Excerpted from: Lindahl, Carl. 1994. “Jacks: The Name, The Tales, The American Traditions,” Jack In Two Worlds. Ed., William Bernard McCarthy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press: xiii-xxxiv. Used with permission from Carl Lindahl. ________________________________________________________________________
In the last fifty years, Jack Tales have come to occupy a privileged position for scholarly analysts of folklore, for popular purveyors of folklore, and even for folk themselves. Before turning to individual stories and storytellers, we might well ask, Who is this boy Jack? In what forms has he existed before—and beyond—the work of Richard Chase? How and in what ways has British Jack became American? And how has one particular strand of English-speaking oral tradition been elevated to folk self-image for an entire nation?
The oldest known version of the international tale type, “The Dance among Thorns” (AT 592), is an early fifteenth-century English poem titled “Jack and His Stepdame,” in which Jack is an only child abused by his stepmother. He shares food with an old beggar, who grants him three magic wishes: a bow and arrows that never miss their mark, a pipe whose music compels all that hear it to dance, and a spell that forces his stepmother to fart explosively whenever she looks angrily at Jack. With these gifts Jack punishes the stepmother as well as a friar whom she has recruited to beat him (Furrow 1985, 67-156; Bolte and Polivka 1913—32, 2:491). Because so many recent editors have attempted to sell Jack exclusively to children, obscene and scatological elements of his tradition have long been suppressed. Yet “Jack and His Stepdame” testifies that Jack’s name has figured in off-color adventures for nearly six centuries, and Appalachian tales just now finding their way into print (including the tales of Ray Hicks and Marshall Ward in this book) affirm that the Jack of oral tradition is sometimes a character shared by adults but off-limits to children, enjoyed among men but largely concealed from women.
Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century texts provide hints of Jack’s better-known and more heroic role. The first scraps of giant-killer tales appear in English Renaissance drama.
“Jack and the Giants” (known in the nineteenth-century storybooks as “Jack the Giant-Killer”) presents a boy, the only child of a Cornish farmer, who saves Cornwall from a giant by trapping him in a pit and killing him with a pickax. The boy strangles two other giants and kills a fourth by tricking him into cutting his stomach open (AT 1088). He lures a fifth giant into a cell to hide from an imaginary enemy, locks him up, and then steals his magic objects (AT 328 iia, e; Opie and Opie 1974, 62-71). It is tempting to see in “Jack and the Giants” traces of ancient British legend. For instance, the earliest surviving biography of King Arthur (Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain ) pits the young king against a fierce giant in a battle near Land’s End—precisely the locale where, six centuries later, chapbook Jack will kill the giant Corinoran. Has the legendary British king traded his crown for a hoe and become a working-class hero? We cannot answer that question, but it is true that the eighteenth-century farm Jack, like Arthur before him, became a kind of national, and then an international, hero. Popular with all classes of English people, his tales stirred even the literary giants of the day, including those then inventing the novel. Henry Fielding, in the first chapter of Joseph Andrews, asserts that the story of the giant-killer—which he’d heard as a child—was “finely calculated to sow the seeds of virtue in youth.” James Boswell—and even Samuel Johnson, that arbiter of British literary culture—also praised Jack. The most intensive education seems to have provided no certain cure for fascination with this character, for Nicholas Amherst complained in 1721 that too many history professors “never read any thing” other than stories of Jack and Tom Thumb. As the cheaply priced chapbooks of the eighteenth century became the elaborate storybooks of the nineteenth, the farmer’s son invaded the nurseries of wealthy Victorians. All English people knew something of Jack (Opie and Opie 1974, 60-62).
By the eighteenth century it is clear that jack had become the John Doe of English oral tradition. Even more numerous than tales are surviving nursery rhymes in which Jack is by far the favored name for male characters. No consistent figure emerges I the boys portrayed in “Jack and Jill,” “Jack Horner,” and “Jack Sprat.” But because both the nursery rhymes and the chapbooks first appear in broad distribution early I the eighteenth century, and because such rhymes and tales are the most popular published forms of oral entertainment dating from the era, we can reasonably assume that Jack was the most commonly voiced name in the nursery.
Beyond England’s borders other Jacks thrived. In Scotland and Ireland, even among Gaelic-speaking narrators, Jacks figure prominently in the earliest printed folktales. In Robert Chambers’s Popular Rhymes of Scotland (1826) Jack appears in his Scots form as Jock, and in the Highland tales collected by John Francis Campbell of Islay, Gaelic-speaking tellers often call him Jake. Among the most prolific Jack Tale tellers today are the “traveling people,” migratory families of Scotland. Storyteller Duncan Williamson declares Jack a hero to the travelers, who often change the names of figures in borrowed tales to create new adventures and greater fame for Jack (Williamson 1983, xvii-xxi; Williamson and McDermit 1978, 141-48; Williamson and Williamson 1987, 20-21).
