Northwest Schools of Literature: Commentary

10. Ivan Doig, 1939–

Ivan Doig illustrates one of the reasons why categorizing writers according to place can be so troublesome. Since the mid-1960s he has resided in Seattle and written a good deal about the Northwest Coast area. He earned a Ph.D. from the University of Washington with a dissertation about a prominent attorney and businessman in nineteenth-century Seattle. Yet virtually all of Doig’s most enthusiastic fans know him as a Montana writer, in part because the majority of his books are set in that state and in part because he grew up there and memorialized his childhood in the widely popular This House of Sky (1978). Doig’s best known novels include English Creek (1984), Dancing at the Rascal Fair (1987), and Ride With Me, Mariah Montana (1990)—the so-called Montana Trilogy. While being identified with his native state, Doig is also viewed as a possible successor to Wallace Stegner as the leading light among Western American writers. Yet readers almost never refer to him as a Washington or Puget Sound or Seattle writer (although those seeking interviews on “Pacific Northwest literature” do not hesitate to throw him into the mix, his Montana roots notwithstanding).

In an interview (O’Connell 1998:328), Doig himself seemed to distinguish between Northwestern and Western writers. When asked what distinguished Pacific Northwest authors, he placed himself in the company of people from Washington and Oregon—Ursula LeGuin, Frank Herbert, Tom Robbins, Ernest Gann, Ken Kesey—but primarily by referring to work habits, not themes or topics. When asked out of what literary tradition he emerged, by contrast, Doig mentioned a “family tree of Western writers,” the majority of whom hailed from Montana—A.B. Guthrie, James Welch, William Kittredge, Mary Clearman Blew, Norman Maclean—and none of whom ever spent much time west of the Cascades.  And Doig’s dedication to Winter Brothers—“This one is for the Missoula Gang, when we owned the West”—lists a who’s who of Montana authors, historians, and critics. There remains a powerful inclination to imagine two different places—a Montana that is part of the authentic American West, and a Pacific Northwest that is (paraphrasing Jean Barman [1996]) “west of the West.” Ivan Doig has spent his life negotiating between them. His career—like that of Richard Hugo, the poet from Seattle who studied with Roethke at the University of Washington and then spent his teaching career at the University of Montana—tells us about the distinctions between two places as well as the linkages.  Seattle and Missoula stand as endpoints for one axis bisecting twentieth-century regional literature. Their respective universities—and their affiliated writers—give them much in common, but each community’s view of itself in relation to place is different.

Ivan Doig’s youth in northern Montana is best traced in the unforgettable reconstruction of This House of Sky. After high school he went to college at Northwestern University where he earned a B.S. (1961) and M.S. (1962) in journalism, and then worked on newspapers and magazines.  With his wife Carol, also a journalist, he moved to Seattle. Ivan Doig enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Washington, studying western history with Vernon Carstensen and taking his doctorate in 1969. With Carol he published News, A Consumer’s Guide in 1972; he edited two textbook anthologies, on literature of the city and on American utopias; and he wrote Early Forestry Research: A History of the Pacific Northwest Forest & Range Experiment Station, 1926-1975 (1976) for the U.S. Forest Service. Meanwhile, he turned himself into a creative writer.

This House of Sky grew out of conversations Doig had with his aging father, additional interviews, and substantial archival research around Montana. By the time the memoir appeared and won a nomination for the National Book Award, he was launched as an important literary figure, and entered into a period of tremendous productivity. Doig next published Winter Brothers: A Season at the Edge of America (1980), a book that paired his own musings about life on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula with those of James Swan, a prolific diarist who had lived and written about the same place during the later nineteenth century. In the course of research for Winter Brothers, Doig came across a brief newspaper story about some fur traders who had escaped from indentured servitude at New Archangel (Sitka) in Russian America in 1853, making their way in an Indian canoe down almost the entire Northwest Coast to Willapa Bay, Washington Territory. From this germ, and from a great deal of the historical research that informs almost all of the author’s fiction, grew The Sea Runners (1982), Doig’s first novel. The Sea Runners is, to date, Doig’s his last novel situated primarily west of the Cascades (part of Mountain Time [1999] takes place in Seattle). Since The Sea Runners Doig has focused on his home state, continued his considerable archival research, and produced the Montana Trilogy. Heart Earth (1993), another book of family history, offered a break from fiction, before the novels Bucking the Sun (1996), Mountain Time (1999), Prairie Nocturne (2003), and The Whistling Season (2006) elaborated Doig’s theme of families in a changing Montana. As Mountain Time introduced Big-Sky family members to the wonders of e-mail, Doig himself has joined the Internet generation, building a website that offers synopses, background information, and discussion questions for his major titles (

Ivan Doig’s work is well suited to a project on “history and literature” because few have accomplished more by weaving together the historical and the literary. Doig writes particularly about the past—most of his fiction has taken the form of the historical novel, and even his nonfiction focuses primarily on the past. Not surprisingly, then, the historian William G. Robbins admires in Dr. Doig’s style “the historian’s fetish for facts.” Readers quickly recognize that Doig’s stories are grounded firmly in historical research—so much so that Robbins views English Creek as a “historical documentary” on Montana during the late 1930s. And the author himself “admits to being ‘literal minded’; even when he is writing fiction, his ‘imagination works off the facts, by and large’” (Robbins 1987:135, 139, 137). Ivan Doig reminds us how permeable are the boundaries between fact and fiction, history and literature.

See: Ivan Doig. This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.

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