind–the humorous. I will talk mainly about that one. The humorous story is American, the comic story is English, the witty story is French. The humorous story depends for its effect upon the manner of the telling; the comic story and the witty story upon the matter.

I’m not sure if Twain’s claim is strictly true even within the narrow scope of his comparison to English and French storytelling traditions, but there’s something to what he was getting at in the essay. For whatever reason, in the 19th century, America reinvented, in a unique new way, an old, primarily oral form of storytelling. A form that appeared centuries after the rise of written and printed forms of storytelling, and within a modern, industrial context.

In making his exceptionalist claim for American storytelling, Twain was, I think, right about something. The question is what?

The closest cousins of the classic American yarn I can think of are semi-mythological oral traditions that mix fact and fantasy freely in the form of folk tales, but are primarily about everyday events rather than epic cosmic-historical events. Stories with unclear authorship that are collected and compiled by scholars rather than invented. In this broad category I include everything from Grimm’s fairy tales and Aesop’s fables in the West, to the Arabian Nights and Jataka tales in Asia.

While there are some American tales that fit this description, like those featuring Paul Bunyan, the primary American form of folklore is adjacent to, rather than within, this classic form. In its modern form, the tradition apparently persists as a whole subcultural scene of live, competitive storytelling events. I just learned about this through Matthew Dicks’ fascinating book Storyworthy, which I’ll write about in a future part of this blogchain. It is worth noting though, that as a contemporary master of the American spoken-word story, Dicks seems to agree with me that humor is not the essence of it. Humor is just something you use strategically to achieve certain effects in storytelling.

I think of folklore proper as the atomized successor to the epics of the Axial age. Pointillist meaning-maps of a set of folkways that may co-exist with, but don’t depend on, a larger moral-narrative universe organized along epic lines. Stuff like the King Arthur stories seem to fall somewhere between epic and folk traditions.

Outside of pre-Columbian Native American traditions interrupted by colonization, America arguably lacks a folklore proper, in the old-world sense of a body of narratives that explore the philosophical themes of the everyday life of commoners with significant mythological license. It does possess a modern epic tradition featuring fictional elites (superhero comics and movie franchises), with fictional folklore embedded within (for example Star Wars is epic, The Mandalorian is folklore within the Star Wars universe), but there’s really nothing quite like say Grimm’s fairy tales or the Arabian Nights.

Unlike traditional folklore, American industrial folklore is a realist, literal tradition, with the presumption of factuality, and a preference for first-person telling of recent or contemporary events over retellings and handed-down lore. Twain refers, in his essay, to tellings of borrowed (particularly, Black) tales, but I suspect there is a bias against that overall. Matthew Dicks formalizes that into a strong norm: stories are identity, so in folklore contexts, you must only tell stories that are yours to tell. And there are rules about allowable deviations from strict factuality that are more moral than stylistic.

Chronologically, Mark Twain probably marks the start of the American tradition proper. While Hawthorne’s Rip Van Winkle (1819) features a stillborn kind of folklore along more traditional European lines, that line of development went nowhere as folklore. It probably helped give rise to American science fiction and fantasy via Edgar Allen Poe and his spiritual descendants, but didn’t turn into a strong oral folklore tradition driven by large-scale participation. America was too young and too industrial-modern for that.

Where fantasy features in the oral folklore at all, it does so as part of how characters think. For example, the various superstitious beliefs that drive character actions in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. The American fantastical imagination proper followed primarily written pathways in the form of modern novels, short stories, and perhaps most importantly, magazine fiction. Within folklore, it is only accessible via a degree of indirection. There are more stories about colorful characters who claim to have seen Sasquatch or UFOs than stories about Sasquatch or UFOs proper. Gimmicky episodes about Sasquatch hunters or UFO abductees are de rigeur in American detective shows on TV. An archetypal character in American stories is the conspiratorial maven who is at once deeply credulous and deeply convinced that everybody else is clueless and has been taken in by obvious lies — an eager mark convinced he is in on the con. Kramer in Seinfeld, Gus in Psych, and Richard Castle in Castle are examples.

American folklore, I think, began with early industrialization in the 1820s, and truly arrived with Mark Twain after the Civil War, against a backdrop of industrial development on a vast scale the European imagination had no experience with. I suspect the combination of what was then the most advanced technology in the world, and the wildest frontier in the world, created the conditions for the birth of the storytelling tradition that Twain calls out as unique to America.

