Category: Narrative/Verbal Art — Legend

Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend

By Joshua Blu Buhs. 2009. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 304 pages. ISBN: 9780226079790 (hard cover).

Reviewed by Jennifer Attebery, Idaho State University

[Review length: 1123 words • Review posted on November 10, 2010]

The motif of a larger-than-human hominid creature (“Bigfoot”), current in twenty-first-century North American vernacular culture, is well worth studying for its reflections on the perceived boundaries of wildness and humanity and for its revelation of interactions among practical joke, hoax, personal experience narrative, contemporary legend, and print and other mass media forms. Unfortunately, we folklorists have not devoted ourselves to a sustained and systematic collection and analysis of this motif, although many excellent articles have been written on the subject, most recently by Joyce Bynum (ETC 49.3 [1992]: 352-57) and Linda Milligan (Western Folklore 49 [1990]: 83-98). Where folklorists fail to tread, journalists, local historians, popular culture scholars, and enthusiasts are happy to step into the breach, with mixed results. Two recent monographs from university presses help establish a context within which Bigfoot folkloric studies could be more fully developed. Buhs’ Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend is the more scholarly of the two, but both Buhs’ book and McLeod’s Anatomy of a Beast explore historical, psychological, and media studies contexts for study of the vernacular genres in which Bigfoot plays a central role. Both books would have benefitted, though, from a more thorough understanding of current folklore scholarship.

In Anatomy of a Beast: Obsession and Myth, Michael McLeod, a journalist with PBS credentials, focuses on the Patterson-Gimlin film that ostensibly depicts a female Bigfoot striding along Bluff Creek, California, on October 20, 1967. McLeod’s book has three sections: “The Essential Bigfoot” probes the film, its setting, and Roger Patterson’s and Bob Gimlin’s accounts of its filming; “Obsession” examines the backgrounds and obsessive careers of Bigfoot hunters; and “Reason and Truth” brings the story of Bigfoot hunting up to date with the legend’s persistence into the Internet era in which “Web sites provide forums for any theory imaginable” (167).

McLeod critically views the film and visits the Bluff Creek filming site, but his main evidence comes from numerous interviews with Gimlin (Patterson is deceased), Patterson’s and Gimlin’s associates and relatives, and others involved in current-day Bigfoot hunting. The result is a highly readable journalistic account, set up as a series of scenes in McLeod’s quest for the truth. These scenes characterize the main players in a Bigfoot “community” active in North America since the 1950s, complete with dialogue, highlighting the role that personality and psychology played in the development of that community. McLeod appropriately places Bigfoot in the context of both “anthropological fraud[s]” such as the Piltdown Man and the Cardiff Giant (156) and traditional practical joking, especially in the case of Ray Wallace, the northern California logger whose family, after his death, admitted to his having faked Bigfoot prints at Bluff Creek: “Ray Wallace deserves a place in the Guinness Book of Records for the world’s longest-running practical joke” (175). Of the Patterson-Gimlin film, McLeod concludes, it “was a total fabrication” (82).

For folklorists, McLeod’s ability to depict Bigfoot storytellers, their manner, and the settings in which they recount their stories is of some value, however much he has recast their words. In spite of his interest in the power of storytelling, McLeod does not draw upon folkloristics, with the exception of Robert E. Wall’s 1980 B.A. Thesis on Sasquatch. Instead, McLeod employs Gladwell’s The Tipping Point as a means of explaining the broad-reaching effect of the Patterson-Gimlin film.

Joshua Blu Buhs, Ph.D. in History and Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania, is an independent scholar who takes on a larger project, incorporating hominid creatures from other continents and beginning his story with late-nineteenth-century mountain climbing in Asia. Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend is an interesting and readable historical narrative of three threads in the legendry of hominid creatures—the Abominable Snowman, Sasquatch, and Bigfoot—and their intertwining in the latter half of the twentieth century. Buhs takes a Westerner’s perspective on these images, spending little time on the prequel of Central Asian and American Indian narrative. The Abominable Snowman becomes relevant in his story when European and New Zealand explorers encounter stories of Yetis among their Sherpa climbing mates. In the ensuing fascination with the Yeti-cum-Abominable Snowman, Buhs interprets “folklore for an industrial age,” in which the British and Anglo-New Zealanders find “an affirmation and critique of their national character,” which Buhs presumes to be essentially materialistic and consumerist (31).

The second and third strands of hominid legendry belong to North America—the Canadian Sasquatch, emerging in British Columbian turn-of-the-century storytelling and newspaper reporting, and the northern Californian Bigfoot, dating from 1950s reports of large footprints around logging sites, with Ray Wallace one of the storytellers. Each cycle of hominid stories yielded national and international attention from the media. As Buhs notes, the stories themselves may have sprung from practical jokes/hoaxes, which we can call pseudo-ostension. But they also yielded ostensive action—“hunting,” in both the ordinary sense and the sense of scientific quest. Buhs astutely places this combination of oral and print culture narratives and actions within the masculinist culture of mid-century, the culture of men returned from military action in WWII whose week-end adventures in the American West would have included hunting and fishing and who would have subscribed to True, Argosy, and Saga magazines, where many Abominable Snowman/Sasquatch/Bigfoot stories appeared.

With the major exception of recent folklore scholarship, Buhs’ secondary sources are excellent, providing a solid grounding in cultural studies. For his historical narrative of the development of the Bigfoot image in Western cultures, his primary sources are also excellent, demonstrating a genuine quest through local and national archives for relevant materials. There is a lack, though, of extended narrative texts, leaving some of the interpretations undergirded by easy assumptions about cultural meanings rather than methodical interpretation of speakers’ and writers’ words. Like McLeod, Buhs is also inattentive to genre distinctions that could provide clearer distinctions among ways in which the Bigfoot motif is employed in oral and media cultures.

Buhs writes with some awareness of folkloristics, but from an earlier era in which “fakelore” was suspect as a folkloristic object of study. Folklorists are characterized by Buhs as hung up on the issue of authenticity: “For folklorists, stories of wildmen were just more examples of the unreality of mass culture; authenticity had to be found elsewhere” (19). Buhs claims that his book “picks… up where the folklorists stopped” (19). One has to protest that folklore scholarship is far from moribund, especially in areas pertinent to Bigfoot: contemporary legend and festival. Buhs’ book would have benefited from the theoretical frameworks provided in Dégh and Vázsonyi’s formulation of, and Bill Ellis’ refinement of, ostension, and Elliott Oring’s “Rhetoric of Truth.” Given Buhs’ and Ellis’ shared interest in Forteana, it is perplexing not to see Buhs drawing upon contemporary legend scholarship, a missed opportunity for interdisciplinary interaction.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.