OUT OF THE NORTHWOODS the Many Lives of Paul Bunyan by Michael Edmonds
A Book Review
Anyone interested in social history, the culture of lumberjacks, the development of a folk hero and folktales, history of lumbering or Paul Bunyan, Edmond’s book is a must read.
The author has been with the Wisconsin Historical Society since 1982.
It was while looking for lumberjack memoirs to put on line he got interested in the origins of Paul Bunyan. He traces how the legend started from jokes and stories told as entertainment in the bunkhouses of the lumberjacks. In the process he describes much about the life of the lumberjacks of the 19th Century. These rugged men lived in isolated conditions with only the entertainment they could generate themselves for diversion. So they played and sang song, got in fights and told tall stories. Many of the original stories were off color or blue as they say today. That would be expected in an all male population. This aspect of the stories changed as a more popular audience was sought in a Victorian culture.
Edmonds traces how the stories went from the oral tradition to being written down and published for advertising and finally into children’s books. The image of Bunyan changed considerably along the way. Edmonds studied numerous unpublished manuscripts of early editors and found many Bunyan stories which were told by lumberjacks from 1885 to 1915. He”…recounts a saga of lies, hoaxes, thefts, and greed that transformed the private jokes of working-class loggers into mass-market picture books for toddlers.” (from the book jacket notes.)
The book also serves as a social history telling of the evolving folktale from the oral tradition to other forms. It also tells much about the life of the early lumberjacks, as well as the lumber business.
The Bunyan tales were probably told wherever there were lumberjacks from Maine to California. The men themselves often went from one place to another and thus spread the stories. from camp to camp. That is probably the reason we see tributes to Bunyan in advertising a range of products in many different places.
Paul Bunyan Legends
But the origins are more clouded. Tall ales were told in New England around the hearths of colonists about intense cold Winters where words froze in the air and snow so deep it reached the treetops. In the 1899’s many stories were taken west by farmers and others, but Paul Bunyan was not in any of them.
In the 1840’s loggers from Maine went to Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota and brought songs and stories, but they never heard of Paul Bunyan.
On page 2 the author relates “Wisconsin timber cruise Bill Mullhollen told the first reliable documented tales about Paul Bunyan during the winter of 1885-1886 in the upper Wisconsin River Valley,,,”
Edmonds considers certain places in Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota to be important to the Paul Bunyan legend. He gives detailed accounts of researchers and collectors of the legends. The book is illustrated with vintage pictures of lumberjacks. It also has tables and a bibliography.
Even though this book is more about how the Paul Bunyan legend evolved than about the folk hero himself, an appendix is supplied with about 100 Paul Bunyan stories.
© 2010 Don A. Hoglund
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