Favorite Fictional Characters, #74: Paul Bunyan
As Americans, we like to think of ourselves as the biggest and the strongest, honest and tough. As an invented ethnicity, lacking the original myths of older, more organic cultures, we created our own out of figures both real and imagined. George Washington threw a coin across the Potomac and could not tell a lie. Honest Abe Lincoln was a backcountry railsplitter who could hold axes out by their handles for hours on end. Even more delightfully ludicrous were the qualities of Paul Bunyan, our most American and most absurd legendary avatar.
"Born" in Maine, Paul (like America) found the New England forests too small and hemmed in, and so he headed west. There he found more natural worlds to tame, more feats of strength and endurance and sheer audacity to perform. Fantastic stuff that I loved as a youngster and still enjoy today. Dragging his axe to create the Grand Canyon. Leaving footprints that create lakes. Eating hundreds of pancakes off griddles the size of ponds. That's how we see ourselves still, long decades after the closing of the frontier, years after intrepid men with axes were replaced by corporate logging interests. Americans still consider ourselves Bunyanesque, with huge appetites for profit and food and sex and whatever else we covet. We still consider ourselves strong and honest and tough, dominant and powerful, even though we might tell ourselves all of that more as wishful mantra than realistic assessment.
Few of us swing axes any more, though our self-styled mastery of nature continues to bring us progress and material comfort in equal measure with looming environmental disaster. American identity as the hard-earned master of our world has become more about the mastery and less about the earning. But we still eat the pancakes.