How One Adman Created the American Fantasy of Paul Bunyan

How One Adman Created the American Fantasy of Paul Bunyan

From “Paul Bunyan: The Invention of an American Legend.” 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. Credit… The Kerlan Collection of Children's , University of Minnesota 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. […]

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