Friday, August 5, 2011

Paul Bunyan

John Dos Passos (1896–1970)
From John Dos Passos: U.S.A.

Almost a century ago, about a hundred miles south of Seattle, the logging town of Centralia was home to a series of tense standoffs between the recently arrived Wobblies (members of the Industrial Workers of the World) and local business interests, particularly members of the American Legion. When the I.W.W. hall was raided and destroyed in 1918, with its members attacked and driven out of town, the organization regrouped, returned, and moved to a new hall the following year. By early November rumors swirled that a repeat of the previous year’s raid was imminent, and seven armed men were stationed in the hall to defend it during the Armistice Day parade, when an attack seemed most likely. What happened that day is summarized in an essay hosted on the University of Washington Libraries website:
There is little doubt, from later testimony, most notably that of Dr. Frank Bickford who admitted leading the raid, that the Legionnaires initiated the conflict. It is less clear who fired first, but it seems likely that the Wobblies fired first. In any event, shots soon came from all vantage points.
The details of this incident, with its shockingly grisly conclusion, form the basis of “Paul Bunyan,” one of the biographical vignettes in John Dos Passos’s 1919 (the second book in his U.S.A. trilogy).

This particular selection was recommended for Story of the Week by, coincidentally, two readers. Charles Saydah, of Nanuet, New York, notes that “U.S.A.’s twenty-six capsule biographies of early twentieth-century America’s most notable people are among the most compelling and moving sections of this remarkable novel” and that “each of the biographies can stand on its own as a separate story.” Ken Yellis, of Newport, Rhode Island, agrees, observing “Paul Bunyan” is one of the sections “that stand out in memory, partly because the techniques seemed so fresh and exciting and exerted so much influence on other writers.”

Notes: A century ago, many laborers were paid in scrip (p. 747), a currency that could often be redeemed only in stores owned or managed by the employer. The Big Four (p. 747) refers to the leaders of the United State, Britain, Italy, and France, who met at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. O.D. (p. 748) was a common abbreviation for olive drab.

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When Wesley Everest came home from overseas and got his discharge from the army he went back to his old job of logging. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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