Paul Bunyon and the Myth of the American Lumberjack

By Blum, Albert A. | Contemporary Review, December 1996 | Go to article overview

Paul Bunyon and the Myth of the American Lumberjack


Blum, Albert A., Contemporary Review


Public officials, businessmen, labour leaders, and teachers like to think that they are masters of their environments, that they can influence and perhaps even manipulate how people work. But so often what causes workers to change has very little to do with conscious plans or designs. Many important changes occur inadvertently and even incrementally. Astute public figures have to be alert to these small changes as they take place if they are to be ready for the resulting big changes that will eventually force them to react. One such change occurs in the myths in which people believe and how they change over time. Sometimes the myth involves specific people: in the United States there is George Washington and his cherry tree or Abraham Lincoln and his log cabin. Other myths involve ideas. One example is the family farm which continues as a myth even though its actual economic importance has become increasingly irrelevant in every passing decade in American history. Yet it still continues to affect behaviour - such as legislation passed in Congress - or at least provides the rationalization frequently offered behind such legislation.

We all carry a host of such myths in our intellectual baggage. They need not be true or false; they need not be based on facts. They must, however, be believed and that belief itself becomes a fact influencing, for good or bad, social behaviour. The myth may live on long after the reasons for its birth may have disappeared. New conditions, however, will often alter the nature of the myth and sometimes, in fact, bring about its demise. Such has been the case in the lumbering industry which has been changing throughout this century. One victim of these changes has been the old lumberjack and mythical figure, Paul Bunyan.

Rexford Tugwell, then a young intellectual, teaching at the University of Washington and later to become a famous 'New Dealer' under Franklin Roosevelt, painted this imposing if not completely accurate picture of the Pacific Northwest's forests in the 1920s: 'Graceful, majestic beyond belief, and beautiful with a weathered, timeless beauty, the boles of the firs and spruce rise. One who with any casualness can go for the first time into the big woods, could walk as casually into and out of Notre Dame. Indeed they are like a vast cathedral . . . And up, far up, a hundred and fifty feet or more, the feathery roof shuts off the sky. Hushed, lovely, triumphant, the forest greets its men.'

The lumberjack, as he marched through these same forests, no doubt likewise was impressed. But he was no passive observer for with the power of his arms and the cut of his axe and saw he shattered the hushed silence of the forest with his shout of 'timber' as the magnificent trees crashed to earth. There are those who claim that he talked about these forests but not in the exact, lovely language of the college professor. Instead he told 'tall tales'. Some claimed that his tallest tales involved Paul Bunyan and his big blue ox, Babe. But it is clear now that Bunyan was a figment in the imagination of a couple of popular writers and public relations men. They put such stories into the mouths of the lumberjacks and Americans believed them true. This indicates something about the romantic image Americans held of lumbering. Whether or not the lumberjack, in fact, spoke of Bunyan, he did tell other folk tales and the powerful Paul can stand in for all of the mythical folk heroes.

Paul Bunyan, supposedly born in the Maine woods, reached his adolescence in Michigan, and then marched along with the lumberjacks across the country into the Pacific Northwest. This truly was an appropriate habitat for this wandering folk hero. The mighty trees turned into puny matchsticks in his hands. There he was to live, to prosper, and eventually to die, entombed between the covers of books. 'In the woods Paul Bunyan is dead,' comments Jim Stevens, then of the West Coast Lumberman's Association, a lifelong student of Bunyan folklore and one of his creators. …

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