Reading the Region: Northwest Schools of Literature

When scholars of the Pacific Northwest were asked in the 1960s and 1970s whether there existed a body of regional literature, they tended to answer in the negative. The region had produced some impressive writing, they agreed, but it seemed not yet to offer a cogent body of work that could reasonably be identified as belonging to—or reflective of—the Pacific Northwest (Gastil et al. 1973:148, 157-59; Cantwell 1973:280-81; Venn 1979:99; Bingham 1983:172). By the 1980s, however, observers grew more confident about the existence of a distinctive, aesthetically pleasing body of Northwest writing. Harold Simonson (1980), for example, wrote about Pacific Northwest literature “coming of age,” and in 1987 Nicholas O’Connell added to the sense that a regional body of work had coalesced by collecting interviews with twenty (and in O’Connell [1998] twenty-two) Pacific Northwest writers. By 1990 or so there was a strong sense that something called Pacific Northwest literature definitely existed. (At the level of the broader West, a similar transition occurred. In the 1960s Wallace Stegner expressed considerable doubts about the existence of an accomplished regional literature in the American West [Stegner 1969]. Two decades later, William Kittredge found that western writing as a whole had transcended the limitations that Stegner had identified; he listed numerous authors and titles as evidence of a mature regional literature [Kittredge 1987a]. Moreover, comprehensive collections of both Montana and Oregon writing were compiled during the later 1980s and early 1990s [Kittredge and Smith 1988; Love 1993; Beckham 1993; Dodds 1993; Wendt and St. John 1993; Jones and Ramsey 1994; Applegate and O’Donnell 1994].)

When, exactly, this regional body of work came into existence can be illustrated by a survey conducted almost precisely when the region was beginning to acknowledge its literary arrival. When Pacific Northwest magazine set out to tally “the 25 best Northwest books” in 1981, it was not sure it would be able to find that many distinguished works.  But the results proved reassuring: “We were surprised at our feeling that, despite the region’s relative youth, we didn’t look too bad” (“25 Best Northwest Books” 1981:46). For our purposes, two features of the list in particular stand out. The first is that, while the Northwest had produced no novelist of the stature of Henry James or Nathaniel Hawthorne, it had acquired “four poets who provide an exceptionally strong voice: Theodore Roethke, David Wagoner, Richard Hugo, and William Stafford.” About regional poetry William Kittredge claimed, “Probably it is justifiable to say the Northwest has never had a great writer [of fiction], but it is also justifiable to say that the work of these poets comes together to form a great literature, defining us as our missing Faulkner would have” (“25 Best Northwest Books” 1981:47). The second feature is that the great majority of the acclaimed titles—twenty-one out of twenty-five—had been published in 1960 or later. (The earlier works were “Chief Seattle’s” speech [1854]; James G. Swan’s Northwest Coast [1857]; H. L. Davis’s Honey in the Horn [1935]; and James Stevens’s Jim Turner [1948].) The best poetry and fiction from the Pacific Northwest appeared mostly in the years well after World War II, at the same time that the region itself gradually ceased being a colony and attained greater economic, political, and cultural parity with the rest of the United States. The flowering of regional writing also coincided with new ways of looking at the regional environment.

The emergence of a recognizable body of fine Pacific Northwest literature after 1945 finally answered the complaint about the absence of a regional literature that Stevens and Davis had lodged with the publication of Status Rerum. Indeed, if the publication of that manifesto and H. G. Merriam’s remaking of The Frontier in 1927 marked one turning point in the modern history of regional writing, then the period right after World War II marked another. The years 1947-49 formed the beginning of the most recent innovations of regional writing because in that brief span three remarkably talented newcomers to the Pacific Northwest began writing both in and about the region, and, even more important, began cultivating still more regional writing through their teaching and their example. These recent arrivals changed the landscape of Northwest literature profoundly. Theodore Roethke came first, brought to the University of Washington in 1947. William Stafford arrived from Kansas the next year, settling in at Lewis and Clark College. Bernard Malamud followed in 1949, hired to teach composition at Oregon State (initially Malamud wasn’t permitted to teach literature because he lacked the Ph.D.). To round out the picture, let us note that Roethke recruited David Wagoner to join him in Seattle in 1954. Suddenly the region could boast of a cohort of enormously gifted authors—as well as teachers and editors—including in particular those who gave the region such prominence in post-war American poetry.

