How Writers Helped Shape the Myth of a New Eden

When choosing the name for this website, I considered calling it Writing About the Northwest, but I wanted the writing the site would explore to be more than that. It seemed to me writing related to a region like the NW doesn’t only describe it or explain it but also creates it, in the minds and hearts of its residents as well as outsiders. In effect, writers write a region into existence, delineating it characteristics, focusing its concerns, and forming its mythology.

While the core NW states of Oregon and Washington have much in common, they have many different characteristics, concerns, and even mythologies as well. If we go back to the 19th century, when the earliest stories of each were being told for those who didn’t live there yet, the defining vision for Oregon was of an Eden at the end of the Oregon Trail while for Washington–or at least its premier city–it was of a gateway to riches, those of the Klondike first and then of the Orient.

Neither of these visions, or the myths that grew up around them, developed organically or by accident. Before the middle of the 19th century, the NW was home only to indigenous tribes, trappers, soldiers at lonely outposts, and a few white missionaries far from the civilization they’d known. It wasn’t until the first group of migrants headed west from Missouri in the 1830s that Oregon was seen as a permanent destination for ordinary Americans. But once that migration began, the selling of Oregon did too.

Guidebooks about what was called the Oregon Country–similar to the one shown below for California–circulated not only in the Eastern parts of the United States but also in Europe. Outfitters and guides-for-hire advertised not only their supplies and services but also the wonders of the Pacific lands. Once immigrants had settled in the new region, they sent back letters praising their new homeland and encouraged others to move west.

One of the most popular books about the Oregon Trail was Frances Parkman’s The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life. The result of a two-month swing through several western states (although, ironically, not Oregon) when Parkman was 23, the book was serialized in Knickerbocker’s Magazine and then published as a book in 1949, when Eastern newspapers were full of stories about California gold. In his review of the book, Herman Melville praised it for its “true wild-game flavor” while excoriating the author for his “disdain and contempt” for the native people he traveled among.

The book launched Parkman’s career as a historian and storyteller while further popularizing the west as a place of excitement and adventure. Other, less-famous books (many of which did include descriptions of the Oregon Country) did the same, and soon what began as a trickle headed to the Willamette Valley became a flood.

Eventually, the British were driven out of what had been a disputed land and not only the Northwest territory but the entire United States had been transformed. Together with the miners and other settlers in California, the new farmers and ranchers in Oregon helped change the perception of America from a country with a tenuous hold in a new land to a place of endless progress and possibility that spanned an entire continent. And it was writers of works both truthful and fanciful who amplified that perception, turning it from speculation into destiny.

Note: In my next post, I’ll explore the very different vision that, a few years later, established Washington State’s place in the American–and world–consciousness.

Guest Post: A Veteran Sports Reporter Laments the Decline in Access for NW Journalists Today

by Bud Withers

[Bud Withers covered sports for decades in Eugene and Seattle. You’ll find his full bio at the end of this post, including information on his latest book, Mad Hoops. This writing is copyrighted and used by permission of the author.]

The other day, on the anniversary of the New York Jets’ ringing upset of the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III in Miami, ESPN showed a familiar video clip of Joe Namath lounging by the pool in the days before the game.

As an old journalist, I was inclined to assimilate that in old-journalist fashion: marveling at the access a TV cameraman had in 1969 to get a loose-and-easy shot of Namath.

When we think of today’s journalism compared to what I knew when I was coming up as a young reporter in 1970s Eugene, the difference is often about access, which is sort of the lifeblood of the business.

 Of course, newspapers had more cachet then. They were a bigger deal. There was no online competition, so, if only by number of outlets, the local paper stood out.

I covered University of Oregon football in those days, and to further our insights into the Ducks, my sports editor and I finagled a weekly lunch session with the UO football staff. Every fall Wednesday at noon, we’d pick up sandwiches and an assistant coach would show us game film, talking candidly – and off-the-record – about players and big-picture strategy. Occasionally, the head coach did it.

 Do you think Chris Petersen, the Washington coach a few years back, would have been party to something like this?

Closed practices? Practice was always open. Even Dick Harter, the Bobby Knight-like taskmaster who coached the Oregon basketball team, allowed media people into practice on the second level of old McArthur Court. In football, it was assumed you wouldn’t write about the double-reverse pass they were practicing, and the matter of practice injuries was something to be negotiated. But practices were open, unfailingly.

