Tall tales: Who are the future mythological Americans?

We used to tell stories. Sometimes about real people, other times about fictional characters that got mythologized into our history.

Davy Crockett
Three legends from my childhood are Paul Bunyan (fictional, but perhaps based on a real person), Davy Crockett (real) and Johnny Appleseed (also real).

Do you remember who they were? No? Maybe you need to get back to your childhood curiosity! Anyway, here's a reminder.

Paul Bunyan

A giant lumberjack who wandered the country with his blue ox, Babe, clearing forested land at such a magnificent pace that only a mythical figure could, Paul Bunyan's legend literally grew with time.

He might actually have been based on a French legend about a man named Bon Jean — or even on soldier in the Lower Canada Rebellion named Paul Bon Jean, who may have been about seven feet tall and had gigantism, which would have made his limbs and appendages seem very large.

From the Wikipedia entry:

Paul Bunyan is a giant lumberjack in American folklore. His exploits revolve around the tall tales of his superhuman labors, and he is customarily accompanied by Babe the Blue Ox. The character originated in the oral tradition of North American loggers, and was later popularized by freelance writer William B. Laughead (1882–1958) in a 1916 promotional pamphlet for the Red River Lumber Company.

OK, so details are a little sketchy there. But doesn't that make it fun?

Johnny Appleseed

John Chapman was a nursery tender in the late 18th and early 19th century. He famously brought apple trees to a large swath of the U.S. — including Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and West Virginia, as well as parts of Ontario, Canada.

He was born in Massachusetts and various accounts have him working in whiskey or cider mills.

The Johnny Appleseed legend basically has the man hiking around the country dropping apple seeds wherever he went. The reality is he built small nurseries of apple trees while he went around the country preaching the gospel.

From Wikipedia:

Many books and films have been based on the life of Johnny Appleseed. One notable account is from the first chapter of The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan. Pollan states that since Johnny Appleseed was against grafting, his apples were not of an edible variety and could be used only for cider: "Really, what Johnny Appleseed was doing and the reason he was welcome in every cabin in Ohio and Indiana was he was bringing the gift of alcohol to the frontier. He was our American Dionysus."

In 2003, North Carolina Playwright Keith Smith wrote a one-act musical play titled My Name is Johnny Appleseed, which is presented to school children to show that the true story of John Chapman is just as interesting as the mythical figure, who is shrouded in legend and fable.

How about one more?

Davy Crockett

Davy Crockett was born in the part of North Carolina that later became Tennessee, and when it did, he served in that state's militia during the Creek War and state legislature before losing a race for U.S. Congress, and then grabbing a federal House seat the next time around.

Crockett is probably best remembered for his death, though. He was one of several men who died defending the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas, during the war with Mexico. Some say he was taken prisoner and executed by General Santa Anna, but that report may have been a smear campaign by Santa Anna's detractors — the general said he wouldn't take prisoners.

Another account, from a former slave who worked as a cook for one of Santa Anna's officers, claimed:

Crockett's body was found in the barracks surrounded by "no less than sixteen Mexican corpses," with Crockett's knife buried in one of them.

What else would you expect from "the king of the wild frontier"?

So who cares about these legends of America past?

We're in a period of time when everything — everything — is recorded. You can't even get your face smashed into a chair without winding up on YouTube.

Sarcasm aside, will there ever be another legend? Someone about whom we're not sure what's fact and what's fiction? Someone larger than life but who, at the same time, defines America for future generations?

Who are we going to look to, to define ourselves by?

Let me offer up a few possibilities.

Oprah Winfrey

"You get a car! You get a car! Everybody gets a car!"

Oprah's career started before people had internet access in their homes (even in school or at work for most people). At one point in the 1990s and into the early 2000s, television stations were losing money syndicating her show — it was so expensive that even a full ad inventory couldn't cover it — so that they could win the evening news race. If you had "The Oprah Winfrey Show" on at 4 p.m., your 5 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. local newscasts won their markets, and so did the 6 p.m. national newscast. Sometimes that went all the way into prime time.

She got America reading. She got the nation on Weight Watchers, several times. She sold people on The Secret. She sold people on a fake memoir.

Future generations looking back at her life will find that one major network tweeted about her being the presidemt.

How are we going to remember her?

Dwayne Johnson

Most people will know him as "The Rock," but Dwayne Johnson used to be a college and then pro (though not NFL) football player. He was the first third-generation wrestler in WWF/WWE history. He made the most money as a first-time lead in a film, and is still (as of this writing) the highest-paid actor in the world, despite the existence of people like Johnny Depp.

He sings beautifully. He takes 40,000 pounds of weights with him to movie sets. He eats chocolate chip banana pancakes. Sometimes with sushi.

He shows up as a dad. If he can't make your prom, he might rent you a theater. And he shows up for people. No, really. Seriously. For real. It's almost surreal how real. Does it ever stop?

Dude's in like a half-dozen movies a year. I'm barely squeezing out 1,100 words here this week. Where does he find the time to do everything?

Dwayne Johnson: Fact or fiction?

Elon Musk

I know, he's not a native-born American. He's South African by birth. You know who also wasn't American by birth? Nikola Tesla, after whom Musk named his electric semi-self-driving car.

You know, the one he launched into space?

Part of the so-called PayPal Mafia, a group of former PayPal employees who have gone on to found other businesses and made a big splash in tech, Musk runs companies that make things like reusable rockets, personal "don't call it a flamethrower" flamethrowers and wall-sized batteries, along with drilling tunnels under Los Angeles.

Is this guy for real?

Some people say he's not. Others say he's Iron Man.

Sometimes he just hangs out on popular sitcoms.

Who do you think are our next mythical humans?


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