One interesting thing about these newcomers is that their contributions to the creation of Northwest literature defied the conventional wisdom about how a regional body of fine writing was supposed to have emerged. To explain prose and poetry that were truer to the region than before, scholars have put forth different versions of what can be called an “organic model” that, drawing upon the imagery of a garden, posits some form of vital interaction between authors and the natural environs. This model suggests, sometimes rather literally, that there was something in the land, the water, and the air that worked its way into the bodies and minds of Northwest writers, and then worked its way out again, onto the printed page. Without rejecting this interpretation, we wish to suggest that when searching for regional identity in Northwest literature, rather than focus primarily on writing that has been in some sense homegrown, we need as well to consider writing that has been imported—at least to some extent—from elsewhere. We need an explanation that accounts as much for the newcomers as for the native-born. 

The conventional wisdom, as developed by historians and literary critics (Venn 1979; Simonson 1980; Bingham 1983; Love 1993:xv-xxi), holds that for decades writers had, for a variety of reasons, not felt at home with the Northwest. To put it in terms of the organic model, they had not really planted roots there. Earlier writers, the argument goes, focused on importing literary forms and “genteel” attitudes from the East, despite the fact that those forms and attitudes were not necessarily appropriate for the Northwest. According to this interpretation, Euro-American transplants from the East took decades to settle down and feel grounded in the Northwest. Finally, by the later 1920s—around the time of Stevens and Davis and Merriam—a generation had come of age that felt rooted in place.  Once the roots were sunk into place, selected authors became sponges that absorbed regional essences from the soil and squeezed them out on to the page. Thus the historian Edwin Bingham characterizes the influences at work on H. L. Davis. He lists the assorted places in which Davis had lived and the numerous jobs he had had (cowboy, sheep herder, hop picker, surveyor, editor, deputy sheriff) and summarizes: “He soaked up his varied experiences and impressions and began setting them down on paper.” Bingham explains the poet Richard Hugo’s formative youth similarly: “He was born in Seattle in 1923 and never left the state of Washington until he was 19. . . . With woods and water on every hand, he soaked in the juices and textures of his environment” (Bingham 1983:163,168). Those textures and juices then somehow made their way into written form. One could go on to explain other native-born, regional writers in like fashion—Oregon’s Ken Kesey and William Kittredge; Washington’s Tess Gallagher and Carolyn Kizer; Idaho’s Marilynne Robinson; Montana’s Ivan Doig.

Now, while the organic model may account for some of the influences at work in regional literature, it accounts neither for the variety of factors that shape writing nor for the variety of peoples producing good work. In this formulation, successful regional writing emerges only from those generations descended (culturally if not biologically) from the mostly white colonizers who arrived during the mid-nineteenth century (thus overlooking, for instance, both Native and Asian immigrant authors) and who derived their writing in some fashion from the indigenous landscape.  In this formulation, moreover, a broad range of other external influences gets overlooked.

To illustrate problems with the organic model, let us look more closely at the two author-sponges about whom Bingham spoke. H. L. Davis surely belongs in the Northwest writers’ hall of fame for his Pulitzer-Prize winning novel Honey in the Horn (1935), among other things. But Davis wrote that book in Arizona and Mexico, not Oregon, because he decided to uproot himself from the Northwest in 1930 and move to drier climes. Can the organic model account for how those Northwestern essences that Davis had soaked up survived being transplanted so far southward? Moreover, when Davis started wearing out his regional welcome in 1927 with Status Rerum, he did so under the distinct influence of H. L. Mencken, the Baltimore editor and critic who nurtured Stevens and Davis throughout their years of rebellion against the regional literary establishment. In other words, as an author H. L. Davis was not a purely Northwestern species, but a hybrid drawing upon influences from different regions (see the comments of Richard W. Etulain in Gastil et al. 1973:158; Love 1986: 331-35).