Jack’s popularity grew throughout Britain and Ireland at the same time that Britain was colonizing the world. Immigrants from Britain and Ireland brought Jack to the imperial colonies, including the Caribbean, where Jack is the most popular human character among black Bahamian tellers (Edwards 1895, no. 34; Crowley 1966, esp. 29). In some Jamaican traditions Jack appears in every tale, not as a character, but as the archetypal listener. Narrators close each tale by saying, “Jack Mantora, me no choose any”—which means, roughly, “By Jack Mandora [listening at heaven’s gate], don’t blame me for the tale I’ve just told” (Jekyll 1907, xi).
The focus of the present inquiry is on North American Jacks, who first surface in historical records before 1800. Samuel Kercheval, remembering his early experiences in backcountry Virginia, recalled that settlers told tales of Jack ad the giants and wandering knights—all characters popular in chapbooks circulating throughout the English-speaking world at the time. “Many of those tales were lengthy, and embraced a considerable range of incident . . . and were so arranged as to the different incidents of narration, that they were easily committed to memory. They certainly have been handed down from generation to generation from time immemorial” (Kercheval 1902, 285-86). Kercheval’s brief sketch indicates a vital oral tradition and accompanying aesthetic.
Some recently published American tales retain clear traces of English chapbook influence, and some narrators today continue to insist on the English background of Jack Tales. Yet Scottish and Irish settlers brought their Jacks as well, and these oral traditions too would find expression in American tales. Indeed, several streams of English, Scottish, and Irish storytelling must have fed the body of American märchen. Between the rare revolutionary-war-era references and the recent popularity of these tales, however, lies an enormous, scantly documented gap. On one side of the void lies a rich tradition, both written and oral, reaching across an ocean and back through centuries. On the other side stands one book, by Richard Chase; one family, the Harmons of North Carolina; and a company of contemporary storytellers in their thousands and listeners in their millions who have been influenced by this book and this family.
Most contemporary narratives known as Jack Tales, and most of their tellers, owe much to Chase’s 1943 collection, The Jack Tales. Across the country, librarians and members of storytellers’ guilds lead listeners and students to this one book, easily the best selling and most influential collection of American folktales that has yet appeared. In The Jack Tales, Chase purported to present a localized and unique hero with a well-developed personality, the creation of a single family from the Beech Mountain region of North Carolina. But no matter how localized the original range of these stories, and how small their audience, The Jack Tales was adopted by Americans as a national tradition. How did this happen?
The double-faceted märchen world—both homely and exotic—mirrors the two-stranded storytelling tradition that developed the märchen. Linda Degh (1969, 63-93) has established that the great European märchen tellers were not homebodies, but travelers by profession and inclination. Like the heroes of the tales they narrated, these men (for such narrators were principally male) were wanderers through the world—tinkers, soldiers, woodmen, and migratory farm workers. A great teller would often end his tale by pretending to have been present during the action of the story: “As I was there when all that happened, they sent me here to relate it to you. I have finished” (Saucier 1962, 103). Thus the teller represented himself as an emissary from the magic world of the open road, and because he was a traveler, his audience sometimes playfully acknowledged that he was indeed closer to the magic than they were (Lindahl 1987, 39-43).
If the greatest narrators learned and told their greatest stories on the road, they also brought them to homes. As their stories were retold in such relatively quiet settings, it would seem, there developed the special regional and cultural variations of particular tales—the oikotypes—so richly reflective of the groups that share them. It was this cross-fertilization of traveling and domestic traditions that made the märchen such a vital genre, once upon a time. Thus the märchen-narrating world, like the märchen itself, presents a tension between the adventure of the open road and the gravitational pull toward the settled life of home. Misappropriating the language of Robert Redfield, I term the traveling narrative world the great tradition and the domestic narrative world the little tradition—more to reflect the performance scale and geographic scale each embraces than to imply any judgment on the relative quality of the two forms of artistry.
Ironically, it was in America—that archetypally mobile society—that the märchen quit the road and settled down. The great tradition gave way to the little tradition. American frontiers were too fluid and print-oriented to sustain the communities of traveling storytellers that had thrived in Europe, so the bulk of märchen narration has been confined to homes and passed down largely within families in a series of little traditions. These lack the theatrics and scale of the performances of Europe’s great public narrators but are no less worthy of study, especially as American märchen are guarded and cherished within the family unit and are often considered too valuable to share with outsiders. Historically, these little märchen traditions have been shy.
