There are really two legends of Paul Bunyan. There’s the legend itself: big guy, big ox, big ax, all that. Then there’s the legend of the legend: the story of how the “genuine American folk character” was dreamed up by 19th-century loggers as they “sat around the stove, after working all day in the woods.” So wrote Fortune in 1944: “It was the loggers, by reputation the most violent roughnecks of all industry, who made up the innocent legend of Paul Bunyan, a lumberman the size of a Douglas fir.” Surely this is a bit romanticized—if the anthology Legends of Paul Bunyan, just reissued by the University of Minnesota Press, were actually representative of the stories traded in front of those camp stoves, there would be at least a few references to the size of Paul’s wedding tackle.
|legends of paul bunyan, edited by harold w. felton. new edition published by the university of minnesota press (2008). $18.95.|
Legends of Paul Bunyancomprises 400-plus pages of short vignettes about the mighty man, drawn from dozens of sources and penned by writers from Carl Sandburg to Robert Frost to the anonymous authors of a Texas guidebook. It was originally published in 1947, near the height of Bunyan’s popularity as an American icon. (The famous Bemidji statue was built a decade earlier.) The editor was children’s folklorist Harold W. Felton, and the book seems designed for bedtime reading, one story per night. That’s about the only way to choke it down, since it’s hard to read much more at a single sitting.
It’s not that there’s no interest in the infinite variations spun on the theme of a big dude. (How big was he? He was so big that foxes hid in his beard! He was so big that he made a musket out of an 80-foot tree! He was so big that he built Puget Sound with only the help of Babe the Blue Ox!) What makes Legends such a tedious read is that so many of its literary-type contributors get so wrapped up in their own brambles of verbiage. It’s an impressive collection of tales about the only Minnesotan more famous than Prince (though the general consensus is that Paul was actually born in Maine), but rather than curling up with Carl, Robert, and Harold, I’d prefer to hang out with the roughnecks, swilling the swill and listening to them swap superlatives about Bunyan the way today’s frat boys swap stories about Chuck Norris. “Paul Bunyan could shoot someone and still have time to roundhouse kick him in the face before the bullet hit!”