Reading the Region: Introductory Essay

This essay ponders two questions. One, how does a place acquire an identity over time? Two, how does that identity find expression in its literature? These questions may be asked of any place; here we pose them regarding the Pacific Northwest. Through writing, people have defined and understood the Northwest. Definitions and understandings have changed over time, of course, and they have varied widely between diverse groups of observers and residents of the region holding different purposes and audiences for their many texts.

For most of the period since 1900, people in the Northwest have been asking whether a recognizable body of regional writing exists and, if so, how it measures up against the standard set by other regions and by the nation as a whole. They have also searched for those elements that lent some degree of unity to regional writing. These investigations of regional literature have taken different forms. There have been anthologies, such as Bruce Barcott’s Northwest Passages (1994), which contain a broad sampling of texts from prehistoric times to the present, without much of an interpretive historical framework. And there have been collections of works from particular groups and periods, such as Jarold Ramsey’s Coyote Was Going There: Indian Literature of the Oregon Country (1977), and from specific places within the Northwest, such as William Kittredge and Annick Smith’s The Last Best Place: A Montana Anthology (1988). There have also been studies by literary critics of common themes and influences among different regional texts, such as William M. Bevis’s Ten Tough Trips: Montana Writers and the West (1990) and Laurence Ricou’s The Arbutus/Madrone Files: Reading the Pacific Northwest (2002). 

What we have responded to most directly in the present essay are the efforts by historians and literary scholars—particularly Edwin R. Bingham (1983), Glen A. Love (1993:xv-xxi), Harold P. Simonson (1980), George Venn (1979), and William Bevis (1990)—to track the emergence of literature from prehistoric to present times for the Pacific Northwest. These scholars have addressed themselves to the same basic concern that we have—the history of regional writing and stories. They have presented explanations of how a regional literature unfolded in stages, and have attempted to link those stages to broader developments within the Pacific Northwest and around the country.

While our interpretation draws a great deal on the findings of other scholars, it arrives at some different conclusions, organizes Northwest literature in its own fashion, and employs a medium that allows readers to consult texts and contexts instantaneously by moving quickly between the different layers of this web site. In terms of form, the project combines the essay approach of Bingham, Love, Simonson, and Venn with the anthology approach of Northwest Passages or The Last Best Place. In addition to the broad historical interpretation of regional writing from pre-contact times through the twentieth century, readers will find a generous assortment of texts which can be read and appreciated apart from our historical interpretation—and which may be used as the basis for arriving at additional interpretations. Moreover, each selection of writing is accompanied by a commentary composed with the intent of enabling readers to appreciate the historical or biographical context in which a piece was created, and encouraging closer, more critical reading. Like the texts, the commentaries may be read independently of the interpretive essay (although, in an effort to avoid repetition, the essay and commentaries have been composed to complement one another).

In terms of emphasis, our approach in this essay is decidedly more historical than literary. That is, we have discussed and chosen texts with an eye toward explaining how regional culture and identity in the Pacific Northwest changed over time. We concede that there is something artificial about our construction, that we are to some extent “imposing” an intellectual order on the texts rather than “finding” it there. We admit that, while in many respects literature defies classification, we have harnessed it nonetheless to a historical explanation of how societies in the Pacific Northwest developed and expressed themselves, particularly in relationship to place. Again, our approach follows that of other scholars by seeking to delineate discrete periods and turning points in the development of regional writing, by taking literary expressions to be reflective of cultural, economic, demographic, political, and other changes taking place in the Northwest.

At the same time, our focus and conclusions diverge somewhat from the conventional wisdom about regional writing. Others have given particular emphasis to how a strong, homegrown, “authentic” literature emerged in the Northwest. This is an important question that we also address, but it should not preclude attending to some other issues. For example, the quest for an authentic and homegrown body of work gives greater emphasis to some authors over others, and it begs the question of whether there really is a set of authentic or essential meanings for the Northwest. It tends to assume, too, that over time local writers produce steadily better literature about a place. Even while searching for that elusive point when regional literature “came of age,” it would probably be helpful to admit from the start that better and worse writing were characteristic of all periods, and that the definition of “local writer” was fluid.

Finally, the focus on a homegrown, authentic body of regional work tends to underestimate a wide assortment of people—particularly diverse kinds of newcomers—who may not have put down the proper “roots” in the Northwest yet still have managed to write quite tellingly about the region and their experiences in it. Since the American takeover in the 1840s, the Northwest has been, above all, a region of newcomers rather than natives. Our understanding of regional writing needs to come to better terms with that fact by giving transplanted writers at least as much attention as native-born ones. Those transplanted writers came from many different regions and races. Although some scholars have argued that “mature” literature reflects a people “at home” with a place, we include here good writing by people who have been marginalized—i.e. not permitted to be “at home”—in a place. Thus texts by Asian immigrants and itinerant radicals deserve to be included in portrayals of Northwest writing. Finally, we need to recognize that newcomers brought with them cultural baggage that helped to shape their understanding of region. By including accounts by Juan de Fuca and Jonathan Swift, for example, we highlight the fact that European colonizers (like many other newcomers) had influential (but not necessarily accurate) ideas about the Pacific Northwest long before they actually set eyes upon it.

Our account differs as well in how we have organized the varieties and eras of Northwest writing. To some extent, we share with other students of regional literature a preference for periodic organization. Our essay is divided into five sections that follow chronology, in part: we begin with work by Native Americans (Texts by and about Natives); proceed to discuss the literature of exploration (Discovering the Region); move on the work of pioneers and other early, non-Native residents of the Northwest (Writing Home); and then address two phases in the twentieth-century emergence of aesthetically pleasing poems, fiction, and non-fiction (Aggressive Regionalism and Northwest Schools of Literature). But perhaps more than other organizational schemes, our divisions are both chronological and thematic. Texts By and About Natives deserve to come first, because Indians occupied the Northwest first. However, stories by and writing about Indians did not stop when explorers and pioneers arrived (as some other studies would seem to imply by confining Native texts to the very start of their interpretations). Our section on texts by and about Natives extends from one Native group’s creation story to recent writings by such authors as James Welch and Sherman Alexie. By the same token, explorers such as George Vancouver and Lewis and Clark surely belong in a section on Discovering the Region, but so in our minds do works by such prominent visiting authors as Thomas Wolfe in the 1930s and Jonathan Raban in the 1980s. Writers continue to discover the Pacific Northwest anew.

What we are tracing, in other words, is the successive emergence of enduring innovations in the way people have written about the Northwest in the time since Europeans first arrived. Each innovation has come into existence at a more or less specific time, usually coinciding with some turning point in regional or global history. Yet different types of texts about the region—concerning Natives or discovery, or promoting the region aggressively—have usually overlapped with one another. One reason for this overlap is that different parts of the region have “developed” at different paces. The stage of initial exploration ended relatively early along the shores of Puget Sound, for instance, but it actually continued in many wilderness areas into the later twentieth century. Thus Fred Beckey’s accounts of first ascents of peaks in the North Cascade Mountains present discoveries for the later twentieth century that bear some resemblance to how George Vancouver wrote about Puget Sound in the late eighteenth century. As an additional advantage, our approach permits some flexibility for dealing with certain kinds of writing. Two historical novels, for example—David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars (1994) and A.B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky (1947)—could be grouped with works that appeared around the same time, but because these books’ depictions of the past help readers understand earlier eras, we have assigned them to the periods they describe rather than those during which the books were published.

Finally, a few words of definition are in order. For our purposes the Pacific Northwest customarily consists of that American territory that we know as Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and western Montana. (We devote more attention to Montana than do most treatments of regional history, but our consideration of Northwest writing suggests that the literary connections between Montana and the other three states have been rather strong, historically.) Far northern California and, at a minimum, the southeastern portion of Alaska might also be defined as part of the American Northwest, but we have not focused on them here. In certain periods there has been no meaningful or enforced boundary between the northwestern U.S. and British Columbia, and writings originating in or about the Canadian province surely could be included as well (as they have been in Ricou’s Arbutus/Madrone Files). Again, however, we follow a more restricted definition of the Pacific Northwest and touch only briefly on British Columbia.

Defining a region is in the end a nearly impossible task; one can imagine a legitimate challenge to practically any formulation. So we have worried little about the matter here. Nor have we toiled to select a sampling of topics and texts that would represent all Northwest places, periods, and peoples suitably. Our knowledge of regional writing has limits; our personal tastes, reading histories, and interpretive bents have steered us toward some things and away from others; and our resources for assembling this site have been finite. Moreover, the selection of texts for this project has been circumscribed by an inability to get permission to reproduce everything we would have liked to include. One preference we have consistently exercised, however, has been for a disproportionate number of texts written in and about Washington territory and state. Washington is that part of the Northwest we know best; it also contains the largest number of people whom we take to be our intended audience. Just as importantly, in sharp contrast to Montana and Oregon, for which there exist first-rate, comprehensive anthologies of writing (Kittredge and Smith 1988; Applegate and O’Donnell 1994; Beckham 1993; Dodds 1993; Love 1993; Jones and Ramsey 1994; Wendt and St. John 1993), the Evergreen State has not yet been well served by anthologists. We hope that our selections make up in some small way for that oversight, while still providing a useful survey of the broader region.

Reading the Region Home Welcome Bibliography
Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest