Reading the Region: Writing Home

Although students of Pacific Northwest writing have reached no agreement on the exact beginning point, they argue that another type of regional literature began to emerge between the 1850s and 1880s (Simonson 1980:147; Venn 1979:102; Love 1993:xv-xvi; Bingham 1983). In this new phase many authors frequently went beyond “observation” of the Northwest and emphasized more “understanding” of it. That is, they wrote less descriptively and more interpretively, in part because their relationship to the place was changing. To settlers and boosters in particular, the region was increasingly home, and their writings reflected that fact. Purposes in depicting the Northwest were changing as well. Like the literature of discovery, much of the new type of writing was created with eastern audiences in mind. But now writers added different goals for their audiences. Many of the new texts were explicitly promotional in nature, designed to stimulate immigration to or investment in the region. Other prose and poetry aimed to incorporate the region into the eastern world of arts and letters. In the process, new notions of a Pacific Northwest took hold—both within the region and without.

A different, stronger sense of place—of a settled land or home in particular—was emerging increasingly among people who, heretofore, had mostly been content to discover and describe a fairly distant and exotic place. Just because there was, for some, a sharper regional identity, however, does not mean that most writers were unified in their perspectives or concerns. Social and economic changes after the Civil War led to greater demographic diversity and class divisions among the non-Native population. If the Northwest was indeed increasingly becoming home for writers, the place did not mean the same thing to all of them. Moreover, its meanings changed over time.

Pioneers loomed large in this reconfiguring of the Northwest. The initial writings of pioneers had been part of the literature of discovery. Like many other travelers through and to the Northwest, they had at first been content to write descriptively and rather briefly about it. Of course, the hard work of overland migration and homesteading did not often allow for the luxury of patient and thoughtful description of the country. Accounts of pioneers’ journeys and initial settlement, then, tended to be terse and superficial. They typically discussed distances traveled, environmental conditions, business dealings, health—and little else, as the diaries of Paterson and Michael Luark demonstrate.

After pioneers arrived, settled down, grew older, and in some cases came to feel that their importance was not sufficiently appreciated by more recent arrivals, they created accounts that memorialized their contributions to the region’s development. Their memoirs and autobiographies may at times have been based in part on diaries and letters created during their the time of travel to and settling in the region. But at this later stage in their lives, because they were so attuned to drawing lessons for readers about the pioneer experience, they offered a level of interpretation that overland diaries and homesteader correspondence could never have approached. Two examples illustrate this new genre of the pioneer narrative. Arthur Denny’s Pioneer Days on Puget Sound shined a positive light on the first generation of settlers by contrasting them to later arrivals who, Denny felt, were much less worthy citizens. In A Pioneer’s Search for an Ideal Home, Phoebe Goodell Judson transformed her and her husband’s rather unsuccessful lives into lessons in resilience and sacrifice. (For still another, much lengthier example, turn to “The Autobiography of Ella Byers Scott” [Hill 1997]. Hill’s careful editorial work allows readers to see how Scott omitted and embellished details for a particular audience.) An important contributor to the elevation of pioneers in the historical record was Edmond S. Meany, first professor of Pacific Northwest history at the University of Washington, who got his start as a historian in the 1880s and 1890s by writing about Northwest pioneers for newspapers (Findlay 1991). It is worth noting that Meany and others sometimes highlighted Indians in their writing, including them as integral (if vanishing) parts of the pioneer generation (Harmon 1998: 145-47). The first version of Chief Seattle’s speech, published in the 1880s, appears to be still another effort to draw lessons for later-day audiences from the pioneer period of settlement.

Pioneer accounts of early settlement in the Northwest were generally characterized by a couple of important traits. First, they were instrumental in constructing and refining ideas about who was a “pioneer,” and ensuring that his or her role in Pacific Northwest history and identity would be preserved. Second, these accounts were almost always fiercely local rather than regional. Denny and Judson wrote primarily about very specific locales (Seattle, Lynden) rather than seeing themselves as part of a territory or state—let alone a multi-state entity such as the Pacific Northwest. Seattle and Lynden may have shared something of the pioneering experience; what else they had in common was not very clear to this generation of writers.

