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Folk(tale) Hero: An Interview with Author Edward McClelland

 

I wish I could describe Edward McClelland in legendary terms—it would be so damned apropos. I’d tell you he’s as tall as a redwood, as strong as a herd of wild buffalo, and that he has hands the size of, uh…Skee-Ball machines. Sure. Such larger than life descriptions would nicely encapsulate the subject of his latest book, Folktales and Legends of the Middle West, a collection of tall tales as spun and retold by McClelland. Populated with 17 American folk characters—some well-known, like Paul Bunyan and Rosie the Riveter; others less so, such as Native American superman Nanabozho and Nain Rouge, the goatish dwarf demon who cursed Detroit—the book covers mythical American figures from Native American times to the present day.

McClelland, 51, may not be a giant, roaring lumberjack with a beard like a mighty forest, but he’s impressive in his own right. Starting out as a reporter at the Lansing State Journal in his hometown of Lansing, Michigan, he later worked downstate in Decatur before moving to Chicago in 1995. The Rogers Park resident did a stint at the Reader, before going on to write several books, covering the Great Lakes, midwestern accents, a fledgling Barack Obama’s early political career, and other subjects.

Folktales and Legends of the Middle West is his second book with Belt Publishing. His previous publication, How to Speak Midwestern enjoyed some success (“It’s a big hit by my standards,” he says), which sparked the idea for his current work.

“I kind of wanted this one to be a history of the Midwest told through folktales,” he explained as we sat in and spoke over the cacophony of the Chicago Cultural Center’s central room. The stories are arranged chronologically, beginning at the beginning with the Oneida/Iroquois myth about the world’s creation, and ending in the 1980s—albeit with an alleged prehistoric beast—Cleveland’s Lake Erie Monster “Bessie”.

McClelland encountered several of his book’s characters in childhood readings, most likely absorbed from a “Readers Digest Treasury of American Folklore, or something like that.” He rediscovered tales of Brobdingnagian forest despoiler Paul Bunyan; braggart, brawler, and “king of the keelboaters” Mike Fink; and Pittsburgh’s fictional-literal man of steel, steelworker Joe Magarac in his research, but also came across more obscure characters and cryptids he felt deserved to make the book.

“I didn’t know a lot about Resurrection Mary, but I’d heard of her” he said, mentioning the Chicago area’s famous hitchhiking specter, “I didn’t know about Peg Leg Joe and the songs of the Underground Railroad. That was new to me. I talked to a librarian and she said, ‘Be sure to include some Native American stories.’ So that’s how I started with those.”

Traveling a circuit of Midwest libraries, McClelland favored researching contemporary texts that told the original yarns.

“I tried to go back in a lot of these cases,” he says. “I mean, some of these characters were probably household names at one time. And I tried to go back to sources of popular literature that are no longer read.”

For instance, tales of the voyageurs—French Canadian men hired to transport furs by canoe over the New World’s rough lands and turbulent rivers in the 18th and early 19th centuries—came from a 1880s book on microfiche at the Library of Michigan. Mike Fink’s adventures popped up in the pages of the Davy Crockett Almanac, a series of pulpy adventure pamphlets produced between 1835 and 1856. These told thrilling if deeply dubious tales of the frontiersman’s practices of bear wrestling, tornado lassoing, and alligator surfing. Choosing Fink over the real-life Crockett for the book underscored another of McClelland’s stipulations for inclusion—a character had to be mostly fictional.

“I thought about doing Annie Oakley and Johnny Appleseed, but they were real people. So, I left them out,” says McClelland. “I’d say most of these [characters] have some supernatural elements to them. That had to be there.” Certainly, there were plenty of rough-and-tumble keelboat men like Mike Fink back in the day, all claiming to be able to outdrink, outfight, and outshoot anyone alive—there might have even been one named Mike Fink. But the lack of evidence of his existence pushes Fink into the “semi-legendary” category. Rosie the Riveter becomes a composite character in McClelland’s book, representing all the real-life women who worked the factories and shipyards in WWII. And the Hodag—a fierce and vicious beastie found mostly around Rhinelander, Wisconsin, with “the head of a frog, the grinning face of a giant elephant” and all the requisite spikes, horns, and fangs—well, it was just a brilliant ploy by lumberman Eugene Shepard to get folks to attend the Oneida County Fair in the 1890s. Or was it?

It was. And Shepard’s marketing savvy persists to this day.

I went up to Rhinelander last year, and they have a little Hodag museum. They have all kinds of stuff named after the Hodag, like parks…the high school sports teams.” The Hodag is a good example of the new life many legends enjoy through rebranding. Paul Bunyan has an entire amusement park devoted to him up in Brainerd, Minnesota. The Lake Erie Monster lent her name to a minor league hockey team as well as a beer made by the Great Lakes Brewing Company. Beer seems to be the second act for several creatures of lore—even Nain Rouge has his own ale.

The Hodag’s tale begs the question of what is actual folklore—a community’s traditions, customs, songs, and stories, passed on by word of mouth—versus fakelore, which is defined as manufactured folklore. It’s true that lumberjacks once told Paul Bunyan stories around the fire, but most of the stories we’re familiar with came from professional writers who embellished the original tales. Similarly, other characters like Joe Magarac, the original iron man who worked 24/7 and melted himself down when his mill ran out of ore; ingenious Swedish immigrant plainsman Febold Feboldson of Nebraska—who fought giant mosquitoes, busted clouds, and turned frozen snakes into bicycle wheels; and Pecos Bill, the cowboy who rode a mountain lion and used a rattlesnake as a lasso were made up and passed on not by the common clay of the new West, but by magazine editors and newspapermen. Yet, they endure as beloved folk heroes and fine examples of American pop literature.

“I mean the first Paul Bunyan story was published in the Detroit News in 1910. And it may have come from loggers originally or it may have been made up by a writer. I guess the Febold Feboldson stories could be called fakelore, because they were published in a newspaper in Nebraska. And the first Joe Magarac story was published in Collier’s Magazine,” McClelland explained. We agreed though that there’s nothing wrong with sharing a good story. And isn’t that the point of all tall tales?

“I wasn’t making it an academic study of what’s folklore and what’s not. I’m trying to entertain people. And I wanted things that were meant to be read aloud. I took that into account.”

In that vein, and in another bow to folk tradition, McClelland wants Folktales and Legends of the Middle West to leap from and live beyond the pages of his book. He’s currently rehearsing a musical/storytelling presentation with local musician Mareva Lindo, which will debut at the Hideout on July 1. After that, a tour of libraries and bookstores is planned.

“I kind of wanted to do a book that I could take beyond just being a book,” he states.

And with that Edward McClelland sauntered out to Michigan Avenue, mounted his trusty blue ox, and rode off into the sunset, dragging a fountain pen taller than the Sears Tower behind him. The pen gouged a trench in the ground 156 miles long, and Lake Michigan began pouring in. But old Edward, why…he punched the water backwards, and that’s the way it flows to this very day.

And that, children, is how Edward McClelland created the Chicago River.

Or so I’ve been told.

[Winks at camera.]

 

Folktales and Legends of the Middle West will be released June 15. McClelland and Lindo will appear at the following places in the coming months.

July 1: The Hideout, Chicago, 5 p.m.

July 3: Tuesday Funk, Hopleaf, Chicago, 7 p.m.

July 5: 57th Street Books, Chicago, 6 p.m.

July 7: Everybody Reads, Lansing, Michigan, 3 p.m.

July 8: Literati Bookshop, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 7 p.m.

July 9: Pages Bookstore, Detroit, 6 p.m.

July 11: Middleton Public Library, Middleton, Wisconsin, 6:30 p.m.

July 14: Caestecker Public Library, Green Lake, Wisconsin, 10 a.m.

July 14: Fond du Lac Public Library, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, 2 p.m.

November 5: Northville Public Library, Northville, Michigan, 6 p.m.

 

Bonus Question: What Are You Reading These Days?

“I’ve been reading Francis Parkman’s France and England in North America. I’m on volume seven. I like to read a big book every year, and that’s this year’s big book. It’s a seven-volume history of the conflict between France and England. It’s finally coming to a head now during the French and Indian War. I always love to read the history of the French explorers on the Great Lakes. There’s a whole book about LaSalle, my favorite explorer.”

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