The poet Richard Hugo presents an even more interesting case. Like Davis, he was born and raised in the Northwest, and indeed much of his writing depicts the natural environs that he somehow “soaked up” during his life. He eventually worked as a writer for Boeing, a quintessential Northwest company, and went to teach at the University of Montana, the home of H. G. Merriam. But what was the single factor that most enabled Hugo to succeed as a writer? More than anything else, one could argue that it was his tutelage under Theodore Roethke, the great poet recruited to the University of Washington in 1947. Even more than Mencken in the case of H. L. Davis, Roethke took what “native” material resided in Hugo and nurtured it in a way that enabled Hugo to succeed as a regional author. Moreover, Roethke himself became perhaps the most distinguished of all the region’s writers. But Theodore Roethke was a transplant to the Northwest, not a native species, and he began producing and encouraging great regional writing long before his roots sank deep into Northwest soils. If we wish to account for his profound influence, we need a more complicated explanation than the organic model provides. Rather than focus so much on the impact of time and place on regional authors, we might consider the larger set of circumstances that affected them and the region, as well as their individual talents and contributions.

The arrival of talented newcomers on the Northwest literary scene was made possible by a broader set of historical changes under way—the enormous growth of the regional population and economy beginning in World War II; the integration of the region into the nation on more equal terms, and less strictly as a resource hinterland; the blossoming of such institutions as universities; the transformation of much (but not all) of the region into an industrialized and urbanized place; and the slow but steady growth of environmentalism, of appreciating the outdoors as something other than a source of extractive jobs. In short, the place was changing in ways that transformed its culture and, hence, encouraged the production of first-rate poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and drama. In some ways, one might say, the postwar Northwest could afford the cultural refinements it had seemed to lack before. Moreover, its vastly expanded population (the total for the states of Idaho, Oregon, and Washington soared from 3.3 million in 1940 to 8.7 million in 1990) offered a much larger talent pool of prospective writers; a much wider domestic market for regional writing; and an audience that, because it was better integrated into national culture, was by all accounts more aesthetically discriminating and cosmopolitan than before. Yet none of these conditions within the region would have been adequate by themselves for transforming Northwest writing without the advent, from other parts of the country, of such gifted individuals as Theodore Roethke, William Stafford, Bernard Malamud, and David Wagoner.

The extraordinary impact of newcomers in the postwar era illustrates the importance of transplants on regional writing, and reminds us of the limitations of focusing too narrowly on a homegrown body of work. Newcomers contributed in many ways. For one thing, they were usually not hampered by the self-consciousness and regional insecurity that characterized the outlooks of James Stevens and H. L. Davis. Their superior skills would have made them highly regarded writers in any part of the country, and their poetry and prose reflected much less of a regionalist need to prove themselves on a national stage. William Stafford made this point when asked how his work interacted with the Northwest. He seemed reluctant to call himself a Northwest writer: “I wrote about Kansas, I wrote about Arkansas, I wrote about Illinois, I wrote about Indiana; wherever I was. And if I moved tomorrow I’d write about where I showed up, no matter where it was” (O’Connell 1998: 259). For Stafford, the place where one was mattered less than how one responded to a place and how well one could express that response. Denise Levertov felt similarly. Her poems about the Northwest succeeded not because she had grown roots there but because she possessed a “responsiveness to place.” She wrote equally well about Mexico, New York, Boston, Europe, the South Pacific, and Australia (O’Connell 1998:337).

This is not to say that the specific place, the Pacific Northwest, was insignificant to literary newcomers, however. In fact, quite the opposite.  Recent arrivals brought fresh eyes to the surrounding environs, in part because they had more of a basis for comparing it to what existed elsewhere. David Wagoner is skeptical about the idea of a Northwest “sound” or voice; “the boundaries of Washington state are an accident, in literary terms.” But he found the physical setting tremendously provocative, as he recalled in 1998 when asked if the Northwest had been a good place to be a poet: “For me, absolutely. It has for me the central shock of untouched nature. I came from a place where nature was ruined, and here the natural world was still in a pristine state, in some areas. You could go and find them easily” (Wagoner 1998:5,4). Theodore Roethke responded similarly, as expressed in his poem “The Rose”:

There are those to whom place is unimportant,
But this place, where sea and fresh water meet,
Is important—
Where the hawks sway out into the wind,
Without a single wingbeat,
And the eagles sail low over the fir trees,
And the gulls cry against the crows
In the curved harbors,
And the tide rises up against the grass
Nibbled by sheep and rabbits….
I sway outside myself
Into the darkening currents,
Into the small spillage of driftwood,
The waters swirling past the tiny headlands (Roethke 1964:29).