American märchen traditions can be characterized as little and shy at least in part because of two facets of British-American performance style. First, according to märchen listeners and tellers I’ve interviewed, storytelling is viewed as an exercise in sesory deprivation. Like the Irish tellers described by James Delargy, who turn their backs to the audience or even speak, audible but invisible, from another room, British-American storytellers tend to speak out, but not to act out, their tales, eschewing gesture and confining drama to the voice. For their part, listeners tend not to watch storytellers. Informants have told m that they listen in the dark—or in front of a fire, staring at the flames, to become hypnotic subjects in an environment where only the voice mattered. As a girl, Ozark storyteller Mim Nerelich listened to quilters telling tales. She would lie on her back under the quilting frame and stare upward intently at the slowly changing sewn patterns until, self-hypnotized, she sensed only the voice of the storyteller ringing in her head. Ray Hicks seems to be getting at something similar when he describes his childhood experience of stories at the beginning of “Hardy Hard-Ass,” in this book. And in the Donald Davis tale included here, in which Jack tells stories to the king, the king repeatedly responds, “Tell me a little bit more about it, so I can sort of see it a little better.” Thus, all stimuli are channeled into speech, all responses evoked through hearing: a great energy transfer for those who participate, but an environment antithetical to the sensory overload that characterizes contemporary American public life. (See the firsthand accounts of Maud Long’s narrative style in Chapter 4.) Unfortunately, most folklorists, knowingly or otherwise, have incorporated the loud, public life into their collecting aesthetics. Consequently, the shyer world of the lone, quiet voice figures too rarely in folkloric performance studies.
Second, most British-American narrative traditions are not merely focused tightly on the voice; they are also voiced mildly. The understatement dominant in the diction and the inflection of American jokes and tall tales also prevails in märchen performances. In “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” Mark Twain’s flawless written adaptation of American tall-tale style, narrator Simon Wheeler “never smiled, he never frowned, he never changed his voice from the gentle-flowing key to which he tuned his initial sentence [and] never betrayed the slightest suspicion of enthusiasm.” Similarly, Edgar A. Ashley’s telling of “Billy Peg and his Bull” is an extended understatement, performed without laughter or vocal modulation. This quiet tone reflects a pervasive aesthetic attitude in the culture. Compared with other American ethnic groups, British-Americans are shy about their art. Henry Glassie has commented on the tendency of Appalachian basket weavers to stress the utility rather than the beauty of their craft. Yet, says Glassie, these artists are continuously producing “unnecessarily beautiful” artifacts. Quilters stress proficiency of stitching, not beauty of design, privileging the practical skill over aesthetics. What is true for material culture is equally true for oral art: both media mask artistry with claims of practicality. The tall-tale teller contends that his skill is one of deceit—his aim is to fool people rather than to entertain them. The artist plays the role of competitor, calling attention away from his art. The dominant styles of British-American oral art involved understatement. To laugh while telling a joke, to vary pitch on the punchline, or to deliver a tall tale in an excited tone is to compromise the story. Thus British-American folk culture calls attention away from its art; but the märchen, an unmasked fantasy, cannot hide its impossibilities in claims of truth, so the teller tends to turn it into a tall tale or a legend or a joke, or tells it only to children, in private.
The märchen tellers I have met are participants in little traditions. Most often, they are women who received their stories from parents and grandparents and are now passing them on to children and grandchildren. Thus, in another sense, the American tradition is a little one—the auditors are little, generally young children. In my fieldwork, I have found the parent-child storytelling chain of transmission so strong and exclusive that it has often taken the child’s intervention to get the parent to share a tale with an outsider.
The small scale of New World märchen performances—and the small size of their listeners—are evident in the fact that public school classrooms were the sites of the largest storytelling gatherings. Although such narrators happily shared their stories with young listeners, they have often been embarrassed to tell them to collectors.
In one final respect, the English-language märchen is a little tradition. It has too long been trivialized, even dismissed, by people having little regard for its internal rules, or it has been warped into a dramatic form by storytelling circuit performers wishing to realize their own distorted notions of its scale and grandeur. Yet these little traditions live, sometimes even thrive, as they await the fair treatment of folklorists.
Returning now to Jack Tales, we find that the twentieth-century collectors discovered as series of little traditions shared by families, principally in the Appalachian and Blue Ridge mountains. In 1925 Isabel Gordon Carter published several of Jane Gentry’s “old Jack, Will, and Tom” tales, in which Jack is the third son, left behind when his brothers seek adventure. Jack follows his brothers, and when they are tested by hosts and donors, it is Jack who passes the tests for all of them. The climactic test is often a series of thefts of magical objects from the giant; Jack’s success is rewarded with marriage. It would later be revealed that Gentry’s family tradition overlapped that which Richard Chase would tap—and alter—in The Jack Tales.
Nevertheless, the research of Leonard Roberts in Kentucky and Vance Randolph in the Ozarks demonstrates a much broader range of Jack Tales than was once supposed. Stories featuring Jacks appear not only in North Carolina but also in Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, New York, Missouri, Arkansas, and elsewhere. Beyond Beech Mountain, however, Jack is often just another name for a folktale character. His personality is not consistent, nor does it dominate the tales as in Chase’s book.
Even within Appalachia the consistency found in the Chase collection is not characteristic. Leonard Robert’s fine folktale anthologies South from Hell-fer-Sartin and Old Greasybeard offer a more representative sample. About 10 percent of the tales in these books contain a character named Jack. In about one-fifth of these tales, however, Jack is a dupe or an opponent rather than a hero. Jack is an only child in approximately half of the tales, and one of three children n the others. He is most often the youngest child, but sometimes the oldest. Mountain storytellers clearly had many and varied ideas of who Jack was. Yet, in spite of such diversity, one Jack eventually grew to obscure the others. How did a series of little traditions become the giant tradition, the industry that Jack Tales now comprise?
In the 1930s the United States began a process of intense national introspection as historians and literary critics sought to discover the defining properties of American culture. The Great Depression, the Second World War, America’s postwar dominance of world economy and politics—each of these massive realities spurred the impulse to identify and understand the inner workings of a “national mind.” Scholars believed that “the American experience was indeed exceptional, and that it was best understood as involving a refusal, upon principle, of the values derived from history and society” (Donoghue 1987, 7). Hence, the secret of America’s sovereignty lay in its rejection of its European past.
Integral to this search for a national soul was the attempt to find the folk roots of our “cultural personality.” During the thirty years framed by Constance Rourke’s American Humor (1931) and Daniel Hoffman’s Form and Fable in American Fiction (1961) literary and cultural critics set themselves the task of identifying folk heroes. Was there a single folk figure that both condensed and crystallized the national character? Rourke, Dixon Webster, Leo Gurko, Richard V. Chase (not the Jack Tale man), and Richard A. Dorson had all played with this question by 1961, when Hoffman defined an American folk hero with a distinct personality and assured all Americans that it was our own. Hoffman examined a handful of nineteenth-century heroes straddling the boundaries of print and oral culture—Davy Crockett, Mike Fink, and Sam Patch. From them he created a composite creature that he held up as a mirror for Americans, faithful to the country’s ideals because “the heroes of folklore and of popular culture inevitably display those qualities of character that their celebrants admire” (Hoffman 1961, 51). Hoffman’s piecemeal hero was, he said, quintessentially and uniquely American, ours and ours alone: “The American Hero is startlingly different from most of the great heroes of myths and märchen. Unlike them, the American has no parents. He has no past, no patrimony, no siblings, no family, and no life cycle, because he never marries or has children. He seldom dies. If death does overtake him, it proves to be merely a state in his transformation to still another identity” (Hoffman 1961, 78). This biographical pattern succinctly expressed an American rejection of Old World values. With no ties to culture, family, or other human beings. this new man was free to re-create the world as he pleased.
While Hoffman and other intellectuals were seeking to define a national folk hero, however, Richard Chase produced one. The Jack Tales (1943) instantly became our most famous collection of British-American folktales, a distinction it continues to enjoy. Chase’s work was also, in its time, the largest published collection of American märchen, presenting more than twice as many as any of its predecessors. His subsequent books, Grandfather Tales (1948) and American Folk Tales and Songs (1956), enlarged his collection and his reputation. Only Vance Randolph and Leonard Roberts have published more extensive American märchen collections.
Anticipating Hoffman, Chase claimed that the protagonist of The Jack Tales was a true American hero, distinctly different from English Jacks: “Our Appalachian giant-killer has acquired the easy-going, unpretentious rural American manners that make him so different from his English cousin, the cocksure, dashing young hero of the ‘fairy tale’; Jack is “the unassuming representative of a very large portion of the American people” (R. Chase 1943, ix, xii). Many readers concurred. “Jack Tales reflect the true spirit of American folklore as it exists in the Southern Appalachians,” said Joseph Carriere (1946, 76), and Leonard Roberts (1969, 20) pronounced the book “an American folktale classic.” Apparently Chase had succeeded in transforming the little tradition of Beech Mountain into a great American tradition.
At first glance, The Jack Tales does seem to offer independent confirmation that the American folk hero is a new man shaped by a new land. If we set Hoffman’s characterization next to Appalachian Jack, there is a clear correspondence. Often Jack enters his tale from the woods; the audience hears nothing of his parents or family. Of those tales that do give Jack a family, a considerable percentage abandon his parents before the story’s end, subverting the final family reunion found in European märchen. Tales typically end with Jack’s material success. He marries very infrequently by European standards, only about half of the time. The defining trait of Chase’s and Hoffman’s hero is his isolation, expressed in his separation from home and parents, his traveling and working alone, and his self-reliance and lack of interest in a mate.
So in Chase’s stories Jack is set apart. But he has been isolated still further by the American scholarly community, which—consciously or otherwise—has used three strategies to give Jack the appearance of uniqueness, namely, cutting Jack off from his forebears, accepting Chase’s Jack at face value, and abstracting Jack semiotically. First, we cut Jack off from his forbears, the protagonists of Scottish, English, and Scots-Irish tales. Any claim that the American heroes differ substantially from European heroes should be bolstered by a close comparison of tales, yet proponents of Jack’s uniqueness never subjected their claims to such study. But weren’t these isolationists correct? Had not Chase discovered a uniquely American hero? Yes and no. Though Chase collected his tales in one of the country’s more conservative regions, he was from the beginning influenced by the same cultural trends that had created the search for the American hero. He began his fieldwork as a cultural outsider. Inspired by the romantic vision of a folk past cultivated at such elite schools as Harvard and Wellesley, he sought to impose that vision on Appalachian culture (Whisnant 1983, 202-4). He became an employee of the Federal Writer’s Project, a service created by the Roosevelt administration to limit the negative effects of the Depression. Among its many functions, the Federal Writer’s Project provided employment for authors, who collected, rewrote, and published all types of lore, attempting to turn the nation’s attention away from its economic troubles and back to its (sometimes newly invented) folkloric past. So it is not surprising that Chase, a government employee assigned to a task of national self-celebration, should alter folktales in an effort to create a national folk hero. Like other “individualist” intellectuals in his time, he was working with a self-fulfilling prophecy. He sought a unique folk hero, and a unique folk hero was what he found.
When Chase and Hoffman wrote, this strategy of isolation was a good deal more understandable than it is now. There were few authentically collected English-language tales from Britain witch which the American tales could be compared. Now, however, collections on both sides of the Atlantic are large enough to permit a thorough comparison. In Britain on anthology alone, Katherine Brigg’s Dictionary of British Folk-Tales (1970), doubles the number of variants that were available to American scholars in the 1950s. Taking Ernest Baughman’s Type and Motif Index of the Folktales of England and North America (1966, but including no tales published after 1958) as a gauge of what was available to Chase and comparing it with Briggs’s dictionary, we find a dramatic increase in material. Four tales crucial to a British-American comparison are “The Boy Steals the Giant’s Treasure” (AT 328), “The Little Red Ox” (AT 511A), “The Table, the Ass, and the Stick” (AT 563), and “The Master Thief” (AT 1525). Baughman finds only nine British variants, but with Briggs the number leaps to twenty-two. A similar growth has occurred in the Appalachians, where nineteen variants of the four tales were listed by 1958. Since that time just five collections by four men (Glassie 1964; McGowan 1978; Perdue 1987; Roberts 1969 and 1974) have increased the number to forty-two. (Unpublished works by McDermitt , Oxford  augment that number substantially.) These recent collections support some preliminary conclusions. Set against the British tales, the American stories reveal a remarkably similar Jack, confirming W. F. H. Nicolaisen’s (1978) early, insightful study of the two heroes. The qualities that Hoffman finds most conspicuous in the American hero (“self-assertive independence,” “self-reliance,” “innocence”), traits he elsewhere presents as “all the strengths and weaknesses of youth” [Hoffman 1961, 78], are found in British Jack as well. These characteristics are arguably fundamental to the märchen hero in whatever cultural context he may appear. The personalities projected by the two Jacks are, in fact, almost identical.
A second sense in which the scholarly community isolated Jack was in accepting Chase’s book at face value, not realizing Chase was promoting pseudotraditional tales at the expense of authentic ones. By his own admission Chase was more interested in performing an rewriting tales than in faithfully rendering them. Not until the appearance of a remarkable study by Charles Perdue, however, was it clear how drastically Chase had altered his oral sources. Perdue shows that Chase “borrowed” and rewrote tales collected by co-workers. Though is has been continually claimed that the published Jack Tales came exclusively from the New World, Chase admitted having taken at least one motif from European sources, and as “it would appear to be impossible ever to discover all the changes made by Chase” (Perdue 1987, 113), he probably borrowed more. Though we cannot be certain what Chase did, it does seem—paradoxically—that when his published texts diverge from authentic Appalachian tales, they tend to follow Old World rather then New World patterns. For example, the nuclear family is even less important in Appalachian tales collected by Chase’s co-workers n the Federal Writers’ Project than in Chase’s text. In the sources studied by Perdue, only eight of the twenty-five märchen mention parents, and only one-fifth have a strong family setting. But in over half of Chase’s published texts, Jack’s parents are mentioned, and in one-third they figure prominently. Thus Chase obscured the distinctiveness of the American tale at the same time that he was proclaiming it.
In any case, Chase should not take all the blame. It is not his fault but the default of others who left Appalachian oral tales uncollected so long. Before the publications of Roberts, Glassie, and Perdue, only Mary Campbell’s unrepresentative collection competed with Chase’s books. Folklorists allowed one man’s version of Appalachian narrative to persist almost unchallenged for decades.
A third way in which scholars have isolated Jack is semiotically. He has been separated from the other aspects of the tales in which he appears. Scholars who extolled the uniqueness of American culture were so anxious to see it embodied in one individualistic hero that they did not consider the hero’s environment within the tale or his relationships with other characters. Yet the important cultural indicators in the Jack Tales are not to be found in the hero’s personality but, rather, in his surroundings. As Hoffman himself had suggested, the hero’s lack of family background is distinctive. Though Appalachian Jack’s personality may not be unique, his homelessness does set him apart from British Jack.
Furthermore, examining Jack’s relationship with other characters, and the nature of those characters, I have identified what I believe to be two other important differences between American Jack Tales and their British antecedents, differences in who wields magic and in who plays the role of donor. The first difference is a matter of wonder. By my count British and American tales contain similar quantities of fantasy elements—talking animals, giants, magical powers obtained from seemingly unremarkable objects. Yet there is a great difference in the ways that the forces of fantasy are deployed. In British tales, most magical elements provide help for the hero—for example, an animal that Jack has saved gives him a magic weapon. In American tales, however, the most common fantasy elements comprise magic used against the hero. By far the most common supernormal element is the giant, Jack’s special enemy for at least three centuries, who is the villain in nearly one-third of the American stories. In nearly all of these Jack has no magic help against his monstrous foe.
Märchen magic, however, is an equalizer, functioning to fill the gap between one’s resources and one’s needs. British Jack, like most European heroes, must have magic if he is to survive against the powerful sources of his enemy, the king. But among the most popular Appalachian tales there are only two in which the hero’s magic helpers are instrumental to the plot: “The Little Red Ox” (AT 511A) and “The Table, the Ass, and the Ox” (AT 563). The more common situation by far is one in which Jack—aided only by his mental resources and sometimes by encouragement of another mortal—confronts and defeats his magic foe. If märchen magic indeed serves to offset perceptions of social helplessness, the American Jack Tale is one of the most optimistic forms of folk expression to be found anywhere. Its premise is that Jack’s antagonists, no Jack, need magic to survive. There is no gap between Jack’s resources and his needs—an idea consonant with the “folk idea” of unlimited opportunity found so prominently in American lore (Dundes 1972, 93-105).
A second important difference between the American and the British tales tlies in the identity of the donor. In Britian, the donor is usually a magical being—a dwarf or, more often, a white-haired “beggar” with magic powers. Jack passes a test of virtue, usually by giving the last of his food to the man, who then rewards Jack with a magic gift to help defeat the evil king or giant. In America, though magical helpers are rare, the donor survives in a new form. (Examples of the “new” American donor can be found in Carter 1925 and Glassie 1964). The typical American donor is a rich landed man. Jack works to earn money from this man or—far more rarely—to win the man’s daughter as his wife. The donor has no magic to lend Jack but normally provides food, clothes, weapons, or money. It often happens that Jack ultimately gives his donor more valuable help than the donor has given him. A rich many may give Jack a thousand dollars and some food if Jack kills the giant, but when Jack succeeds, the donor prospers more than Jack does.