Here’s Twain characterizing it (in my opinion in a way that perversely misses the point).

The humorous story may be spun out to great length, and may wander around as much as it pleases, and arrive nowhere in particular; but the comic and witty stories must be brief and end with a point. The humorous story bubbles gently along, the others burst.

The humorous story is strictly a work of art,–high and delicate art,–and only an artist can tell it; but no art is necessary in telling the comic and the witty story; anybody can do it. The art of telling a humorous story–understand, I mean by word of mouth, not print–was created in America, and has remained at home.

I don’t think it is humor that is central to it. To paraphrase the line about cyberpunk (“high tech, and low life”), American folklore features high tech and wild life. In fact, I suspect the former is descended from the latter. To peek ahead at my thesis, Twain misses a key point that you’d think would have been obvious to him, given his own life and work: the artist he’s talking about is, archetypically, a con artist. There is, I believe, a reason he missed it that I’ll get to.

Interestingly, the cowboy Western is not, in my opinion, an example of American storytelling in the Mark Twain sense of a broad, participatory tradition of folklore. It draws from a historical era that was too brief in time (about a decade between the end of the Civil War and the completion of railroad infrastructure) and encompassed too few individuals (actual cowboys). Even in their own time, cowboy stories were primarily a spectator narrative form conveyed worldwide by technology. It was nearly immediately turned into theater in the form of Wild West shows (Buffalo Bill, for example, was more pre-Hollywood live movie star than cowboy), pulp fiction in the form of magazine stories and dime novels (cheap offset printing was invented on the heels of the Western spectacle), and of course, movies and radio.

One might say: the cowboy western went straight from epic to commercial theater without spending any time simmering as a folklore.

So the true American storytelling tradition is a more slowly simmered one that developed over about a century of industrial development (I’d date it to approximately to the period between the war of 1812 and WW1).

When it is funny, it is incidentally funny by virtue of being wild but plausible, like Huck Finn’s wild raft ride with the King and Duke down the Mississippi. The appropriate reaction to a proper bit of American storytelling is, “that’s wild!” not “that’s hilarious!” A modern example is the Hangover movies.

But this signature feature of the uniquely American tale relies on improbable events rather than exaggerated or fantastically embellished ones. The tradition of the American tall tale is, in my opinion, a secondary current in folklore (and one with parallels in other parts of the world).

A line from Seinfeld (delivered by Kramer of course), could easily apply to all American storytelling:

“Have you ever met a proctologist? Well, they usually have a very good sense of humor. You meet a proctologist at a party, don’t walk away. Plant yourself there, because you will hear the funniest stories you’ve ever heard. See, no one wants to admit to them that they stuck something up there. Never! It’s always an accident. Every proctologist story ends in the same way: ‘It was a million to one shot, Doc. Million to one.’”

Seinfeld is actually a very good example of the American tradition, despite its setting in a world away from the kind of rural Southern backdrop we normally associate with it. The American storytelling tradition itself plays a meta-role in the show, particularly in episodes like the one in which J. Peterman buys Kramer’s stories for his book (on the DL because that’s a serious cultural crime in America). The idea of a “show about nothing” (true or not) feels almost like a hat tip to Twain’s point about the manner of telling prevailing over the matter.

Partly because he was a pioneer of the tradition, and himself primarily a humorist, I think Twain conflated the broader American industrial folklore tradition with its narrower humorous subthread. The comparison with the English comic story and the French witty story (I don’t know what that refers to) seems somewhere between wrong and unilluminating. It’s a category error of sorts. American industrial-folklore as a whole should be compared to European pre-modern folklore.

Twain himself seemed to dimly sense that. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is something of a meta-study of folklores in collision. That sense of collision of cultures is also evident in, for example, the farcical Shakespearean theater put on by the King and Duke in Huckleberry Finn, that gets then run out of town.

If there is, indeed, a thematic bias in the American storytelling tradition, that makes it more than a pure “manner” of telling, it lies in grift rather than humor.

The Great American Story is always something of a tale told by a con artist in service of a con. Whether it is Tom Sawyer getting his fence whitewashed, the King and Duke running theater hustles, proctologist patients covering up embarrassing tales with improbable ones, or J. Peterman passing off Kramer’s tales as his own, the American tale is always told in service of a con (modern TV shows are, of course, told to sell advertising; wake up Jerry!).