Pioneers did not command the Northwest literary scene by themselves in this period of development. The years between 1850 and 1920 witnessed production of the first plays, short stories, novels, and poetry by regional writers. Critics over the years have agreed that these efforts at literature were not very distinguished, although, by declaring them mediocre, particular critics have elevated these writings to a position of some historical, if not literary, importance in the narrative of literary progress. It was in reaction to these early plays, fiction, and poems, especially as found in local literary magazines and as taught in college writing courses, that James Stevens and H.L. Davis penned Status Rerum (1927)—the shrill complaint that looms large in virtually all accounts of the evolution of Pacific Northwest literature. Calling the great majority of regional writing from this era “tripe” and “bilge,” Stevens and Davis issued a call for more authentic, homegrown, higher quality literature.  Most critics since Status Rerum have generally accepted both its harsh diagnosis of Northwest writing and its prescription for producing better work. We take up Status Rerum, Stevens, and Davis more directly in the next section, “Aggressive Regionalism.” Here we wish to examine and expand upon the critics’ explanations for the quality of early “fine” literature in the Northwest.

Status Rerum complained that the Northwest was the only section of the country that had not produced a commendable body of regional writing, and it explained this failure (to the limited extent that it explained anything) by arguing in large part that Northwest writers had not come to terms adequately with the economic and environmental realities of the region. Critics since then have elaborated on the critique of Stevens and Davis. To account for the region’s literary backwardness, Glen Love (1993: xviii) explains that the Northwest, like most newly settled countries, went through a phase of slavish imitation of the eastern states from which most inhabitants of the region had come. George Venn (1979: 102) extends the argument further. Writing from this period generally relied upon “a transplanted set of literary techniques and attitudes” and produced a “predictable jargon.” Authors seemingly wrote to please readers who cared more for appropriate eastern appearances than for authentic regional content, and they used terms and images that generally struck Stevens, Davis, and other critics as inappropriate to the region, particularly its natural setting. Consider, for instance, Samuel L. Simpson’s poem “The Beautiful Willamette.” Of all the adjectives Simpson employed to describe the stream—“Waltzing, flashing,/ Tinkling, splashing,/ Limpid, volatile, and free”—none seemed specifically connected to the Northwest or rooted in the region’s environmental realities. Simpson might as well have been writing about a stream in New England, or Iowa, or Siberia. (Additional examples of this type of poetry may be found in Swenson [1998]).

While the critique of regional writing by Davis, Stevens, and others has some merit, an understanding of regional writing before the 1920s needs to be more complicated. First, it needs to be said that not all literature before Status Rerum was “tripe.” Some of it was better than mediocre, including work by James G. Swan, Owen Wister, C.E.S. Wood, John Reed, Opel Whitley, and Audrey Wurdemann. Second, during this era as a whole, U.S. culture (including American literature) experienced a broader shift from Victorian to Modern values, producing writers like Theodore Dreiser who did not share the moral certainties of earlier generations. From the Modernist vantage of the 1920s, much recent American literature seemed quaint, sentimental, and inappropriate to the realities of the day. If anything can be said about the Northwest in regard to this broader cultural shift, it may be that the region experienced the literary shift to Modernism more hesitantly than did other places. In other words, it was slower to produce its Dreisers, and most of its leading regional literary figures (such as Colonel E. Hofer, publisher for many mediocre poets in his magazine The Lariat) actively opposed such Modernist innovations as “free verse.” When Stevens and Davis began measuring Northwest writing by Modernist standards in the 1920s, it should not be surprising they found little (outside of their own work) that lived up to the new standard. Third, one must keep in mind that most major American publishing houses were located in the East. When regional authors wanted to publish something, they often had little choice but to package it for what they believed a very specific eastern audience—editors—wanted. Some Northwest authors did publish in Poetry, The New Yorker, and Atlantic occasionally. But the Pacific Northwest did not yet have enough clout or resources, in the world of culture, to dictate its own style.

