THE VANISHING HITCHHIKER: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings by Jan Harold Brunvand

THE VANISHING HITCHHIKER: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A modest, workmanlike introduction to the very idea of extant legends in everyday life, with examples of various types. Brunvand, a University of Utah folklorist and author of The Study of American Folklore, opens with some routine pointers on legends and legend interpretation--identifying the ""three essential elements"" of living legends, for example, as ""a strong basic story appeal, a foundation in actual belief, and a meaningful message or 'moral.'"" The meat of the book is a catalogue, in effect, of widespread (not necessarily ""urban"") legends, and their variations: the title story and other classic auto legends, teenage scare stories (""The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs,"" ""The Pet--or Baby--in the Oven""), horrendous discoveries (""The Kentucky Fried Rat,"" ""Alligators in the Sewers""), tales of purloined corpses (""The Dead Cat in the Package,"" ""The Runaway Grandmother""), and amatory embarrassments (or, caught-in-the-nude). Two tales of business ripoffs are cited to illustrate ""the interaction of news media with oral tradition"" (manifest, in fact, throughout); and the history of one of these, ""Red Velvet Cake,"" demonstrates what the book has to offer. Ostensibly, a woman who had eaten such a cake at the Waldorf Astoria wrote the chef for the recipe, and received with it a bill for $350 (or $300, etc.); advised by her lawyer that she had to pay it, she got her revenge by distributing copies far and wide (on a bus or, in other versions, with her Christmas cards, etc.). The recipe is quite standard, and can be made; copies have turned up in newspapers around the country; the Waldorf Astoria was not responsible for creating it (Brunvand was assured in 1965)--but it now distributes copies itself, labeled ""AUTHENTIC WALDORF ASTORIA RED VELVET CAKE."" Apart from pointing up the media connection, Brunvand makes no general observations that are not quite obvious--such as the tales' function as warnings ""against the world's actual dangers"" (e.g., parking on a deserted road) and/or as upholders of traditional morality (updated, now, so that the baby is cooked in a microwave oven by a stoned babysitter). Meanwhile, two major aspects raised are not really dealt with: the stories' connection with traditional folk themes, on the one hand, and with fact, on the other. Thus, the cooked baby story has ancient foreign analogues (as Brunvand remarks in the notes)--and an alligator was found in a New York City sewer in the 1920s. Limited as folklore study, then, and rather too pedantic and parochial for wide popularity--but not without appeal for those with a particular interest.

Pub Date: Oct. 19th, 1981
ISBN: 0393951693
Publisher: Norton