The Shape of Time in Folk Narrative

Caveats and Qualifications

Those of you familiar with my work in computational folkloristics will be surprised with how I begin, and disappointed with how I end. So, fair warning. Those of you here because I used the phrase “folk narrative” in the title of my paper are going to be disappointed because I don’t talk all that much about narrative. Both of these disappointments reveal that I am really at a far earlier stage in this project than I imagined, a fact brought to life by finally setting aside (not enough) time to write this paper. All that noted, I’ll begin with the following observation from the larger project.

We live in an age of data. Everywhere we turn we are, we are told, counted and measured in ways that mostly escapes our ability to comprehend. Every telephone call we make is logged somewhere. If we are driving, every turn we take is logged somewhere. If we are on-line, every link we follow is logged, and every page we scroll is noted. Much of this is, we are told, is for our benefit. Analysis of call logs allows carriers to understand traffic patterns, to use current facilities to their fullest, and to make better plans for future facilities based on actual needs of actual customers. Analysis of traffic patterns allows applications in our cars to offer us better routes, and, we assume, that such information accumulated as a history must surely contribute to better planning for civil engineering. Analysis of search engine and website usage gives us better results: results that are not only ranked in our likely preference but also of a higher quality. And, too, we get advertisements that our tailored to our interests.

It is this latter dimension, of being measured in order to be sold, that makes us, at least some of us, uncomfortable. It feels like we are no longer in control of ourselves, of our fates. Surveillance in the service of our having a choice in our future is one thing. Surveillance in the service of others choosing our future is another matter altogether.

And so it seems almost inevitable that with the rise of data, and the power it promises, or threatens, to have over our lives, that there would be a perceived need for something to balance that power, to limit it in some fashion. Over and against the granularity, the sandpile of bits of data that our lives would seem to be reduced to when run through the necessary grindstone of computer algorithms, we find ourselves wishing for something that understands us, or at least we understand, as a whole, as something that cannot be taken apart and understood as a sum of its parts.
In this, in what seems like the opening act of the data drama that will shape our lives, and our futures, in ways that we cannot yet anticipate—and yet so many individuals and companies our banking, quite literally, on our anticipation—we seem to have stumbled upon, or fallen back upon (however you prefer to imagine it), the strength of stories.

Stories, yeah! To the parapet folklorists, because we know stories!

Or do we?

Part of what I am going to argue today is that we don’t.

Or, to put that another way, folklorists need to cease once and for all using the word story for every damned text we encounter. A lot of them aren’t stories, and those that are are not necessarily as narrative as we would like to think. So, if this paper is anything, it is an exercise in personal hubris, my own failings as an analyst, blamed on disciplinary hubris.

Time and Narrative

At the very outset of his multi-volume Time and Narrative, Paul Ricouer states that “what is ultimately at stake in the case of the structural identity of the narrative function as well as in that of the truth claim of every narrative work is the temporal character of human experience” (3). Steeped in both Hegelian dialect as well as Heideggerian hermeneutics, Ricoeur’s process is to gather, slowly but steadfastly, all those facets of narrative from which he can draw upon to address what he regards as the necessary question which philosophy must ask and which also must be answered: what should I do? As a folklorist, I am not interested in such ethical questions, but, rather ethnographic questions like: what do people think they should do and how do they know it? To do that, I am going to address neither the dialectical nor the hermeneutical dimensions of Ricoeur’s work, but rather a fundamental assertion he makes in the sentences that follow those above, where he notes that:

The world unfolded by every narrative work is always a temporal world. Or, as will often be repeated in the course of this study: time becomes human time to the extent that it is organized after the manner of a narrative; narrative, in turn, is meaningful to the extent that it portrays the features of temporal experience. (3, emphasis added)

Ricoeur is not alone in assuming that “time becomes human time to the extent that it is organized after the manner of a narrative”; his is simply one of the larger and better-known treatments of narrative that founds itself on literary texts and, thus, in the process, misses how time is actually alternately imagined, or contained (if you prefer) in discourse. Folklorists are, by and large, no better, no worse in this regard, despite there being a reasonably compelling tradition of inspecting the contents of texts more closely to understand the relationship between them and time.

Time and Folk Narrative

In “The Structure of Narrated Time in the Folktale,” Bill Nicolaisen noted that folklorists tend to think of the relationship between various genres and time in rather broad terms.1 Such generalizations are themselves not necessarily wrong nor without use. Noting that myths are, in terms William Bascom memorialized, about the time before time or that folktales are about time outside of time provokes our imaginations and the imaginations of the various audiences with which we engage. But when our thinking stops at the provocation, we ignore the very real differences in the way discourse structures time, and thus lose the opportunity to consider how time may or may not be managed differently in different genres, perhaps giving us a better sense not only of the genres themselves but also of how humans imagine time. (And this latter point is especially important when we consider Ricouer’s conflation of time and narrative.) Nicolaisen’s observation is part of his larger turn towards narrative studies in order to understand more precisely how people imagine the places in which they live. As he looked more closely at folktales in particular, with his careful eye for linguistic detail, he realized that “within the outer frame of timelessness, we have an inner frame of sequentially structured time that relies on the day as its basic unit of reference” (417).

Without being familiar with contemporary work in narratology, Nicolaisen constructed a framework for distinguishing between the discourse of a folktale, the actual words used, and the story that the discourse conveys, the events depicted. Focused on matters of time, he noted that there axes at play are narrated time and narration time. Perhaps just as importantly, he observed that rarely are the two times congruous, except when it comes to speech: a match between narrated time and narration time is “most likely to occur in the rendering of dialogue embedded in the story since the storyteller probably takes about as much time narrating it as the characters involved would have taken speaking it” (419-420). In almost all other cases, we will encounter a kind of narrative compression, in which “the time taken to narrate actions [is] much shorter than the actions narrated” (420).2 While certain literary texts may play upon this convention, the convention in oral discourse is fairly well established, and it is a rare text that breaks with our understanding that “the total amount of narration time required to tell a story … is bound to be almost always dis­proportionately shorter than the total time recounted in a story” (420).

With the inclusion of recounted time Nicolaisen introduced a third dimension of time that must be managed in discourse: “the total time encompassed by a story, and this recounted time consists of both narrated and non-narrated por­tions [and] is therefore the sum total of narrated and non-narrated time” (421). To illustrate the relationship, Nicolaisen compares narrated time to recounted time in the first ten texts of Stith Thompson’s One Hundred Favorite Folk­ Tales. (See Figure 1.) His summation of John the Bear (AT 301), the third tale in Thompson, reveals his scheme: “In contrast to a total recounted time of about 16 years, only portions of 19 days are narrated with greatly varying density and detail” (422). That is, the narrated time is the time of those events that are actively, or actually, described in the discourse of the narration. Recounted time includes elapsed time, or compressed time. In some cases this time is specified, but in many cases it is not. Consider for example the unspecified time between two events in Grimms 149, “The Rooster Beam”:

There was once a magician who was standing in the midst of a great crowd of people performing his wonders. He had a rooster brought in, which lifted a heavy beam and carried it as if it were as light as a feather. But a girl was present who had just found a four-leaf clover, and had thus become so wise that she could see through every deception, and she saw that the beam was nothing but a straw. So she called out, “You people, do you not see that it is a straw that the rooster is carrying, and not a beam?” The magic vanished immediately, and the people saw what it was, and drove the sorcerer away in shame and disgrace. He, however, full of inward anger, said, “I will avenge myself.” Some time later the girl’s wedding day arrived. She was all decked out, and went in a great procession across a field to the place where the church was. Suddenly they came to a swollen brook, and there was neither a bridge nor a walkway to cross it. So the bride nimbly lifted up her clothes, and was about to wade through it. She had just stepped into the water when a man near her, and it was the magician, called out mockingly “Aha! What kind of eyes do you have that think they see water?” Then her eyes were opened, and she saw that she was standing with her clothes lifted up in the middle of a field that was blue with flax blossoms. Then all the people saw it too, and they chased her away with ridicule and laughter.

The narrative proceeds through the conjunction of two events separated by an indeterminate, and thus also unimportant to the point of the story, amount of time. All we know is that the wizard has awaited his opportunity to get even. It begins with the kind of frame we expect of folk takes, “there was once”, and having dropped us into that particular temporality, proceeds, as Nicolaisen concluded, in ordinary time. The event concludes with the wizard’s vow, and then with a simple “some time later” we are once again in ordinary time.

But the indeterminacy of time is not necessarily a defining feature of folktales, and it might serve us better to think of it as exaggeration of a more normal discursive move that tellers make in order to move to the focus of a narrative. Across a wide range of oral historical accounts, mostly in the form of anecdotes, but also in a form discussed later, it is quite common foe there to be an initial orientation that then leads to a narrative sequence. The following anecdote is from the Midwest and tells about a particular incident in the life of the teller:

And Joe Natalie was a true old world Italian
And he talked Italian
English, you know, but broken English
And a lot of the kids would go over there and steal an apple or a banana or something, you know, when he wasn’t looking
And I never did think to steal. If I stole something and my grandparents found out, I mean, my butt was … gone
They’d beat me until I couldn’t sit down
So anyway, I was over there looking at bananas and this man came up and grabbed me by the arm
And he said he said you’re the kid who stole the apple
I said I what?
He said you stole an apple. I said I never stole no such thing. He said no last Saturday
I said I have never stole anything in my life
I said if you go ask that man that works over there I usually come up and buy an apple or an orange or something—you’d get a banana for like three cents, an orange for two cents or something

From the opening introduction of a particular historical individual up until the moment the narrator repeats the fact that punishment would certainly follow any wrong-doing on his part, there is no particular series of clauses that are held together by the kind of temporal juncture which Labov and Waletzky define as crucial to a narrative sequence. The phrase “so anyway” acts, and indeed sounds like, “so one day” which is a familiar phrase to anyone who has done fieldwork as a segue into a story. (“So anyway” is familiar as well, but that’s for another time.)

