Meet Joe Magarac. He’s basically the Paul Bunyan of steel. He’s 7 feet tall, like Paul; he’s a workhorse, like Paul; and, like Paul, he’s superhuman: lumberjack Bunyan’s ax-swing could clear an entire forest, while Magarac’s made of 100% steel, like Colossus from the X-Men. And both men represent their respective industries’ crucial roles in America’s development. But Bunyan’s symbolic reach is bound to the Northwoods forests from which he hails; immigrant Magarac, on the other hand, illustrates a broader American experience, and a more timeless one, too.
Joe Magarac is the brainchild of Owen Francis, a would-be screen writer who returned home to Pittsburgh after a disappointing turn in Hollywood. Still eager to make a name for himself, and familiar with Bunyan from a nationwide Red River Lumber ad that coopted the Northwoods folk hero, Francis decided he’d create a similar character for Pittsburgh’s steel mills. Thus, Joe Magarac.
But Francis knew he couldn’t just present the character as his own creation. To truly capture the national imagination, Magarac had to appear as authentic and organic as Bunyan. So, to provide his yarn some credence, Francis claimed he heard it from a group of “hunkies,” a derogatory term for indeterminably Slavic immigrants who worked the mills.
“[Magarac] is to the Hunkie what Paul Bunyan is to the woodsman,” writes Francis, in a line meant to hammer the Bunyan parallel, but which takes on greater importance years later.
According to Francis’ faux “retelling,” which Scribner’s published in November of 1931, Magarac had been a hero of “hunkies” for generations. They spent days and nights rehashing these tales, regaling one another with tales of Magarac’s physique, features, and kind-heart: Magarac was gargantuan— “back bigger as door… neck lak big bull’s” —; he was the “prettiest man whatever anybody did see” —; and he was chivalrous, too: Magarac “won” a woman in a strength contest but let her be with the man she loved. Besides, Magarac didn’t have time for romance. He lived only to work in the mills. As the character himself says, “All I do is eatit and workit same lak jackass donkey.”
To illustrate this point, Francis’ story ends with Magarac melting himself down to build a new and improved mill. He gives his life for the greater good: a parable for the dedicated immigrant laborer.
Francis couldn’t claim ownership to Magarac — the character was supposed to be a folk tale, after all — so other storytellers adopted Magarac as their own, editing and adding to his narrative as they saw fit. One created a dance scene, another gave him additional powers, like creating railroad spikes by squeezing an orb of molten steel, while one ardent poet even wrote an ode:
I’ll tell you about a steel man,
Joe Magarac, that’s the man!
I’ll tell you about a steel man,
Best steel maker in all the land
Steel-heart Magarac, that’s the man.
Together these stories wove a robust narrative that turned Magarac, once a Bunyan analog, into a cultural icon in his own right: Pittsburgh steelworkers celebrated him as a kindred spirit; the painter William Gropper immortalized Magarac circa 1948 (below); the local amusement park Kennywood erected a Magarac statue honoring the homegrown hero; and in 1956 the national magazine Boys’ Life ran a Magarac comic to teach kids the wonders of molten metals. Meanwhile, corporations adopted Magarac much like Red River Lumber did Bunyan: US Steel cast Magarac in two pro-industry comics, 1951’s “Joe the Genie of Steel,” and 1952’s “The Return of Joe the Genie of Steel,” while Shell Oil used him in a 1953 ad. Today, Magarac makes cameos in the third and fourth installments of the video game franchise Saints Row.
But as the Magarac story spread over those years, so did questions about the character’s ethnic identity. Francis’s remark about “hunkies” is unintentionally ambiguous — ethnic slurs can be cumbersome like that —, which gave subsequent writers room to actively seek or invent more precise origins: they parsed Magarac’s last name, his features, and his dialect; some claimed Magarac hails from Croatia; others from Poland; and others contend he’s actually German. But in the end, Magarac’s motherland remains inconsequential. In fact, his ethnic ambiguity makes him a more potent American symbol.
Magarac shouldn’t be, and can’t be, proxy for any one group. His murky background lets the character represent any man or woman of any ethnicity who emigrates here to contribute to and grow their adopted nation’s culture and economy. Magarac’s not just a parable of the driven immigrant. He’s a counterpoint anti-immigrant ideologies. While Francis used this subtext to champion oft-maligned “hunkies” — “[Magarac] shows what I know the Hunkie to be, a good-natured, peace- and home-loving worker.” — it can and should be applied to any immigrant community.
