Paul Bunyan

Paul Bunyan In American folklore, giant lumberjack of the Great Lakes and the Pacific Northwest. Various places claim Paul Bunyan as their own: Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, and the Canadian woods. As a baby Paul grew so fast that his father could not keep making cradles to fit him. At one month Paul was 20 feet tall and still growing. Tired of his parents’ arguing, he took his cradle and left home to begin a life of adventure as a lumberjack. Stories deal with the large size of his camps; the size and eating habits of Babe the Blue Ox; and the creation of American geography. Paul dragged a spiked pole behind him to create the Grand Canyon, and a leak in Babe’s water trough started the Mississippi River. Among Paul’s companions are Hot Biscuit Slim, a cook; Little Merry, who got the food; Johnny Inkslinger, the camp secretary; Shanty Boy, who could sing any song; and Galloping Kid, who gave up being a cowboy to be with Paul.

Folklore scholars question whether Paul Bunyan is true oral folklore. There is a trickle of oral tradition associated with Old Paul, but he enters print in an article written by James McGillivray for the Detroit News-Tribune of 24 July 1910, titled “The Round River Drive.” He later sums up his acquaintance with Paul with this statement: “My first knowledge of such a lumber camp character now known as Paul Bunyan came to me when I was scaling logs at the logging camp of Rory Frazer, twenty-two miles east of Grayling on the north branch of the Au Sable river. I was thirteen years of age, but big, like an adult man. . . . The men had a lounging shanty by themselves, removed from Rory’s domicile, and hardly an evening went by that some lumberjack did not bring out some new angle on the prowess of a mythical ‘Paul Bunyan.’ I had never heard the name before, despite the fact that I lived in the renowned lumbermill area of Oscoda-Au Sable, twin towns that led the world in sawmill production back in the eighties.”

The early oral tradition is supported in a diary kept by Edward O. Tabor, a teacher who worked as a lumberjack during the summer in Palmer Junction, Oregon. He records a few fragmentary tales about Paul and his blue ox. By 1914 W. B. Laughead produced a small booklet, Paul Bunyan and His Big Blue Ox, a pamphlet for the Red River Lumber Company, originally located in Minnesota but relocated to California. Laughead wrote: “It should be stated that the names supporting characters, including the animals, are inventions by the writer of this version.” The oral chronicles did not, in his hearing, call any of the characters by name except Paul Bunyan himself.

Both Douglas Malloch’s narrative poem “The Round River Drive,” which appeared in The American Lumberman, and Carl Sandburg’s “Who Made Paul Bunyan?” in The People, Yes deal with Paul’s legend, as did Virginia Tunvey, Father Shepard, James Stevens, Glen Rounds, Dell J. McCormick, and Louis Untermeyer. Robert Frost’s poem “Paul’s Wife” deals with the hero’s wife. During the 1950s Richard M. Dorson coined the term fakelore in his writings about Paul Bunyan in an attempt to distinguish between living oral traditions and individuals’ spurious, synthetic writings consciously contrived and usually for financial gain.

From the Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend, Third Edition – Written by Anthony S. Mercatante & James R. Dow – Copyright © 2009 by Anthony S. Mercatante

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