James Floyd Stevens, born in Monroe County, Iowa, on November 15, 1892, was drawn to the great outdoors, the rivers and forests of America. His novels, short stories, and journalistic writings constitute, on the whole, a partial autobiography and an account of the realistic and mythic heroes of the lumberman, fisherman, and pioneer laborer.
Stevens’s strongest claim to a place in literary history is his first book, Paul Bunyan, published in 1925. Although one reviewer said that it “converted folklore to farce,” most critics were laudatory: “James Stevens merits to be known by his epical work as the prose Homer of American mythology”; “No one but Mark Twain has been able to set down tall tales with such winning conviction.” By 1948, the book had sold more than 200,000 copies, and Stevens issued a new edition, adding a chapter that described a fabulous log run up the Columbia River with tame whales doing the work.
Paul Bunyan was followed by Brawny-man, which describes in a ragged, raw style the life of a hobo laborer, Jim Turner, who hops freights from job to job. Mattock is based on Stevens’s fourteen months in France as an infantryman in World War I. It is Private Parvin Mattock’s vernacular account of a farm boy’s shocking experiences during the war; it closes with the first convention of the American Legion.
Homer in the Sagebrush, a collection of magazine stories of the Northwest frontier, was criticized for being too raw, lacking artistic form. His next collection, The Saginaw Paul Bunyan, seemed, on the other hand, “too prosy and correct . . . a saga in pseudo-literary style.” Stevens, however, continued to produce novels and stories, the most significant being Big Jim Turner, an autobiographical social chronicle of the early 1900’s: railroading and lumber, labor agitation, the International Workers of the World (IWW), Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926). Although picturesque and often forceful, his later books did not fulfill the expectations aroused by Paul Bunyan.