How One Adman Created the American Fantasy of Paul Bunyan

PAUL BUNYAN: The Invention of an American Legend, by Noah Van Sciver

Before there was fake news, there were tall tales. Often associated with the history of westward expansion, most of these tales carried expiration dates, their relevance fading in a dramatically changed world. But others turned out to have staying power as implausible as the mythic characters they celebrate.

In 1916, when W.B. Laughead, an advertising manager for Minnesota’s Red River Timber Company, published a pamphlet to promote the logging industry, a minor figure in Midwestern folklore underwent a major growth spurt, expanding dramatically in physique and reputation.

“Paul Bunyan: The Invention of an American Legend,” by the cartoonist Noah Van Sciver, puts the spotlight on Laughead, who also wrote and illustrated the pamphlet. Van Sciver’s comic opens with a train crossing a snowy Minnesota landscape in 1914. Soon we will meet a cluster of well-dressed passengers who are in the market for entertainment — an ideal test audience for Laughead’s tall tale.

First, the setup. A portly businessman in a suit, vest and bow tie sits in the dining car, where he is joined by a lean timber worker in a flannel shirt and a cap. While this pairing presents an improbable mixture of social classes for a train operating in the early 20th century, sticklers should keep in mind that Van Sciver is a master of subtle mockery (for publications ranging from The New Yorker to Mad magazine).

To wit: The businessman’s side of the table holds a bottle of wine; the worker’s side is empty. Foreshadowing gets off to an early start.

When “an accident ahead on the tracks” brings the train to a halt in a remote forest, restless passengers disembark, build a fire and express a hope for stories to pass the time as they wait. Laughead launches into perfectly ridiculous, and very entertaining, tales of “the greatest lumberjack of them all,” a gigantic man who works in tandem with an equally gigantic ox.

The test audience proves receptive. An eagerness to reject skepticism and embrace nonsense fills the cold winter air, and Laughead seems to have prevailed. But Van Sciver pursues a contrary agenda.

On a first reading, Laughead is clearly the most important character in the book, with the workingman in the flannel shirt relegated to second place. Closer attention reverses that casting.

In scene after scene, the workingman challenges Laughead’s storytelling. His expressions of dissent range from “That’s a lot of malarkey!” to “Pffft! Don’t listen to that windbag!” In the last comics panel, his condemnation is unrestrained: “The truth is that the industry is so greedy that it destroyed the way of life you’re pretending to celebrate.”

Van Sciver’s decision to commission the worker to serve as his voice is unmistakable. Why then does he portray his spirited statements as ineffective? Is he inviting us to reflect on the power of disinformation in our times?

Contemplate the cover of the book. A small, comically feisty man stands on the ground. Inside the thought balloon above his head, a larger-than-life man towers over a forest and brandishes an ax. The two men have such similar eyes, eyebrows and mustaches, and so precisely match each other in posture and stance, that they could pass for identical twins — if one of them weren’t several hundred feet tall.

The giant, musclebound lumberjack who puts everything he has into chopping down trees in a mythic landscape owes his existence to a diminutive, pudgy booster who puts everything he has into promoting the deforestation of the actual landscape of the Upper Midwest.

Three essays by Indigenous writers bracket Van Sciver’s comic, and make it clear that the appeal of the Bunyan legend has crossed boundaries of identity and culture. “When I was growing up as a young Ojibwe child in Minnesota,” Deondre Smiles (Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe) writes, “Paul Bunyan loomed very large in my life.”

In a similar spirit, Lee Francis IV (Pueblo of Laguna) remembers watching a Bunyan cartoon and finding it “delightful.” Later in life, his relationship to the legend took a dramatic turn. “What do you do,” he asks, “when you find out that a story you loved as a kid is a tall tale spun by an advertising man intent on justifying the clear-cutting of our ancestral lands by lumber companies?” Responding to that question, Francis offers a crucial observation: “The American story is one in which history and fiction are woven together, often at the expense of marginalized groups.”

Concluding the book, the artist and writer Marlena Myles (Spirit Lake Dakota/Mohegan/Muscogee) evokes a world apart from tall tales and fake news: “The wood spirits can be mischief-makers or healers,” she says, “but it depends on how you treat them.”

Patricia Nelson Limerick is the faculty director of the Applied History Initiative at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the author of “The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West.”

PAUL BUNYAN: The Invention of an American Legend | By Noah Van Sciver | 48 pp. | Toon Books | $17.99 | Ages 7 and up

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