Tall Tales and Urban Legends in American Literature

deadline for submissions: 
January 3, 2023
full name / name of organization: 
Jasleen Singh, University of Toronto

Tall Tales and Urban Legends in American Literature

Canadian Association for American Studies (CAAS) 2023 Conference, Mount Saint Vincent University, Halifax, NS, September 22-24, 2023

Organized by Ross Bullen (OCAD University) and Jasleen Singh (University of Toronto)


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 (ja.singh@mail.utoronto.ca) and Ross Bullen (rbullen@ocadu.ca) by January 3rd, 2023.

To learn more about the CAAS 2023 Conference, visit: http://american-studies.ca/conferences/


Works Cited 

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.