That’s what Irwin Shapiro does in his 1948 children’s book, Joe Magarac and His U.S. Citizenship Papers. While Shapiro’s story follows the same contours as Francis’, his post-WWII version contains an added element: Magarac’s in legal trouble for not being a citizen. (Being made of steel, Magarac obviously didn’t take the typical immigration route.) Hearing of Magarac’s plight, an unscrupulous boss lies and tells him he can earn his papers for $1,000, spurring Magarac to double his already superhuman output.
Of course, no papers awaited the end of his marathon work session. But Magarac doesn’t get angry when he learns of this ruse. As golden-hearted as ever, the man of steel does what he always does: he melts himself down – this time to reinforce the Capitol Building in Washington DC. He’s just wants to help the country he loves.
But Magarac’s happiness is short-lived. Within days of fusing with the Capitol, he overhears conservative politicians talking trash about immigrants. And their bigoted exchange makes clear there’s no difference between strains of anti-immigrant hate:
“Foreigners,” said the Congressman.
“Too many of them in the country,” said the Senator.
“Just what I was thinking, Senator,” said the Congressman. “We’ve got too many foreigners in the U.S.A — and everybody knows they’re no good,”
“That’s right, Congressman. These Hunkies and Bohunks — they’re no good at all.”
“I agree, Senator. Slovak fellers, Hungarian fellers, Russian fellers, Irish fellers, Greek fellers, Mexican fellers, Italian fellers — they’re just no good.”
“And the Jewish fellers and colored fellers are the same.”
“They don’t talk right.”
“They don’t look right.”
“They got funny names.”
“They got funny ways.”
“They ought to go back where they came from….”
Properly incensed, Magarac lose his shit. He wrenches himself from the Capitol, leaving it to crumble, and goes on King Kong-esque rampage through Washington. He won’t listen to reason; guns don’t faze the man of steel, and neither do tanks. The only thing that assuages Magarac is none other than the president personally delivering his citizenship papers. Restored to his easy-going self, Magarac accepts, dances the polka, and returns home to get back to working in the mills.
Shapiro’s book was a product of his time. The U.S. and its allies had just won a war for democracy abroad, but isolationism and xenophobia still raged here at home. We championed the rights of diverse peoples overseas, but reactionaries still wanted to keep them “over there.” To Shaprio, the Magarac legend was a way to combat these un-American sentiments. He wanted to make clear that immigrants — whether Slavic, Mexican, Jewish, or whatever — have a right to America, and that we denigrate them at our own peril.
Reviewing Shapiro’s 1948 Magarac take, the New York Times described it as a “a lesson to xenophobes” that “holds a special significance today.” And today, too.
Anti-immigrant conservatives claim the country’s “full.” They claim that we have no room for “free loading” immigrants who bring “nothing but crime and drugs.” Clearly that’s not true. And clearly such anti-immigrant sentiment is just ugly, just un-American, and just as false today as it was in 1948, and as it was in the late 19th century, when Italian and Chinese immigrants were targeted by jingoist ire, and as it was in the early 19th century, when German and Irish people were ostracized. And guess what? Each and every one of those groups became essential to our nation’s culture and commerce, just as the immigrants of the 20th century did, and just as the immigrants of the 21st are today.
It’s been said before, but it bears repeating again and again until people get it through their thick skulls: Most immigrants come to the States to become active, hardworking, tax-paying members of our nation. They head here enthusiastic to share their own vibrant traditions and perspectives, to contribute to the varied texture that is this unique and vibrant place we call the United States.
Can you imagine our nation without Italian or Irish, German, Scottish, or Chinese influence? It simply wouldn’t be America, and it certainly wouldn’t be as rich in culture or currency.
Report after report shows how integral immigrants are to our economic health and expansion – in all sectors, from medical to aerospace, janitorial to psychological. Our economy and culture thrive on immigrants’ contribution. We need immigrants, for reasons intangible and tangible alike. As ProPublica’s Lena Groeger notes:
“Immigrants tend to be more mobile, moving to places that need workers, tend to be more entrepreneurial and innovative, which boosts economic growth for years, and often work in roles complementary to native-born Americans, which makes everyone more productive.”
And, besides, about 99% of us come from families with immigrant origin stories, so it’s high time haters get off their high horses and accept the fact that America is and always will be a nation of immigrants. That’s the point. And that’s precisely why Magarac’s a far broader American icon than Bunyan could ever be.
With Labor Day approaching, and racist, xenophobic debates still raging in America today, we must remember — and reiterate — that immigrants are essential to our national character, cultural development, and economic growth. None are as uncanny as mythological Magarac, the man of steel; they’re something even more powerful: flesh and blood human beings.