Thursday, January 20, 2011

Virtue and Vice

I have been listening to a book on CD of stories by Laurence Yep, who is of Chinese-American heritage. The book, The Rainbow People, is completely entertaining, with monsters, magic, common sense, humor and pathos--not to mention very good writing. Yep worked with a WPA collection of stories collected from immigrant Chinese to produce this collection, and brought new life to tales that might otherwise have been forgotten.

I remember when this book was published, and I even checked it out once but never read it. I didn't think I'd be interested in Chinese stories, to tell the truth. How wrong I was. A few years ago I found Fred Lobb's blog of Chinese stories that he is translating into English and I was completely hooked. The stories, unlike many fairy tales, do not necessarily have a happy ending; indeed by our western standards many might not seem to have an ending at all. But the tales are so rich in imagery and in their keen insight into a culture that they are fascinating and memorable.

Yep's commentary at the beginning of each section of his book helps understand the philosophy behind the stories, and because some also traveled to the US to be told by the Chinese immigrants, he also explores the relevance of these old tales to the Chinese men who told these stories after work at their American jobs, while their families were still back in China. It's heartbreaking to think of, really--these men, separated for years from their loved ones, growing old as they live like bachelors in a land that is not their home.

At the beginning of a chapter titled Virtue and Vice, Lep's first line caught my attention: The virtues and vices of a culture, he said are captured in the culture's folktales. In our American culture, how often do we even hear the word virtue? or vice, for that matter? In our country, what are the virtues that might inform our folktales? What are the vices that define us? Do we even have folktales that can be called American?
Brer Rabbit came from Africa. Paul Bunyan, Mike Fink and other tall tale legends might be uniquely American but are they all we have to call "our" stories?

If this is true, then what are our American virtues and vices as defined in the tall tales? Cleverness, hard work, positive outlook, generosity, and survival jump out at me as the most likely virtues. Vices--Bravado, one-upmanship, act-first-think-later?

In Appalachia there are many stories with supernatural elements; some are immigrants from other places, but most, I think, are unique to our region. The Appalachian ghost stories often have common themes of justice being served or spirits not resting, spirits seeking justice, or of warnings (don't go there or X will get you), or to explain some phenomena ("and that is why the mist always rises..."), or odd markings, formations, buildings, etc. From these, perhaps we can find the virtues of right always prevails or should prevail, children should listen to the elders, foolishness gets its reward, listen to good advice, or history marks its place for future generations? As for vices, well, so many ghost stories are based on acts of violence, that it is not too difficult to define violence as one of our vices.

I am interested in hearing what you think: what would you say are our American virtues, and our worst vices? What stories do you consider "American" stories--and what virtues and vices do you derive from them?


Janet, said...

I think of John Henry as an American story. I think it is a legend that grew from a real event that happened at the tunnel. It tells of hard work and trying to survive in a changing world where machines were taking over their jobs.

Granny Sue said...

I didn't think about him, Janet, but you're right, he is one of our stories. And the vices and virtues in his story, what would they be?

Granny Kate said...

The stories of the cowboys were told in the songs they sang. I think many of our folk singers have told our stories, too. Pete Seeger springs to mind. This Land is Your Land -- a great story there.

Native American stories are part of us all here whether or not we share the bloodlines that link us.

Then, too, there are stories that have changed shape to suit the American frame of mind. Some of these have also found their expression in song.

I think the reason we have so many stories of battles, conflicts, and unsettled spirits is that we are an unsettled people, always moving on in order to find home. We perceive our ghosts as being the same way. When a place has become home, we don't want to leave it, even after we're no longer bodily there.

Our hollows are full of haints. The stories live in the place.

But yeah, search our songs for the stories. Some of them don't even have words only the music that carries the story -- Elk River Blues, for instance.

Granny Sue said...

True, Kate, many songs tell stories. What I'm asking is, what moral values and ethics do you think our stories pass on? respect for elders? humility? generosity? loyalty? Honesty? And then, what vices do our stories suggest about us as a culture?

Granny Sue said...

True, Kate, many songs tell stories. What I'm asking is, what moral values and ethics do you think our stories pass on? respect for elders? humility? generosity? loyalty? Honesty? And then, what vices do our stories suggest about us as a culture?

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