In their pioneering work attending to the strings of clauses that make up any text, Labov and Waletzky distinguish between those clauses that establish the situation, or the current state, as the orientation, and, by and large, they are typically free clauses, clauses that are free to move earlier or later in a sequence of clauses without changing the meaning of the overall sequence. For those familiar with discourse analysis, this is very different from narrative clauses which, by definition within the scope of the kind of simple, mono-episodic personal experience narrative texts which Labov and Waletzky examined, are received as having a one-to-one correspondence with the events they represent. That is, if Action 1 was followed by Action 2 in the representation, then the clauses representing each action occur in the same order in the narration, Clause 1 and Clause 2. While this schema rules out more complicated forms of narration, it covers a surprising range of texts very well.

What the schema leaves out, however, is a rather wide range of materials that are largely under-attended by folklorists, anthropologists, and linguists: those forms of vernacular discourse which seem, from the discourse analysis perspective, to be made up entirely of orientation with no complication. Take for example this attempt to locate an individual mentioned in passing:

You remember Golden’s Market? Let’s say this is the block this is Second Street, this Rogers, this Maple. Well, Golden Market was on this corner and EJ’s bakery was in there, and halfway … there’s a pharmacy in there now, called Value Plus or I don’t know now. But right in there was where that little old lady, in her house, had this little clothing store.

There is literally no narrative in the text. It is all locative, and, if we are honest, a surprising amount of vernacular discourse, even talk about the past, is not, as Ricouer insists, in narrative but in forms better described as locative, expository, or even simply descriptive. (My sense is that place name researchers are very familiar with this.)

In another text that demonstrates how much of talk about the past can be dominated by other modes of discourse, a speaker is in the middle of discussing the many kinds of jobs he has held over the years and is drawn to expand on a particular one:

He was in the excavating business,
so he called me to come up and showed me the job.
And we dug house basements.
And that was when they were remodeling a lot filling stations,
making them super service and that sort of thing,
so I said, yeah, I’ll take it.
So I worked there about two years and a half.
And then we came back to Bloomington.

I would argue that this is rather typical of the many hours of speaking about the past I have recorded in Indiana and in Louisiana. There is narrative, but it is often seemingly limited to sticking together bits of exposition. In the text above, the narrative is really a function of a kind of constructed dialogue: “he called … so I said yeah” which is a fairly widespread narrative trope. If we return to Nicolaisen’s notion of recounted time versus narrative time, we will find that the recounted time is a bit fuzzy, probably something on the order of a little over the time specified in the story itself, which is, according to the second to last clause, two and a half years.

But how are we to understand the narrated time within this text? If we take the dialogue as our narrative kernel or, as Labov and Waletzky would describe it as the narrative N, then how do the other clauses affect our understanding of N? One of the things that becomes quite clear is that those portions of the text that are narrative in nature are, as Nicolaisen observed, within the scope of a day. In the case of the constructed dialogue, the duration is mere seconds. These sharp clear actions are counterposed by long periods of habitual action, which perhaps mimics how the teller himself felt about that period in his life. It’s not entirely clear if recounted time is dimension worth discussing: it would appear that the story specifies that time and leaves it at that. (The same goes for the period of time involved, which would appear to be a kind of general, personal past: that is, “some years ago.”)

One response to these texts might be that they aren’t very good stories to begin with, which seems an odd evaluative perspective for a discipline that attempts to the social science fringe of the humanities. And yet, I would argue, accounts of personal experience are just full of exactly this kind of discourse. In Listening for a Life, Patricia Sawin provides the following account from Bessie Eldreth of her final encounter with a possible revenant. For a long time, she told Sawin, after her husband died there were lights that would flash in her bedroom:

And, uh, it was
For a long time it would kindly
It’d dash me, you know.
But I got till I, when I’d turn off the light I’d close my eyes real tight.
But now, honestly, that light would go down in under the cover with me.
It did.
That light’d
When I’d turn that cover down and after the light was turned off,
That light’d go down under that cover as pretty as I ever saw a light in my life.
And, uh, I had a quilt on my bed that I thought might be the cause of it,
That … that was on his bed when
Before he died.
And I rolled that quilt up and sent it to the dump.
Because I felt like that made that’s the reason.
But I still saw the light.
It didn’t make
It didn’t change a thing.
But the light … for a long time, well for two of three years or longer … probably than that, light would flash up.
But I’ve not seen it now in a good while. (126-127)

If there is a narrative kernel in this text, it is in the two clauses: “I had a quilt on my bed that I thought might be the cause of it … And I rolled that quilt up and sent it to the dump.”

