What are the origins of American Tall Tales (Paul Bunyan, John Henry, Johnny Appleseed, Calamity Jane, Pecos Bill, etc.)?

Where can we look in the Library of Congress for information about tall tales? 

Tall tales and the famous fictional characters associated with them weren't originally invented by a single published author, and their stories have been told for many years, many times, by many people who each made small changes or improvements for their particular version. As an example, take a look at this entry from Encyclopedia Britannica, it explains the history of the Paul Bunyan stories and how they began to be published after being passed around within and among communities, you can do similar searches there for the other characters. .

In addition to the many oral (spoken) stories featuring these characters, versions of these stories were also published in old newspapers, books and magazines. Also, many drawings were made and published, and songs were sung. Later there were movies and television shows. Each of these is a little different, and no one of them is more "true" than the others. Such stories are sometimes called "folk tales" or "tall tales" and characters, like Paul Bunyan, are known as a "mythical figures" or "folk heroes."

This page from Voice of America, which is made for adult learners of English, has a nice telling of a typical version of the story, which you can see as well as listen to in the video or also down below on the page. Here is another web page that explains some different versions of the tales, from a site called Legends of America: https://www.legendsofamerica.com/ah-paulbunyan/. These are good places to search for the other characters/stories, too.

Here is a pamphlet from the Library of Congress from 1922, which is one of the earliest "books" to include Paul Bunyan stories. 

Babe the Ox illustrated by Rockwell KentHere is another book, published in 1924, that has wonderful illustrations, that you can also read online: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=inu.39000005762716&view=1up&seq=12&skin=2021.

Our site is good option for you to see what we might have in the collections related to the character or tale you are researching, this search will let you check across our resources, you can toggle between what's available online and what we might have in our physical collections  -  https://loc.gov/search

There are many published books about all of these characters, books on folk tales, and other related topics that may be available at your school library, a local library, or even a book shop. We recommend you consider looking at some of those as well.

{image:Shephard, E., Kent, R. (1924). Paul Bunyan. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.}  


Last Updated: Jun 29, 2024
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