Reading the Region: Aggressive Regionalism

For the great majority of people in the Pacific Northwest during the nineteenth century, the basic cultural impulse was to imitate what were perceived to be eastern ways. That is, writers, educators, artists, and other cultural leaders tended to take their cues from recognized individuals and achievements in the northeastern states. After all, most residents of the region had emigrated from back East and assumed that their task was to transplant the culture they had left behind to the new territory. Yet there was a handful of Northwesterners, such as Abigail Scott Duniway, who saw things differently. Their idea was that the social and physical environment of the region offered a chance for new kinds of political and cultural forms. Partly they felt that the Pacific Northwest need not feel constrained by what had been done elsewhere; partly they perceived that a place’s distinctive conditions ought to be capable of generating distinctive expression. 

Thus at a ground-breaking ceremony on a new Seattle campus for the University of Washington in 1894, the president of the alumni association, Adell M. Parker, urged that the expanding institution devote itself to striving to build a new regional culture:

That the West should unfalteringly follow the East in fashions and ideals would be as false and fatal as that America should obey the standards of Europe. Let the West, daring and unprejudiced, discover its own ideals and follow them. The American standard in literature and philosophy has long been fixed by the remote East. Something wild and free, something robust and full will come out of the West and be recognized in the final American type. Under the shadow of those great mountains a distinct personality shall arise, it shall adopt other fashions, create new ideals, and generations shall justify them (“With Due Formality” 1894).

In the nineteenth century, it is doubtful whether most Northwesterners felt confident that their region could live up to Parker’s prediction. Over the course of the twentieth century, however, more people came to support the notion that the Pacific Northwest was in fact capable of generating distinctive cultural achievements. Indeed, for some the pursuit of regional culture became so aggressive that it turned into a kind of Northwest chauvinism. The publication in 1927 of Status Rerum by James Stevens and H. L. Davis stood out as one of the early peaks of this assertiveness in the course of the twentieth century. The co-authors were certain that the region could produce—indeed should produce—its own distinctive literature. Yet Stevens and Davis also seemed embarrassed that the Northwest had so far generated so little good literature to speak of. Thus their regionalism combined assertiveness with feelings of inadequacy.

With Status Rerum, Stevens and Davis raised the matter of literary quality. Could the Pacific Northwest produce not just regional writings but a regionally distinctive belles-lettres that would earn the respect of eastern cultural authorities? The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th edition) defines “belles-lettres” as “literature regarded for its aesthetic value rather than its didactic or informative content.” The great majority of non-Native writing about the region prior to Status Rerum—by explorers, pioneers, and boosters, for instance—had in fact been didactic or informational rather than aesthetic in orientation. Status Rerum condemned commercially motivated writing as well. Stevens and Davis asked whether Northwest authors were capable of meeting higher artistic standards. In short, they demanded not just regional writing but regional literature, i.e., poetry, fiction, and non-fiction that proved aesthetically satisfying. They conceded that the Northwest had generated a very small amount of such work, but it had been “lost in the general and seemingly interminable avalanche of tripe.” In sum, Stevens and Davis brought concerted attention—perhaps for the first time—to the matter of whether a distinct body of aesthetically pleasing Northwest writing existed, or could exist.

Although almost all scholars of regional writing regard the publication of Status Rerum as a turning point in how Northwestern writers viewed themselves and their work, and while the manifesto provoked considerable retrospective discussion of the matter of a regional literature by calling attention to its poverty, it is not clear how much contemporary influence the diatribe itself possessed. Two things are apparent, however. First, Stevens and Davis themselves were key figures in the emergence of a Northwest literature, not only by creating such a furor about the subject but also through their extensive contributions to regional writing. Second, Status Rerum surely criticized conditions in the region, but perhaps the more important characteristic is how much the manifesto reflected a particular time and place—the Northwest of the 1920s. Yearning for improvement in regional literature, Stevens and Davis echoed a broader-based sense that, first, the Pacific Northwest remained a backward part of the United States, indeed a colony, and second, backward as it was, the region was on the verge of asserting a distinctive identity. Writings by Stevens, Davis, and others between 1920 and 1945 helped the Northwest begin to overcome its reputation as a laggard part of the country. Much more important than literature to the region’s emergence, of course, was a host of other events on a national and international scale. By the end of World War Two conditions were in place for both the Northwest as a whole as well as its literary scene—a considerably more diverse milieu than Status Rerum allowed—to start moving beyond their colonial status.