To explain Northwest literature before Status Rerum requires still another step. James Stevens, H.L. Davis, and later critics may have disapproved on aesthetic grounds of regional writing before 1927 because it imitated the East too unthinkingly, but in fact that kind of writing was in many respects an accurate reflection of larger Northwest society. (Indeed, as Love [1986] demonstrates, Davis and Stevens themselves, in Status Rerum and elsewhere, clearly imitated the prose of H.L. Mencken, the Baltimore-based editor of American Mercury who ranked among the leading critics and stylists of the decade.) One of the largest preoccupations of Northwesterners in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was in fact to make their adopted region resemble the East as best they could (Findlay 1992: 8-11; Findlay 1997: 49-50). The overarching goal was explicitly imitative—to transplant eastern institutions and conventions to the West as quickly and thoroughly as might be done, to recreate eastern society in the Northwest as faithfully as possible. In other words, a great impulse of much of Northwestern society at this time was to make the region appear respectable to and acceptable by the East. Only a familiarly American region would succeed in attracting the investment and immigrants thought to be necessary for developing resources, gaining statehood, establishing schools and government and society. It would take decades before the region felt comfortable proclaiming a pattern of development that diverged from the national average.

Prior to the 1920s, then, Northwesterners generally labored to make their place familiar and respectable in the eyes of Easterners.  When Portland and Salem named themselves after New England towns; when Seattle almost adopted the name New York-Alki; when Tacoma and Seattle and Portland and Spokane hired the members of the Olmsted family to lay out park systems and city streets; when Portland and Seattle decided to follow other cities’ example by hosting international expositions in 1905 and 1909; when citizens in Seattle and Portland established literary societies—Northwest communities were demonstrating their ambition to cultivate or project cultural accomplishment that would put them on par with the eastern states. At first Northwesterners seldom succeeded in producing a convincing replica of eastern states, of course, and visitors from the East were often amused at the region’s pretensions to sophistication, especially when efforts in the cultural sphere mirrored so nakedly the boosterism of the place. But the main point is this: given the region’s powerful compulsion to model itself after the East, why should we expect Northwest literature to have been anything but imitative of what most professors and editors and readers considered “high culture”?

The influence of the East on regional identity went far beyond efforts within the Northwest to direct cultural production in an imitative direction.  Even if Northwesterners had wanted to assert their autonomy from the East, in literature or other realms, the task would have been very difficult. Politically and economically, as well as culturally, the Northwest was not in charge of either its own destiny or its own identity, because powerful eastern entities held great sway in the region. After Congress chartered the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1864, railway companies exerted unprecedented influence over the Northwest. The Northern Pacific company obtained enormous grants of land, particularly in Washington, and it and other corporations had substantial influence on territorial, state, and local governments. With the completion of the transcontinental line in 1883, the Northern Pacific Company launched a publicity campaign that did as much as anything to create an identity for the region. Among other things, railroad-sponsored advertising and promotion helped to cement the very idea of the Pacific Northwest as a multi-state region. Numerous promotional publications created a much stronger image of a “Northwest” than had ever existed before—either inside or outside the region. The railroad’s advertising effort helped many people to conceive of place as something other than their individual community, county, or state (Schwantes 1993; Findlay 1997:50-53). At the same time, different states and communities in the region also promoted themselves to outsiders. The Brewster Commercial Club (c. 1909) and the state of Washington (in 1920), for instance, promoted the agricultural prospects of the arid lands in Okanogan County. Like writings by discoverers, this was another literature aimed at Easterners, among others.

In addition to stimulating the production of promotional literature, the transcontinental railroads transformed the region in another important way. Simply put, they brought many more people to the Northwest than ever before. The 3-state region’s population increased dramatically, from around 280,000 in 1880 to 2,257,000 in 1910. Moreover, it became more diverse and more polarized. Large numbers of Chinese, Japanese, and African Americans arrived for the first time and became part of the literature. Their voices were not ones that James Stevens, H. L. Davis, and other regionalist critics tended to hear, when thinking about the emergence of a Northwest literature, but they were important nonetheless.

During the later nineteenth century, many African Americans arrived in the Northwest as labor for railroad companies. By the early twentieth century they had begun to settle particularly in cities. The Cayton family proved especially prominent in Seattle. Horace R. Cayton, Sr., edited newspapers for both white and black audiences, and his son Horace R. Cayton, Jr., became a sociologist and devoted part of an autobiography to his growing up in Seattle. Chinese immigrants also arrived in the Northwest, primarily as laborers for railroad companies and other employers. English-language accounts of the region by people of Chinese descent for this period are quite rare, but between 1900 and 1910 a woman named Sui Sin Far, born of a Chinese mother and Caucasian father, lived in Seattle; stories from her Mrs. Spring Fragrance (1917) were set in the city. Immigrants from Japan also wrote in and about the region. Poems by Issei offered another example of the Northwest being formatted in a (this time Far) Eastern format, and another example of newcomers bringing established cultural forms from elsewhere and adding regional content to them.

The arrival of larger numbers of African Americans and Asian Americans during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reflected the increasing incorporation of the Pacific Northwest into national and international networks. Improved transportation—over land by rail and on water by steamship—heightened the diversity of the regional population. Just as the authors of Status Rerum looked for some sort of distinctive Northwest voice in literature, then, in many respects the number of quite different Northwest voices was growing. Similarly, the increasing incorporation of the Northwest into the national and international system of capitalism produced growing social divisions within the region. An emphasis on extractive industry, a focus on exports, and an assortment of other economic conditions contributed to pronounced polarization in Pacific Northwest society.

Sharp class divisions as well as the distinctive regional tendency toward labor radicalism and utopianism—particularly notable in Washington and northern Idaho—found ample expression in regional writing during this era. (On radicalism and utopianism in the Northwest, see LeWarne 1975; Tyler 1967; Schwantes 1979.) The Industrial Workers of the World, a socialist union founded in 1905, attracted a striking amount of support in logging camps, among mill workers, around mining towns, and among other concentrations of workers. I.W.W. members, called Wobblies, played a substantial role in numerous labor actions and clashed with authorities in towns around the region. William D. Haywood left a memoir of his laboring and Wobbly career in the West and Northwest (Haywood 1929), and Anthony Lukas (1997) chronicled the Wobblies’ violent confrontations with capitalist authority in Idaho. Joe Hill and other songwriters put Wobbly perspectives on the industrial Northwest into verse. Other regional authors contributed utopian fiction. Jeff W. Hayes, a Portland businessman, modeled a futuristic novel about Portland in 1999 somewhat after Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. Of course, Anna Louise Strong was another radical writer, and John Reed—the only American buried in Moscow’s Red Square—was a Portland native.

The suffragist Abigail Scott Duniway may be considered, by contrast, less a radical and more a reformer of the progressive era. Her primary cause was the vote for women, a cause that has generally been lumped more with reform than with radicalism in people’s perception of the social ferment of the period around the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The fact that Duniway was reared in Victorian society made her less likely to accept some of the more modern, more radical trends affecting the region and nation. Yet in writing on behalf of suffrage Duniway could propose some quite radical ideas. Her statement that “The subjugation of women is the beginning of all evil” (Duniway 1914: 226) suggested a vision of social change that went beyond mere “reform.” Moreover, Duniway contributed greatly to writing about the region through editing the newspaper The New Northwest beginning in 1871 (and her use of the regional name antedated the railroads’ use of that concept). Finally, her own autobiography, Path-Breaking, followed other pioneers by drawing lessons from her experience as an overland migrant, and by continually contrasting the Northwest to the East. Unlike many writers of this period, Duniway’s cause of women’s suffrage gave her reasons for suggesting that the region stood markedly apart from the rest of the country. In this respect she anticipated the rise of Aggressive Regionalism in the Pacific Northwest.

Reading the Region Home Writing Home: Commentary Writing Home: Text
Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest