The White Folk Legends

The northern groups brought in, besides the Elizabethan folk legends, much material from the medieval morality plays found in the stories of Pilgrim's Progress or the poetry of Milton. With the development of an aristocracy in New Orleans, New York, and Virginia, there came during the last years of the 18th century the classical legends of Greece and Rome. These were taught as part of the body of humanist culture in the newly founded colleges. During the 19th century, many of these legends, with the fairy tales of the Dutch, Germans, and Scandinavians, furnished much of the grade-textbook material.

The Germanic legends have come mostly through the folk stories of the brothers Grimm and of Hans Christian Andersen, introduced during the 19th century. Among them, a famous plot much used in American dramatic literature is the story of Hans the Swineherd, who grew up to marry the king's daughter. This, the first success story, was popularized in the tales of Horatio Alger, considered indispensable reading by the developing youth in the last half of the 19th century and the early 20th. Another legend, which runs through most of the American idealistic philosophy, includes the thought that inventive ability used for the good of society eventually brings recognition and riches. Riches, in turn, bring leisure time which can be spent in healthy sport and aesthetic pursuits. Throughout all American legendry runs a large strain of Utopianism. The Americans unconsciously believe in an aesthetically planned society where all the component parts move with the minimum amount of friction and where the maximum of lasting enjoyment can be got with a minimum of labor. This legendary plot material from which all American art forms arise is usually portrayed with humor. The American tragic sense appears when the individual feels thwarted in his attempts to achieve this expanding life or when, having achieved it too late, he has forgotten how to use it.

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