Paul Bunyan is a giant lumberjack in American folklore. His exploits revolve around the tall tales of his superhuman labors, and he is customarily accompanied by Babe the Blue Ox. The character originated in the oral tradition of North American loggers, and was later popularized by freelance writer William B. Laughead (1882–1958) in a 1916 promotional pamphlet for the Red River Lumber Company. He has been the subject of various literary compositions, musical pieces, commercial works, and theatrical productions. His likeness is displayed in several oversized statues across North America.
Paul Bunyan statue in Bangor, Maine
Eau Claire, Wisconsin
St. Ignace, Michigan
Stevens Point, Wisconsin
|Full name||Paul Bunyan|
There are many hypotheses about the etymology of the name Paul Bunyan. Much of the commentary focuses on a Franco-Canadian origin for the name. Phonetically Bunyan is similar to the Québécois expression "bon yenne!" expressing surprise or astonishment. The English surname Bunyan is derived from the same root as bunion in the Old French bugne, referring to a large lump or swelling. Several researchers have attempted to trace Paul Bunyan to the character of Bon Jean of French Canadian folklore.
Michael Edmonds states in his 2009 book Out of the Northwoods: The Many Lives of Paul Bunyan that Paul Bunyan stories circulated for at least thirty years before finding their way into print. In contrast to the lengthy narratives abundant in published material, Paul Bunyan "stories" when told in the lumbercamp bunkhouses were presented in short fragments. Some of these stories include motifs from older folktales, such as absurdly severe weather and fearsome critters. Parallels in early printings support the view that at least a handful of Bunyan stories hold a common origin in folklore. The earliest recorded reference to Paul Bunyan is an uncredited 1904 editorial in the Duluth News Tribune which recounts:
|“||His pet joke and the one with which the green horn at the camp is sure to be tried, consists of a series of imaginative tales about the year Paul Bunyan lumbered in North Dakota. The great Paul is represented as getting out countless millions of timber in the year of the "blue snow." The men's shanty in his camp covered a half section, and the mess camp was a stupendous affair. The range on which an army of cookees prepared the beans and "red horse" was so long that when the cook wanted to grease it up for the purpose of baking the wheat cakes in the morning, they strapped two large hams to his feet and started him running up and down a half mile of black glistening stove top.||”|
Each of these elements recurs in later accounts, including logging the Dakotas, a giant camp, the winter of the blue snow, and stove skating. All four anecdotes are mirrored in J. E. Rockwell's "Some Lumberjack Myths" six years later, and James MacGillivray wrote on the subject of stove skating in "Round River" four years before that. MacGillivray's account, somewhat extended, reappeared in The American Lumberman in 1910. The American Lumberman followed up with a few sporadic editorials, such as "Paul Bunyan's Oxen," "In Paul Bunyan's Cook Shanty," and "Chronicle of Life and Works of Mr. Paul Bunyan." Rockwell's earlier story was one of the few to allude to Paul Bunyan's large stature, "eight feet tall and weighed 300 pounds," and introduce his big blue ox, prior to Laughead's commercialization of Paul Bunyan, although W .D. Harrigan did refer to a giant pink ox in "Paul Bunyan's Oxen," circa 1914. In all the articles, Paul Bunyan is praised as a logger of great physical strength and unrivaled skill.
K. Bernice Stewart, a student at the University of Wisconsin, was working contemporaneously with Laughead to gather Paul Bunyan stories from woodsmen in the Midwest. Stewart was able to make a scholarly anthology of original anecdotes through a series of interviews. These were published in 1916 as "Legends of Paul Bunyan, Lumberjack" in Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters and coauthored by her English professor Homer A. Watt. The research relates traditional narratives, some in multiple versions, and goes on to conclude that many probably existed in some part before they were set to revolve around Bunyan as a central character. Stewart argued in her analysis that Paul Bunyan belongs to a class of traveler's tales.
K. Bernice Stewart & Homer A. Watt, "Legends of Paul Bunyan, Lumberjack"
Charles E. Brown was the curator of the Museum of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin and secretary of the Wisconsin Archaeological Society. He was another principal researcher who recorded early Paul Bunyan stories from lumberjacks. He published these anecdotes in short pamphlet format for the use of students of folklore. Much of his research was financed through the government-funded Wisconsin Writers' Program.
In 2007, Michael Edmonds of the Wisconsin Historical Society began a thorough reinvestigation of the Paul Bunyan tradition, publishing his findings in Out of the Northwoods: The Many Lives of Paul Bunyan. Edmonds concluded that Paul Bunyan had origins in the oral traditions of woodsmen working in Wisconsin camps during the turn of the 20th century, but such stories were heavily embellished and popularized by commercial interests.
Laughead, in 1916, devised the original advertising pamphlet for the Red River Lumber Company utilizing the Paul Bunyan folk character. Laughead reworked original folklore while adding some tales of his own. This has led to significant confusion as to Paul Bunyan's legitimacy as a genuine folkloric character. Laughead took many liberties with the original oral source material. While still a lumberjack of gigantic stature and size with extreme power and strength, Paul Bunyan's height was magnified so as to tower over trees and Laughead attributed to him the creation of several American landscapes, landmarks and natural wonders. Laughead noted that Paul Bunyan and Babe are said to have created the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota by their footprints. Later commenters would elaborate in more detail pointing out bodies of water such as Lake Bemidji. Some observers have noted that Lake Bemidji, itself, has a shape resembling something of a giant footprint when viewed from high above. Furthermore, latter authors, and possibly tourist agents, would add other geographic features to those Paul Bunyan was supposed to have created. Among others, Paul Bunyan has been credited with creating the Grand Canyon by pulling his ax behind him, and Mount Hood by putting stones on his campfire.