James Stevens and H. L. Davis may best be seen as transitional figures who both advanced the cause of literary development and reflected the region’s limitations. Stevens and Davis were very good writers themselves—likely the best native-born authors of fiction and poetry that the region had yet seen. (Ezra Pound was born in Idaho in 1885, but the Northwest barely got a glimpse of him before he left the region, then the country.) Davis’s poetry won the Helen Haire Levinson Prize in 1919, and his novel Honey in the Horn (1935) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1936. His poem “The Rain Crow” captured the natural world of the Northwest in ways that early writers—including those attacked in Status Rerum—simply had not been able to match. Much of James Stevens’s fiction became popular; in particular, his recasting of the Paul Bunyan legends helped to create lasting impressions of the Northwest world of timber.  Both men published in eastern magazines and received encouragement and validation from such luminaries as Carl Sandburg and H. L. Mencken. Their work suggested that in certain regards the Northwest was on the verge of arriving on the national scene.

Yet in some ways, one may speculate, the literary horizons of these two men were foreshortened by their regional identification. Their anxiety about the Northwest in the wider literary worlds bespoke a kind of insecurity about place—about the two men’s place in the world of literature, and about the status of the Northwest in relation to other cultural regions. Glen Love comments that these authors conveyed an “aggressive regionalism” (Love 1993: xviii-xix). As a result, while Stevens and Davis may well have been more “at home” in the Northwest than most of their predecessors, they appear to have been so self-conscious about expressing a regional vision that they lost sight of universal themes that would have given their writings broader and more lasting appeal. For instance, Honey in the Horn is an impressive achievement, but the fact that later generations have found it so hard to enjoy validates the quip that its plot reads like a road map of Oregon. Harold Simonson (1980:148) puts the matter differently, saying that writings by Stevens and Davis “emphasize the adjective in the term ‘regional literature,’ whereas” in subsequent work “the accent falls upon the noun.” Still another measure of the limitations of the regionalism of Davis and Stevens is the extent to which, in making their call for an authentic regional literary voice, the two actually imitated fairly closely the style of H. L. Mencken and regarded him almost as their patron (Love 1986:331-35).  The two authors attacked less talented writers for their slavish dependence on eastern forms, but their own subservience to Mencken suggests that they were not themselves fully liberated from the grasp of the East. Even their outburst in Status Rerum, as William Bevis (1990:xii) reminds us, reflected the deference of Stevens and Davis to the East: “Unfortunately, rebellion, like imitation, keeps you subservient to someone else; their expectations are defining your behavior, whether through imitation or reaction.” Love (1986:330-31) even suggests that one of Status Rerum’s implications was that only cosmopolitan Easterners could appreciate authentic Northwest literature.

While some aggressive regionalists felt that they would not be understood within the Northwest, another common complaint—and additional evidence of sectional insecurity—was that the eastern establishment was responsible for the Northwest’s literary problems.  Because the Northeast was the headquarters for publishing, it seemed natural for some Westerners to attribute their failures to the prejudices and ignorance of eastern editors. In 1966 the Idahoan writer Vardis Fisher took this argument to an extreme when he argued that “the emotionally immature, intellectually sterile, and morally bankrupt literary establishment in the Northeast” was set on “burying” western American literature. Moreover, he felt that a chasm existed between the “country” minds of the West and the “city minds” of New York:  “Those people back there, choking on their poisons, bathing in stinking water, and listening day and night to the infernal din of what Wolfe called their ant-swarms, can no more be expected to like our country and our books about it than I, to speak only for myself, can like the proliferating lunacies of their cities, the robotized togetherness of their feverish lives, and their dull, inbred, and overpraised books” (Fisher 1966:244-45,252-53). (For another, considerably more elegant, outburst of insecurity vis-à-vis the East, see Richard Hugo’s “Overlooking Yale.”) In Fisher, as in Stevens and Davis, one can see how regionalism sometimes gave way to provincialism. But whereas Fisher blamed the East for the region’s literary troubles, Stevens and Davis blamed the region itself.

