American Heroes, Myth and Reality

By Marshall W. Fishwick | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 11
The Giant and the Jackass: Paul Bunyan and Joe Magarac

"Maybe the scholars have been following a false lead; maybe popular literature isn't a folk art at all." --Bernard DeVoto

In the U.S.A., land of the Big Build-Up, much that passes for folklore is really fakelore. Scholars have found that Paul Bunyan, Joe Magarac, Pecos Bill and other "ancient characters" are (like Mercutio's wound) not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door. But what we have done with them (again like the wound) is enough; 'twill serve.

Only a purist, convinced that "the folk" are holier than specific contrivers, resents what has happened. A hero is a hero, no matter who creates him, or why. Too many folklorists think they are scientific when actually they are sentimental. They deplore efforts of corporations or political groups to invent new symbols and characters, without realizing that in our society these are the natural agencies to do such things. Like everything else, folklore and mythology are shaped by the culture in which they flourish.

A lumber company was the prime mover behind our modern Beowulf, Paul Bunyan--but that doesn't make him any less vigorous than old Beowulf, or Aeneas, or Samson.

Take that fellow Samson. Chances are, as one tough-minded folklorist recently pointed out, that he was nothing more than "an overgrown Asia Minor country boy who made his first unpremeditated bid for fame when he leaned against a shaky pole in the tent of some other desert-dwelling character and--in his awkwardness--caused the shelter to collapse. Relatives and friends trans

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