Paul Bunyan Goes West

Carl Van Doren. "Paul Bunyan Goes West."
A Roving Critic New York: A. A. Knopf, 1923: 105-107.


Paul Bunyan Goes West

It was idle, of course, to expect that Paul Bunyan would continue to be satisfied with the home in the neighbourhood of the Great Lakes where that mighty man seems to have reached his majority. Call it invented, if you will; true it is that the epic Paul sprang from the imaginations of many lumbermen competing at evening fires for the honour of having told the biggest whopper about the career of Paul the logger's darling. But a ghost of such heroic vigour is not lightly raised; Paul's fame has widened out, by word of mouth alone till very lately, to a thousand camps in many forests; in that sense he has gone himself, for the man lives, like your true epic hero or your politician, by the breath of reputation. Now, as the first chapbook about Paul records for us, he has moved west and done magnificent new deeds under the sunset. The chapbook is called Paul Bunyan Comes West and it should make all lovers of Americana and all collectors of chapbooks snatch for it. What are copies of the first Faustbuch fetching now?

I admit that Paul Bunyan still lacks his Marlowe and his Goethe, but I contend that he is a fellow at least as well worth keeping an eye on as Bevis of Southampton or Guy of Warwick or any of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus or the Seven Champions of Christendom, to say nothing of Jack the Beanstalk-climber or Jack the Giant-killer. In this first book about him Paul Bunyan has fallen into the hands of a certain Yank, still living somewhere in the valley of the Willamette and devoting the hours he can spare from the neglect of his professional duties as camp cook to the elaboration of tales about Paul. Art thus makes an advance upon nature; in real life the mighty Bunyan grows almost by repartee, as when one logger tells one tall tale about his hero and another tries to go him rather better and some third attempts to outdo both; but the epic has its rights. Robin Hood moved from separate ballads to a ballard sequence, and the wily Ulysses from epic lays to the grand march of Homer himself. So Paul Bunyan starts up.

It will be a shame if, like George Peele and some others, he ends in a jestbook and never flies further. Exaggeration such as that in some of the stories presses upon genius. His pick drags behind him on his way West and the first thing he knows he has cut out the Colorado Canyon; he blows the new dinner horn and down fall three square miles of timber; with his Blue Ox to help him he brings an Alaskan glacier down to the States and digs out Puget Sound for the Government; he raises corn in Kansas enormous enough to suck the Mississippi dry and interfere with navigation; he builds a hotel so high that he has "the last seven stories put on hinges so's they could be swung back for to let the moon go by"; his ax "had a wove grass handle and Paul he jist swung it round in a circle an' cut all the trees within reach to wunst." He has a daughter Teenie of the same heroic breed, an adequate dog named Elmer, and the Blue Ox, Babe, "a 'normous critter-forty ax handles an' a plug o' Star terbacker between the eyes."

The question what the American imagination will make of Paul Bunyan is a curious one. Will it make him another Hercules or another Munchausen? Or will it extravagantly think itself rich enough to afford to neglect him?

Query and Comment to MightyBUNYAN at