Both the natural and the Native American Northwest proved to be of great interest to newcomers. Some native-born Northwesterners may have taken the physical environs and Indian peoples for granted, but Roethke, Stafford, Wagoner, and other recent arrivals saw things afresh (see the comments of Denise Levertov in O’Connell 1998: 337). Moreover, their superior skills and aesthetic insights—cultivated heretofore largely in the Midwest and along the Atlantic seaboard—enabled them to express ideas about the Northwest in new ways, and to heighten interest in the region among peoples elsewhere. Transplanted writers made Pacific Northwest environs and peoples more compelling to outside audiences than they had ever been before.  Perhaps Roethke’s, Wagoner’s, Stafford’s, and other recent arrivals’ portrayals of the Northwest added to its appeal, and thus helped to attract some of the millions of newcomers in the post-war era.

Another central aspect of these newcomers’ influence was the institutional context that recruited them and that they in turn developed further.  In Status Rerum Stevens and Davis had heaped scorn on colleges and universities for their inability to contribute to Northwest literature. After 1945, by contrast, colleges and universities—especially public ones—became the nuclei of the literary region. Theodore Roethke rejuvenated the University of Washington’s program in creative writing when he moved there in 1947. After bringing David Wagoner to the faculty in 1954, Roethke and Wagoner trained a cohort of tremendously talented authors, including (but not exclusively) native Northwesterners. As early as 1956, in an article for The New Republic, Carolyn Kizer identified Seattle and the University of Washington as home to a prolific and nationally recognized poetry “school of the Pacific Northwest” (Kizer 1956:18-19). Many of Roethke’s and Wagoner’s students from around the state, such as Seattle’s Richard Hugo, Tess Gallagher from Port Angeles, Spokane’s Carolyn Kizer, David Guterson from Bainbridge Island, and Tacoma’s Laura Jensen, in turn assisted in cultivating other regional writers through their teaching and their examples. Roethke and Wagoner, Elizabeth Bishop and Lois Phillips Hudson, Mark Strand and Nelson Bentley, and others helped to make the University of Washington’s writing program so successful that it was able to recruit still more prominent—and more diverse—authors from other regions, including Shawn Wong, Charles Johnson, Richard Kenney, Linda Bierds, Heather McHugh, and Colleen McElroy. Finally, Carolyn Kizer and then David Wagoner edited Poetry Northwest between 1959 and 2002, creating another state-supported bulwark of regional writing that received attention from the national audience. (Wagoner [1998:9] estimates that only ten percent of the contributors to Poetry Northwest actually came from the region.)

Given so many prominent writers and their achievements, it is not surprising that David Wagoner identified the creative writing program at the University of Washington as the mainspring behind the region’s increasing literary sophistication: “more and more of its graduates—a number of whom were publishing nationally—and even if they weren’t publishing had backgrounds now that transcended the region and could pass that on to their students. . . . Gradually, there was a kind of saturation of more intense reading in contemporary poetry, and a rise in skills in writing. People came from all over the country to take the writing courses at the University of Washington and then didn’t go away.” They took their skills to other Northwest colleges, nurtured regional literary magazines, and supported small poetry presses such as Copper Canyon and Gray Wolf.  Suddenly, it seemed, the matter of regional inadequacy simply disappeared, as Wagoner (1998:1-2,8) explained:

You know, when I think of those evenings back in the late 1950s at Carolyn Kizer’s, sometimes there would be Stanley Kunitz and Dick Hugo and Jim Wright and future Pulitzer Prize winners, and we thought we were just sitting around talking about poetry. When I think of all the prizes that group has collected later, it surprises me, it amazes me. When Dick Hugo gave the Roethke reading here, he in his introduction, mentioned how we used to sit around and gripe about the eastern establishment. And he said to me in the audience, “You know it occurred to me the other day, Dave, that we are the eastern establishment.” I was the editor of the Princeton University Press poetry series and Dick became part of the Yale Younger Poets Series. We are the eastern establishment.

The Northwest had come a long way from the days of Status Rerum.

