Monk, Greeley, Ward, and Twain: The Folkloresque of a Western Legend 1

By James, Ronald M. | Western Folklore, Summer 2017 | Go to article overview

Monk, Greeley, Ward, and Twain: The Folkloresque of a Western Legend 1


James, Ronald M., Western Folklore


Mark Twain knew a good story when he heard it, and he understood when it had ripened to the point of putrefaction. In 1861, over a year before adopting his famous penname, young Samuel Clemens (1835-1910) journeyed west. There, he encountered a ubiquitous legend that captured a regional sense of pride and humor. The narrative described an incident in 1859, which featured nationally-renowned New York journalist Horace Greeley (1811-1872) as an eastern greenhorn, played the fool by a simple but capable teamster named Hank Monk (1826-1883). Numerous sources attest to the popularity of the Monk-Greeley yarn, which made its way to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and may have affected the presidential election of 1872.

One of the account's more important manifestations was outside the realm of oral tradition, as Mark Twain altered it for stage and print. In view of this, the thesis here is twofold: primary sources allow the consideration of a nineteenth-century western legend; more importantly, analysis of Twain's adaptation of the popular narrative illustrates how a famed American writer manipulated regional folklore in a way that Michael Dylan Foster and Jeffrey Tolbert recently described in other contexts as "folkloresque" (2016). These two folklorists arrived at this term to discuss how the modifi cation and imitation of oral tradition yields new forms in various media. Foster and Tolbert identify three different genres of the folkloresque, but their fi nal category, "parody," best defines how Twain exploited the popular Monk-Greeley legend.

"Folkloresque" is a new term intended to describe something that folklorists have long addressed, but not always satisfactorily. In 1950, Richard Dorson coined the word "fakelore" to categorize instances when "nonsense and claptrap collections" were manufactured by a literate culture and passed off as originating in oral tradition (Dorson 1950:335). Foster and Tolbert's folkloresque captures many more types of cultural phenomena than what Dorson was addressing when he put forward the idea of fakelore. This new proposed category includes literary and other adaptations of folklore as well as inventions that have the appearance of popular narrative and yet lack actual roots in oral tradition. More importantly their approach is not judgmental; as Foster points out, "the very act of relabeling asserts that these products, and the processes associated with them, are as culturally revealing and valuable as 'genuine' folklore" (9).

For purposes of understanding the Monk-Greeley legend, it is useful to consider how Foster and Tolbert approach parodies of folklore. Of course, it is not surprising that Twain used parody: it was a mainstay of his writings. That said, it is important not to confuse a generic, descriptive use of the word with the proposed nomenclature of Foster and Tolbert. For them, the folkloresque subset of parody includes jokes that make fun of joke cycles as well as literature that takes on the appearance of folklore in which the characters "become aware of their own role in a larger fairytale-like narrative" (Foster and Tolbert 2016:177). Tolbert cites, for example, "Fractured Fairy Tales" from television's The Bullwinkle Show, which aired from 1959 to 1964 (177).

Twain's exploitation of the Monk-Greeley legend represents what Tolbert refers to as "the creative redeployment.. .of folkloric images and motifs" (175). While much of Twain's literature has an element of satire in a general sense, the example explored here fits the specifi c definition of parody within the context of the folkloresque. Of pivotal importance is Twain's twisting of a well-known story while stepping into the realm of metafolklore, folklore about folklore (Bronner 2007:82). In this case, there is a treatment of oral tradition that looks at itself from outside while using a story itself as the subject of humor. As Foster describes, "the parodic folkloresque is simultaneously a form of metafolklore and also a popular culture appropriation of the power of folklore and its assumed association with 'authentic' tradition" (19). …

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