Another example of an encounter with the supernatural, a memorate, this time from my own fieldwork:

One day me and my daddy
My daddy was sick
His stomach kept hurting him, hurting him
Every night he would lay in the bed cramped up so bad
Said there was a big old knot in his stomach
He said he just couldn’t take it
We had to sit on his legs to stretch him out
Stretch his arms out so that cramp would leave his stomach
So mama said one day …
We had an old seventy-one Ford pickup truck
With a purple hood
So one day mama said —
My daddy’s name was Taise —
She said Taise we going to bring you to the treater
I was kind of small
So they brought me with them
And the only thing I can remember, man, is my daddy going in the house with this old lady
And I was still in the truck
Because they wouldn’t let me go in the house
So when he come outside
He throwed up snakes
Out of his stomach
Out of his mouth
I mean six seven eight nine ten
Throwed them up
And when we left from there,
Daddy was fine
Never caught a cramp again.

More than previous examples, the structure of this text is quite clear, with an extensive orientation focused on an ongoing state and then a complication that stutters to begin with two instances of “one day” a bit of constructed dialogue and a digression to remind the audience that the narrator was a child during the time of the narrative. With all that work done, the text transitions into a clear sequence of narrative clauses which actually begin with “And the only thing I remember….”


With little to no time left, I want to point out that, first, clearly Ricoeur was wrong and Nicolaisen was right, but both worked over thirty years ago and we haven’t caught up to the argument they never had. One of the things the emergence of performance studies promised, was a closer look at the texts themselves as manifestations of their context and as manifestations of the intersection between culture and personality. Work by Sawin, by Capps and Ochs, by Shuman, and by Cashman have taken us a certain way down the path but I would argue that it’s time, no pun intended, to roll up our sleeves and “get all linguistic” on texts.

With this small collection of examples, we can first address the fact that while narrative is not the only way that humans account for their temporality. Indeed, even within those texts where it might be considered the structuring modality, it is not necessarily the dominant modality in terms of proportions.


Bascom, William. 1965. The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives. Journal of American Folklore 78(307): 3–20.
Labov, William and Joshua Waletzky. 1967. Narrative Analysis: Oral Versions of Personal Experience. In Essays on the Verbal and Visual Arts, 12–44. Ed. June Helm. Seattle: American Ethnological Society.
Laudun, John. 2001. Talk About the Past in a Midwestern Town: “It Was There At That Time.” Midwestern Folklore 27 (2): 41–54.
Müller, Günther. 1968. Morphologische Poetik: Gesammelte Aufsätze. Ed. Elena Müller. Tubingen: Niemeyer.
Nicolaisen, William. 1982. The Structure of Narrated Time in the Folktale. Journées d’Études en Littérature Orale: Analyse des contes, problèmes de méthodes 417–36.
Ricoeur, Paul. 1984. Time and Narrative 1. University of Chicago Press.
Sawin, Patricia. 2004. Listening for a Life: A Dialogic Ethnography of Bessie Eldreth Through Her Songs and Stories. Utah State University Press.


  1. Later in the essay, Nicolaisen himself articulated his own version of this idea of folk narratives negotiating two, or more, time streams: “Narrative time, or more precisely folk-narrative time, is consequently, once it has been appropriately and understand­ ably signaled, “other” time, time outside the chronological frame­ work which we usually impose on the past to make it accessible and recallable; it is not in this sense true timelessness, non-time or time standing still, but an attractively convenient suspension of historical time” (418). 
  2. Nicolaisen seems to have developed his ideas solely based on the work of Günther Müller, who appears to have focused on the idea of narrative tempo (Müller 1968). While Nicolaisen references Propp elsewhere, he does not explicitly do so in this essay. 

Trucks under Water


On a warm Saturday afternoon in September in one of south Louisiana’s many sports parks, parents clustered as they waited on, and sometimes watched, their children playing soccer.1 In between two fields, two men sat on a small set of bleacher benches, catching up on events in each other’s lives, just as other men and women all around them were doing.Their conversation followed the general conventions of most such speech events in north America, with an especial focus on a recent dramatic event, the flooding of the area, acting as a lens through other topics passed.

In the middle of the conversation about the flooding, one of the speakers performed a legend about vehicles being abandoned in the rising water, principally for the insurance money. The other speaker didn’t notice the change in genres until, having repeated the story many times in his mind, returning to it again and again, he realized three days later that he had, in fact, encountered a legend. The essay that follows is an attempt to give the legend about “trucks under water” a place within a larger set of discursive conventions that are themselves situated in, and perhaps a manifestation of, a larger set of ideational concerns. My understanding of this legend is that its text accomplishes a great deal, and it accomplishes it with less than two hundred words. In other recent work on American legends, I have examined the efficacy of legends, which can vary in size and structure considerably, but in the case of this legend, I would like to take up the matter of textual compactness and efficacy more directly, because I think we need to account for it: how does a text this small invoke such a large dramatic and moral universe?


On August 11 the weather reports for portions of south Louisiana predicted heavy rain. Such a prediction is not unusual for the region, neither is flash flooding. So most residents were not concerned when the rain began to fall that night. Even when unusually intense deluges occurred early Friday morning and the National Weather Service began to issue flash flood watches for certain parishes, most residents were content to wait it out, having waited out tropical storms like Allison and hurricanes like Lili, Katrina, Rita, Gustave, and Isaac to name but a few of the recent storms. Over the course of the next three to four days the mesoscale convection system — as it later revealed itself to be — inundated the region with 7.1 trillion gallons: more than three times the rainfall of Katrina.

By August 15, ten different rivers were at or near record flood stages, flooding areas that had not flooded in recent memory nor in recorded history. In some areas, the water stayed in houses and homes for days, only slowly receding as crests moved slowly away from the soaked parts of the state. Fortunately, only a small number of deaths are attributed to the flood, but over a hundred thousand homes were damaged or completely ruined, often in areas which were already poor and in many cases in areas where few homeowners had flood insurance.2

In the wake of the storm, many in Louisiana criticized the media for ignoring the non-named weather event. Much of the reporting that followed focused on the eastern part of the system, which affected areas east of Baton Rouge. There has been relatively little coverage of the areas in and around Lafayette, an area which was already suffering from the downturn in the oil industry, which has led to a large number of layoffs and even closures of some operations.

Asking someone how they did during the flood is now a part of most conversations, and in most instances the verb to do is used, as in “How’d you do?” with “during the flood” sometimes being appended to the question, and sometimes not. Once the question became well established as a part of contemporary discourse in the weeks that followed the flood, it is generally the case that if someone asks you “How’d you do?” with no other reference, they are in fact referring to your status during the flood.

In most instances, responses come in two forms: “we got water” or “we were lucky.” In the case of water, there is usually some discussion of the height of the water and the sequence of events leading up to evacuating one’s home and then what has transpired since then in terms of renovating and returning. When an interlocutor has been lucky, most respond with reference to family or friends who were not so lucky. In this way, both a network of people is instantiated but also a more developed map of what happened is created. With each report of someone who was flooded, interlocutors increase their sense of what happened where. (This communally curated map is not unimportant: official sources remain rather poor at identifying areas affected by flooding, and knowing what is, in the current mind, more likely to flood is an important part of knowing where to buy and where not to buy.)

On the Thursday night before the rains began, most of us simply heard a big rain was coming. (I was again at the soccer fields.) The rain began that night, August 11, and it continued to rain for the next four, five, six days. But the amount of rain and where it rained varied by the hour: you might find yourself in the middle of a downpour, call a friend to report it, only to have your friend report back that it was only drizzling where she was. Residents of Louisiana are somewhat used to this localization of rain, and are also used to flash flooding thus also occurring a number of places. As a rule, residents keep track of where streets are out, and while some streets routinely flood during such times, flooding can also be fairly random. People simply plan their trips through towns according to the mental map they develop — and it should be noted that this might only be partially based on news reports from official outlets, which tend to focus on major arteries.

I note all this in order to establish the very ordinariness of natives not thinking twice about driving even when official flash flood warnings are issued by the National Weather Service. So the idea of someone driving around during the middle of what was only later termed a once-in-a-century weather event should not be met with raised eyebrows. Almost everyone in the area has lived through a named storm that did not flood or otherwise cause a danger. For one thing, most official agencies overstate possible dangers in order to emphasize the need to be safe (and no one wants to be the one who understated a danger). For another, even those storms which have pummeled a region do not do so evenly, most residents take it as a given that it is better to try and turn back then not to try at all, if you need to go to the grocery store or get to work — many businesses remained open throughout the flood simply because they, and enough employees, were not affected by the unevenly occurring event.


With that as frame for understanding the narrative embedded within a larger conversation, I will note that my friend and I were catching up, having not seen each other much since the flood which had disrupted so much of life in our corner of the world. After we participated in the basic parts of a flood conversation, we extended the conversation, as is acceptable, by engaging in some longer, more detailed accounts of events surrounding the flood. My friend began to tell me about a friend of his who had almost lost his truck in the middle of the flood. As noted above, it was not the case that the flooding was well established, let alone the information about where it was flooding was evenly distributed. Stories about places flooding that do not normally flood are part of the larger set of genres, and they are often framed in terms of driving and coming upon such a place rather suddenly or unexpectedly. So when my friend’s story began with an account of his friend who lives in a nearby town along one of the major waterways in the area, it was not remarkable that he was out driving. Here’s the story as I remember it:

So my buddy was out.  
And he went to cross the bridge,   
and he’d been across it not long before and it was okay,   
but now he could see it was kind of deep.  
So he got part way in,   
and then he decided “nah ah” he didn’t want to risk it.  
But, you know, some trucks were. . .  
My buddy said he saw some nice trucks.  
Some nice trucks got flooded out.  
Some guys just drove their trucks in the water.  
I guess they were already under water with their payments,   
so they thought why not, you know?  
Anyway, my buddy says he saw some trucks and their windows were rolled up.  
You know if you got stuck, you’d roll your windows down to climb out.  
But their windows were up.  
So they were pushed.  
People got to the edge of the water and then pushed their trucks in.  
He said he’d seen a bunch of nice trucks with their windows up.   
You know, I guess people were just doing what they felt they had to do.  
I’m not saying it’s right.   
But I can understand it.  


A closer look at the text reveals some interesting features that escaped my notice when I experienced it as a live performance. It was, perhaps, these features that worked on my mind and slowly pushed me to the realization that what I had encountered was no anecdote but in fact a legend. This confusion — or, perhaps better, simply fusion — is built into the opening frame of the text, which transitions from a local character anecdote — which abound in the present moment — to the legend. If we break the text into a series of clauses, the first six are narrated from the perspective of “my buddy” who goes out, attempts to cross a bridge, and then decides not to:

So my buddy was out.
And he went to cross the bridge, 
and he’d been across it not long before and it was okay, 
but now he could see it was kind of deep.
So he got part way in, 
and then he decided “nah ah” he didn’t want to risk it.

The narration here is steady: a point of view is introduced and it is the subject of the speech, distinct from the speaking subject of the narrator. “My buddy” is introduced, becomes “he”, and he does things. The final clause here gives us a bit of internal speech, which, as we will see, is part of how this legend works: it offers us interior views of others who engage in questionable behavior to which we will, in the end, be empathetic.

In the next four clauses, the subject of the text wobbles, shifting from “my buddy” to trucks to a third party, “some guys” who are through the repetition of “some” paired with “nice trucks”:

But, you know, some trucks were. . .
My buddy said he saw some nice trucks.
Some nice trucks got flooded out.
Some guys just drove their trucks in the water.

The transition to legend is fairly clear here: the point of view shifts; there is an appeal to the audience — only one of two, with the second coming in the conclusion; and a slightly awkward passive voice that hints at the moral ambiguity at the heart of the text: “Some nice truck trucks got flooded out.” In some ways the assonance between nice and guys — which is followed by the assonance of trucks and just — plays out in the overall moral of the story: some nice guys did a potentially unjust thing.

At this point, halfway through the text, the text gives us its own interpretation of events rather baldly:

I guess they were already under water with their payments, 
so they thought why not, you know?

The text insures that we do not miss the parallelism between the common metaphor of being under water and the actuality of being under water, something which for many might also apply to the overall regional economy. It also offers us the first of several interior perspectives: “[some guys] thought why not.”

With the moral force of the legend laid out, the text proceeds to give us the methods used, with a trio of lines that focus on the windows as a sign of what truly had happened: windows were up; they should be down, but they were up. This up-down-up movement leads to the logical conclusion provided in a short clause for emphasis: “So they were pushed.”

What follows is a very effective re-instating of another popular metaphor, of people being on the edge, but here it is again concretized in reference to the water and its meaning doubled in the process: “People got to the edge of the water and then pushed their trucks in.” The text then moves back to its opening frame, bringing back the original subject of the story, my buddy, who glimpses “a bunch of nice trucks with their windows up.” This line effectively wraps up the story by repeating the two visual elements, nice trucks with their windows up, that can only add up to one conclusion.

While that is an effective dramatic stopping point for the text, it also offers a coda, a double coda really. First, there is a proffered conclusion: “[people] did what they felt they had to do” that effects a moral distancing: the doubling of they in “they felt they had to” makes it clear we are no longer inside the minds of the secondary protagonists, but outside looking in. This emotional distancing is completed with, second, the closing pair of clauses, which offer a short, heavily metered accommodation: “I’m not saying it’s right. But I can understand it.”


The story itself begins like a number of flood stories: streets, and yes even bridges, which are normally passable are discovered to be impassable. In most narratives of this kind, this opens up the conversation to a discussion about water actually flowing over the bridge and even how deep it was. It is not unusual for such narratives to feature a decision to turn around to emphasize the impassable nature of the route, but what comes next literally turns our heads as the protagonist in the story seemingly looks around him and sees other trucks, like his, that have attempted to pass and have not made it. That the trucks are not immediately in front of the protagonist within the storyworld and that the narrative wobbles a bit here, changing agency a couple of times from the friend, to trucks, to unnamed individuals was later what nagged at the back of my mind and made me reconsider if I had not indeed heard a legend but taken it at the current face value of such things post-flood.

The matter of trucks in south Louisiana probably deserves some treatment. The region has long been dominated first by agriculture and then by the oil industry, both sectors that require a fair amount of heavy equipment that needs to be hauled from one job to another. Pickup trucks are ubiquitous, and and while most will think of trucks the size of a Ford F–150, it is not uncommon to see the likes of 250s and 350s parked in driveways. Most are also extended or crew cabbed, and because both farmers and oil workers tend to work in a variety of environments, most trucks are just a bit more elevated than trucks elsewhere. The overall outcome is that pickup trucks are the coin of the realm, and where other regions might focus on fancy cars, foreign or domestic, as status symbols, in south Louisiana it is the truck.3

These trucks typically start in the low thirties and can rapidly rise into the eighties, with an average price of around sixty to seventy thousand dollars. Because car loans are shorter than most mortgages, many face monthly payments exceeding their mortgages. But farmers have to have them and fold them into the cost of their farm operations, and many workers in the oil field and adjacent industries just regard them as part of what you own and who you are, and when times are good in the oil industry, men can make six-figure salaries that make a $700 a month note look like a pittance.

But times have not been good in the oil industry of late. As Economy Watch notes, “the Oil Industry is considered … one of the biggest and one of the most important industries in Louisiana if things like taxes paid amount, impact on Economy and number of people [employed].” In the two years leading up to the flood, as gas prices dropped, the oil industry shed 12,000 jobs in south Louisiana. Many are used to the fluctuations in the commodity, but as prices remained low, not only was the primary sector hit, oil exploration and production, but also all the adjacent sectors: the oilfield service companies, and then, the companies that served the services. Area newspapers slowly switched from hopeful stories about what would happen when oil returned to a price above $50 a barrel to stories of how workers and their families were adjusting to what was coming to be considered the new normal (see, for example, Truong). It was becoming increasingly clear that a good number of the jobs would never be coming back.

The legend addresses the current situation for many head on: many people before the flood occurred were already “under water.” The flood was simply a physical manifestation of a less visible economic reality. The rising waters were a concretization of a landscape that was already flooded with pain and desperation. The mud-filled waters that creeped and then drowned people’s homes and left behind the danger of black mold were simply confirmation that the current situation could not hold. For many more than has been reported, it is said, it was simply the last straw and they have left their homes behind, much like what we are told happened in Las Vegas.

The current legend was told in the context of the flood as it occurred in Louisiana, where the homes that were hit hardest were in one of the more newly-developed areas, where many people had moved to be closer to their jobs and to be further from the city.4 Youngsville has been one of the most, if not the most, fastest growing municipalities in Louisiana, trebling in size in the last two decades. Much of the growth as been filling in cane fields along two lane roads that run between it and the neighboring small municipality of Broussard and the larger hub city of Lafayette which lies north of both. Much of the growth of both can be attributed to the easy access to Route 90, which serves as the oilfield service industry’s corridor; to the high value that area residents put on being “out in the country”; and, finally, white flight must also be considered one facet of the larger impulse.


Since encountering the version of the legend presented above, I have asked other residents of the area if they have heard anything about vehicles being abandoned during the flood — and that is the extent of the prompt “vehicles abandoned during the flood”, with no mention of insurance, though sometimes I have substituted “car or trucks” for “vehicles.” I have received a number of positive responses, many of which cite as evidence for their claim a report seen on a local television station. Inquiries to local news outlets have turned up only stories that are basically requests from authorities either urging avoidance of or caution when using local roads due to debris or abandoned vehicles: e.g., “The following areas are still reporting problems with high water in the roadway. The public is asked to avoid these areas until the water subsides and the streets are cleared of abandoned vehicles” (KPEL).

Finding no evidence for actually abandoned cars in the historical record, it made sense to seek out possible verification from the foil in the legend, the insurance industry. A representative of one of the big three insurance companies, who noted that his company probably insured one car in six in the region, responded that, while such cases were not unknown, there were no such cases pending before his company in the month since the flood. He noted that it was important to understand that the industry regularly distinguishes between clear-cut cases of fraud and insured individuals simply being stupid — he noted that the latter was simply one function of insurance, catching us when we are not at our best. While there had been a few cases of people having driven their vehicles through a flooded area and then claiming that the vehicles had been flooded in place, there were no cases, of which he knew, of people driving cars or trucks into flooded areas and leaving them there.

Moreover, he noted, in those confirmed cases of insurance fraud of this kind, it is rarely the case that the insurance disbursement will pay off what is owed completely. The nature of being upside down, he observed, is that your vehicle is already worth less than what you owe. Even receiving full compensation will leave you with money stilled owed on a loan. In most instances — and it was especially his experience with the flood — people plead to have their vehicles not totaled. In these cases, he said, cars and trucks are usually paid for and the person is not able to afford, or would rather not take on, a monthly loan payment. Unfortunately for him and the insured, insurance companies will not pay more to repair a car or truck than it is worth in terms of resale value.

And so, in terms of veracity, not only is there little evidence to support our legend, the stories from the other side, reveal that far from pushing trucks into the onslaught of flood waters, most individuals were really left high and dry when their insurance company declared their vehicle a total loss and simply issued them a check for its current value, which is often far less than the value the vehicle has for them or what it would take to replace it.