If the University of Washington proved critical to the development of fine regional writing after 1945, the University of Montana followed a similar and connected path, although one less dependent on poetry. H. G. Merriam had encouraged that university to develop regional creative writing during the 1920s. It was not until the institution recruited Leslie Fiedler to Missoula in 1941, however, and then began to grow after World War II, that Missoula became the place around which clustered such enormously skillful writers as A. B. Guthrie, Richard Ford, James Welch, and Mary Clearman Blew. This crowd clearly identified as much with Montana as with the Northwest (there remain questions about just how much the state and region overlap). But the University’s creative writing program helped to strengthen ties between Montana and Northwest writers. Hugo did some of his best writing about the Puget Sound country in Montana. William Kittredge went to teach in Missoula and from there wrote his haunting memoirs of growing up in the Warner Valley of eastern Oregon. These uprootings remind us that writers transplanted themselves within the region as well as from without.

The development of college or university creative writing programs in Oregon, Idaho, and eastern Washington lagged behind those in western Washington and Montana, but they too benefited from an infusion of talent after 1945. William Stafford moved from Kansas to Lewis and Clark College in Portland in 1948, and very quickly became recognized for poems that spoke eloquently about the region. Oregon State University hired Bernard Malamud in 1949. Before he left Corvallis for Harvard in 1961, Malamud had become a nationally regarded writer. The majority of his work was set outside the Northwest—A New Life (1961), issued just after his departure, being the chief exception (Clark 1990). Moreover, the land-grant mission at Oregon State was not conducive to the development of a creative writing program such as existed at Washington or Montana.  Yet Malamud contributed to regional literature nonetheless: William Kittredge (1987b:56) studied with him at Oregon State (although two other, native-born Northwesterners—Richard Hugo and Raymond Carver—exerted more influence on Kittredge).

The rise of a distinguished program of creative writing at the University of Idaho occurred later than at Montana and Washington, and to some extent resulted from a spillover from nearby states. Ron McFarland and Robert Wrigley were already teaching in Moscow when, in the 1990s, Mary Clearman Blew (a product of the University of Montana) and Kim Barnes took up residence there. Besides contributing substantially in the realm of memoir, the two women’s efforts encouraged wider recognition of and respect for Idaho literature. Blew’s autobiographical Balsamroot (2001), ranging from central Montana through Idaho to the Olympic Peninsula of western Washington, in particular illuminated the significance of intra-regional migration in the Pacific Northwest. By the start of the twenty-first century the University of Idaho had created an MFA program in creative writing. Eastern Washington University has had an M.F.A. in creative writing for a longer time. Authors such as Ursula Hegi, Christopher Howell, and John Keeble helped to establish that program solidly enough that it supports a distinguished literary journal (Willow Springs) and press.

Not every prominent regional writer emerged from a distinguished university creative writing program in the Northwest or looked warmly upon his or her college experience. Sherman Alexie attended Gonzaga University, the University of Washington, and Washington State University and began publishing poetry as a student, but he did not find college a very supportive place. He valued the support he got in Pullman from Alex Kuo, but otherwise felt unappreciated by the institution (Alexie 1994:63). Ken Kesey and Barry Lopez attended and retained ties to the University of Oregon, but the experience meant different things to their later success. Barry Lopez left the MFA program in creative writing after one semester, yet was influenced profoundly by Barre Toelken from the Department of English (Lopez 1998:11-12); on the other hand, Ken Kesey’s work at Stanford loomed larger in his success and prominence than did his studies at Eugene. Ivan Doig used his academic training in journalism (at Northwestern University near Chicago) and history (at the University of Washington)—not creative writing—as the foundation for his career. By becoming famous for Montana narratives written while living in Seattle, Doig joined Richard Hugo (who wrote about Seattle while teaching in Missoula) as one of the individuals responsible for a regional literary axis running between western Montana and western Washington.

