I read with some great interest New York Times columnist Dan Barry’s essay last weekend about Paul Bunyan. As an ardent Bangorian, I feel a certain pride in our gargantuan culture hero and his place in our history as the former lumber capital of the east. I see our statue of the guy on a nearly daily basis, after all, grinning from his pedestal in front of the Cross Insurance Center at the cars passing him by on Main Street.
I was dismayed to find, however, that not once was Bangor’s Paul Bunyan mentioned. Not even in passing. In fact, there’s only one reference to Maine in Barry’s essay at all, noting the fact that Mr. Bunyan’s legend can be found in stories surrounding the logging industry from Maine to Washington. Once again, Minnesota’s Paul steals all the thunder, despite our equally valid claim to being his hometown.
After all, our Paul statue — measuring 31 feet in height, or 37.5 including the base — dwarfs any of the Minnesota statues, even the ones in Bemidji and Akeley which Mr. Barry has apparently taken such a shine to. Our Paul’s giant ax and peavey, brawny frame, chiseled jaw and well-manicured beard is straight out of the pantheon of American folklore; a kind of Platonic ideal of the rugged, hard-working, pioneering rural spirit.
Barry claims that these Minnesotan towns hold Paul in a regard higher than any other place in the U.S. — but I’d argue that Bangor holds its Paul Bunyan connection in equally high regard, if not higher. We once had a minor league baseball team named after Babe the Blue Ox, his beloved bovine pal. Though work on the project appears to have stalled, there has been an effort in recent years to construct a Babe statue next to Paul, overseen by J. Normand Martin, the now 90-year-old artist that originally drafted Paul. At Bangor’s yearly Downtown Countdown New Year’s Eve event, there’s been a Paul Bunyan lookalike competition. Paul is the mascot for many organizations and campaigns in Bangor, from Bangor Public Health’s latest campaign to a rainbow flag-bearing Paul for Bangor’s LGBT Pride Festival. In Stephen King’s “IT” the Paul Bunyan statue in Derry (a.k.a. bizarro Bangor) becomes animated by King’s supernatural horror. Thousands of people visit Bangor’s statue every year. Paul Bunyan is as vital a part of the cultural fabric of Bangor as Hannibal Hamlin, the Brady Gang and Coffee Pot sandwiches.
Now, I understand that the larger point of Barry’s essay is that the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves can be changed, over time, by the forces of history, be they economic, political or societal in nature. In his essay he admits that Paul’s story likely originates in Wisconsin logging camps, sometime in the latter half of the 19th century — though there’s also evidence that Paul was first imagined even earlier, in Quebecois folklore, making his origin somewhat international in flavor. And there’s always the question of “fakelore;” the idea that understandings of a folkloric story or character can shift as things like movies, TV, news stories and advertising thrust different interpretations into the public eye. How many people, when they think of Paul Bunyan, think of Disney’s take on the character? Quite a few, I’d imagine.
Nevertheless, no musing on the meaning of Paul Bunyan as a larger-than-life folkloric figure is complete without mention of Bangor, Maine. Yes, our statue was built later than many of the ones in Minnesota, or Wisconsin. No, our statue isn’t as big as the one in Klamath, California. But Paul is just as much a hometown hero for Bangor as it is for any other town or city that once was fueled by loggers and the lumber industry, and we still tell Paul’s story here today. It’s among the tallest of all our tall tales.
Note: Ms. Burnham is actually a big fan of Dan Barry’s writing, especially this incredible, heartwrenching story.