“The True and Genuine Story of Paul Bunyan”: Commercializing the Lumberjack Image, 1900–20

Friday, January 3, 2020: 3:30 PM
Beekman Room (New York Hilton)
Willa Hammitt Brown, Harvard University
Willa Hammitt Brown’s paper examines the rise among middle-class white American of a classed and gendered interest in finding “reality” in ideas about nature. Early twentieth century Americans saw the restrained urban manhood of middle-class managers as fundamentally dangerous to the survival of the race—feminized bodies could lead to weaker men, and the cosseted lives of middle-class children would lead to increasingly effete men. The answer, many from G. Stanley Hall to Robert Baden-Powell argued, was to turn towards the wilderness. There boys and men would be able to recapture their primitive manhood. But what if the wilderness was unavailable?

When the wilderness seemed inaccessible, Gilded Age ideas of the “authentic” led men to elide the difference between first- and second-hand experience of the wilderness. Instead of experiencing nature, they substituted the mere idea of nature and indulged in advertisements, novels, and entertainments that were bound up in, and products of, the very mechanized capitalism they sought to escape. Analyzing the material culture that produced (and reproduced) images of lumberjacks through the 1910s and 1920s, this paper argues that in commercializing the image of an ‘authentic’ near past, lumber companies capitalized on urban dissatisfaction and promoted a mythic idea of the woods as an anti-modern antidote to inauthentic mechanization. This image purposefully romanticized working-class experience and depicted jacks beside Native Americans in order to place white men as the natural inhabitants of the West, giving urban white men a narrative with which they could claim authentic connection to the wilderness and to recently conquered national territories.

See more of: A History of Authenticity
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