Tall tales tell us something terrible about our nation
If you want to know the history of America, there are a few places you can look. Sure, you can read “history” as compiled by learned men or read biographies compiled by historians, but this is America. We don’t want to celebrate the plain, old facts; we want to hear the larger-than-life tales of our larger-than-life nation as seen through the eyes of our larger-than-life forebears. And when I think of men who fit that description, I think of the men featured in the tall tales of American history.
Sure, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, and Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves and kept the nation together, but how impressive is that compared to men who could drink rivers of alcohol and wrestle bears? Not very impressive.
The American tall tale isn’t just the story of these bold men who did great things, but the story of America. Our national and regional identification is often melded in these men who honed their skills at drinking often and shooting even more often. These tales grew as America did. Their monumental feats didn’t just echo their own epic tales — they echoed our national tale. The psyche of America is bound up in these men. Each man’s story isn’t just his; it is ours. It is the shared vision of a nation. It was built up over time, in some form of manifest destiny, so that our heroes echo our own history in their larger-their-life status, convoluted truths and embellishment of poor behavior which makes them seem better than they are.
When you dream of floating down a river, drinking cheap liquor and shooting randomly at anything that moves, you aren’t just thinking your own dream; you are sharing the echoed vision of America all the way back to Mike Fink, the famous drunkard and pugilist. He was a man who dedicated the lion’s share of his life to floating on rivers and shooting indiscriminately at Native-Americans and African-Americans just for fun. In addition, he often shot cups full of whiskey on top of his wife’s head and between her clamped knees.
If you dream about decimating forests and eating 50 pancakes in one sitting, you aren’t just dreaming your dream; you’re sharing the vision of Paul Bunyan. Paul Bunyan was a man 63 axe handles tall who still managed to find a wife and procreate, and who rearranged topography just to allow his giant ox to get a drink of water.
If you long to literally be born with the tools of your trade in your hand — fresh from your mother’s uterus — and devote a life to your craft until you die trying to perform it for rich white men who would see your race marginalized and segregated for another hundred years, you aren’t longing just for your own dream, but sharing the vision of John Henry. John Henry was a man who committed himself to defeating a steam engine his company bought in an effort to replace him. A man who would work himself to death and leave behind his impoverished widow and children just to prove his point — that your name can live on long after you are chucked into a pauper’s grave alongside a rail spur no longer used.
If you ever thought to yourself, “I’d love to nurture the flora and fauna of this nation for future generations and live peaceably with all men,” then you might share some of the completely un-American faults and foibles of Johnny Appleseed, and you should move to Iceland or Norway where that kind of half-a**ed, un-American behavior is not only accepted but encouraged. A pacifist vegetarian in my American tall tales? I don’t think so. Johnny Appleseed should be removed from the pantheon of our American heroes posthaste.
The type of person who would emulate Johnny Appleseed is probably the type most solid Americans would like to punch. America is not a country built on conservation, concern and forward thinking. We are a nation of doers and dreamers, always living in the now. In this way we alleviate future problems before they arise.
With a guy like Paul Bunyan around, we don’t have to worry about future tending of forests and shepherding resources. You clear cut that now, and in the future you build houses and fires out of homeless people. With Mike Fink around, you don’t worry about future racial tensions and developing a diverse but cohesive society. You just let him float downstream and shoot minorities on a whim. With John Henry around, you don’t have the economic gridlock we have with an aging population staying on the job. You work until you die on the job and then get rolled out of the way.
Not only is this good social policy, founded on the great tradition of our forebears, this also benefits capitalism. What kinds of small-business owners wouldn’t want employees who will decimate natural resources for them and decimate intrusive indigenous populations, all without having to pay for health insurance or worker’s comp as you drive your staff to their mortal demise? Only a nation full of Johnny Appleseeds wouldn’t see the great American force behind these legendary men.
Guns, liquor, skeet shooting and working tirelessly to enrich others — this is the American dream. Our country was founded on the behavior of reckless men who lived in the now. How would this nation have been founded if not on the hard work of men who were as balanced as these folk heroes? Men who could find a harmonic balance in their efforts to, on the one hand, build this nation up, and on the other, to lay the foundation of its destruction?
Where would we be with a guy like Johnny Appleseed as the true epitome of American tradition? Nurturing and sheltering our resources? Living in peace and considering the feelings of all living creatures? Pacifists? Apostasy. America could not have fulfilled its larger manifest destiny with a nation full of Johnny Appleseeds.
Would a nation full of Appleseeds be ready to commit to a policy of genocide against indigenous peoples to expand coast to coast?
Would a nation full of Appleseeds have committed to generations of banana republic-ing in Latin America to serve its own selfish needs at the expense of others? Would a nation of Appleseeds import immigrants such as the Irish, Chinese and Eastern Europeans merely to exploit, to build our rail systems and industry? No. The answer is and will always be no.
Sure, you might say, “Isn’t Johnny a natural balance for us? The yin to the yang of the Mike Finks of the world? The light to the dark of Paul Bunyan?” Of course not. This is America; we don’t care for balance or symbiotic relationships. In the ocean of the world, we are the nation of sharks who tell pilot fish to piss off, whether it’s good for us or not. No matter what problems may arise, we can always overcome them through violence and more thinking based on the now.
Someday there may be a place for Johnny Appleseed. As we sit in our hovels burning our own feces as fuel and looking out at a barren, sepia-toned, blighted landscape, eating each other, we’ll look back. Who will be our folk heroes then? Who will we idealize?
The men who blazed a trail of wreckage across or nation? No. It’ll be Johnny Appleseed.
Even better role models are those who care for and nurture people we’ve long overlooked: a woman who allowed her husband to shoot cups of whiskey off her head with no reward but his drunken foolishness, a normal-sized woman who procreated with a man 20 times her size and a woman who nurtured in her womb not just a man, but a hammer as well.