While Stevens and Davis offered the splashiest and sharpest criticism of Northwest writers, other contemporary publications shared their aspiration to raise the level of regional work. Status Rerum absolutely lambasted The Lariat: A Monthly Roundup of Western Discussion and Criticism Devoted to Higher Standards of Literature on Broad Cultural Lines of Expression, a literary magazine founded by a “Col. E. Hofer” in Oregon in 1923, yet Ernest Hofer also assumed a kind of aggressive regionalism with his editing. In a flier issued to recruit subscriptions, he asked, in words that echoed Adell M. Parker’s comments, “Are we to be mere shadows and reflections of Europe and the Eastern half of our country, or are we capable of striking out on new and higher lines and of demonstrating healthy Western individuality?” Hofer declared that The Lariat “stands for western qualities [and] stands for a new school of writers who have outgrown eastern dictation and commercialized standards.” Besides promoting a regional voice, Hofer denounced the influence of modernism on writing. In part because he favored poets who clung to Victorian aesthetic and moral standards, later readers have—with good cause—regarded the majority of the contributors to The Lariat as third-rate at best. Yet over its six-year life the magazine did help to promote a regional voice and published many Northwest poets (including a small number of respectable ones) for the first time (Swensen 1998: 16-17, 19). 

On a different aesthetic level, The Frontier: A Magazine of the Northwest, a literary journal published by the University of Montana, represented another self-conscious effort to encourage regional writing. For its first seven years The Frontier served college students, but in November 1927 the editor, Harold G. (H. G.) Merriam, a literature professor at the University, refocused the journal to reach a wider audience, attract more authors, and serve a more explicitly regional mission. In an editorial called “Endlessly the Covered Wagon,” Merriam explained the new purpose of The Frontier: 

The Northwest is industrially alive and agriculturally alive; it needs to show itself spiritually alive. Culturally it has too long either turned for nourishment toward the East or accepted uncourageous, unindigenous “literary” expression of writers too spiritually imitative and too uninspired. We in this territory need to realize that literature, and all art, is, if it is worth anything at all, sincere expression of real life. And the roots for literature among us should be in our own rocky ground, not Greenwich Village dirt or Mid-west loam or European mold or, least of all, in the hothouse sifted, fertilized soil of anywhere. Out of our soil we grow, and out of our soil should come expression of ourselves . . . (Merriam 1927:1). 

Using politer language, Merriam said the same thing, in the same year, that Stevens and Davis were saying in Status Rerum. And whereas Col. Hofer had aimed to commemorate the old West of cowboys and pioneers by naming his monthly The Lariat, the title of Merriam’s editorial—“Endlessly the Covered Wagon”—suggested that he did not wish to devote The Frontier to the same dated regional myths.

H. G. Merriam wanted The Frontier to create a stronger sense of common regional identity. His 1927 editorial spoke of the region “from Colorado to Washington” as the journal’s place, and later he recalled trying to unify a more constricted region: “I was conscious of the necessity…of getting the Pacific Northwest states…to realize their common culture. When teaching at Reed College, I was well aware of the competition between Oregon and Washington, between Portland and Seattle, and when I came to Montana, between Idaho and Montana. It seemed as if the region had no sense of being a unit. If possible I hoped that The Frontier might help to establish some such unity in literary matters” (Merriam 1964:3). Merriam, Stevens, and Davis may have been certain that a “Northwest literature” was emerging, but they were not convinced that residents of Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington viewed themselves as belonging to a place that transcended specific states. 

During the 1920s, Merriam and Hofer, Stevens and Davis all sensed that the Northwest needed to recognize and expand upon a distinctive, distinguished, regional literature. Although they had reason to feel that they belonged to a small minority, they might have taken encouragement from cultural stirrings throughout the region. For instance, in his literary memoir Oregon poet Howard McKinley Corning recalled that at the time Status Rerum appeared, while most Northwest authors wrote for financial rather than aesthetic reasons, the “ferment” of cultural awakening “was even then underway and some of us were in the midst of it….A handful of us were placing poems in The Nation, the New Republic, the Saturday Review, and Books of the New York Herald Tribune” (Corning 1972:302-303, 311). As another example, in How I Grew (1986) Mary McCarthy, recollecting coming of age in Seattle during the 1920s, offered the cultural historian Vernon Parrington, the young artists Mark Tobey and Kenneth Callahan, the dramatists Burton and Florence James, the faculty of the Cornish School, and a sort of bohemia atop Queen Anne Hill as evidence of the region’s increasing cultural achievement. While the modernism and politics of such figures would hardly have pleased Col. Hofer, their presence in Seattle, and their eventual fame, did suggest the region’s increasing linkages to a vibrant national culture. Of course, the fact that McCarthy herself and many others felt that they had to go east to make their mark on that culture indicates the predicament of Northwest arts and literature in the period.