I began with a question: how do two hundred words do so much work? First, one immediate and obvious answer is to be found in how long it took for this interlocutor to realize that the story was a legend and not an anecdote: its fit with its environs was very good.

And the environment here is not simply the topical context of flood discourse but also the larger ideological network, as I have already suggested, of people already drowning metaphorically, such that abandoning an artifact that not only has high high utility but also high social status achieves such effective narrative closure.

Second, the text offers something which is perhaps a function, or dimensions, of the larger set of legends, and that is ontological plurality. By offering a version of the things as they should be—if things felt were made manifest—the narrative is in fact offering an alternative world. As Hilary Dannenberg notes in her discussion of multiple temporal dimensions in novels, the effect of creating an alternative possible world is to intensify, or sometimes frustrate, the narrative force of texts by offering more than one possible version of events.

I think it is fairly safe to say that the force of the legend is that it not only inherits the gernal traits of the actual world, as most mimetic narratives do, but that it also inherits traits of a particular set of narrative genres whose expectations had been established in the preceding month.

It is perhaps too late to establish this now, but one question I have is how soon after the discourse genres, the discourse worlds, of the floods arose did the legend itself take shape? No doubt it also inherited pieces from previous legends on similar topics. In the months to come, I hope to trace those pieces and their vectors to understand how this came to have so many trucks under water.


Truong, Thanh. 2016. Low prices devastating Louisiana oil industry businesses, workers. WWL TV 4 (May 14). local/lafourche-terrebonne/low-prices-devastating-louisiana-oil-industry-businesses- workers/191042106.

Economy Watch. 2010. Oil Industry Louisiana. (June 29). http://

KPEL 96.5FM. 2016. Lafayette Parish Road Closures (LATEST UP- DATE). August 15, 8:44 AM. closures-latest-update/.

  1. The exact date is September 17. 
  2. It’s also the case that many individual only hold flood insurance because it was a requirement of their mortgage. Many who owned their homes outright no longer held or had never had a flood insurance policy. Normal homeowner’s insurance does not cover damage caused by rising waters. (The irony of storms in Louisiana is that if a tree crashes on your roof and the rain pours in, you are covered, but if the water comes up the yard, you are not.) 
  3. With the rise of the medical industry in the region and the seeming preference of doctors for more traditional forms of status vehicles, this trend seems to be changing somewhat and Lafayette now has its fair share of very expensive SUVs and German sports cars. 
  4. The other area to be hit by the flood was east of Baton Rouge, an area also enjoying some development as a result of urban flight, but also one with a more pronounced local identity: Denham Springs and Walker are outside the French triangle but not yet in African American timber country, they are an incursion of highland Southerners from the rest of the South. Many identify as rednecks, and the kind of class inequalities that lurk below the surface in many urban-rural dynamics can be glimpsed in various events in the area. 

Politics Graphically Explained

> Finally somebody explained politics to me
> Right or left doesn’t matter. It is really up or down in politics.


> When top level people look down, they see only shit-heads;
> When the bottom level people look up, they see only assholes.
> You will Never see another Flow Chart that describes politics so clearly!

Subject: Fwd: Fw: Elderly couple Texting

An elderly couple had just learned how to send text messages on their cell phones. The wife was a romantic type and the husband was more of a no-nonsense guy.

One afternoon the wife went out to meet a friend for coffee. She decided to send her husband a romantic text message and she wrote: “If you are sleeping, send me your dreams. If you are laughing, send me your smile. If you are eating, send me a bite. If you are drinking, send me a sip. If you are crying, send me your tears. I love you.

The husband texted back to her: “I’m on the toilet. Please advise.”​

Subject: Classic

> A local civic group decided to sponsor a health and wellness seminar early one morning in its meeting room. A doctor from Johns Hopkins was addressing the surprisingly large audience:
> “The material we put into our stomachs is enough to have killed most of us sitting here years ago. Red meat is awful. Soft drinks corrode your stomach lining. Chinese food is loaded with MSG. High-fat diets can be disastrous, and none of us realizes the long-term harm caused by the germs in our drinking water. But there is one thing that is the most dangerous of all and we all have, or will, eat it. Can anyone here tell me what food it is that causes the most grief and suffering for years after eating it?”
> After several seconds of quiet, an elderly gentleman in the front row raised his hand and said softly, “Wedding cake.”

Parables of the Present

I was somewhat startled by the deployment of a parable in a discussion on [Quora][]. Wolfgang Mieder has long studied a wide variety of proverbs and proverbial usage, but this parable made me wonder more clearly about the kinds of analogies, especially narrative analogies, that are used in a variety of public discourses.


The Stories Homeless Children Tell

The Miami Times title of [“Myths over Miami”][] is perhaps unfortunate, but the report is compelling both for its darkness — the children whisper to each other the secret name of “the blue lady” which, spoken at the right moment, will make bullets fall from their path — and the remarkable creativity of the children.

[“Myths over Miami”]: