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4. Samuel L. Simpson, "Beautiful Willamette"
When James Stevens and H. L. Davis identified Pacific Northwest literature as an “avalanche of tripe,” they may have had the verses of the Oregon poet Samuel L. Simpson in mind. But the critical reviews of Stevens, Davis, and other later scholars were not widely shared among Northwest readers during the poet’s lifetime, when Simpson ranked among the Northwest’s favorite writers. He published his verse in regional magazines and newspapers during the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s. Many of Simpson’s poems were collected and published years after his death in The Gold-Gated West: Songs and Poems (1910). In a 1914 reminiscence, W.W. Fidler explained just what had made the work of the “Oregon Bard” so attractive: “He met completely that excellent definition of poetry which says it consists of ‘good thoughts happily expressed in faultless rhyme and meter’” (Fidler 1914:273). Of course, views of what made poetry good changed considerably. By the 1920s Stevens and Davis had embraced a modernist definition of verse that made Simpson seem antiquated. By the late twentieth century those who took an ecocritical approach to writing bemoaned Simpson’s formulaic portrayals of nature. Regarded as refined and compelling during the Victorian period, his poems lost favor in more modern times.
One of the things about Samuel L. Simpson that appealed to contemporary Oregonians was that he had grown up with the country. His parents took the infant on the overland trail from Missouri to Oregon in 1846. Biographers relished telling the story of how Simpson’s mother taught him the alphabet by drawing letters in the fireplace ashes of a pioneer cabin in the Willamette Valley. The boy grew up with only rudimentary schooling, but from early on showed a strong appetite for literature. While working at his father’s store at Fort Yamhill, near the Grande Ronde Indian Reservation, during the late 1850s, his interests were rewarded with the gift of a book of Lord Byron’s verses from Lieutenant Philip H. Sheridan, then stationed at the post. Simpson later graduated from Willamette University, and in 1867 was admitted to the Oregon bar. His law practice did not flourish, so by 1870 he had turned to newspapers to make a living. Later he became a salaried contributor to Hubert Howe Bancroft’s multi-volume history of the Pacific coast of North America. (Information about Simpson’s life comes from W.T. Burney’s preface to The Gold-Gated West [Simpson 1910:7-10] and Fidler 1914.)
Biographers highlight Simpson’s struggles as a writer—something else that endeared him to some. W.W. Fidler (1914:268) recalled an effort to encourage Simpson at one trying time. The public had responded particularly favorably to the poem “The Beautiful Willamette,” and Fidler remembered speculating to Simpson that “You think you must not write anything unless it is as good as ‘The Beautiful Willamette.’” The poet reportedly replied, “That has exercised a sort of tyranny over me.” Still more tyrannical, perhaps, was the grip of alcohol on Simpson. Fidler first met Simpson on an outing arranged by one of the poet’s relatives in an attempt to get him “weaned off from a protracted spree that he had been cultivating with disastrous assiduity for many, many years.” Fidler elaborated on how alcohol had influenced Simpson’s reputation: “Somebody has already described him in print as ‘the most drunken poet, and the most poetical drunkard that ever made the Muses smile or weep,’ and I am not authorized to dispute the arraignment” (Fidler 1914:265). In his preface to The Gold-Gated West, W.T. Burney alluded to Simpson’s alcoholism more obscurely while at the same time using it to place him in the company of much more famous authors:
Simpson has been classed by his western admirers with Burns and Poe, and in many of his poems he portrays that keen appreciation of the grandeur and beauty of nature and that matchless rhythmic style which certainly render the comparison not uncomplimentary to those immortal bards. And he too, as they, labored within the bonds of a habit that has no kindred seal of woe, and to this limitation was attributable the failures he so bitterly bemoaned in the poems “Quo Me, Bacche?” “Wreck,” and others of like sentiment (Simpson 1910:9).
Apparently, not all the verses of the Oregon Bard centered on “good thoughts.”
Although Simpson’s reputation has suffered since his death, we should not lose sight of what his life tells us about the existence of a non-Native literary culture in the nineteenth-century Pacific Northwest. Simpson lived in a society that did not offer the richest array of cultural opportunities, yet he became exposed to highly regarded literature, acquired a college education, and worked amid other writers producing journalism, history, and poetry. He read other people’s verses, and in publishing his own he acquired an admiring audience who compared him to the likes of Burns and Poe. Most do not much admire the literary product today, but writers such as Simpson represent a kind of beginning point in regional literature—i.e., “fine” writing meant to be aesthetically pleasing. Stevens and Davis may have been justified in their condemnation of Simpson and his like, but at least he served them as a rung on a ladder on which they could plant their feet as they tried to carry regional literature to greater heights. Some writers need something against which to rebel, and during the later nineteenth century the society of the Willamette Valley furnished that something.
Other parts of the Northwest provided fewer of the ingredients necessary for the kind of literary culture that had nurtured Simpson. For example, until the 1880s the towns around Puget Sound could not attract the numbers of settlers that had moved to the Willamette Valley. The types of settlement there—less agricultural and less family-oriented—also differed. Consequently, when Edmond S. Meany asked in 1889 whether the Puget Sound region had acquired a distinctive literature, the answer was a resounding “No….Not another section in the Nation is thus bare of literary representation.” Even Alaska seemed to have surpassed the Puget Sound region in generating a literary culture. To explain this lamentable state of affairs, Meany referred both to the nature of the extractive economy and to the population’s putting the pursuit of wealth ahead of other activities: “Puget Sound has no literature but this region has plenty of real estate, timber, coal, iron and fish, and at present the inhabitants are scrambling over each other in their efforts to become rich out of these natural wealths of the land. There is no time to devote to the production or the appreciation of a distinctive literature.” In such a society, people with interests and abilities like Simpson’s would have received less support. “Men are too busy. Women are too few. They have no literary societies. They encourage no literary entertainments. They buy and sell too eagerly” (Meany 1889:8-9). Meany (1889:9-11) mentioned a few writers who had planted the seeds of a literary culture in Washington—federal official James G. Swan (who had his own battles with liquor); pioneer Arthur Denny; missionary Myron Eells—but such men were known more for their descriptive accounts of the country and their pioneer narratives than for fiction, poetry, or essays. Meany identified Ella Higginson and Genie Clark Pomeroy, writers of poetry and short stories, as promising newcomers to the Puget Sound scene; no doubt these women’s work too would later seem like “tripe” to some. But many parts of the Northwest, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, provided few native-born writers against which later authors could rebel.
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