In grouping Hofer and Merriam, Stevens and Davis together as “aggressive regionalists,” one needs to be careful to point out the differences between them. Unlike the others, Merriam taught at the region’s colleges, and as editor of The Frontier he solicited material from university students. By contrast with Merriam and Hofer, Stevens and Davis injected a strong class dimension into their thinking in Status Rerum. Love (1993:xix) explains that Stevens and Davis attacked both “the genteel tradition” and what was perceived as “the increasing over-refinement of Northwest literature.” They located authenticity instead in the experiences of those who labored in extractive industry—in logging, farming, ranching, fishing, and so on. They also vilified the urban dandies who taught creative writing at universities and attended poetry clubs. Merriam talked about the Northwest’s “own rocky ground”; Davis and Stevens seemed to believe that authentic regional literature could only arise from those who had dirtied their hands in the region’s soils and waters. Their regionalist sentiment marked the rise of a kind of environmental determinism that later scholars refined. According to this interpretation, authentic regional content came from “soaking” up the natural surroundings (Bingham 1983:163, 168).

As an explanation of how people became “Northwest” writers, this account holds two traits as essential to regional identity. One is direct exposure to the natural setting; the other is a sustained amount of time in place. For native-born authors, the formula presents no apparent real problem. But it leaves little room for newcomers or for people who worked, for example, in the urban indoors rather than in the rural outdoors. As will be discussed in the next section, it cannot explain how recently arrived university professors such as Theodore Roethke and David Wagoner became vital Northwestern writers so quickly in the years after 1945. Moreover, the notion that an author “absorbs” his or her environs like a sponge, and then squeezes them out as ink on to paper, surely masks as much as it reveals about the creative process. Such an explanation of regionalism tends to overlook complexities in the influence of place. Yet it is true that, by focusing more closely on writers’ relationship with environs, people such as Stevens and Davis and Merriam succeeded at bringing greater realism to regional writing, and at undermining the romance that characterized earlier efforts.

“Aggressive regionalists” such as Stevens and Davis correctly saw themselves as less sentimental about place. But their efforts to identify a distinct brand of Northwest writing made them somewhat chauvinistic about the region, and in that respect they did not differ sharply from a wide range of promoters, including Col. E. Hofer. Both regionalist writers and certain types of boosters championed the Northwest as an exceptional or special place—one worthy not only of having its own literature but also of receiving greater favor within the national economy and among migrants around the country. Roughly contemporaneous with Status Rerum, the Seattle Chamber of Commerce in 1924 published In the Zone of Filtered Sunshine, a booster tract that explained in quite racialist terms just why the Northwest was destined to prevail over California and other, warmer sections of the United States. Once again, the regional environment was evoked as a source of distinction. Indeed, it supposedly set Northwest society not only apart from, but also above, the national average.  All too easily, regionalism became exceptionalism. The Northwest might be a colony in economic and political terms, but in other respects it seemed to many inhabitants a kind of God’s country. This theme of a promised land, like the related theme of loss that was detectable early on in the literature of discovery, runs through much writing about the Northwest.

While many Northwesterners before World War Two expressed confidence about the region’s prospects, a greater preoccupation was the region’s relative lack of development. Boosters spoke about the region as a promised land in order to attract immigrants and investors who would help it overcome its backward economic and political status within North America. In a parallel fashion, the focus of Stevens and Davis and Merriam on the limitations of regional literature reiterated for the realm of culture that the Northwest remained a colony of the rest of the United States, that its development was retarded compared to the rest of the nation. This self-image was an important concern for much of the period 1890-1945—but of course it was also a consequence of the very thing Northwesterners had sought so earnestly from the East. Large-scale investment from San Francisco or back East, in the form of railroads and capitalization of extractive industry, had cemented the Northwest’s subservient status within the national economy. The region skimped by, producing and exporting raw materials, while other parts of the country flourished, comparatively speaking, on the basis of more manufacturing and by selling relatively expensive finished products to the Northwest. The region was also colonial in political terms. It enjoyed less clout in the national capital than did other parts of the Union, and therefore was generally unable to get assistance from Uncle Sam for projects that might help liberate it from the grasp of distant powers.

Yet, between 1890 and 1945, while complaining all the while of its backward status, the Northwest found ways to reduce its political and economic and literary subservience. One method was to do to other places what San Francisco and the East had done for so long to the Northwest—colonize them as extractive hinterlands. The advent of a transcontinental railroad in Seattle in 1893 put it in a position to compete effectively for the trade generated by the gold rushes to the Klondike and Alaska between 1896 and 1900. These events enabled one portion of the Northwest to become more a metropolis in its own right and less the hinterland of distant capital. By hosting a world’s fair in 1909 called the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, Seattle announced its urban maturity as well as its commercial capture of Alaska. The city’s cultural attainments hardly lived up to the rhetoric of the international exposition, but at least its sights had been lifted.

Many in the Northwest believed that heightened development of the region’s rivers offered another way to liberate the region from its economic straitjacket. Local and state interests began advocating for a system of dams and irrigation in the Columbia Basin in the 1910s and continued their campaign during the 1920s, but without outside support the Northwest did not have the resources to implement a sizeable plan. With prodding from the region’s U.S. Senators and Representatives, however, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Dealers launched federal programs during the Great Depression of the 1930s to build enormous dams and related public works along the Columbia River and to encourage regional planning for the multi-state area (Dietrich 1995; Ficken 1995; Pitzer 1994; White 1995). The resulting projects, of epic proportions, transformed the Northwest profoundly. Charles F. Thomas, a member of the engineering staff at Grand Coulee Dam, tried to memorialize the changes in a poem called “Transmutation: Grand Coulee Dam and the Columbia River Basin”:

What fierce unrest, what inner, seething urge
Has torn the earth in Nature's changing plan?
Bright lands are raised above the ocean's surge
Or slowly to sink from sight in Time's long span.
In cataclysmic fury lavas sweep
In molten blankets over lake and sand.
Chill glaciers form in frigid mass and creep
To cool and build anew a fertile land.
Cold rivers rush from high peaks crowned with snow,
Returning to the seas from whence they came.
Great mountains grind to dust and prairies grow
For tree and vine; new Edens to reframe.
Weak humans in their hurried days of life,
Strive not to conquer Nature but to calm
Her raging moods. To use her vagrant strife
For good. Perhaps to earn some vict'ry palm.
Man leads wild waters peacefully to fields
Athirst; to flower, fruit and growing grain.
Rules so to gain the bounty good earth yields
to those who toil within their small demesne.
Rich is the man; proud may he be who dreams
And from his dreams sees empires rise.  Today
Sees deserts waste; tomorrow brightly gleams
The order brought from earth's strange disarray.

Much more famous were the songs written by Woody Guthrie, who the federal government hired in 1941 to dramatize the Columbia Basin Project and give voice to its futuristic and populist ambitions for the Northwest (Dick 1989).

That the U.S. government hired a left-leaning folksinger to promote the dams and the changes they brought to the region indicated just how much of a new day was afoot. Through investing, planning, publicizing, and other actions, federal agencies helped the Northwest overcome its economic and political backwardness. In some ways one might conclude that Uncle Sam had become a new colonial master—albeit a kinder and gentler one. In certain respects, that is, the New Deal agencies followed the example of railroad companies, acting as outside entities that exerted great power over relatively underpopulated and underdeveloped states. Like the railroads, for instance, New Deal planners insisted on the region thinking of itself more as a unit, and less as individual towns and states. Yet federal ties strengthened the region’s economic and political standing and tightened its connections to other places. The creation of the Bonneville Power Administration (B.P.A.), chartered to market hydroelectricity generated by the dams on the Columbia, made the Pacific Northwest as concrete an entity as possible in the modern world by giving the region special bureaucratic standing.  Called into existence only to serve the Pacific Northwest, the B.P.A. hired Guthrie, promoted the dams, and further unified the Northwest by building a region-wide power grid. In many ways, the B.P.A. and the dams gave the region more prominence and coherence than ever before, and in so doing accomplished some of the very things that Hofer, Merriam, Stevens and Davis, had set out to do (White 1995: 64-65, 71, 75; Findlay 1997:55-56).

