Masculinity in Tall Tales — Paul Bunyan, John Henry, etc

The tall tales of the American frontier are populated with larger-than-life heroes, such as Paul Bunyan and John Henry. These figures have been used to teach children about life in America’s early history. Why were these figures chosen for their stories? What did they mean at a time when masculinity was being defined by rigid gender roles?

A tall tale is a story that typically features a protagonist who performs acts of great physical or moral courage, strength, ingenuity, or skill. The protagonists in these stories are often ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations.

John henry iron worker tall tale drawing.

A hammer was born in the hand of John Henry. The exceptionally enormous and muscular infant grew up to be an extremely large and strong man, standing 7 feet tall with arms as thick as tree trunks and shoulders so broad he had to go through doors sideways.

Following his emancipation from slavery, Henry went to work for the railways, joining a tunnel-building team in West Virginia’s Allegheny Mountains. He pounded spikes into the thick rock that stood in the way of soon-to-be-laid railway, drilling holes that were then filled with dynamite and blown open as a steel-driving guy. Henry’s power and stamina in this difficult job excelled that of any other man; hour after hour, Henry would swing his hammer like lightning, making the steel sing so loudly that it could be heard hundreds of miles away.

A salesperson contacted the railroad boss one day, pushing the acquisition of a new steam drill that could accomplish the work of 10 workers, according to the salesman. The marketer said that, unlike live individuals who must eat and rest, the lifeless drill could operate almost continuously.

Henry saw right once what the arrival of this machine meant for him and his coworkers: they’d all be out of work in no time, their flesh and blood replaced by gears and oil. They would lose their livelihood as well as their dignity as a result of the exercise. That was something Henry could not allow to happen.

He challenged the drill to a race, believing that his labor was more than the drill’s steam power. His employer pledged to purchase the machine if he lost. Henry and his gang would maintain their employment if he won.

The competition drew a sizable attendance. The citizens of the city were certain that robots were the way of the future, and that Henry had no hope. The locals, who had seen Henry’s might up close, bet on the steel driver to triumph.

The steam drill took the lead at first, but Henry grabbed another massive hammer in his other hand and started screaming at the steel with both arms, allowing him to draw ahead. Henry beat the steel with his hammer until it became white hot and needed to be dunked in a pail of water to cool. “A guy ain’t nothing but a man,” he’d yell whenever his body felt tired. I’ll die with my hammer in my hand before I’m beaten by that gigantic steam drill!” And he would soldier on.

After nine hours, the holes dug by the man and the machine were tallied, and Henry was proclaimed the victor since he dug more holes.

However, the steel driver’s triumph was short-lived. Henry slumped, clutching his chest, and died with his fingers still curled around the hammer’s handle. His heart was large enough to overcome the task, but it was too tiny to outlive the machine in the end.

Hundreds of steel-driving workers spread over the nation, attempting to earn a livelihood by cobbling together whatever work they could find, were quickly supplanted by a handful of steam drills.


Paul bunyan lumberjack tall tale drawing illustration.

Paul Bunyan was a peculiar child. His parents had to milk two dozen cows to keep his bottles supplied and spoon-feed him barrels full of cornmeal mush since he was exceptionally enormous and ravenous, and his face had a unique characteristic for an infant: a long, bushy beard.

Bunyan grew up to be a one-of-a-kind guy, standing seven feet tall with a seven-foot-long stride, with a laugh that could shake branches from trees and a pipe so large that tobacco had to be shoveled in. He was raised in the Maine woods, where he learned to hunt, fish, and fend for himself at an early age, developing unequaled strength and talent.

Bunyan left home when he was of legal age and went west to work as a logger. Along the way, he met a buddy who was as big as he was: a massive blue ox. Babe weighed 5,000 pounds and had the strength of 10 horses at his command. By swishing his tail in the water, Babe could straighten a crooked river and break up logjams.

The huge lumberjack could down a dozen trees with a single swing with his trusty, oversized ax and his trusty, oversized ox, and he was so successful in the logging profession that he formed his own camp. What a camp that was, too! It had the same colossal proportions as its owner. The bunkhouses were a mile long, with ten-foot-high bunk beds.