Arguably, the entire modern American literary tradition is built on storytelling as fundamentally a genre of good-humored grifting rather than a solemn literary endeavor proper. In Steve Hely’s How I Became a Famous Novelist this premise is developed into a larger satire of the entire publishing industry (Steve was a writer on The Office, and I got to know him recently through The Gervais Principle, and this post partly reflects some discussions we’ve had). Notably, the novel opens with the protagonist ghostwriting essays for college applications.

So perhaps Twain was on to something after all. The focus on the manner of the telling over the matter points to the actual role humor plays. The humor lies in the storytelling itself being a sort of grift, with the audience (in the oral format) being a willing but demanding participant that will enjoy and appreciate being conned artfully, but angrily run you out of town if you are bad at it. The payoff is not amusement at the story, but a forgiving chagrin at being artfully taken in by it. You forgive the con of the telling for the pleasure derived from the tale.

Not only is humor incidental where it is present, it is arguably, not necessary. Another thread of American storytelling — the Horatio Alger tale that leads on to the tradition of personal growth/self-improvement “non-fiction” — is earnest and humorless. But it is just as closely associated with grifting and cons.

In fact, you can put the two together into a template of the classic American tale. It is fundamentally a sort of Bildungsroman featuring wildly improbable events, leading up to schmaltzy redemption — a tale featuring a grifter hero and told by a grifter running a con of his own in telling the story. That’s one reason it works best if the storyteller and the hero are the same person. The narrated con obscures the longer con of the act of narration long enough for the teller to escape with the profits.

The American hero of folklore, then, is a grifter who tells the tale of his own redemption. Only, he (it is nearly always a he) is a grifter with a heart of gold who might pull little cons to get ahead, but stays true-hearted and noble where it actually matters.

Mark Twain’s essay appears in a different light if you consider the personal context of its writing. In 1895, at nearly 60, Twain had gone bankrupt due to a series of bad investments. According to this Washington Post article, “The great author was a sucker for get-rich-quick investments, including a typesetting machine that broke often and was slower than its competitors.”

But Twain was a true-hearted hero with a heart of gold. Even though he was kinda bailed out by Standard Oil second-in-command Henry Rogers through some savvy financial maneuvering, and didn’t have to pay back his creditors, he embarked on a taxing world tour to pay them anyway.

Twain himself then, was some sort of cross between Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer on the one hand, and Horatio Alger heroes on the other.

There is perhaps something here about a young, emerging middle class discovering itself through the practice of a competitive storytelling as a grift, on the path to a larger collective self-deception in the form of a class consciousness you enough to be ironic. But there is an underlying confidence (possibly misplaced) in a moral compass underlying the irony that has not been entirely corrupted, as it would be in a mature class consciousness. A moral compass shaped by a bloody civil war fought, at least in part, over the morality of slavery.

The idealized hero of American folklore is ironic enough to pull little victimless cons to get ahead on his wits, leaving behind chagrined but not damaged marks. But he is — or so he believes — too noble-hearted to pull off big and dark cons that cause genuine harm to others (Clint Eastwood, interestingly, evolved from being the hero of this kind of tale in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, to telling stories that explicitly challenged that conceit in Unforgiven).

This is still the essence of the story Americans tell themselves. It is a story that centers validation of what narrative psychologist Dan McAdams calls the redemptive self.

Perhaps this is why, unlike old-world middle classes, the American middle class has a fundamental immunity to socialism. It is not a capitalist suspicion of socialism so much as a very recent memory of middle-class consciousness construction through a wily arms race of mutual grifting. An arms race you participate in with all the ironic wit you can conjure up to win, but guided by an unironically held moral compass. Perhaps it is hypocrisy, but it does lead to a unique brand of storytelling.

It is no accident that the American narrative of technological progress relies on the same storytelling tradition to sell itself to itself (think the Monorail episode on The Simpsons, or real-life examples from plank roads to subprime mortgages to dogecoin to SPACs).

Twain, the master of one genre of the American tradition, was a sucker for another, darker kind that was essential to technological progress driven by capitalist modes of financial storytelling. This is perhaps why he didn’t notice that the true artist of American storytelling is always a con artist. Much to his chagrin in 1895, Twain found himself holding a paintbrush, whitewashing a fence (and it is rather appropriate that he was saved by a master of the darker financial genre of storytelling, Henry Rogers of Standard Oil).

Speaking of oil, a note on the role of technology.

Technology doesn’t feature much directly in American folklore except as a background element (cars in road trips for example, railroads in Western tales, and various new technologies as the source of investment premises in various fictional and real hustles), but I suspect it played a role in directing the imagination away from the fantastical, and towards a kind of outrageous but plausible realism that draws inspiration from improbable outlier events in real life. To use Nassim Taleb’s term, American storytelling is tales from extremistan, even if it doesn’t feature technology.

Technology also oriented the American imagination towards the present and future, rather than the past. Americans seem to have made surprisingly little use of what history they have, going back to Plymouth Rock, in constructing folklore. History prior to the nineteenth century seems to be a source of ideology rather than stories. Civil War re-enactments and such seem to be a form of motivated memory maintenance rather than storytelling.

But I think Twain was right to call out focus on the manner over the matter as the essential feature of American storytelling. And the manner of the performance works equally well whether you are selling entertaining fictions, motivational seminars, or sketchy investments.

This does not mean that the matter is irrelevant. It means the matter, in an American milieu, tends to take care of itself. The intersection of high tech and wild frontiers is naturally dramatic, and you just have to be sensitive to the improbable storyworthy (and investment-worthy) drama around you to tell a quintessentially American sort of tale. The backdrop is tall enough enough your tale doesn’t have to be. All it takes to tell the tale is sufficient artistry. Con artistry.

If you tell your tale well, people will bet money on the possibility of your wild but implausible tale being actually true, and that they might get rich quick off of it. And if they lose it all, they’ll still forgive you for it if you told a good enough tale, and take care to cool the mark out with the same level of artistry.

This is perhaps why America has been so successful at storytelling through television, movies, investment prospectuses, and college essays. All media where, unlike ordinary written fiction, the performance aspect is proportionately much bigger. American life has always been, to a degree, stranger than fiction. So literary invention tends to take a backseat to narrative performance. And thanks to media technology, it ends up stronger because of that.

It’s all about high tech and wild life: storytelling in service of frontier hustling — brought to you live by Elon Musk on SNL.

Series NavigationStorytelling — Harmon vs. McKee >>

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. I think the technological aspects of this American tradition are in service of the con, and not required as a whole. Obviously there are a lot of cons built around technology, so it’s a common plot device, but not required by any stretch.

    As an example, your Twain excerpt about humorous rambling stories immediately explained why The Big Lebowski and pretty much all Tarantino movies are so well loved in America.

    There are also strong older traditions around this vein, outside of America. See “How We Got Up the Glenmutchkin Railway and How We Got Out Of It” by W. E. Aytoun (link to pdf: http://public-library.uk/ebooks/39/97.pdf), a story about a con played in Scotland during the railway mania of the 19th century.

  2. I just finished reading Mark Twain’s “Roughing it” – his autobiographical tale of his youthful adventures in Nevada, California & Hawaii.

    It was interesting to have him set the scene for those places & times & troglodyte attitudes. But it was irritating that he was much more focused on being humorous than telling a story that held together or gave any reliable information. To the point that when he wanted the reader to actually take something as fact rather than another campfire lie, Twain would say something like “… and that really happened.”

    The net effect was tedium, but I was glad that I persevered to the end of the book, because that was where it all came together. All Twain’s adventures in the Wild West while he was trying to strike it rich finally made sense when, at the end he started on a profitable lecture tour. The con is part of the story – it lends color – and the humor is to make the story fun for the audience, but the root purpose of telling the story is quintessentially American: to make money.

    Also too: what about Uncle Remus?

  3. I sort of feel like this essay misses the mark Twain was aiming at.
    Twain here is referring to his gift for filling a book with lots of funny comments, a funny tone, funny asides. That’s what he means about it not really needing a point. It’s the characters and the commentary and the way of prompting a joke out of people.
    This essay goes through a lot of settings and topics but that’s not Twain’s point. A good humorist is just funny, no matter what he writes about. Twain was good at that. He created buffoons and showed their buffoonery and made clever comments about life itself.

  4. “The American hero of folklore, then, is a grifter who tells the tale of his own redemption. Only, he (it is nearly always a he) is a grifter with a heart of gold who might pull little cons to get ahead, but stays true-hearted and noble where it actually matters.”

    Ishmael in Moby Dick?

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