Thanksgiving and the Tall Tale

“Thanksgiving Day. Let all give humble, hearty, and sincere thanks, now, but the turkeys.”   ~ Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar

Thankfully, much good fiction is not only read but also heard, as all families who have talkative, excitative elders know well. It is a phenomenon summed up in the proverbial marvel of strictly-spoken tales of walking uphill to school both ways through a year’s worth of foul weather—and giving thanks for it all the same. Thanksgiving is a time to remember such thankful anecdotes, for, just as sure as Thanksgiving brings families around tables and turkeys, so too does Thanksgiving bring round the glorious fictions that comprise ancestral lore.

Thus, despite the general feeling—though to the general delight of children—Thanksgiving Day invites patriarchs to indulge in the art of legend-making, or personal mythopoeia, where some incident of faraway life assumes grandiose proportions and epic stature, laced with picturesque moments, grave pauses, eloquent exaggerations, and the most forgivable of falsehoods. For, in the words of Oscar Wilde, “After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relatives.”

Thanksgiving is the time for the tall tale, for the yarn, for the “when-I-was-young” fable; when the pater familias shamelessly presents his perhaps homely history to household and heirs as the heroic history that it can be with a little creative embellishment. This ancient mode of storytelling is important to kindle as Thanksgiving approaches and clans prepare to muster and feast—and there is a literary sketch by Mark Twain that is the perfect primer for such oral traditions.

“Hunting the Deceitful Turkey” by Mark Twain presents a brief episode from the author’s youth—or so he purports—and is a very fine specimen of the tall tale and how one ought to be told. It demonstrates well the importance of keeping the facts well festooned with fancy while maintaining a running edge of humor for the sake of liveliness. There are few storytellers such as Mark Twain when it comes to the hodgepodge of facts, fancy, humor, and liveliness, and therefore it is to this piece of his all storytellers should happily apply as they dust off their own tales and tinker with the ingredients of their verbal Thanksgiving offerings.

The boy in the story is in hot pursuit of a wild turkey. He is, unfortunately, unaware of the bird’s instinctual stratagem of defending its young by feigning injury and leading away her predator, such as the killdeer does with her famous broken-wing act, or as the partridge, too (according to Twain), decoying her enemy from her nestlings with an ostensibly easy kill. Duped by the cunning fowl, the lad from Hannibal, Missouri thinks he might take his quarry alive if he is only persistent.

Commanded by the treacherous, traitorous turkey “over a considerable part of the United States,” the gullible hero plunges and leaps and lunges and slips as the “lame” bird lures him on and on in a perfect, perverse parody of the chase. At long last, the bold hunter considers his shotgun, but his pride is by that time far too wounded to imagine what the wounded turkey might possibly think of him if he were to further unveil his weaknesses through any shortcomings in marksmanship.

I did not get her, at all. When she got tired of the game at last, she rose from almost under my hand and flew aloft with the rush and whir of a shell and lit on the highest limb of a great tree and sat down and crossed her legs and smiled down at me, and seemed gratified to see me so astonished.

So, in the end, the duplicitous turkey is victorious—which is a complimentary conclusion for a day when the great American turkey typically makes the day as opposed to takes the day. It is a tradition of classical antiquity to render a measure of honor even to those who are conquered. Why not give some praise to the delicious bird by way of thanksgiving?

To those elders or feasters or listeners who do not, or do not yet, have access to a canon of grandiose family fiction to relate, “Hunting the Deceitful Turkey” would be a noble addition to read aloud at the bone-picking, tight-bellied conclusion of any Thanksgiving dinner. For in the telling of any story, whether reported, fabricated, borrowed, read, or recited, thankfulness is evoked. Stories are a sharing, and sharing is the source of all thanks. Tales that are wondrous, that are tall, enhance this experience all the more, for they add imagination to instance, as you would adorn a gift. As G.K. Chesterton said: “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” Gratitude is the goal of Thanksgiving Day and wonder must have its place in achieving it—which is why the tall tale is a wonderful way to introduce some wonder.

Thanksgiving Day is for turkey and talk, and not for talking turkey. It is a dinner that should be garnished with the delightful deceit of tall tales. Mark Twain’s tall tale “Hunting the Deceitful Turkey” provides a brief but bona fide nod to the heritage of the United States—which is the basis of a good deal of our thanksgiving. For all its humor, the “Deceitful Turkey” does offer some small insight into the fact that without authentic labor and trial, there can be no authentic gratitude. Thanksgiving is the fruit of toil. Without some struggle, without striving against the elements of the air and the beasts of the field and the fishes of the sea and the birds of the air, without some earthy interaction, there can be no true sense of thankfulness—and, for that matter, no material upon which to base tall tales.

We close this reflection on the turkey and her triumph with that immortal teller of oral epics, Homer, when he speaks for Odysseus giving thanks for food, for company, and for storytelling:

I myself feel that there is nothing more delightful than when the festive mood reigns in a whole people’s hearts and the banqueters listen to a minstrel from their seats in the hall, while the tables before them are laden with bread and meat, and a steward carries round the wine he has drawn from the bowl and fills their cups. This, to my way of thinking, is something very like perfection.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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