The chef at the camp cooked flapjacks on a 40-acre-long burner heated by a forest fire underneath it. The griddle’s surface was greased by a dozen guys skating around it while wearing big slabs of ham on their feet, and the pancake batter was made in a gigantic cement mixer and then sprayed on the griddle via a hose. The food that came out of this gigantic kitchen was consumed upon an equally large table – one that was so long that passing the salt to the other end took a week.

Bunyan and his merry band of lumberjacks were so skilled at felling trees that they were able to remove 100 million feet of pine from only 40 acres of ground.

However, as good as they were at their work, a salesman came into the camp and claimed to have a machine that could do it far better. He showed to the loggers how the new steam-powered saw he displayed could down trees considerably quicker than any axe, even one used by Paul Bunyan. The new steam engine train being constructed nearby, the salesperson boasted, would be able to move the lumber away quicker than any animal, even Babe’s big ox.

Bunyan was so taken aback that he challenged the machine to a tree-felling competition.

The steam saw sliced through tree after tree for an hour, while Bunyan hacked down just as many with his plain steel blade. Babe and the railroad engine rushed to load up the newly cut wood. When the timer ran out, the resultant piles of wood were measured, and the verdict was gravely announced: the steam saw had won… by a quarter of an inch.


With their brute might no longer required, Bunyan and Babe traveled to Alaska, where there was still plenty of freedom to roam and plenty of chores that required their enormous strength and hands-on ability.

Mose humphrey legendary firefighter tall tale drawing illustration.

Mose Humphrey isn’t as well-known as Bunyan and Henry, probably because he resided in the city rather than on the frontier throughout his adventures. But he was a renowned figure in his own right.

“Big Mose” resided in New York City’s seedy Bowery district, with a body that suited his moniker and a temperament befitting the environment.

The red-headed Mose was supposed to have the strength of ten men and was regarded as “the toughest man in the nation’s toughest city,” standing eight feet tall with hands the size of cast-iron skillets and a massive granite-like jaw. In two strokes, he could swim across the Hudson River, and in six strokes, he could swim all the way around Manhattan Island. He inhaled on a two-foot-long cigar and exhaled so hard that the smoke drove ships in the harbor off course.

As the head of the Bowery Boys gang, Mose cut a frightening figure. Mose would lift and fling enormous paving stones, uproot lampposts and trees, and wield them like a baseball bat against rival gangs from the Five Points, such as the Dead Rabbits.

Despite his harsh look, Mose possessed a golden heart. He was most regarded as the city’s greatest and bravest fireman, not for his fighting skills. He was a frequent member at St. Andrew’s Church and a committed spouse.

In the mid-nineteenth century, firefighting was an all-volunteer effort that needed not just greater speed, power, and stamina than it does now, but also more bodies.

Heavy fire “engines” were not pushed by horse or motor, but rather by sheer labor alone through the streets of New York. The wagon’s hoses were linked to the city’s few hydrants or dumped straight into a body of water once it got on the site. The “fireboys” had to use a manual pump to get enough pressure for the water to flow through the hoses and onto the flames. It might take up to 30 men to push the cart and operate the pump.

Firefighting was a competitive industry as well. 4,000 volunteers were divided into hundreds of competitive companies around the city, each vying to be the first to arrive to the fire, capture an accessible hydrant, and extinguish the inferno. The companies, who were fighting each other and the fire at the same time, occasionally got into fist fights for position.

Company 40, led by “Mose the Fireboy,” enjoyed a significant edge in both confrontations. He had the strength to remove any impediment and could easily pull the company’s “pumper” for kilometers by its rope. He also had an extraordinary ability to walk through flames undamaged. A trolley card, for example, got caught on its track and impeded the passage of Company 40’s pumper at one point. Mose just raised it, hauled it over his head, and slid it out of the way. Mose once dug a tunnel to New Jersey in order to siphon enough water from the Hudson River to put out a massive fire in the city. And, despite placing himself in grave risk, he always managed to save would-be fire victims, including all the children in an orphanage fire. “I’m only doing my job,” he’d often say when residents hailed him for his bravery.


He eventually understood, however, that his skills were no longer required. He pulled the pumper through the city streets in response to the alarm bells signaling a fire near the docks, only to arrive to find streams of water already dousing the flames. The water was being pumped by a horse-drawn, steam-powered engine, a strong pumper that only needed six men to operate, rather than the two dozen who usually accompanied Mose on the job. And these firemen weren’t amateurs; they were professionally trained and paid.