By the end of the 1930s, two major dams (Bonneville and Grand Coulee) had been completed on the Columbia River and begun to generate hydroelectric power. Yet in 1940 there was almost no demand for the kilowatts that they generated. Then the United States entered World War Two, and suddenly the demand for Northwest power skyrocketed. In light of global conflict, the harnessing of the Columbia River took on new meaning (Ficken 1995; Ficken 1998). The contributions by the region to the nation’s mobilization for World War Two and the Cold War served as another means by which the region was able to overcome its colonial status. Both wars ushered in huge federal investments in the regional economy, investments that supported modern manufacturing (of airplanes, nuclear weapons, aluminum, ships) and services, so that the region’s economy became considerably less dependent on extractive industry than before.

The modernizing and militarizing impact of federal defense spending, over the long term, was not distributed equally around the Northwest. Washington acquired far more than its share of military bases and defense-related industry, compared to Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and British Columbia, a fact that affected that state’s population, environment, economy, and politics in profound ways. The post-1940 growth of The Boeing Company stands as one example of Washington’s transformation (Kirkendall 1994; Kirkendall 1997-98). Another example of modernization and militarization was the development of the Hanford Site, near the confluence of the Columbia, Snake, and Yakima Rivers in eastern Washington. Roughly four decades of producing plutonium for nuclear weapons stimulated the development of writings about Hanford that gave voice to important aspects of a mobilized Pacific Northwest.

World War Two and the Cold War brought demographic, political, and social change on a par with what had occurred with the advent of railroads in the later nineteenth century. The liberalism and radicalism that had characterized Northwest politics during the 1930s were met with a reaction in the later 1940s. Even before much of the rest of the nation experienced what became known as “McCarthyism” (also called the Second Red Scare or anticommunist crusade), the state of Washington went through a dramatic purge orchestrated by the Joint Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities—a creature of the state legislature that was also called the Canwell Committee after its chairman, Representative Albert Canwell. (The Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest has created a curriculum packet, The Cold War and Red Scare in Washington State, on this phenomenon.) A professor of philosophy at the University of Washington, Melvin Rader, left a personal account called False Witness (1969) that depicts his mistreatment at the hands of the Canwell Committee. In terms of works of literature, the effects of Washington’s anticommunist crusade have been dramatized in a play by Mark Jenkins, All Powers Necessary and Convenient (2000). After 1950, radicalism exerted substantially less influence in the Northwest than it once had.

Another consequence of wartime changes was greatly increased demographic diversity. During the early 1940s, Latinos and African Americans arrived in much greater numbers than ever before. They were recruited as labor in the rapidly expanding, industrial economy. Not all stayed after World War Two ended, but enough did to create substantial communities where relatively small clusters of minorities had existed before. As a consequence, African American and Latino contributions to regional culture increased. Seattle became home to a vital jazz scene (De Barros 1993), for example, and Chicano communities began to develop cultural institutions in the Yakima Valley (Gamboa 1990; Gamboa 1992; Gamboa 1995). Neil Henry’s memoir Pearl’s Secret (2001) recalls an African American childhood in post-war Seattle, while Chicano poetry from the 1970s conveyed Hispanic outlooks on the post-war Northwest.

World War Two produced a transformative experience for another racial minority. Acting under President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, in February of 1942, and other laws, the federal government incarcerated most people of Japanese descent for the duration of the war and relocated others away from the mainland Pacific coast. The internees produced a considerable amount of writing while incarcerated and relocated, such as the poetry written by Iwao Matsushita at the Fort Missoula Detention Station, operated by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. Then after the war, at first very slowly and then with growing speed, a body of literature came to describe the experience of Nikkei in compelling terms. Monica Sone’s memoir Nisei Daughter (1953) offered one woman’s recollections of growing up in Seattle and being interned at Camp Harmony, Washington, and Minidoka, Idaho. Four years later John Okada’s No-No Boy (1957) appeared, giving a fictional account of a Nisei man returning home to Seattle after incarceration. In 1981 Joy Kogawa treated the Canadian version of “internment” with her finely crafted novel Obasan. Then, in 1994 David Guterson published Snow Falling on Cedars. Guterson’s story, which was based on considerable historical research, tried to incorporate the perspectives of people of Japanese as well as German descent (as well as those of other groups), of men as well as women. The book drew criticism for not presenting non-white and female views in as complicated or sympathetic a fashion as possible. Yet Laurie Ricou (2002:14) suspects, “from its long stay on bestseller lists on both sides of the [U.S.-Canada] border, that…Snow Falling on Cedars. . . is the most widely read Pacific Northwest novel of all time.” (That the book also became a movie doubtless only increased its popularity further.)

Guterson’s account of the Nikkei experience, like Sone’s and Okada’s and Kogawa’s, reminds us of the many voices that James Stevens and H. L. Davis overlooked when writing their manifesto about a “Pacific Northwest literature.” The aggressive regionalism of Status Rerum assumed a certain cultural relationship between region and nation. Davis and Stevens possessed strong ideas of what “the East” was about and how the Pacific Northwest related to the remainder of the United States. But it seems doubtful that their concerns or interests loomed large in the minds of people of Japanese descent. Members of Monica Sone’s family, or the characters in No-No Boy—or indeed the leading figures in Christine Quintasket’s Cogewea—can perhaps be viewed as colonial subjects, too, but their marginalization surely differed from that cultural variety experienced by Stevens and Davis. The increasingly diverse population of the Pacific Northwest was generating a much more varied body of Northwest literary work. 

The years after World War II witnessed a tremendous growth in regional literature by an increasingly heterogeneous and talented body of writers. As texts in the next section illustrate, the horizons of the Pacific Northwest expanded, and the kind of narrowness that characterized the regional thinking of Stevens and Davis and others diminished. Yet the aggressive regionalism that had emerged in the 1920s hardly ceased. Many in the expanding population of the region during the later twentieth century became convinced that they did indeed dwell in a promised land. Feelings of colonial subservience to the East (and to California) gave way for some to a sense of Northwest superiority. Reflecting on the changes from the viewpoint of Oregon in 1981, journalist and historian David Sarasohn (1983:224) noted that “an attitude that may once have been regionalism…is now more accurately described as sectionalism.”

Sectionalist—even exceptionalist—perceptions of the region, long a minor theme in much writing about the Northwest, became quite influential after the 1970s, as a new kind of aggressive regionalism emerged. In 1975 Ernest Callenbach, a writer from Berkeley, California, published the novel Ecotopia. Set in the year 1999, Callenbach’s story looked back on the development of a fictional new nation—an Ecological Utopia—that had appeared when Washington, Oregon, and California north of the Tehachapi Mountains supposedly seceded from the United States in 1980 to form a new country. By contrast to inhabitants in the rest of the United States, Ecotopians lived mostly in harmony with the environment. They reduced the work week to 20 hours, outlawed the internal combustion engine, embraced solar power, and recycled virtually all wastes. People wanting to build with lumber had to work a prescribed time in forests so that they knew intimately the natural resource they would be consuming. 

Almost all of the action in Ecotopia takes place in California, yet people in the Northwest became convinced that the story was about them.  In the late 1970s, when the book was still selling a thousand copies per month, the author claimed that at least half of those were purchased in the Pacific Northwest—a region that was becoming increasingly identified with environmental activism. When journalist Joel Garreau published his bestseller The Nine Nations of North America (1981), he reiterated Callenbach’s idea by labeling as “Ecotopia” the coastal strip along western North America from Monterey to Anchorage. Later thinkers modified the content of this transnational region and renamed it “Cascadia,” but continued to define it in terms of both its natural setting and its environmentalist politics.  In a 1996 interview, Gary Snyder reiterated the Ecotopian idea when defining the coastal region for himself:

My sense of the West Coast is that it runs from somewhere about the Big Sur River—the southern-most river that salmon run in—from there north to the Straits of Georgia and beyond, to Glacier Bay in southern Alaska. It is one territory in my mind. People all relate to each other across it; we share a lot of the same concerns and texts and a lot of the same trees and birds (Carolan 1996).

Like some other advocates of Cascadia, Snyder preferred to define the Northwest in terms of watersheds, flora, and fauna, as a bioregion (see also Bunting 1997). The idea grew increasingly popular, at least on the U.S. side of the border. (Canadians were generally not so eager to diminish the importance of the international boundary. In their minds, the idea of “aggressive regionalism” implied a nation, the United States, that had over time all too often looked aggressively northward.)

Ideas such as Ecotopia and Cascadia were as aggressively regionalist as Status Rerum had been, although they tended to look at the environment differently. Stevens and Davis came from a society in which extractive industry was the economic norm; Callenbach and Snyder wrote in an era that viewed extraction of natural resources with growing alarm. The differences between the two generations of authors reflected in part tremendous changes to the Northwest after 1945. Those changes affected not only the economy and environment but also the region’s literature.

Reading the Region Home Aggressive Regionalism: Commentary Aggressive Regionalism: Texts
Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest