Aggressive Regionalism: Commentary

3. James Stevens, 1892–1971

One might understand the cultural differences between James Stevens’s era and our own by reading David James Duncan’s meditations on Woody Guthrie in Duncan’s My Story as Told By Water (2001).  Duncan regrets the contradictions between Guthrie’s own free-flowing rambler’s life and his government-commissioned praise to the Columbia River’s new damming. Guthrie’s “Roll on Columbia,” in retrospect, salutes a river that now sits in a series of increasingly lifeless lakes behind the dams Guthrie extolled.  Duncan hopes to change the fate of the river and its fish and the people who’ve lost their river and fish and land. Guthrie wrote and sang for the Depression-era farmer and the workmen whose livelihoods were, at least for a while, saved by the river’s new labor.  In the same way, James Stevens created yarns for the timber industry.  For over a quarter of a century Stevens was a public relations counsel for the West Coast Lumbermen’s Association, and one can no more imagine an understanding between his perspective and, say, the poet David Wagoner’s—whose poems attack the drastic clear-cuts in the Northwestern forests—or the poet Denise Levertov’s—who associated loggers, road builders, and surface miners with wife-beaters—than we can imagine our future great-grandchildren’s world views and environmental perspectives.

Other Northwestern logger-writers from Stevens’s era are more elegiac, if not less blustery. Stewart Holbrook wrote about everyone and everything from Ethan Allen, to the Idaho assassin Harry Orchard, to a history called The Age of the Moguls (1953), though he wrote mostly about logging, a subject he knew by deep experience .Holbrook knew skid roads, the log-based corduroy lanes along which bull-teams dragged felled trees, and he saw the term “skid road” switch meanings to become “the part of a town frequented by loggers” in Webster’s (Holbrook 1958:77).   More seasoned than Stevens in scholarship, Norman Maclean still identified himself with tough, cross-cut wielding woodsmen.  But Maclean loggers are not so folksy as Stevens’s.  In “Logging, Pimping, and Your Pal Jim,” one of the lesser stories that accompanies Maclean’s triumphant title story in A River Runs Through It, the narrator is self aggrandizing in a different way from Stevens’s semi-autobiographical Big Jim Turner (1948).  Maclean’s not short on ego, but having had it both ways, as scholar and as forester, he can turn up the roughness at his own expense, as if the forests were his boot camp for later classroom stringencies. But Stevens didn’t go to Dartmouth, as Maclean did, and didn’t spend his life teaching Wordsworth at the University of Chicago. 

Sources that cite Stevens differ. Some say he left home and was on his own at age ten, some say it was five years later. Glen A. Love, in the Oregon anthology The World Begins Here (1993:85), has his birth and death dates different from the data listed by the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission. Either way, Stevens became a writer and columnist who wrote about work, especially about the timber industry.  His work appeared in H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury, and, therein, Stevens spoke up for two other writers whose language was rich in the region’s vernacular.  H.L. Davis and Stewart Holbrook got some boost from Stevens.  Especially Davis, who with Stevens, blew open a rich lode of literary impatience and inevitable change when the two of them banged out the vitriolic tract Status Rerum in 1927, in the wake of a visit by Carl Sandburg to the Oregon Agricultural College in Corvallis.

It wasn’t a unique complaint.  In 1889, before the region was more than a bustle of boosters, Edmond Meany said, “No, Puget Sound has no literature” (Meany 1889:8).  Sixty years later, and twenty years after Status Rerum, a 1948 conference convened at Reed College to evaluate Northwest culture.  The speakers acknowledged some progress in the generation since Status Rerum, but continued to bemoan the slowness and the insecurity of the region’s literary accomplishments (Chittick 1948). What one traces in the region’s first century and a half of literary self-analysis is an almost head-snapping contrast of omphaloscopy with naturalistic landscape scanning.  Self-confidence within the national literary scene came slowly.

But no one really had more right to literary and autobiographical confidence than had James Stevens.  He became an author the hard way, but the democratic way.  Stevens was born in Iowa, and came to dry-land Idaho early on.  He was expelled from eighth grade for chewing tobacco and, from then on, learned in a “Free Public Library of the people. It is the only temple I know” (Stevens 1948:3). He read insatiably.  Along with many of his generation, he had a French graduate course in futility when he fought for fourteen months in World War I with the 152nd Infantry of the 41st Division, U.S. Army.  He returned to work in the Oregon woods and mills and as a writer throughout the American West and Midwest. He researched logging in the Michigan woods; he lived and wrote in Detroit and Gary, Indiana, in Seattle and Portland. In the 1940’s he became a public relations man for the Seattle-based West Coast Lumberman’s Association, where he had a large part in starting the “Keep Washington Green” fire-prevention campaign. (Chittick 1948:101).

Even though he worked for the lumber industry, politically Stevens’s stories stand for the worker, and both his and Holbrook’s narratives notice that clear-cutting is making a lot of “daylight in the swamps,” as Holbrook said. Both men worked timber in the era of what Holbrook called a medieval social consciousness. “The whole ripsnorting shebang was inane, often cruel, always costly from the viewpoint of society. I loved every last bit of it, not for anything it accomplished, but because it was the greatest industrial show in North America” (Holbrook 1956:230). 

James Stevens is now best known as the writer who made Paul Bunyan as big as he became (Stevens 1925).  Stevens published in the great American story magazines when they had their heydays, much like other Northwestern writers who held the era’s popular imagination.  Stevens, along with Earnest Haycox and Dorothy Johnson, for example, represent a sort of writing that’s filled with action and bravado, but not a lot of the subjective individualism and interior consciousness that arrived in the Northwest around the same time of Big Jim Turner’s publication in 1948.  Reading Stevens now, one wonders if his folk-tale narratives seem designed to swagger and impress, rather than to be primarily historical.  Stevens is a combative writer, a name caller.  At the Reed College conference he argued against the literary folklore professors and their concerns with “quilting parties, housewarmings, camp meetings, square dances, barbershop harmonizing, and fancy work teas.  I have no concern with quaintness.…I leave that to the professors of the proper placement of the comma and of playing dominoes with dialect.  My concern, for what it’s worth, is with man’s place in nature; specifically with his place on the land in the Pacific Northwest” (Chittick 1948:109).

And so, Stevens helped out; his efforts set the region’s readers up for harder-edged writing, and gave a push to the incoming likes of  A.B. Guthrie, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Theodore Roethke, William Stafford, and Mary McCarthy.  James Stevens did give the Northwest a grip on a higher literary rung.

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