Thursday, September 5, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 135: John Dos Passos, Paul Bunyan (#84)

John Dos Passos, "Paul Bunyan" (1932) from John Dos Passos: U.S.A.:

One of the excellent group blogs I read has an excellent labor historian from the Pacific Northwest; which is the only reason I know about the Centralia, WA fight between the IWW and the anti-union forces that arrested, possibly castrated, hanged, and convicted several Wobblies for trying to protect their union hall from a second round of violence. But let's try to pretend that we haven't read about labor history; let's pretend that we're all just ordinary Americans who feel a little ambivalent about unions (aren't those just reds and Bolsheviks? shouldn't Americans have the liberty to starve?); let's pretend that we don't have the internet to look things up.

From that standpoint, this section from Dos Passos's 1919 might be traumatizingly eye-opening. This is one of those biographical interstitial pieces that Dos Passos interleaves his other stories with. (A technique that John Brunner will run with in his excellent Stand on Zanzibar.) And since we only get this story, we may miss out some of the impact or interconnections this piece has. (Yes, I'm just trying to include more words starting with "inter-.") But by itself, the "Paul Bunyan" piece is really an amazing micro-cosm of the work.

For one thing, the piece includes its own little interstitial pieces, like some number-laden report on the logging industry of Washington; for another, besides simply calling this piece "Paul Bunyan," Dos Passos makes the connection explicit between that mythic figure and the soon-to-be martyred Wesley Everest (Wobbly, WWI veteran, sharpshooter); and this battle between the unions and the forces of unfettered capitalism is global and historical--it's the fight between democracy and slavery. And while Dos Passos uses abstract issues like myth and history, he also uses some concrete rhetorical moves, like repetition and dialect--"Not a thing in this world Paul Bunyan's ascared of."

And though the piece focuses on Wesley Everest as a living-dead Paul Bunyan, the end isn't just his murder, but the reminder that the forces of decent living for average joes goes on--and is still attacked--with the reminder that, after Everest was killed, a bunch of Wobblies went to jail in a premature burial, "buried in the Walla Walla Penitentiary," while Everest's killers went free.

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