America's Jack: The Trickster Hero of Our Shy Tradition

By Renner, Craig J. | The World and I, September 1998 | Go to article overview

America's Jack: The Trickster Hero of Our Shy Tradition


Renner, Craig J., The World and I


My daughter Lindsay, 8, is an avid reader. Never a particularly good sleeper, she got an early start on a habit she has to this day--reading in bed. Propped up on pillows, a single light upon her nightstand illuminating the room, and the local oldies station playing softly (or not so softly) on her radio, she reads mysteries or children's magazine articles until, an hour or two later, she drifts off to sleep. Usually the publication is resting on her chest, open to the page she was on when she succumbed to the sandman, when her mother or I turn off her light before we turn in for the night.

Because she loves a good story, Lindsay was thrilled a few months ago to find out that her Girl Scout troop was going to a local theater to take in an afternoon performance of Jack and the Beanstalk. Along with her second-and third-grade colleagues, she delighted in the story of the boy who, after acquiring some magical beans, enters an enchanted world and manages to procure a small fortune. Through his own cunning, Jack escapes from and defeats an angry colossus.

Later, Lindsay excitedly recounted all the story's details and how much she liked being able to meet the actors and go onstage to see the set after the performance. What she didn't (and could not) realize was that she and her young friends were being reintroduced to a folkloric hero whose exploits have been told and embellished upon since long before her ancestors arrived in America. And whether told by actors on a stage in suburban Washington, storytellers at festivals throughout the country or around small hearts in Appalachia, or in dimly lit bedrooms overflowing with stuffed animals and Barbie dolls, the tales retain many of the details they had when they first gained popularity in the British Isles.

Marvelous tales

In the introduction to Jack in Two Worlds, a definitive look at the development of the trickster hero, scholar Carl Lindahl writes that the Jack character first appears in a fifteenth-century English poem called "Jack and His Stepdame." In the poem, Jack is granted three wishes by a beggar with whom Jack has shared some food. Jack uses the three wishes to exact revenge on his abusive stepmother and a friar who has been helping her. Though the character probably existed in oral lore long before this, Lindahl said in an interview that the poem "is as early as we are likely to find" a written reference to Jack.

Yet by the eighteenth century, Lindahl notes, Jack had become widely popular. This came about in part because of the broad distribution of chapbooks, collections of ballads, poems, and tales that Lindahl calls "the prototype for comic books." In one chapbook story, "Jack and the Giants," the hero saves Cornwall by defeating a slew of giants, including one monster he tricks into cutting open its stomach.

It is this character, combined with German (Hans), Irish (Jack), and Scottish (Jock or Jake) versions, that immigrants brought to America, particularly the Appalachian Mountains. "There is evidence available to document the existence of a long-lived and once fairly extensive Jack tale tradition in the United States, dating back to the Revolutionary War," writes Charles Perdue in Outwitting the Devil, a collection of Jack tales from Wise County in southwestern Virginia.

Perdue cites the notes of a Reverend Dr. Joseph Doddridge, who lived on the county's western frontier on the Pennsylvania-Virginia border in the mid-to-late 1700s. Wrote Doddridge, "Dramatic narrations, chiefly concerning Jack and the Giant, furnished our young people with another source of amusement during their leisure hours." While taking on an Appalachian flavor, Jack retained the easygoing, unpretentious trickster personality that made him so popular.

Curiously, despite the ever-growing American population hailing from the British Isles and the unabated European popularity of Jack tales in written and oral form, there are few nineteenth-century references to American Jack tales in the historical record.

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