Myths refer to the traditional narrative stories that exist among all of us that carry very exaggerated details and a hidden meaning. These myths are usually told on and on, to generation where they are used to teach the future generation of several moral values, religious rituals, the origin of things, creation of identity for communities, as well as entertainment. Even though these myths and tall tales are exaggeratedly unrealistic, most of these stories are inspired by real events that took place and real people as well. Mary Pope Osbourne shows this in the notes throughout her book, “American Tall Tales”. “Over a period of time, as their stories were told around campfires, in barrooms, and on steamboats, the true details of their lives were exaggerated and revised until they became folk heroes as well as historical figures” (Osbourne 50). Some of the characters that fall into this category are John Chapman who is portrayed as John Appleseed in the tall tale and also, John Henry.
John Chapman, famously known as Johnny Appleseed, was an American citizen born in the year 1774. John Chapman is mostly known for the growth and spread of apple trees in America, especially in the areas of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Ontario, Indiana, Western Virginia, as well as Illinois. He knew that he was destined to go on a mission, to plant apple orchards all over the land. He had figured this out with his brother, Nathaniel Chapman while sitting looking into the Ohio River. At the start of the 1800s, Chapman stated gathering apple seeds in Western Pennsylvania. He then carried the seeds and scattered them throughout the areas around Central Ohio and the regions beyond. (Rattner p.2)
A few years later, Chapman turned into a legend among the public due to his generous actions and being known throughout Indian tribes as well. “Chapman did show kindness to these struggling pioneers and would sometimes grant them the seedlings for free; this benevolent nature earned him the nickname “Johnny Appleseed” from grateful frontiersmen.” (Synan p.3) Chapman became so famous that the people started writing stories and adding extra exaggeration to come about the myth of Johnny Appleseed.
There was not much information on Johnny Appleseed’s early life, mostly just about his career in planting the apple seeds while also giving them out, and traveling while doing this. He spread these seeds everywhere, every Indian village, from the Ohio to Lake Michigan. (Osbourne 34) Many didn’t know his last name, only knew his first, so they called him Johnny Appleseed. Meanwhile, John continued planting hundreds of seeds in the forests and was so at peace with nature, that he would even talk and sing with the animals. He did this for about 40 years, and in 1845 John Chapman had passed, but he still lives on in the apple trees.
Most of the characteristics that are illustrated in the myth are similar to the life of John Chapman. For instance, the legend says that John spent his life spreading apple seeds among the public, which is what he did. However, there are a few aspects that are exaggerated. For instance, in real life John Chapman was a vegetarian. “Chapman was a vegetarian and, by all accounts, a caring and compassionate — if somewhat odd — man.” (Malesky p.5) This was rare because during this period it was easier to kill animals were easier than growing crops to eat. This hence showed his extreme love for animals. However, the myth exaggerates this aspect by saying John Chapman even could talk to animals neither and healing them. These character traits are brought up to emphasize on his love for nature. Further, John Chapman didn’t live in the forest. This narrative was also just brought in to highlight on the love that he had for nature.
John Henry, on the other hand, was an African American steam drill driver. He was a freed slave and became a laborer to work through the rocks and mountains for railroads. During his working hours, a man once brought a steam drill machine to help the workers in their duties. However, John Henry opposed the use of a machine by saying that man was more powerful than a machine. It was said that the machine would drill faster than a dozen men working together (Osbourne 90). John Henry then contested against the machine and won the race, but died shortly afterwards from hammering so hard and so fast. “The ultimate battle of man versus machine, John Henry represented the hearts of the working men who struggled to keep their jobs on the railroad as machines began moving in to do their work.” (Ronca 1) This act was seen as an act of bravery and honor by the African Americans laborers who worked with him, who then praised him.
Shortly, after his death a myth of John Henry arose among many, especially workers in this industry. Songs were made and stories were told, about the great, strong John Henry. However, there were a few aspects of this story that were exaggerated. For instance, in Osbourne’s book, she wrote that John Henry was born with a hammer in his hand. Obviously, no baby would be born with an object held in their hand, therefore it is an untrue, clearly an exaggerated statement. The accounts also exaggerate his love for hammering. For instance, in her book she wrote that he was 10 years old and hammering steel from dawn till dark. (Osbourne p90) The story also exaggerates the extent of his power. For instance, they say that after drilling, Henry left the rocks so hot that they had to be cooled using ice water.
In conclusion, the myths of both John Henry and Johnny (Appleseed) Chapman both had aspects of exaggeration in them, while definitely for entertainment. While Henry’s myth made him look more powerful, Chapman’s legend exaggerated the connection that he had with nature. However, both of these accounts aimed at emphasizing the positive aspects of their lives. Chapman’s myth emphasized in his love of nature and his generosity, while Henry’s account emphasized in his bravery and in his power.
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