Aggressive Regionalism: Commentary

5. The Lariat

Between 1923 and 1929 an Oregon literary magazine called The Lariat published a wide range of poetry by Northwest writers. For most of that time its editor was a man who signed his name “Col. E. Hofer.” Ernest Hofer was born in Dubuque, Iowa, in 1855 to a family of German immigrants who published newspapers. Following in his father’s footsteps as a Republican newspaperman, Hofer moved to Oregon in 1890 to become editor of the Salem Capital Journal. For two decades in that capacity he “preached his version of individualism, which embraced dogged support of limited government and spirited opposition to trusts, political corruption, and big cities” (Swensen 1998:7-8). After unsuccessful attempts at building a railroad and running for governor, Hofer sold the Capital Journal and turned to the business of boosting Oregon’s economic development as publisher of the Oregon Manufacturer (later The Manufacturer and Industrial News Bureau) and as entrepreneur behind a business news bureau.  These projects succeeded well enough that Hofer was able to devote plenty of time to different forms of writing. In some publications he shared his outlook on society and the world: first he published a pamphlet called Jesus and the Unemployed (1915) and then he issued My Philosophy of Life (1919), which Hofer described as “written for men and sent to big business men in the west who are carrying big burdens and struggling with problems of industry and production on a large scale” (Swensen 1998:11-12). All the while, too, Hofer tried his hand at poetry, and in 1912 he published “a plodding, third-rate autobiographical novel” called Jack Norton (Swensen 1998:9,11).

Devoted both to literature and to promotion, Hofer combined his passions in 1923 by launching a literary magazine that he expected would advance the fortunes of the Northwest as well as its writers. The title of the magazine bespoke its regional focus—The Lariat: A Monthly Roundup of Western Discussion and Criticism Devoted to Higher Standards of Literature on Broad Cultural Lines of Expression. In discussing, criticizing, and selecting literature, Hofer combined regionalism with anti-modernism. Much of The Lariat’s concern for “higher standards” stemmed from Hofer’s disapproval of the modernism influencing American literature in the 1920s, a tendency that he felt was especially concentrated in universities and colleges and in the Northeast. The Lariat aimed to reach and to publish a different audience—western, non-elite readers and writers who had not fallen under the influence of modernist trends. Hofer made it clear that The Lariat was to serve the region by steering it away from the direction in which the “New Poetry” was headed: “Are we to be mere shadows and reflections of Europe and the Eastern half of our country,” he asked prospective subscribers, “or are we capable of striking out on new and higher lines and of demonstrating healthy Western individuality?” (By contrast, Stevens and Davis felt that their talents went unrecognized in their home region, and they looked to the East for validation.) Through his selection of pieces to publish and his criticism, Hofer condemned the “free verse” and “formless poetry” that seemed to be flourishing at the expense of better, more traditional writing. He “clung to the literary sensibilities of the Victorian era, steeped in gentility and romanticism,” and he rejected poems and fiction that dealt with darker themes. Asserting a “western right for clean art,” The Lariat gave preference to “sweet readable songs that leave a good taste in the mouth and sweet music jingling in the hearts of readers” (Swensen 1998:16-17, 19-20).

In addition to promoting the region and resisting modernism, Hofer also aimed to give exposure to a wide array of western poets, particularly newer and lesser known ones. The Lariat published several authors who would go on to become fairly respected around the country, including Oregon’s Howard McKinley Corning, Verne Bright, Ethel Romig Fuller, Frances Holmstrom, Borghild Lundberg Lee, and Queene B. Lister. But the majority of the poems that appeared in the monthly came from second- and third-rate writers. Indeed, even Hofer’s own daughter, Florence Amalie Bynon, who served as poetry editor for The Lariat, admitted later that some selections were “terrible,” but defended the magazine because it was accessible to a range of writers as well as readers who would otherwise not have been served by a literary monthly (Swensen 1998:39).

Colonel Hofer turned The Lariat over to new management in early 1928. In 1929 the publication folded, and Hofer himself died in 1934. The texts reproduced here present Hofer’s and The Lariat’s views on poetry in the West (“What is Poetry”), the purpose of this regional literary journal (“Quirts, Prods, and Punches”), the importance of “Clean Western Standards,” and the defects of dark modernist writing (“Literature from the Tombs”). Also included are examples of poems by Colonel Hofer himself and other contributors.

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