The Tall Tale In American Literature

Esther Shephard. "The Tall Tale in American Literature."
The Pacific Review December 1921: 410-414.

Friends of Babe

Excerpt from:
The Tall Tale In American Literature

An interesting manifestation of the growth of a group of stories owing their development to more frontier conditions than those which produced the original tall tale is the evolution of the more modern "Paul Bunyan" stories. It is only within recent years that any interest has been taken in this epic figure of the lumber-camps-"Paul Bunyan," hero, demigod, and "super-jack." But while he has been unknown to literary men and historians, he has grown in strength and prowess all the time, so that now, when he is seemingly about to disappear again, he looms up as a very considerable figure. Making the Mississippi River, piling up the Rockies and Alleghanies, digging the Great Lakes, logging off the forests of North Dakota, plowing out Puget Sound and Hood's Canal, and building Mount Rainier are only a few of the feats which Paul already has to his credit.

Just when this interesting character first appeared it is difficult to say, but it seems very likely that he first came into existence in some "mossback" lumber-camp on the Maine frontier, and that he gradually traveled west as the lumber industry traveled west, first to Michigan and Wisconsin, then to Minnesota, and lastly-probably about 1870-to the Pacific Coast. With each new move he has taken on still more wonderful characteristics and has accomplished still more wonderful deeds-and according to many who know him he has not yet anywhere near reached the limit of his powers. The old-time lumberjacks all know him well and are glad to tell you about him if you ask them.

The name, "Paul Bunyan," in the camps seems to have several different associations. Sometimes it is the cognomen of some particularly clumsy or "queer" fellow among the loggers, sometimes it is applied to the superintendent or foreman, especially if this person is inefficient and does not know his business, and again sometimes, "Paul Bunyan" is a particularly skilful man. But it is in his other role, that of superman or demigod, that he is the most interesting, and that he is the subject of the stories the lumberjacks tell of him. In this guise he is a very marvellous fellow, a cross, apparently, between a genuine down-East "clever feller" and a Scandinavian or possibly North American Indian god. Here are a few samples of him.

"Paul Bunyan was born in Maine. When three weeks old he rolled around so much in his sleep that he destroyed four square miles of standing timber. Then they built a floating cradle for him and anchored it off Eastport. When Paul rocked in his cradle it caused a seventy-five foot tide in the Bay of Fundy, and several villages were washed away. It was soon seen that if this kept up Nova Scotia would become an island, and Paul's parents were ordered to take him away. He couldn't be wakened, however, until the British navy was called out and fired broadsides for seven hours. When Paul stepped out of his cradle he sank seven warships and the British government seized his cradle and used the timber to build seven more. That saved Nova Scotia from becoming an island, but the tides in the Bay of Fundy haven't subsided yet."

Paul was hunting a buck one day with his dog Elmer. They hunted all over Michigan and Wisconsin, but finally, toward evening, they succeeded in bringing down the buck. Elmer, however, died of heart-failure from the exertion. Now Paul had the two carcasses on his hands, the buck carcass and the dog carcass, and he didn't know what to do with all this meat. He was quite puzzled for a while. But then Mr. Armour came up from Chicago and bought the buck carcass for $1,000,000 and the dog for $1,000. That was the beginning of the Armour meatpacking business.

Paul Bunyan was logging off North Dakota in the winter of the blue snow, and he was needing some water with which to ice his ice-roads. So he scooped out Lake Superior for a reservoir and got the blue ox and hitched it to his tank. One day the ox slipped on something, and the tank tipped over and sprang a leak. That's what caused the Mississippi river.

Paul Bunyan's blue ox's name was "Babe." He was a wonderful animal, and he measured forty-two axe-handles between the eyes (or forty-two axe-handles and a tobacco box-there's some dispute about that) and he ate so much that he could never stay in the same camp more than one day because it took the tote-teams a year to a day's feed for him. Once the blacksmith, "Ole," carried one of "Babe's" shoes a mile and a half and sank a foot and a half in solid rock at every step.

Mr. Elliott, Mr. Rainier, and Mr. Puget (of the Puget Construction Company) were associated with Paul when they excavated Puget Sound. They were using an Alaska glacier for a plow, and Paul had his blue ox hitched to that. One day the blue ox shied at a school teacher with a pink parasol, and started to run away. Paul dug his heel into the earth to stop the ox and that's how Hood's Canal happened to be made. It has never been quite finished.

The logging-camp that Paul Bunyan had was so big that they had to have twenty ox-teams just to haul the prune-pits away, or else they would have to move the camp every week. They hauled the prune-pits out in the woods, and the chipmunks ate them and grew so big that people shot them for tigers. The pancake griddles in Paul's kitchen were so big that they had them greased by having flunkeys skate around on them with slabs of bacon tied to their feet. There were men in Paul's camp who had nothing else to do but to drive the salt and pepper wagons around the tables.

At present Paul is carrying on a logging business in Alaska. Every day you can see his airplanes going across the sky, for he is taking the lumber down to Mexico to build a navy for the Mexican government.

Such is Paul Bunyan, America's only epic hero since the days of Indian myth-making. Just what he is or where he came from can not be definitely known, but there seems to be some evidence that he may, in some way, be descended from the ring-tailed roarer and the crafty Down-Easter of the frontier "tall tale." Some of the very incidents which appeared in the frontier yarn appear again in somewhat different guise among the legends of the Paul Bunyan cycle. Of course that is not at all a strange phenomenon. "Good" stories traveled widely on the frontier, and it is natural enough that something should have been added to them as they were told and told again. There is in the Paul Bunyan stories that element of "stringing the tenderfoot," which is such a common characteristic of all frontier tales, and there is that exaggeration in them which is also peculiar to frontier humor. The men from the wild and woolly were not believed when they were telling the truth, so why shouldn't they tell a whopper? If they were not believed when describing an actual adventure, why not claim to have performed the impossible? Undoubtedly the "admiring" attitude of expectant listeners accounts for a very great deal of the frontier humor.

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