Mose could see that the age of everyone pitching in to help in an emergency and tremendous strength being a useful asset was over. He regretfully pulled his company’s ancient pumper off the pier and vanished among the throng of people who had assembled to see the pros at work.

After that day, Mose disappeared from his old Bowery haunts. Some said he went to California to prospect for gold, while others claimed he joined the Pony Express.

However, an elderly volunteer firefighter claimed to have spotted Mose wandering the city, according to one storyteller:

“Listen to me if you want to know the truth about Mose.” He’s still with us. On frigid winter evenings, I saw him loitering around lampposts. I saw him resting in ancient tenements that had been burnt down. He was wandering along misty wharfs when I saw him.

You might argue that elderly Mose embodies New York’s soul. And keep an eye out when all those bright new machinery start to fail, and the city fire-alarm bell begins to sound again. Because that firefighter will have grown to be at least twenty feet tall by then.”

The American Tall Tales’ Tragic, Liberating Message About ManlinessJohn henry driving hammer iron worker artwork illustration.

“Technology, not timidity, is the antithesis of manliness.” —Nassim Taleb, author of “The Black Swan”

You undoubtedly recall tall stories from your youth, such as the ones we’ve retold here. When you were a kid, the comedy in the bizarre storylines, as well as the heroism evinced by the heroes, were likely what drew you to these overblown folk tales (which were frequently at least partially influenced by real-life characters). Tall tale characters are larger-than-life: they are taller, stronger, and more intelligent than the typical human.

However, as a grown man, I recently re-read a collection of tall tales and found something else in the stories. Something bleak and sad.

Several tall stories, I noticed, had a similar theme: a large, brawny, good-hearted guy uses his physical power and expertise to help others, only to be supplanted and made unimportant by technological advancements. He’s pushed aside, exiled to a less civilized environment where manly qualities are still required – or to the death itself.

The irony is that the manly characteristics that enable these individuals to tame the frontier, confront nature’s forces, and take on difficult jobs are also the attributes that lead to their eventual obsolescence. Boldness, creativity, stamina, and bravery may all be utilized to deal with the physical environment, but they can also be used to solve problems. Manhood, in this abstracted form, develops the technology that reduces the necessity for manhood in its most basic, tangible form.


Manliness, in other words, kills manliness.

That’s a painful fact, but it’s also freeing once you realize it.

Men’s Obsolescence and the Ascension of Tall Tales 

Our present cultural “manhood dilemma,” as we’ve already explored, is nothing new. Such times recur often, usually when each industrial revolution (of which there have been four) is followed by a period of calm.

Men’s physical strength, aggressiveness, and tenacity are no longer required, and there are no battlefields on which they may demonstrate their bravery. There is no existential danger that necessitates the use of especially male characteristics.

In such periods of technological ease and comfort, after men have tamed the wild and quieted the fury of crises, society has the luxury of blurring gender roles; one sex is roughly as well adapted for every activity as the other. Manhood as a notion seems to be a thing of the past.

One of these times last occurred at the start of the twentieth century. The memory of the previous deadly catastrophe — the Civil War — faded as technology advanced. People questioned what would happen to men if they sat all day at white collar jobs instead of hunting game, pioneering territory, or waging battles.

Not surprisingly, this was also when the popularity of tall stories was at its peak. Men realized what was wrong with them and that their own sex was to blame. And the problem was that, while the manly traits of boldness and mastery continued to exist in the fields of technology and science, they were becoming the domain of a smaller and smaller number of men; innovators continued to explore frontiers — more abstracted frontiers, but frontiers nonetheless — but few men were going to be able to make a living in labs. What, then, would happen to the vast majority of men?

Given this concern, it’s no surprise that tall stories are laced with a nostalgic celebration of the past and a sense of foreboding about the future. Despite their machismo, the heroes in the tales are nonetheless outmatched by circumstances beyond their control. As a result, many prefer to go their own way in pursuit of greener pastures where technology has yet to enter.

Defeated resignation was far from the only reaction that occurred at this time.

While some men lost up on the concept of leading a masculine life at a period of peace and prosperity, others understood that, even if difficulties were no longer inherent in the environment and no longer imposed upon them by circumstance, they could still seek out difficult experiences on their own.

The “Strenuous Age” was born as a result of these men’s efforts. They pushed themselves to keep healthy and active, to develop and retain practical skills, and to live with large hearts because they wanted to.

They concluded that even outside the frontier and outside laboratories, there was still a possibility to represent the type of heroism depicted in tall tales – that they could live with courage, boldness, and morality, and be bigger than life, even in the limited confines of their daily lives.


Understanding What Kills Manliness Is a Liberation

The men of the first Strenuous Age understood what had depleted manhood’s energy and so knew how to combat it. They formed gyms, scouting units, fraternities, and hobbies that enabled men to use their hands — they devised deliberate methods to re-engage with the concrete world and scratch their manly itch at a time when it would otherwise go unsatisfied.

Despite the fact that we live in the same era, contemporary men are at a disadvantage because they frequently don’t comprehend what’s wrong with guys today; they don’t know why they’re in such a funk. They hunt for someone or something to blame, frequently women in general and feminism in particular, not realizing that the latter is a logical outcome of what already exists: technology.

Technology is fantastic, and nearly no one wants to live without it. However, technology has resulted in the abolition of millions of occupations, particularly those requiring physical dexterity and strength. Men’s participation in the labor has declined in recent decades and continues to decline; one out of every six men in his prime working years is unemployed and not seeking for employment. They’ve given up and fallen out, and analysts estimate that ten million men who might otherwise be working have gone missing.

Men are dying not from overwork with a hammer, but from an overdose of opioids, as a result of technological advancements.

This is a horrible situation, and guys deserve considerably more compassion than they often get.

Knowing why something is occurring, even if it doesn’t address the situation right away, at least provides some solace.

Knowing that it’s merely manliness that kills manliness (men file over 80% of patents) helps you make sense of the current world’s jumbled and perplexing reality.

You may redirect your focus away from feelings of diffuse anger and worry and toward things you can do anything about. It’s freeing to know what’s causing a problem. Because after you’ve done that, you can work on the antidote.

For contemporary males, this entails working to usher in a New Hard Age. Embodying masculinity and pursuing heroism while the opportunity exists.

Tim Whitmire and David Redding, the creators of F3, claimed in an interview with the AoM podcast that many contemporary men feel lost because they are adrift in the absence of an existential threat. They want to be heroic in the conventional sense, to be brave in a war or other crises. They escape into a fantasy world, where they envision themselves as the hero of a contemporary tall story — a Jack Reacher-style figure who traverses the globe with no obligations, sleeping with beautiful women, and saving the day on a regular basis.

Instead, Whitmire and Redding argue that men should recognize the heroism in leading their families, mentoring community members, being a loyal friend, and finding a greater purpose – of any type — in their lives. This is the sort of masculinity that is required at all times and in all places.


Perhaps it seems too simple to be real, too naïve to function, yet consider Theodore Roosevelt. Despite the fact that he could have had a very luxurious, happy life, he invented a life that was perhaps as as unbelievable as any character from a tall story. His life was no less noteworthy because he lived it at a time of affluence and ease; on the contrary, the fact that he lived with such purpose while having the choice of taking an easier path made his efforts all the more admirable.

Making that effort, even if you never quite reach Bull Moose levels, is far more admirable than choosing not to try and escaping the vapid weightlessness of modern life by spending every night couch surfing and watching Netflix, dreaming of apocalyptic scenarios that are unlikely to occur, and if they did, you would be unprepared to face.

Because the funny thing about how manliness kills manliness is that once technology makes things safe and comfortable, it also seems to bore men, so they always seem to end up sabotaging this pax romana and precipitating yet another crisis, where the more visceral forms of manhood are once again required.

Just wait till the machines break down, as the old “fireboy” phrased it, and you’ll see old Mose and many other men rise up once again.

Men, on the other hand, do not have to be ghosts in the meanwhile. They don’t have to vanish or go to Alaska. They don’t need to wield massive hammers or axes to stand tall, live big, and become legends in their families and communities.



Frequently Asked Questions

Who is stronger Paul Bunyan or John Henry?

What symbolizes Paul Bunyan?

A: Paul Bunyan was an American tall tale character who, among other things, is said to have built a log cabin that would later become the city of Bangor. He has been represented as a lumberjack with blue oxen in front of him and may also be seen leading his horse Babe on a lead rope.

What are Paul Bunyan character traits?

A: Paul Bunyan was a lumberjack in the American folklore. He is known for his height and strength, as well as seemingly superhuman size and skills in wielding an axe.

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