Many Northwest authors could be described as expatriates who did the bulk of their work away from the region but nonetheless wrote a good deal about it. Norman Maclean came from Montana but spent the great majority of his adult life away from the state. Raymond Carver was raised in Yakima and made the Northwest a setting for much of his work, but he made his name elsewhere before returning to Washington. Marilynne Robinson grew up in Idaho and then went to college in the East, where she found herself trying to persuade people that the interior West was capable of producing minds that could write good literature (Robinson 1993). Her novel Housekeeping (1980) had just appeared when Pacific Northwest magazine compiled its top twenty-five regional books in 1981, so was left off the list. It is hard to imagine it being left off the list today. As a final example, David James Duncan came from a working-class background in the greater Portland area, and received little academic training as an author. Yet he made himself into a highly regarded writer of Northwest fiction, memoir, and essays. After moving to the Missoula area, in large part because it offered a less compromised natural setting than over-urbanized and deforested western Oregon, Duncan began teaching creative writing at the University of Montana.

Besides exemplifying the influence of Northwest universities on literature after 1945, David James Duncan stands for another regional literary trend—writers’ shifting attitudes toward the environment. This trend, too, mirrored broader patterns, as the Northwest and the entire country became more inclined than before to protect natural resources. Earlier generations of regional, non-Native authors had had a lot to say about the environment, but they tended to focus on the work of exploring it, exploiting it (as in logging or farming), and taming it (as in damming rivers).  James Stevens, co-author of Status Rerum and the writer who relocated the Paul Bunyan legends to the Northwest, served for decades as a public-relations consultant to the West Coast Lumberman’s Association. After World War II, however, among both natives and newcomers, the inclination to revel in nature, to draw inspiration from it, and to advocate its preservation—especially in the form of wilderness—grew powerfully.  Poetry written by Wagoner and Roethke and Stafford shortly after their arrival makes it sound as if the natural setting simply stunned the new arrivals. Beat-generation authors, including Seattle native Gary Snyder, wrote appreciatively about Northwest environs from fire lookouts and highways. After moving to the Northwest from Virginia, Tom Robbins (who shared the Beats’ interest in Asian philosophy and religion) converted quickly to the natural setting and wrote lovingly about its climate, among other things, in such novels as Another Roadside Attraction (1971).  “Mostly, finally, ultimately,” insists Robbins (1994: 95), “I’m here for the weather.” Like Roethke, Wagoner, Denise Levertov, Charles Johnson (1994), and so many other transplants, Robbins the writer seems to have been captivated by the Northwest environment.

Regional authors found numerous ways to express the new ecological ethos. Nature writing became a staple of Northwest literature, with Oregon resident Barry Lopez among the nation’s leading practitioners. A prominent critic of regional literature claimed that a focus on the environment, more than anything else, had almost always set Northwest writing apart (Venn 1979). As a final example, Glen A. Love of the University of Oregon became a leading exponent of ecocriticism, a relatively new school of literary analysis that focused on written representations of the natural world. Given the “ecologically suicidal path” down which late-twentieth-century society seemed to be moving, Love concluded that “the most important function of literature [as well as of teachers of English] today is to redirect human consciousness to a full consideration of its place in a threatened natural world.” In such a context, Love went on to argue, writing about place looms especially large. We are best prepared to cope with environmental catastrophe, he insisted, if we understand “how our region functions, or fails to function, as an ecological system, as a whole.” Authors who have embraced literature’s environmentalist mission help by giving regions and localities a stronger sense of where they are. “Ecological consciousness seems to be an inevitable consequence of place consciousness. Having taken into our minds and hearts the beauty of Oregon, we recognize our responsibility not to defile it.” The lessons of literature would take modern Northwesterners back to the future, Love suggested, by making them more similar to those “original Oregonians,” i.e. Native Americans, who not only “practiced a way of living which left the country, after millennia of their occupancy, ecologically healthy and beautiful,” but also attained a sense of oneness with the natural place (Love 1996:233, 237; Love 1993:xx, xv).

Sharing Glen Love’s concern about the regional and global environment, Northwest writers of the later twentieth century such as Ursula LeGuin, Denise Levertov, and David James Duncan addressed the natural world quite directly in their fiction, poetry, essays, and memoirs. Yet not all regional authors agreed that literature’s primary “function” was ecological. In the years after World War II the schools of published or known Pacific Northwest writers grew not only in size but also in diversity of backgrounds and viewpoints. Some of these authors had as their mission not ecological catastrophe but the horrors of war, or the relationship between states and individuals. Still others focused more on inequities between the races, classes, and sexes. For example, writing by and about Native Americans and Asian Americans often took its mission (if it had a mission at all) to be exposing the social, economic, and political injustices between different groups, or challenging such stereotypes as the Indians as the first ecologists or the passivity of Asian immigrants. David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars pays plenty of attention to the natural world, but its chief concern is relationships between humans.

Furthermore, it seems that at least some authors felt that literature did not necessarily need to concern itself primarily with serving a mission, or teaching certain moral, spiritual, or practical lessons to readers. A distinguishing feature of Pacific Northwest writing since the days of Status Rerum has been the emergence of a literature valued at least as much for its aesthetic value as for the lessons or information that it conveyed.  To be sure, a great many regional writers proved quite capable of producing work that was artistically pleasing as well as didactic or informative; literature need not be viewed as solely one thing or the other. But to minimize aesthetic considerations at this juncture, more than three-quarters of a century after Stevens and Davis issued their manifesto calling for more sophisticated writing, would seem to be a rather abrupt and ironic turn of events. The Pacific Northwest had finally attained its own distinctive, and distinguished, regional school(s) of literature, peopled both by fairly recent transplants and well-rooted natives who produce work that is well regarded around North America and the world. Culturally, as well as economically and politically and socially, the Pacific Northwest is no longer such a colony within the United States. As the success of its regional literature has demonstrated, the Northwest has become better integrated into the wider world without losing all the traits that made it different.

To some extent, becoming better integrated into the wider world has meant that place could seem less important rather than more. Like the stories and poems and essays they write, authors resist classification. Many who live in and write about the region today feel comfortable about being identified with the Pacific Northwest. But others regard the regional label as in some fashion delimiting, maybe even demeaning, quite possibly inaccurate. One school of thought had held that Northwest literature matured when writers put down roots, but some of the region’s most prominent authors claimed to be without such connections to place. Raymond Carver explained that he had been “rootless for so many years and didn’t have any real place or location, some of the things that are so nurturing for writers.” As a consequence, his stories could have taken place virtually anywhere in the United States: “you could say that men and women behave pretty much the same whether in Port Angeles, or Bellevue, or Houston, or Chicago or Omaha or New York City” (O’Connell 1998:93). Denise Levertov also felt rootless—and perhaps she avoided putting down roots, too. She discerned, for example, that Northwest writers addressed wilderness quite centrally in their work, but she refused to visit that wilderness herself. She composed her many poems about Mount Rainier from a distance, through the windows of her house in Seattle, but refused to desecrate the site by visiting it personally (O’Connell 1998:337, 341; Levertov 1992:5). Her attitude diverged sharply from that of Wagoner or Snyder or Beckey, who could not have been content holding wilderness at arm’s length.

What value resides in being defined by a single place when one’s audience, one’s subject, perhaps most of all one’s talent and ambition, are not necessarily place-bound? When interviewing William Stafford, Nicholas O’Connell asked in several different ways how the Pacific Northwest had affected his writing. Stafford persistently denied much influence:

Many writers in a place that is as definite a region as the Northwest feel that it is very much a part of their writing. I’m not too sure of that about me. . . . [My] attitude is this: where you live is not crucial, but how you feel about where you live is crucial. Since I live in the Northwest, yes, I do write about the Northwest in the sense that place names get in my poems, but as for anything mystical, it hasn’t registered on me. . . . I can say without any problem that the language [not the place] is what I live in when I write. I don’t want to say I’m not impressed by scenery; it registers. I know some writers who apparently live on it; they need a lot of scenery. It’s kind of a distraction to me.

In the end, William Stafford concluded that the organic model simply could not explain his relationship as a writer to the Northwest. “It’s a pleasant thought, but the idea that the style is rooted to the landscape just sounds sort of quaint to me.” If the Northwest possesses a regional style, he continued, it had less to do with place than with the people in a place with whom one associates. The “company the writers keep” has had much greater influence than the nearby “scenery” and “mystique.” In the case of the post-war Northwest that special company came from elsewhere. “If Theodore Roethke hadn’t moved to Seattle, the scene would be the same, but the literary scene wouldn’t be the same” (Stafford quoted in O’Connell 1998:259-60). Good writing in and about the Northwest in the end has perhaps stemmed less from the place than from the individuals—both native-born and newcomers—who have inhabited it.

Reading the Region Home NW Schools of Literature: Commentary NW Schools of Literature: Texts
Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest