Animals. Encyclopedia of American Folklore

Fauna of North America and their related lore. At every level of American culture, from
the casual joke or Saturday morning cartoon to the serious novel or scientific monograph,
animals—especially wild animals—have always exerted a special imaginative appeal.
Scholarly work by American folklorists demonstrates that, throughout our history,
symbolic uses of distinctively American wild animals have expressed national attitudes
about such crucial matters as politics, race, gender, sex, and danger.
The folkloristic sources of the ideas, images, and stories about wild animals are many,
but we may distinguish seven types: conversational genres, oral narratives, children’s
literature, popular culture, performances, elite culture, and scientific writing.
First are the shorter conversational genres most central to our commonsense
knowledge of the world. These are the jokes, proverbs, riddles, superstitions, and so on
that constitute much of the everyday discourse by Americans about wild animals.
Embedded in and expressed by these genres are “folk ideas,” the basic units of belief
about objects in the world. For example, jokes about armadillos often involve people
unwittingly eating them; the underlying idea is that armadillos are not edible. Likewise,
jokes about alligators often involve people being eaten by them; the underlying idea is
that alligators are dangerous. Proverbial expressions, including the humorous versions
such as “It’s hard to soar with eagles when you work with turkeys” or “…up to your ass
in alligators,” similarly encode metaphorical connections between folk ideas about
animals and human social situations.
Also a folk genre is oral narrative, the second source of ideas about wild animals in
America. This genre includes the true “stories” people pass on to explain to one another
the meaning of a wild animal. It is also the category that has been treated to the most
folklore scholarship. Myths are the longest genres of this sort, and there are many Native
American myths involving such animals as the coyote, armadillo, or bear. For some
animals, there exist folktales from Native American, African American, and European
traditions. We also find “encounter stories” (relating the narrator’s encounter with a wild
animal) among amateurs and professionals alike. A park ranger is as likely to have a
repertoire of stories as is a tourist-attraction announcer or a hunter holding forth in a local
The third source of ideas about wild animals is children’s literature, the printed stories
and accompanying illustrations that provide a repertoire of ideas and images for making
sense of all sorts of animals. Some children’s literature is litde more than a printed
version of the traditional oral narratives, and some is original. Authors of children’s
books seem especially disposed to use animal characters in lieu of human ones. Like the
folk genres, this written, visual source of ideas is powerful because its influence begins so
early in the creation of the child’s map of the everyday world. It is powerful, too, because
of its visual component, the illustrations accompanying the children’s stories. All the
more powerful is the transformation of animal illustrations into three-dimensional toys,
such as the Teddy Bear or Winnie-the-Pooh. Thus, a persistent problem for the rangers at
Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks is that Americans tend to approach real bears
as if they were the storybook kind. Rangers refer to this phenomenon as “the Bambi
complex”—which suggests the fourth main source of ideas about wild animals. Popular culture (also known as mass-mediated culture or commercial culture) is an
increasingly important locus of such ideas and images. Included in this category are
postcards, souvenirs, cartoons, comics, television commercials, print advertising,
theatrical films, and mass-circulation magazines. Popular culture provides a repertoire of
stories and images accessible to a wide audience, crossing gender, ethnic, and social-class
divisions. Popular materials from commercial culture can be found in abundance from the
Warner Brothers cartoon character Wile E.Coyote to advertisements for Wild Turkey
bourbon to a theatrical film like Alligator (1980).
The fifth source of ideas, images, and stories is the performances that involve
somehow an interpretation of a wild animal. These are the participatory drama-like
events that include tourist attractions, festivals, museum and zoo programs, hunting
expeditions, cooking and foodway events, and the like. Oldest in this category are the
Native American performance rituals and dances that involve the armadillo, the coyote,
the bear, and the rattlesnake. The snake handling in certain religious communities is a
related phenomenon.
The sixth source of our notions about animals is elite culture, the body of literature
and fine arts that is the usual subject matter of humanistic study. Fine painting, poetry,
novels, and short stories in America often feature wild animals as central symbols in the
imaginative landscape of their fictive worlds. But even here folk ideas are often present,
though recast in more elegant language. Herman Melville’s white whale and William
Faulkner’s bear are only the best known cases. Poets Gary Snyder and Simon Ortiz find
the coyote an especially attractive figure, and novelist Thomas Pynchon uses the
alligators-in-the-sewers legend for his own artistic purposes in his novel V. In American
elite art, we can trace the iconography of American wildlife from the earliest European
renditions through the likes of John James Audubon and John Singer Sargent up to the
It will surprise some to learn that scientific discourse is the seventh source of
American ideas about wild animals. So accustomed are we to think of scientific writing
as “fact,” opposed to folk and popular “fiction,” that we fail to appreciate how cultural is
the history of American scientific writing about wild animals. Some scientific writing is
the source of, or at least perpetuates, the oldest folk ideas about animals, and, even when
a scientific treatise takes space in its historical account to “debunk” the “myths and
fallacies” about the animal, the author is acknowledging tacitly that the starting point for
American understanding of the beast is a repertoire of folk and popular beliefs
concerning it.
Angus Kress Gillespie
Bateson, Gregory. 1979. Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. New York: Dutton.
Douglass, Mary. 1982. Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology. New York: Pantheon.
Gillespie, Angus Kress, and Jay Mechling, eds. 1987. American Wildlife in Symbol and Story.
Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
Wilson, David Scofield. 1978. In the Presence of Nature. Amherst: University of Massachusetts