If you ever wondered how Disney does good ol’ tall tales, there’s an animated collection for you: American Legends, which I watched recently with a room full of antsy kiddos.
Being Minnesotans, we started with Paul Bunyan, whose boot-steps formed the thousand lakes of our proud state. (I asked why he couldn’t have eradicated mosquitoes instead of cutting down trees, and a four-year-old rolled her eyes and informed me they would be way, way too small for him, obviously.)
General overview of the tall tale: Paul the giant goes around causing mayhem and somehow still being useful. He meets a big blue ox and eventually challenges a chainsaw and steam engine to a grand contest to see who can cut and haul the most trees.
The kids were shocked. I was even kind of shocked. Banished to the wilderness, Paul continues to frolic around with Babe the ox, but it still felt like a bit of a letdown of an ending.
The other stories in this volume had a similar theme. Johnny Appleseed doesn’t travel by rail or even wagon train out West—he sets out on his own, planting trees as he goes and dies in obscurity. John Henry also gets into a duel with a machine to lay tracks and dig through a mountain. He, unlike Paul, wins…and then dies of exhaustion. Even Casey Jones, a railroad engineer, survives by grit and pushcart to deliver the mail on time when his train fails him.
Rugged independence, strength, and down-home courage, sure, all of that is there. But a deeper value found in these stories was a distrust of technology. Set in the rugged, untamed West, there was a sense of mourning the coming changes. The frontier would be civilized, there was no choice there, but it would lose something, something inherently good and heroic, in the process.
Apparently, the classic American hero is courageous in the face of great odds…and then eventually defeated by so-called “progress.” Change is both inevitable and sad. Whether this reflects on the era in which the legends were first told (the late 1800s) or the one where they were animated by Disney (mostly the 1950s), it said something interesting.
And I wondered, were they right?
Well…it depends on when you ask me. One day I’m marveling at surgeon’s ability to perform delicate eye surgery, the next I’m moaning about people taking selfies everywhere. I’m a letter-writer and a Skype-user, a baker of homemade bread and a lover of air conditioning and indoor plumbing.
Progress is like that. It gets things done faster and more profitably—our forests are cleared and rock chipped through and the fields planted with speeds those American legends couldn’t have dreamed of—but we give up something in the trade.
When people talk about the American Dream, they usually think of the secure bank account, the corner office, or the house with the white picket fence. They’re pointing to the “stuff” of the dream, the physical signs that you’ve made it.
But what about the process? To me, a critical undercurrent of the American Dream is the hard work it took to get there, the deeply human story of achievement and determination and grit.
I’m not a huge fan of the concept of the American Dream, to be honest. I’ve seen the light and laughter from Gatsby’s garden and realized it was hollow. I’ve met people who’ve climbed that ladder to nowhere and traded in their soul in the process. But most dreams have something true at the heart of them, and I think the truth of this one can be seen in comparing Little House on the Prairie to the Kardashians. We watch (or don’t watch) one for its drama, but watch the other for its…wholesomeness? An appreciation for a simpler life? A sense of nostalgia or comfort or home?
You could insert any number of other examples—the way people talk about Captain America, the trend of hand-lettering and organic gardening and decluttering, even the general dissatisfaction I see on social media with just about everything in our fast-paced race to satisfaction. Sometimes, I think we want our old legends back. Slenderman and Chuck Norris—the mythological figures of the Internet Age—can’t quite do it for us.
We’re Johnny Appleseed, longing for a simple life where we make a difference. We’re John Henry, wishing there was something out there to be overcome, even at great cost. We’re Paul Bunyan…but the machine won, and we’re not sure what to do now.
I’m not trying to elevate the nostalgia of the past above the convenience of modern times, not really. Like I mentioned, there are some great aspects of technology that I use and appreciate.
Here’s what I am trying to say, and what I want people to remember, especially people in my generation: technology has a bias. It is more difficult, the more advanced our tools get, to make sure that we use them instead of letting them use us. It’s easier to communicate with others and harder to say what really matters in a meaningful way. It takes more effort to be quiet, to do loneliness well, to listen, to work hard and choose the longer route to anything.
Historians look at folklore to find out what people value, and I wonder sometimes: what are our legends…and what do they say about us, both who we are and where we’re headed next?