Intellectualism in American Folklore

by Christopher Joseph

An ax is swung and a hammer falls. Somewhere in the wilderness a shoeless vagabond cuts through the snow. These images make up the heart of American Folklore. Almost every town in America still recalls Paul Bunyan, the mythical lumberjack of unmatched strength and size. Few could forget the unconquerable John Henry, who faced a steam engine drill in a contest to break the stones of Big Bend Tunnel. Lastly, of course, there’s America’s sweetheart, Johnny Appleseed, who paired his enthusiasm for life on the American frontier with unprecedented gentleness. Spotlighting the roots of America’s principal characteristics, these figures are lenses through which one can understand modern America’s emphasis on strength, survival, and perhaps even the aversion to intellectualism.

When Richard Hofstadter, an esteemed American historian, wrote on the subject of intellectualism he defined the intellect as “the critical, creative, and contemplative side of the mind” (25). Essentially, an intellectual ponders the open-ended questions of life. Are folk legends intellectual? The telling of folk tales can be considered intellectual to the extent that it requires creativity by the author of the folk tale. Some tales, like the musical ballads of John Henry, only require a single instance of creativity on the part of the story’s author, while others, namely the tales of Paul Bunyan, require constant creativity and intellectual input. However, this creative license is only intellectual insofar as it is used in relation to mythical characters. When creativity is applied to a historical character like Johnny Appleseed, tale-tellers are in violation of historic truth.

“John Henry: Take This Hammer, It Won’t Kill You,” an essay on John Henry sponsored by the Center for the Study of the American South, reveals that John Henry’s story is known chiefly through a multitude of musical ballads. In fact, there are so many musical versions of John Henry’s story that author John Douglas found it impossible to even list them all. Different ballads emphasize different aspects of the story, some focusing on John Henry’s race, others on the idea of man’s replacement by machine, but each iteration requires a musician to intellectually reassemble the parts of a pre-existing story to create a desired effect. The composition of a song, which tends towards a specific message, requires intellectualism in the form of creativity; therefore, the telling and retelling of John Henry’s story as song is considered intellectual.

In the case of the John Henry ballads, a musician uses his or her creative intellect briefly in order to compose the song. The telling of Paul Bunyan stories, on the other hand, requires the use of constant spontaneous creativity. An article by Michael Edmonds written for The Wisconsin Magazine of History reveals that tales of Paul Bunyan were first told in logging camps at the end of the nineteenth century. Edmonds explains that they were not told as long narratives from a single speaker, but rather as “short, passing quips improvised on the spot,” which were passed back-and-forth as in a conversation (6). Loggers would interrupt each other to further exaggerate a story, perhaps interjecting to say that it was two hundred logs, not one hundred, involved in the tale of Paul Bunyan and the log jam. Loggers would have to think quickly and innovatively in order to both adhere to the frame of the story and add their own unique detail to intensify the story but not escalate it to the point of ridiculousness. The telling of Paul Bunyan tales, then, required the distinct and prolonged use of adaptable intellectual creativity.

The alteration and exaggeration of a story is passable in the cases of John Henry and Paul Bunyan because they are mythical figures. The inclination to fabricate details is more problematic, however, when the figure of the story is a real person. Johnny Appleseed, born John Chapman in Leominster, Massachusetts, is not an imaginary figment of American Folklore, but a real historical man. At least he was, at some point. Attempts to reassign the details of Johnny Appleseed’s life, though undertaken for the purpose of conceiving a more robust character, disregard the importance of truth in history and therefore skew the virtue of intellectualism.

Because of Johnny Appleseed’s involvement with apples, popular opinion is that he was born in May, the month of apple blossoms. Yet in an article for The New England Quarterly, Robert Price writes that John Chapman was not born in May, but in September. He also writes that the mere mention of this fact is labeled “cold sacrilege” by the common population (456). Price calls this superimposition of convenient beliefs over facts a condition of “the folk mind” (454). Is the folk mind unintellectual for rejecting the facts of a man’s birth?

Certainly the relocation of Johnny Appleseed’s birthday to springtime is a strong addition to his folkloric character, much of which is already fabricated. In fact, Christopher Boucher, a Boston College professor who has studied Johnny Appleseed and has alluded to the folk character in his novels, says that to him, Johnny Appleseed is “a true folk hero.” Speaking of the fabrications, he says, “The distortions to the Appleseed myth say something about what Americans are looking for in their national narrative” (Boucher). Boucher’s suggestion, essentially, is that the reassignment of Appleseed’s birthday is similar to the work of the musicians who personalized and repackaged the story of John Henry, in order to change the story’s tone and message. However, Boucher’s deduction rests upon an understanding of Johnny Appleseed as a “true folk hero.” So long as Johnny Appleseed’s identity as a figure of folklore can be separated from his historical identity, this change might be made safely. Still, the changing of his birthday might set precedent for reassigning the birthdate of any notable person based on how they are conceived by the public. Someday might the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, the symbol of liberation and patriotism, be celebrated on the fourth of July? A true intellectual would not sacrifice a verifiable and concrete element of history for the outfitting of a folkloric story.

In summary, the telling of a folk story is intellectual in that it requires creativity, but if that creativity supersedes historical fact then it is in violation of a higher intellectual principal, that truth should be held sacred. Additionally, though a folk tale might be qualified as intellectual based on the way it is told, it might also qualify as intellectual because it is told for an intellectual purpose. The stories of John Henry and Paul Bunyan are poised to serve the intellectual purpose of examining human fear, but they fall short. The stories of Johnny Appleseed, however, make a more solid intellectual attempt: an explanation of the origin of things.

Musicians who composed the ballads of John Henry reimagined his story for the sake of investigating intellectually challenging topics that explore a facet of the human experience, such as race or the role of technology. But this type of excavation takes place earlier in the John Henry time frame—when the work chants only existed orally, sung by laborers. The original chant, which appears in John Douglas’s essay, consists of only three lines: “This old hammer / Killed John Henry / Won’t Kill Me” (Douglas). It’s short and to-the-point: a statement that though a miner’s work is back-breaking, and had exhausted John Henry to death, the workers feel that they will make it through. An interesting connection can be made here between John Henry and Paul Bunyan. Recall that the stories of Paul Bunyan were also first told by lumberjacks, another group of laborers. Logging and mining were both hazardous occupations that frequently endangered the lives of workers. According to Michael Edmonds, “The Bunyan tales allowed men who endured extreme hardship and risked death every day to fantasize that things could be far worse and yet still come out right” (8). In the case of John Henry, the work chant reveals that his story was similarly used to hearten the miners during rough labor. If the sharing of these stories was aimed to dispel fear through an exploration of this human condition—an intellectual reflection similar to those endeavored by the ballads of John Henry—these chants and campfire legends seem to have had an intellectual purpose.

However, as it turns out, these stories make no reflection on the nature of human fear and instead attempt to alleviate occupational anxiety by making absurd, unfounded boasts. In the case of John Henry’s work chant, miners make the paradoxical claim that they are sturdier and more enduring than John Henry—a miner who they themselves consider to be the most invincible laborer of all time. In the Paul Bunyan stories, on the other hand, loggers indulge in the fantasy of finding a solution to a problem as absurd as the two hundred log river-jam that Bunyan remedied by spinning the tail of his ox so fast that the flow of the stream reversed. These stories do not make any true reflection on the fear that surrounds a dangerous occupation, and instead rely on unjustified boasts to purchase relief from anxiety.

Meanwhile, the tales of Johnny Appleseed conduct a more nuanced reflection on another intellectual topic: the origin of the features of the American frontier, both physical and stylistic. Appleseed was considered to be a first practitioner of life on the American frontier. Columnist for The New England Quarterly Robert Price writes that Appleseed is considered “the mythical planter of all first orchards from ocean to ocean…[who] planted his seeds of philosophy along with his trees” (455). Johnny Appleseed is used as a means to explain the existence of orchards across the country, and though it is likely impossible that any one man actually planted all of them, the attempt to explain the origin of the orchards is an intellectual reflection in itself, similar to ancient peoples’ conception of gods in order to explain natural phenomenon. Price also credits Appleseed with setting the tone of American frontier life by spreading a new philosophy. The intellectualism of this philosophy will be assessed later, but the very use of the Johnny Appleseed stories to explain the origin of something, especially something as abstract as a new philosophy, is intellectual.

While the tales of John Henry and Paul Bunyan, which may evoke an intellectual discussion, ultimately resolve in absurdity, the philosophy of Johnny Appleseed seems intellectual. Douglas believes that the chief significance of the John Henry character is that he “went for broke challenging the machine,” and that this notion has special significance “in the high-tech age that has evolved since (the origin of the story)” (Douglas). Douglas identifies the contest between man and machine, and the question of the role of technology as intellectual components of the story. But while it’s true that the story does invite an intellectual comparison of man to machine, and that the nature of the reflection on technology is itself intellectual, the way in which the story resolves this conflict is decidedly unintellectual. John Henry’s main motivations for competing in the contest against the steam engine are both his desire to preserve his job and the jobs of others, and to prove that the human spirit is more powerful than that of a machine. While a reader can conclude the story of John Henry with some intellectual revelations, John Henry himself falls short of these revelations.

The lyrics “Before I’d let that steam drill beat me down / I’d die with my hammer in my hand” make the implication that a human being should prefer to die than be without a job (Douglas). Certainly money is important and necessary for a person’s livelihood, but no intellectual would rank money as of higher value than human life. An intellectual’s most cherished pursuit is the pursuit of the truths of human existence, not the pursuit of wealth or a career. Second, John Henry, in a contest to prove the worth of the human spirit to a steam engine, ends up ironically reducing himself to little more than a machine, by equating their life purposes to drill endlessly into a mountain. A more intellectual approach to the situation might have led Henry to the realization that he should not oppose the machine at all, because his very humanity absolves him from an infinity of back-breaking work. An intellectual would realize that a human being should not aspire to be laborer, but should work past the point of physical labor towards the labor of the mind. An intellectual, then, would likely praise the advent of technologies that save labor because they release man to ponder further the mysteries of life without the obligation to work. The content of the John Henry story can be considered intellectual, even if the character cannot be.

The legend of Paul Bunyan exhibits a similar dynamic by making an intellectual inquiry into masculinity, but ultimately fumbles the discussion due to exaggeration and ignorance. The exploration of Paul Bunyan’s masculinity is made up of stories which center on Bunyan’s “private parts, sexual prowess, and ability to get drunk” (Edmonds 7). Consequently, these stories are quite disrespectful towards women. While this assessment of masculinity seems blunt and tactless today, any attempt to reflect on what it means to be a man is inherently intellectual. Though the resolution of John Henry’s story seems to be the unfortunate squandering of a person’s dignity to a modern audience, the role of the worker might have been viewed differently in the late nineteenth century.

While the Johnny Appleseed stories pose an intellectual inquiry into the origin of the way of life of the American frontier, can Johnny Appleseed’s way of life be considered intellectual? Edward Hoagland, writing in American Heritage magazine, describes Johnny Appleseed as quiet and gentle (61). Boucher expands Hoagland’s description by relating Appleseed’s “relationship to nature” and “his concern for the common good” as the two qualities of the folk figure that stand out most (Boucher). Indeed, Johnny Appleseed was distinctly nonviolent, a unique trait on a frontier that was largely defined by conflict with Native Americans. According to Hoagland, Appleseed got along with the Natives quite well (64). The simplicity of Johnny Appleseed’s peaceful life invites the assumption that he himself was simple and therefore unintellectual, but Edward Hoagland suggests otherwise. Appleseed was a Swedenborgian Christian, and carried Christian texts with him wherever he ventured. He would hand the texts out to anyone who would take them, and he has been credited as the inspirational founder of multiple Christian towns along the frontier. He was also considered a leader in matters of Westward expansion. His premonition of the country moving West earned him the descriptor of “mystical far-seer” (455) in Robert Price’s article. This evidence suggests that Johnny Appleseed’s philosophy was not the resort of a simpleton, but a powerful new attitude that manifested uniquely on the American frontier, inspired by Christian thought, and the premonition of an expanding nation. This image of Johnny Appleseed as a wise visionary closely mirrors Hofstadter’s description of the expert intellectual, though the connection is not perfect because Hofstadter often described his experts as coarse and aggressive. Still, there remains a place for the quiet, unassuming, yet vibrant and innovative expert whose intellectualism subtly covers every acre of a culture.

There are, of course, more American folktales and analyses than these,, but the three figures of Henry, Bunyan, and Appleseed offer a good survey of American folklore. They are in many senses the largest and most central myths. It appears that the creation of songs and stories based on American folk heroes does engage the creative intellect, even if facts are sometimes set aside in the interest of story building, as in the case of a historic hero like Johnny Appleseed. Ultimately, American folklore holds its largest sum of intellectualism in its literal content. The stories of John Henry and Paul Bunyan invite intellectual consideration on the topics of technology and masculinity, even if their conclusions extend into absurdity and hyperbole. The tale of Johnny Appleseed, on the other hand, contains a genuinely intellectual new philosophy, one that mingled distinctly with life on the American frontier. Different folk tales exhibit different levels of intellectualism across the categories of how they are told, why they are told, and their substance. At best, folklore can guide an investigation of anti-intellectualism in America, but it cannot solve the mystery by itself.

Works Cited

Boucher, Christopher. “Interview with Professor Boucher.” E-mail interview. 14 Dec. 2015.

Douglas, John. “John Henry: Take This Hammer It Won’t Kill You.” Southern Cultures (2004): n. pag. Center for the Study of the American South. Web. 15 Dec. 2015.

Edmonds, Michael. “On the Trail of Paul Bunyan.” The Wiconsin Magazine of History 91.4 (2008): 2-15. JSTOR. Web. 15 Dec. 2015.

Hoagland, Edward. “Johnny Appleseed: The Quietly Compelling Legend of America’s Gentlest Pioneer.” American Heritage 31.1 (1979): 61-75. Print.

Hofstadter, Richard. “Chapter 2: On the Unpopularity of Intellect.” Anti-intellectualism in American Life. New York: Knopf, 1963. n. pag. Print.

Price, Robert. “The New England Origins of Johnny Appleseed.” The New England Quarterly 12.3 (1939): 454-69. JSTOR. Web. 15 Dec. 2015.