The differences between American and British narratives may be explained, in part, with reference to a dialectic involving two assumptions that have dominated American views of society. The first is the concept of equality, with its fantasy of a perfect utopian democracy on the frontier. Intertwined with this fantasy is the second concept, that of the primacy of the individual, the idea that American social freedoms created the conditions for a Jeffersonian “natural aristocracy” that allowed resourceful individuals to rise to the top. Despite inherent conflicts in these concepts (how is it, for example, that a utopian democracy can possess an aristocracy?), the two models have persisted, even thrived, side by side. As Arthur M. Schlesginer, Jr., explains:
The two perspectives, once united in opposition to British feudalism, have since grown even farther apart. During the Great Depression, when the Federal Writers’ Project and Chase began collecting folktales, lessons of democracy and interdependence were strongly stressed: the U.S. government has never come closer to socialism then between 1932 and 1945. It is not surprising that Chase’s tales provided a compensation fantasy for a public longing for more individual opportunities. In preparing them he emphasized individual freedom and capitalism and retained only as a vestige Jack’s dependence upon donors. In examining oral texts, however, I have found that this capitalistic emphasis preceded Chase—American tales have long suppressed democratic aspects.
American Jack’s reliance on capitalism emerges in a comparison of American and British versions of “The Master Thief” (AT 1552), an amoral tale with a moral hero. Jack—normally the embodiment of his society’s positive values—is in this story asked to act as a sociopath, performing a series of robberies. Most narrators sense the dilemma of forcing a hero into a criminal’s role, and they tend to offer apologies and rationalizations for Jack’s crimes. Hence variants of this story contain a greater number of subjective statements and narrative asides than most Jack Tales. This interpretative imperative helps make the tale more volatile, allowing cultural differences to emerge more quickly and clearly in “The Master Thief” than in other tale types.
In most of the ten British versions of “The Master Thief” found in Briggs’s dictionary the focal antagonism is class struggle. Jack is a servant or apprentice pitted against a superior, usually his master. The British narrators justify Jack’s theft by pointing out the moral inferiority of the man he robs. The villain usually wants to kill Jack, and their rivalry becomes so vicious that in one variant Jack ruthlessly kills his master and his master’s wife and children and still emerges the hero. In two texts Jack plays the role of Robin Hood, giving to the poor the money he has stolen from the rich man. Narrative asides usually emphasize the victim’s evil. In one tale, after Jack’s thefts have driven the villain to insanity, the moralizing narrator concludes: “Many a covetous wretch that loved his good better than God . . . by the right judgment of God ofttimes cometh to a miserable and shameful end” (K. Briggs 1970, 2:270). Such tales assert that Jack’s victim, and not Jack, is the real thief.
Six Appalachian versions, on the other hand, present a struggle between a moral thief and a moral victim, a good-natured game rather than a fight to the death. Tellers pose themselves the question, How can one be moral and a thief at the same time? These are the most popular answers: 1) Jack is captured by robbers who will kill him if he does not steal, and 2) the money that Jack steals is used to serve his needy family. Far more difficult to explain is Jack’s relationship with his victim. In the British tale the victim is the man responsible for Jack’s poverty, so poetic justice prevails when the man becomes a victim of theft, the same crime he has practiced against Jack. But in the New World there is a less antagonistic relationship between Jack and his victim. In Ray Hicks’s story, for instance, we never get to know the victim, but Hicks presents no reason for us to dislike the man. Jack never talks to his opponent, but Hicks assures us that Jack has no bad intentions. Planning his theft, Jack says, “I might fool that old man and not have to hurt nobody. . . . I don’t believe in hurting no one” (McGowan 1978, 75-76). In some variants Jack’s friendship with his opponent stretches beyond all credibility. The plot demands that the dupe try to kill Jack, but narrators insist on the villain’s goodness. Tellers work hard to justify a bad act by an essentially good character. This “tension of essences” grows greater than most tellers can handle: Cornelius Allen, for example, introduces the donor as “kindly rich old feller” who like Jack. But when Jack tries to steal a sheet from his bed, the dupe says, “That Jack is disturbing my peace. He’s already got a lot of my money. . . . I believe I’ll slip out and kill him and get all my money back” (Roberts 1969, 150-51). The sudden conversion from kindly feller to would-be killer seems to trouble the narrator, who abruptly abandons the donor after this scene. Thus, American narrators stretch the plot as far as they can not only to explain Jack’s crimes but also to portray a friendly relationship between Jack and the victim, a relationship in which the rich man becomes both dupe and donor.
This transatlantic comparison of versions of “Master Thief” tales reveals a remarkable transformation. A bitter British class struggle has become a playful American test of skills. British Jack is a Robin Hood who defends the poor. Though Appalachian Jack steals to help his mother in one of the six Appalachian texts, his principal beneficiary is himself. The British tale celebrates the lower classes; the American tales celebrates Jack.
How has a British democrat evolved into an American capitalist? The simplest answers would express boundless optimism (“lacking an oppressor class, the United States stopped producing tales of villainous tyrants”) or extreme cynicism (“without a real villain there can be no real hero”). A better answer, I believe, is that the continual, if subtle, presence of the donor allows each teller some interpretive choice. There are at lease three readings. First, the friendly rivalry of Jack and the donor may be developed as a democratic statement (this seems to be the rarest narrative solution). Second, Jack and the capitalism he stands for have no need to make enemies—and no one need make enemies with them—in a limitlessly wealthy land (this self-congratulatory reading may be used to relieve the guilt attending self-serving actions). Third (perhaps the most deeply buried reading), behind Jack’s seeming independence is a need for social support. The American hero is put in a position of debt to a power structure for which he must work in order to succeed, but if he works he will succeed. The donor serves as Jack’s tutor, instructing him in the arts of acquisition. Read in the starkest Proppian terms, British and American donors are indistinguishable in function. If the content of the tales means anything, however, we see in these donors a clear development. The old magic world of the British tale has been invaded by a tutelary figure that compromises our notion of an infinitely self-reliant hero. The American tales—perhaps like American culture in general—foreground the individual, but not without offering him a social order that ensures his success.
One questions remains unanswered. Do these “American” changes reflect a national aesthetic, or do they represent only the regional aesthetic of Appalachia, which—although it holds a very special place in America’s mythology about its past—differs greatly from the rest of the country in demography, economy, religion, and other matters?
The first American trait is the lack of magic under Jack’s control. If we interpret this trait as reflecting Americans’ faith in their ability to control their destinies, the Jack Tales are both regional and national, for the conviction that life holds limitless possibility seems to play a part in both national and regional value systems.
The second trait, trust in authority, belongs to the national aesthetic but has not always expressed itself in the same fashion in Appalachia. Particularly in coal mining areas, where corporate power and local values have clashed head-on, certain kinds of authority have long been challenged among the folk that told Jack Tales. Is Jack’s trust in the farmers and landowners who put him to work a value that has been imposed on the region hegemonically, or is it a regional value as well?
In Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (1989), David H. Fischer suggests an answer. He shows that the backcountry immigration that settled the Appalachians and the Blue Ridge came predominantly from the borders of northern Britain. Whether English, Scottish, or Scots-Irish, the immigrants were transplanted members of feuding clan societies that harbored great distrust of external authority but extraordinary trust in local authority. Appalachian Jack may assault the alien giant, but he will trust and serve the local landowner for whom he works. Regional ethics require such loyalty. Fischer points out that Andrew Jackson, the first president elected from the backcountry, modeled his politics after those of Scottish clan chieftains. For Jackson and his followers, freedom was incomprehensible without a complimentary and absolute loyalty to one’s chieftain.
Fischer’s explanation may appear too simple, but it goes some way to explain the tension between the region’s almost anarchic, freedom-loving democracy and its half-blind trust in authority. Such a tension, then, though differently derived, seems to be part of both the regional culture of the Appalachians and the broader national culture of America. When extended by a taleteller in North Carolina, Jack’s trust is part of a familial network of mutual obligation; when imparted at a festival in California, that trust serves a more abstract network of capitalism. The trusting nature of Jack belongs to a national profile; yet, because different narrators have arrived separately at their varied notions of trust, they are portraying more than one Jack.
Indeed, there have always been many Jacks, though Richard Chase and his more dogmatic followers on the storytelling circuits have tried to give us only one, a national personality. A risqué Jack has prospered for more than 500 years in spite of editors’ attempts to clean him up. Jack the oldest son, Jack the youngest son, and Jack the only son have thrived side by side. Chase’s Jack is aided by magic, while most American Jack’s rely on their wits to fight the giant. In my survey of these other Jacks, born in the Old World and still enjoying their boyhood in the New, I have tried to call attention to the myriads of little traditions, gifted narrators, and special circumstances that nurtured these boys and shaped them into diverse heroes before Chase published The Jack Tales. As the following tales and essays attest, these little Jacks did not die, and today’s scholars, listeners, and—most especially—storytellers make themselves delightfully busy freeing their Jacks from the giant shadow of one boy who has grown too big.
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