Running at variance to his origins in folklore, the character of Paul Bunyan has become a fixture for juvenile audiences since his debut in print. Typical among such adaptations is the further embellishment of stories pulled directly from William B. Laughead's pamphlet, and with very few elements from oral tradition adapted into them. Nearly all of the literature is presented in long narrative format, exaggerates Paul Bunyan's height to colossal proportions, and follows him from infancy to adulthood.
Some of the more enduring collections of stories include Paul Bunyan by James Stevens, Paul Bunyan Swings His Axe by Dell J. McCormick, Paul Bunyan by Esther Shephard, Paul Bunyan and His Great Blue Ox by Wallace Wadsworth, and The Marvelous Exploits of Paul Bunyan by William Laughead.
Legends of Paul Bunyan (1947) was the first book published by the prolific tall tale writer Harold Felton.
In 1958, Walt Disney Studios produced Paul Bunyan as an animated short musical. The feature starred Thurl Ravenscroft, perhaps best known as the voice of Tony the Tiger for The Kellogg Company, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.
In the 1995 Disney film Tall Tale, Paul Bunyan is played by Oliver Platt. Contrary to the usual image of Bunyan's gigantism, Platt's Paul is depicted as a man of average height, but compensated with a "larger than life" personality consistent with the film's "over the top" nature.
Commentators such as Carleton C. Ames, Marshall Fitwick, and particularly Richard Dorson cite Paul Bunyan as an example of "fakelore," a literary invention passed off as an older folktale. They point out that the majority of books about Paul Bunyan are composed almost entirely of elements with no basis in folklore, especially those targeted at juvenile audiences. Modern commercial writers are credited with setting Paul Bunyan on his rise to a nationally recognized figure, but this ignores the historical roots of the character in logging camps and forest industries.
At the same time, several authors have come forward to propose that the legend of Paul Bunyan was based on a real person. D. Laurence Rogers and others have suggested a possible connection between Paul Bunyan tales and the exploits of French-Canadian lumberjack Fabian Fournier (1845 – 1875). From 1865 to 1875, Fournier worked for the H. M. Loud Company in the Grayling, Michigan area. James Stevens in his 1925 book Paul Bunyan makes another unverified claim that Paul Bunyan was a soldier in the Papineau Rebellion named Paul Bon Jean, and this is occasionally repeated in other accounts.
Stewart and Watt acknowledge that they have not yet succeeded in definitively finding out whether Bunyan was based on an actual person or was wholly mythical. They have noted, however, that some of the older lumberjacks whom they interviewed claimed to have known him or members of his crew, and the supposed location of his grave was actually pointed out in northern Minnesota. Bunyan's extreme gigantism was a later invention, and early stories either do not mention it or, as in the Stewart and Watt paper, refer to him as being about seven feet tall.
Included in this section is a comparison chart between early Paul Bunyan references, the Stewart and Watt paper, and the Laughead advertisement.
In advertising and promotion
William B. Laughead, an independent adman, was the first to utilize Paul Bunyan for commercial use in a series of campaigns for the Red River Lumber Company. His first endeavor was a pamphlet entitled "Introducing Mr. Paul Bunyan of Westwood, California", but it did not prove effective. It was not until Tales about Paul Bunyan, Vol. II appeared that the campaign gained momentum. Embellishing older exploits and adding some of his own, Laughead's revamped Paul Bunyan did not stay faithful to the original folktales. Among other things, Laughead gave the name "Babe" to the blue ox, increased Paul Bunyan's height to impossible proportions, and created the first pictorial representation of Bunyan. This has led to significant confusion regarding the validity of Paul Bunyan as a genuine folkloric character. Nevertheless, the Laughead pamphlets are regarded as one of the most popular collections, often appearing in a single, unabridged volume entitled: The Marvelous Exploits of Paul Bunyan. The Red River ad campaign ingrained Paul Bunyan as a nationally recognized figure, and it also affirmed his massive marketing appeal. Throughout the better part of the century, Paul Bunyan's name and image continued to be utilized in promoting various products, cities, and services. Across North America, giant statues of Paul Bunyan were erected to promote local businesses and tourism. A significant portion of these were produced from the 1960s through the 1970s by the company International Fiberglass as part of their "Muffler Men" series of giant fiberglass sculptures. Since 2014 a paved biking trail bears the name "Paul Bunyan Trail" and spans 120 miles, from Crow Wing State Park to Lake Bemidji State Park. Many cities through which the trail passes sell trinkets and novelty items from Paul Bunyan folklore.
The statue of Paul Bunyan is regularly mentioned in the novel It by Stephen King.
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- "Legend Says Paul Bunyan Created The Grand Canyon By Dragging His Axe Behind Him". June 28, 2017.
- Harold W. Felton, Papers Archived 2015-09-13 at the Wayback Machine, archive description at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries (retrieved October 11, 2015)
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