Tall Tales and Urban Legends in American Literature
Canadian Association for American Studies Conference, Mount Saint Vincent University,
Halifax, NS, September 22-24, 2023
Organized by Ross Bullen (OCAD University) and Jasleen Singh (University of Toronto)
November 1st, 2022
In American Humor: A Study of National Character (1931), Constance Rourke describes the tall
tale as a “scattered” genre that necessarily exists only in “fragments” (67). Embodying elements
of the supernatural and the gothic, the genre typically centers around the figure of the pioneering
“backwoodsman,” or “simpleton.” Moreover, the tall tale is rooted in regionalism–but in
Rourke’s analysis–also ruminates on the question of the “native” or so-called “authentic”
American national character at large. Tall tales, folk tales, and urban legends have had an
appreciable impact on American literature and on articulations of the American national identity.
As a literary strategy, the tall tale allows the author to approach serious or challenging subject
matter in a way that engages a readership in both pedagogical and (provocatively) entertaining
ways. Discussing William Wells Brown’s use of comedic and tall tales in his anti-slavery
writing, Geoffrey Sanborn claims that “Brown concluded early in his career that white
Americans strongly prefer narratives of self-making that are a little ‘off,’ in which something
other than merit is at work” (9). For Brown, the naive and lucky outsider is better able to rouse
his readers’ sympathy than a conventionally virtuous and heroic protagonist. Accordingly, it is
the fantastical, the strange, or the “off” that can deliver the most prescient and serious critiques
of American identity and national ideals. Moving beyond Rourke’s and Sanborn’s focus on the
nineteenth century, in the late twentieth- and twenty-first centuries, the tall tale has morphed into
multiple genres and forms, including urban legends, memes, creepypastas (online horror
legends), and online folk figures like Slender Man or, more recently, Loab.
We welcome papers that explore any aspect of tall tales and urban legends from any period of
American and African American literature or popular culture. Please send proposals to Jasleen
Singh (email@example.com) and Ross Bullen (firstname.lastname@example.org) by January 3rd, 2023.
Rourke, Constance. American Humor: A Study of the National Character. New York: Harcourt,
Brace and Company, 1931.
Sanborn, Geoffrey. Plagiarama! William Wells Brown and the Aesthetic of Attractions. New
York: Columbia UP, 2016.
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