The idea of an "American fairy tale" may arouse disbelief. Fairy tales, for the most of us, are the European ones we read as children, the same ones that our children are reading now: "Snow White, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Jack and the Beanstalk." In the last century it was even suggested that America didn't need fairy tales. Instead of imaginary wonders we had the natural wonders of a new continent: Indians and wild animals instead of sprites and dragons; Niagara Falls and the Rockies instead of enchanted lakes and mountains.
However, Americans were writing fairy tales -- though, like the European ones, they seldom contained actual fairies. Sometimes these tales featured old-fashioned props and characters: magic potions and spells, dwarves and witches, princes and princesses. But often they also included contemporary objects and figures: hotels and telephones, mayors and gold minters. And even from the beginning many of the best American stories had a different underlying message than the ones from across the Atlantic.
The standard European fairy tale takes place in a fixed social world. In the usual plot a poor boy or girl, through some combination of luck, courage, beauty, kindness, and supernatural help, becomes rich or marries into royalty. In a variation, a prince or princess who has fallen under an evil enchantment, or been cast out by a cruel relative, regains his or her rightful position. In both types of story the social system is unquestioned and remains unchanged. What the characters hope for is to succeed within the terms of this system.
What makes American fairy tales unique is that in the most interesting of them this does not happen. Instead, the world within the story alters or is abandoned. Rip Van Winkle falls into a twenty-year sleep and wakes to find that a British colony has become a new nation un which "the very character of the people seemed changed." A hundred years later, the family in Carl Sandburg's story repeats the experience of many nineteenth-century immigrants and Western settlers. They sell all their possessions and rise to "where the railroad tracks run off into the sky" -- to Rootabaga Country, which is not a fairy kingdom but rich farming country named after a large turnip.
In American fairy tales, even if the world does not change, its values are often implicitly criticized. The traditional European tales, though full of wicked stepmothers and cruel kings and queens, seldom attack the institutions of marriage or monarchy. They assume that what the heroine or hero wants is to become rich and marry well -- if possible, into royalty.
Although a few American tales follow this convention, many do not. The guest who visit "The Rich Man's Place," in Horace Scudder's story, enjoy the palatial house and grounds but don't express a desire to live there. In Frank Stockton's "the Bee-man of Orn," a Junior Sorcerer discovers that an old beekeepers has been "transformed" from his original shape, and sets out to dissolve the enchantment. But as it turns out, the Bee-man's original shape (like everyone's) was that of a baby. Although the Junior Sorcerer restores him to infancy, when he grows up he does not become a prince, but a beekeeper again -- and, as before, his is perfectly contented.
In American fairy tales, there is often not much to be said for wealth and high position, or even good looks. The witch in Hawthorne's "Feathertop" turns a scarecrow into a fine gentleman and sends him out into the world, where he exposes the superficiality and snobbery of the well-to-do. In L. Fank Baum's "the Glass Dog," the poor glass-blower manages to marry a princess, but she "was very jealous of his beauty and led him a dog's life."
The implication of such stories is than an American does not need to become rich or "marry up" in order to be happy; in fact, one should avoid doing so if possible. Happiness is all around one already, as the boy in Laura Richards's "The Golden Windows" discovers: his farmhouse already has "windows of gold and diamond" when the setting sun shines on it. Today, when there is so much pressure on Americans to want fame, power, and expensive objects, to feel dissatisfied with themselves and their possessions, these American fairy tales still have something to tell us.