I covered the Hall of Fame curmudgeon Ralph Miller when he coached Oregon State basketball. Practice went from 2 to 4 p.m., and on multiple occasions, I was in his office interviewing him at 1:30. Two o’clock would come, 2:02, 2:03, before he’d pull himself away, knowing he hadn’t missed anything.

 Not only in the ‘70s, but for decades later, access remained relatively easy. The University of Washington had football media lunches and afterwards, coaches like Jim Lambright and Rick Neuheisel would routinely hang around, entertaining the one-on-one questions you didn’t want to ask in the group session.

In the 1990s, I worked at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which didn’t have a Sunday paper (anathema to a guy covering Saturday’s college-football game). So I convinced Lambright and the Washington publicist that we needed a Sunday-evening call from the coach to update the day-after view of the game for the Monday-morning paper, simply because we were disadvantaged. It wasn’t Lambright’s favorite thing, and he sometimes missed it, but he usually came through.

We struck deals with coaches. I don’t say that with pride, but we did it. I’d like to think it was mostly because of the paucity of news outlets–and a belief that a greater good was being served–than any shady relationship with the teams we were covering.

One time, an announcement came that a coach’s contract had been extended. I sought reaction, and to my surprise, several players issued a no-comment response. All of them were African American. It couldn’t be coincidence.

It would have been perfectly justifiable simply to report this reaction. But my boss decided that would raise more questions than it answered (I agreed). And it probably would have been a career killer for the coach. So we arranged a meeting with him that night and confronted him with the details. I don’t recall how we finessed writing the story, but it didn’t center on Black aversion to the contract extension. Our stance was that we knew something important that could be of use later – and yes, the coach now owed us one.

The propriety of our approach is debatable, but my point is that today, I don’t think the story unfolds that way. The landscape is too competitive.

Two things have dramatically cut into access, changing journalism forever. First, the camera phone. Everything can now be proven, and anything is subject to revelation, including a team’s secretive switch to a different defense.

Second, the number of news outlets. Fueled by online sites, that number has doubled, tripled and quadrupled the amount of coverage. In my little sports realm, where a coach might once have had a healthy relationship with a veteran beat writer, he’s surrounded today by people he may not know. People with camera phones. It’s the path of least resistance simply to shut it down, so closed practices are now the norm.

You can trace the trend by the evolution of post-game interviews. Once, the locker room was open–a steamy, smelly place that yielded an unvarnished look at the game. Over the years, the locker room gave way to a meeting room or hallway where you could move from player to player. Now, increasingly, players are brought to a podium or interview table and, knowing they’re speaking to everyone, provide sterile responses that reveal little. Naturally, this pleases team management, which sets things up this way to control the message.

We could debate endlessly how much diminished access has hurt journalism. Just know that when you see an exceptional newspaper story or an exemplary piece on TV today, it’s usually in spite of access, not because of it.

Bud Withers wrote for three Northwest dailies during a 45-year career in the newspaper business. A member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association Hall of Fame, he has authored five books. The latest, Mad Hoops, on the frenzied seven-year run of University of Oregon basketball’s “Kamikaze Kids,” is available at Amazon and Bookshop.org.

Click here for a Portland Tribune review of Mad Hoops.

Guest Post: Celebrating Ursula K. Le Guin’s Real and Imaginative Connections to a Place Called Portland

by David Naimon, co-author of Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing

[Editor’s note: The following is Naimon’s foreword to a new collection of writings by Portland writers called Dispatches from Anarres: Tales in Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin, edited by Susan DeFreitas and published by Portland-based Forest Avenue Press. In it, he discusses how Le Guin’s science fiction and other imaginative works reflect her experiences of living in the Pacific Northwest. You’ll find more information about Naimon and the book at the end of the post. This writing is copyrighted and used by permission of the author.]

Dispatches from Anarres is a tribute to the vision of Ursula K. Le Guin from writers who either live in or have a strong connection to Portland, Oregon, the city Le Guin called home for sixty of her eighty-eight years. The premise behind this book is not only that Portland shaped Le Guin’s writing but also that writers who live in Portland, who walk the same streets Le Guin once walked, in turn have been shaped by Le Guin, arguably Oregon’s greatest writer.

But are either of these notions, when examined, actually true? Yes, one of Le Guin’s canonical science fiction novels, The Lathe of Heaven, is set in a future Portland, but for the most part her science fiction and fantasy novels are set in imagined other worlds. Should we therefore consider Le Guin’s relationship to Portland in the same way we do Alice Munro’s to southwestern Ontario or Gwendolyn Brooks’s to Bronzeville, Chicago—places these writers’ work seemed to emerge from, be fed by, and grow out of? Le Guin often wrote about the importance of the imagination and put forth a philosophy that, interestingly, did not place the imagination in opposition to the real. Can a book be truly called “realistic” if it does not include the imaginative, given that our imaginative faculties are so central to what makes us human? Or as Ursula put it(more pithily than I ever could): “People who deny the existence of dragons are often eaten by dragons. From within.” And: “Children know perfectly well that unicorns aren’t real. But they also know that books about unicorns, if they are good books, are true books.” Le Guin was quick to point out that many of our foundational cultural texts, from Beowulf to Don Quixote, from The Odyssey to Hamlet, are in fact fantastical, imaginative works that are also true and real ones.

Outside of science fiction and fantasy, Le Guin did directly engage with “the real world.” Her poetry and nonfiction often explicitly spoke to the geography, culture, and ecology of Oregon and northern California. From a meditation on the street where she lived to poems written from her favorite cabin in the remote Steens Mountain region (where her family briefly homesteaded generations ago), these writings are rooted in the “here” of place. But when it came to her fiction, she said: “I seldom exploit experience directly. I do what the poet Gary Snyder calls ‘composting’—you let everything you do or think or read or feel sink down inside yourself and stay in the dark, and then (years later, maybe) something entirely new grows up out of that rich darkness. This takes patience.”

If everything Le Guin did or thought is part of this composting process—the process that led to the world of Earthsea and the planets of the Hainish cycle—then the metaphor of composting seems not a metaphor at all. Le Guin and the landscape she inhabited, literary and geographic, were inseparable. A founder of Oregon Institute of Literary Arts (the precursor to Portland’s most prominent literary organization, Literary Arts), she also taught writing workshops at Portland State University, at the Malheur Field Station in remote Harney County, Oregon, and at Fishtrap in the Wallowa Mountains. She was an enduring supporter of Portland’s KBOO community radio and of West Coast small presses, from the feminist sci-fi press Aqueduct in Seattle to Tin House in Portland to the anarchist AK Press in Chico, California. She explicitly credits the landscape of the Steens Mountain region of Oregon as an inspiration for The Tombs of Atuan, and that of northern California for Always Coming Home—and one could imagine, standing atop the high point of Orcas Island, Mount Constitution, in northern Washington, overlooking the watery wonderland of that island archipelago, that it too could’ve been a wellspring, if not the wellspring, for the world of Earthsea. Le Guin’s imagination arose from the Cascadia bioregion, and she continued to weave herself from it and back into it again. Her imaginative composting came from and returned to this land, this earth in particular. Taken in this light, Susan DeFreitas’s twinning of Portland and Anarres—not as a reductive one-to-one correspondence, but as a mysterious union of the real and the imaginative—makes sense.

In Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Anarres, the smaller planet in the double planetary system it shares with Urras, is considered lesser, not a planet at all, but rather a moon, a “rebel moon,” by its larger, wealthier, capitalistic, patriarchal neighbor. Long ago, in order to stop an anarchist rebellion, Urras agreed to allow the revolutionaries to live as they saw fit on Anarres, signing a noninterference pact to that effect. The anarchist society that arose on Anarres considered itself free and independent of the old world largely thanks to this pact.

For the longest time, Portland too was left alone, the forgotten big city on the West Coast. Without the immediately dramatic and stunning settings of San Francisco, Seattle, and Vancouver, Portland was a quiet inland port, one that lacked the scope of international commerce and cosmopolitan cultural influence of its outward-facing neighbor cities. And it was here, out of the spotlight, far from the hype, that artists and writers and dreamers, attracted by the cheap rent and affordable cost of living, were drawn to reinvent themselves. Whether it was the DIY ethos that developed here, the farm-to-table relationships that supported the local food movement, the family-like network of writers that emerged, or the radical acts of civil disobedience to protect the environment or protest the latest war (so prevalent that the first President Bush called Portland “Little Beirut”), the city emerged in many ways as a rebel moon.

Le Guin believed the notion of home was both imaginary and very real. “Home isn’t where they have to let you in. It’s not a place at all. Home is imaginary. Home, imagined, comes to be,” she said. “It is real, realer than any other place, but you can’t get to it unless your people show you how to imagine it—whoever your people are.” It is easy to imagine that these people—the tree sitters, the DIY artists, the community organizers—were not only inspired by Le Guin’s writing but also showed her how to imagine it. Le Guin was a listener, and a composter of what she heard. She advocated fellow feeling for the nonhuman “other,” for plants, animals, rocks, rivers, and even the tools we have fashioned from what the world has given us.

No wonder the stories of her fellow Portlanders, these dispatches from Anarres, include tales of women coming of age, women coming into their power, of tree-like networks in our brains, of tree-like networks as our brains, of the inquisitive and nostalgic remembrance of humans by ant collectives, and discussions of rebellion among bees. But there are tales that reveal the darker side of Portland as well. There is a reason Le Guin subtitled The Dispossessed “an ambiguous utopia.” Le Guin didn’t see the world through rose-colored glasses. Nor did she see Anarres or Portland this way.

As Jo Walton has pointed out, “Anarres could so easily be irritatingly perfect, but it isn’t. There are droughts and famines, petty bureaucrats and growing centralization of power.” And Portland’s self-regard, its self-mythologizing, its imagining itself into being as a place of self-reinvention, has often been fueled by historical and cultural amnesia. Founded on stolen indigenous land, built on the idea of racial exclusion, many Portlanders live here without a sense of the city’s history of redlining and displacement, of lash laws and internment. And as Portland has entered the spotlight, succumbing to a hype it had avoided for so long, housing prices have skyrocketed, the homeless population has exploded, communities of color have been pushed to its periphery, and Portland’s own utopic mythology has rightfully been called into question.

Samuel Delany suggests that the term “ambiguous utopia” is not meant to apply to Anarres in particular. That the peoples of Urras and Anarres both mistakenly believe they are living in a utopia. That Le Guin is questioning the notion of utopic visions altogether. “It’s only by problematizing the utopian notion,” Delany said, “by rendering its hard, hard perimeters somehow permeable, even undecidable, that you make it yield anything interesting.” This is what Le Guin has done. And under her spell, there are stories here that root the imaginative deeply in place, that suggest that there is no walking away from difficulty to create a happiness “over there.” Here we are, as in so many of Le Guin’s novels, in a place where people are imagining worlds into being that suggest both dystopic and utopic possible futures. Here we are with choices to make. About where to be, how to be, and what to imagine. Welcome to Dispatches from Anarres.

David Naimon is a writer and host of the literary podcast Between the Covers in Portland, Oregon.  He is also co-author, with Ursula K. Le Guin, of Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing (Tin House Books), winner of the 2019 Locus Award in nonfiction and a Hugo Award finalist.  His writing can be found in Orion, AGNI, Boulevard, Black Warrior Review and elsewhere.  It has received a Pushcart prize and been cited in Best American Essays, Best American Travel Writing and Best American Mystery & Suspense Stories.

~~~~~

Dispatches from Anarres: Tales in Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin, edited by Susan DeFreitas

Forest Avenue Press, Portland, Oregon

Published: November 2021

366 pages

$18

Contributors: TJ Acena, Kesha Ajọsẹ-Fisher, Stevan Allred, Jason Arias, Stewart C. Baker, Jonah Barrett, Curtis Chen, Tina Connolly, Mo Daviau, Rene Denfeld, Molly Gloss, Rachael K. Jones, Michelle Ruiz Keil, Juhea Kim, Jessie Kwak, Jason LaPier, Fonda Lee, David D. Levine, Gigi Little, Sonia Orin Lyris, Tracy Manaster, James Mapes, C.A. McDonald, David Naimon (foreword), Tim O’Leary, Ben Parzybok, Nicole Rosevear, Arwen Spicer, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Leni Zumas.

Rudyard Kipling Writes About NW Salmon…and Chinese Cannery Workers

Rudyard Kipling in 1907

Warning: Quotes in this article contain racist descriptions of early Chinese residents of the NW.

On the lookout for any kind of writing about the Pacific Northwest, especially early writing by writers from elsewhere, I was delighted to see Oregonian reporter Douglas Perry’s January 6 article, “How Rudyard Kipling’s salmon-hunting trip stamped Oregon in popular imagination.”

I didn’t know Kipling (1865-1936), the once-hugely-popular author of The Jungle Book and Kim, had ever been to the NW, let alone written about it.

Perry’s piece is focused on a selection from Kipling’s 1891 book American Notes that describes his excitement at catching a salmon on Oregon’s Clackamas River. At the time, Kipling, an Englishman in his mid-20s, was living in Vermont and already famous for his stories and essays about India, where he’d been born.

While noting that the author’s “Jungle Book” tales are still popular (with Disney releasing its live-action version just five years ago), Perry tells us up front that much of Kipling’s writing has long been considered dated. And racist too. (The teller of endearing stories about Mowgli and the mongoose Riki-Tiki-Tavi also offered demeaning view of Eastern lands and people steeped in white supremacy and justification of British colonization.)

Still, I was interested enough in Perry’s tale of the author’s fishing adventure–which included Kipling quotes about “living silver” that “leaped into the air” and “weeping tears of pure joy” after catching an 11-1/2-pound salmon–to click on a link that took me to an ebook version of the Kipling book.

I quickly located the section titled “American Salmon,” where I found Kipling’s account of traveling to the Clackamas by carriage “among fire-blackened stumps under pine-trees, along the corners of log fences, through hollows, which must be hopeless marsh in the winter, and up absurd gradients.” The description that followed–of hooking and landing the salmon–was both lively and overwrought. And apparently it made a big impression.

“With his recounting of the experience in print,” Perry writes, “Kipling helped stamp Oregon in the popular imagination, making clear to his many readers across the world, wrote one advocate, that a man who had ‘never felt the strike and seen the leap of an Oregon salmon had never really lived and was cheated of his birthright.’ This was no small endorsement at a time when most Americans knew nothing about the sparsely populated state.”

If we were to end the story there, as Perry does, we could fault Kipling for little more than helping form or perpetuate the myth of the Northwest as a paradise and playground for others like him. Unfortunately, there’s more to Kipling’s account of his visit to Oregon. Just before he describes his trip to the Clackamas, he tells us about a steamer ride on the Willamette River and a visit to a cannery:

We returned from The Dalles to Portland by the way we had come, the steamer stopping en route to pick up a night’s catch of one of the salmon wheels on the river, and to deliver it at a cannery downstream.

When the proprietor of the wheel announced that his take was two thousand two hundred and thirty pounds weight of fish, ‘and not a heavy catch neither,’ I thought he lied. But he sent the boxes aboard, and I counted the salmon by the hundred—huge fifty-pounders hardly dead, scores of twenty and thirty pounders, and a host of smaller fish. They were all Chenook salmon, as distinguished from the ‘steel head’ and the ‘silver side.’ That is to say, they were royal salmon, and California [Kipling’s companion] and I dropped a tear over them, as monarchs who deserved a better fate; but the lust of slaughter entered into our souls, and we talked fish and forgot the mountain scenery that had so moved us a day before.

The steamer halted at a rude wooden warehouse built on piles in a lonely reach of the river, and sent in the fish. I followed them up a scale-strewn, fishy incline that led to the cannery. The crazy building was quivering with the machinery on its floors, and a glittering bank of tin scraps twenty feet high showed where the waste was thrown after the cans had been punched.

Only Chinamen were employed on the work, and they looked like blood-besmeared yellow devils as they crossed the rifts of sunlight that lay upon the floor. When our consignment arrived, the rough wooden boxes broke of themselves as they were dumped down under a jet of water, and the salmon burst out in a stream of quicksilver. A Chinaman jerked up a twenty-pounder, beheaded and detailed it with two swift strokes of a knife, flicked out its internal arrangements with a third, and case it into a blood-dyed tank. The headless fish leaped from under his hands as though they were facing a rapid. Other Chinamen pulled them from the vat and thrust them under a thing like a chaff-cutter, which, descending, hewed them into unseemly red gobbets fit for the can.

More Chinamen, with yellow, crooked fingers, jammed the stuff into the cans, which slid down some marvellous machine forthwith, soldering their own tops as they passed. Each can was hastily tested for flaws, and then sunk with a hundred companions into a vat of boiling water, there to be half cooked for a few minutes. The cans bulged slightly after the operation, and were therefore slidden along by the trolleyful to men with needles and soldering-irons who vented them and soldered the aperture. Except for the label, the ‘Finest Columbia Salmon’ was ready for the market. I was impressed not so much with the speed of the manufacture as the character of the factory. Inside, on a floor ninety by forty, the most civilized and murderous of machinery. Outside, three footsteps, the thick-growing pines and the immense solitude of the hills. Our steamer only stayed twenty minutes at that place, but I counted two hundred and forty finished cans made from the catch of the previous night ere I left the slippery, blood-stained, scale-spangled, oily floors and the offal-smeared Chinamen.

The decade that preceded the writing of these words was filled with similar and even more repulsive descriptions of Chinese immigrants by writers of all kinds, especially on the West Coast. It was also filled with anti-Chinese riots, deportations, and killings, as well as the passing by Congress and signing by President Chester A. Arthur of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which, for the only time in US history, excluded an entire group of would-be immigrants from entry into the country on the basis of ethnicity alone.

What’s important to note is that white writers like Kipling, as well as their white readers, didn’t even notice how they were depicting these men from Asia, who, for them, weren’t men in the same way they were, if they were men at all. As a result, an otherwise interesting description of a NW cannery at work distorts and degrades both the workers and the work being done.

This is our challenge today, and one of the goals of this website: To render honestly the reality and legacy of writing about the Northwest–to recognize the myths and malice and misstatements, then tear through them, coming to a clearer view of what was and is and might be.

For further reading:

George Orwell on Rudyard Kipling

History of Chinese Americans in the Pacific Northwest

The Chinese Exclusion Act

Other Anti-Chinese Legislation in the United States

A Young NW Asian American’s Thoughts on Learning About Anti-Chinese Riots in Her Home State

More on Chinese Cannery Workers on the Columbia River (including a photo)

What Happens to Our Knowledge of a Place–Past or Present–When Daily Newspapers Face No Real Competition in Reporting the “News”?

Image from the Public Health Image Library, CDC / Minnesota Department Of Health; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

A few days ago, Portland’s Willamette Week brought momentary life to the local journalism scene by critiquing a new venture launched by its older, larger, and richer rival, The Oregonian. The critique, by reporter Aaron Mesh, is mild as critiques go, especially when judged by the rousing wars Northwest newspapers once engaged in, but it raises important questions about journalism today. One of them (raised, in part, by the mildness alone) is: What happens to our knowledge of a place–past or present–when daily newspapers face no real competition in reporting the news?

The venture Mesh critiques is the Oregonian’s three-month-old “Here Is Oregon” campaign, an attempt, as the HIO website says, to offer “a mix of features centered around our mission, to lift and celebrate Oregon.” Here’s part of what Mesh writes:

For three months now, Here is Oregon—which the paper’s executives describe as a “lifestyle brand” published on a website separate from OregonLive.com [the Oregonian’s main website] and in designated features in The Oregonian’s print edition—has provided Oregonian readers with a version of reality free from violent death and political disputes. The stories that populate the new website dwell on hiking trails, gingerbread houses and downtown cleanups. They arrive on a website free from the pandemic, shootings and stories about the homeless.

That’s a dramatic break from the dire—and usually accurate—portrait of the city The Oregonian regularly presents to readers.

Your first thought might be: So what’s the problem? What’s wrong with the Oregonian publishing more positive stories at a time when so much of the news, as Mesh suggests, is unrelentingly “dire”? To which I (and Mesh as well, I imagine) would answer: Nothing…if those stories were woven into the newspaper’s regular offerings and kept separate from content offered by businesses and trade groups.

The problem is: they’re not. The HIO website says it is being produced “by Oregonian Media Group in collaboration with our newsroom and marketing departments.” [Emphasis mine.] And what is Oregonian Media Group? Click over to its website and you’ll find this description: “Oregonian Media Group is a media company that provides strategic marketing and advertising solutions to businesses locally, regionally and nationally.”

Here’s Mesh again:

The happy-news service is the brainchild of two Oregonian Media Group executives with close ties to the Portland Business Alliance, the city’s chamber of commerce. In a year when Portland’s reputation is circling the drain nationally, the newspaper, which is owned by the wealthy Newhouse family, is betting that readers want more stories dedicated to loyal geese and small-town heroes.

But as an election looms where Portland’s dismaying present and uncertain future are a top-of-mind issue for voters, The Oregonian’s new strategy could create two competing narratives: gritty reality versus an airbrushed version of a hip, happy and healthy Oregon that some wish existed.

In other words, the “happy-news service,” developed in conjunction with marketers, advertisers, and business people, is offering a myth, a fantasy, an alternate reality, and doing so with the imprimatur of Portland’s only daily newspaper (which makes it ipso facto Oregon’s newspaper of record).

Kudos to Willlamette Week (the only weekly to ever win a Pulitzer Prize in investigative journalism) for questioning the motives, the concept, and the content in the Oregonian’s new offering. At a time when corporations and commerce are extending their tentacles into every corner of American society, it’s important to ask what happens when our few remaining traditional news outlets divide the “news” into “negative” and “positive” in order to offer a sunnier view to help businesses. How long before marketing surveys and focus-group results cause the harder news—investigations of politicians and powerful business owners, reports of police abuse or neglect of crime, even community complaints—to simply fade away?

But, Pulitzer aside, a weekly is no match for a well-financed daily. For one thing, it can’t offer enough content to provide a counterpoint to whatever bent or bias the larger paper has. No matter how “objective” the Oregonian’s professional reporters and editors try to be, they will see and hear only what they see and hear, and they will always be influenced to some degree by the values and intentions of those who own and run their newspaper. Which means the city’s daily historical record contains only one primary point of view.

The same is true in Seattle, where the once-robust Post-Intelligencer has shrunk to an online-only publication, leaving the Seattle Times as the city’s only print daily.

The loss of America’s daily newspapers isn’t new anymore, of course. Nor is the question of where Americans can get reliable and relatively bias-free news about their communities today. My concern here is somewhat different. In doing research on Seattle in the earliest part of the 20th century, I’ve been able to form a fuller picture of the city, its people, and its concerns by reading the often-different accounts of events and issues in the Seattle Times, the Seattle P-I, the long-gone Seattle Star, and even an old weekly, the Argus.

Writers for those different papers, each with a different slant, often disagreed with each other, challenged each other, and strove to out-report and even out-reason each other. Because of that lively competition and difference, I’m able to get a truer sense of what a place and its people were like than I could if there had been only one newspaper of record or, God forbid, those papers had let marketers and business people persuade them to divide the news into “positive” and “negative.”

The questions that concerns me are: How will future writers and historians determine the true nature of the people, issues, and troubles of our time? In the nearer future, how will we measure how far our society has progressed or regressed in particular areas if we lack more than one written viewpoint on what we experienced, discussed, and fought about from day to day? These questions grow harder and darker when we let our perceptions of what is “positive” or “negative”—or the desires of marketers and business leaders—determine where and how we report and record the “news.”

Where and What Do We Mean When We Say “the Pacific Northwest”?

Map of the Oregon Territory, 1841, courtesy of the Library of Congress

Before we talk too much about writing the Northwest, we should attempt to define where and what the Northwest is. One of the few writers who has tried to write comprehensively about the region, historian Carlos Arnaldo Schwantes, who taught for many years at the University of Idaho, has written:

The fact is that Pacific Northwesterners themselves cannot agree upon their region’s bounds. In addition to the generally accepted core states of Washington and Oregon, some people would include western Montana and even northern California and British Columbia within the region. Idaho presents the greatest challenge to easy classification because some residents perceive their state as oriented toward Oregon, Washington, and the Pacific Rim, while others consider it part of the intermountain West that includes Montana and Utah….Some scholars classify Oregon and Washington within the Far West or Pacific states and Idaho within the Mountain states, or the separate the lush, green Douglas fir country of Oregon and Washington west of the Cascade mountains from the high, often arid interior.

Schwantes ultimately settles on the complete states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho for the purposes of his book. “Several unifying forces operate within this 250,000-square-mile region,” he writes, “the Columbia River and its numerous tributaries, networks of transportation and communication, patterns of trade and commerce, and a special sense of place derived from history and geography. These integrative forces lessen internal divisions caused by mountain ranges, distance, state boundaries, and differing economic activities and political and religious cultures.”

These words are in the “Revised and Enlarged Edition” of Schwantes book The Pacific Northwest: An Interpretive History, published in 1996. In the 25 years since that edition appeared, those “integrative forces” seem to have become less integrative. Today, there’s a growing movement in some Oregon counties to secede from that state and become part of Idaho, which some residents feel is a better fit culturally, politically, and even geographically. In both Washington and Oregon, the wetter western half seems to be perennially at war over issue after issue with the dryer eastern half. Many residents in the Klamath Basin identify largely with the drainage area of the Klamath River, which crosses from Oregon into California. In some recent summers, wildfires in British Columbia laid blankets of smoke over Washington, suggesting at least an environmental link between those two entities. And in 1964, a 9.2 earthquake in Alaska (which some historians have argued should be considered part of the Pacific Northwest) set Seattle’s Space Needle swaying.

If we consider the older connections between indigenous populations, we find other patterns and alliances, such as the similar cultures along the Pacific coast above and below the current US-Canada border and the trading centers along the Columbia River that drew people from tribes near and far.

Then there’s the Cascadia Movement, dedicated to the forming of an independent nation composed of the current-day areas of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia—the core of the s-called “Cascadia bioregion.” According to Wikipedia, Cascadian secessionists “generally state that their political motivations deal mostly with political, economic, cultural, and ecological ties, as well as the beliefs that the eastern federal governments are out of touch, slow to respond, and hinder provincial and state attempts at further bioregional integration.”

We could divide ourselves up in many other ways too: loggers vs. farmers, salmon country vs. wheat land, predominately urban regions vs. those that are mainly rural, mountain land vs. flat land, places where dams are mostly for power vs. those where they’re seen as mostly for irrigation, diverse areas vs. those with more of a monoculture.

In the end, though, what makes the Pacific Northwest interesting and worth writing about is that it has all of these various geographical, environmental, historical, cultural, occupational, political, and natural elements. And historically, the divide between these micro-regions was less pronounced than it seems to be today. People think of transient populations as appearing mostly in big cities now, but migrant farmworkers have long moved through the Northwest’s farming regions, and throughout Northwest history ad hoc groups of workers, mostly men, have gravitated from logging to harvesting to work or idleness in towns and cities.

So what are the boundaries of the Pacific Northwest? For the purposes of this website, let’s say it is centered in the core states of Washington and Oregon but includes Idaho and at least half of Montana and maybe parts of lower British Columbia too. But if someone writes about two explorers sent across the country by a president to find a Northwest Passage, or a college kid from Seattle who earns money in a cannery in Alaska, or the division of water rights on a fragile river that flows from Oregon into California, or the migration of Mormons across the Idaho-Utah border, all of that is welcome here too.

I’m interested less in strict definitions than self-identifications and the kinds of re-definings that make anything, from a person to a region to a concept, fresh and new.

Visions of NW Writing: Nature, Stereotypes, and the White Default

Fishing, ca. 1920, Asahel Curtis, General Subjects Photograph Collection, 1845-2005, Washington State Archives, Digital Archives, http://www.digitalarchives.wa.gov, accessed: 11-4-21

If you Google “writing the Northwest,” one link that pops up is a 2004 tongue-in-cheek piece from The Stranger called “How to Write a Great Northwest Novel.” Among the elements author Ryan Boudinot suggests be included are several that are nature-centric: salmon, weather, and trees. While the others—like strong-willed women, technology and industry, and boats or cancer—don’t relate exclusively to white people, it’s hard not to think the type of novel Boudinot is poking fun at would have a white protagonist and be written by a white author.

 Another link you’ll find is for a film called “Writing Oregon,” a lush tribute to the natural beauty of that state, with gorgeous video of gently flowing streams, snow-capped mountains, and austere sageland alternating with writers talking about the importance of being in nature and the dire need to preserve it. Although the film includes poems by Native American authors, all but one of the writers who appear on screen are white.

A third link takes you to the home page for the Oregon State University MFA in Creative Writing program’s ongoing Literary Northwest Series, in which 23 of the 27 writers who have read to date have been white. (I don’t know how many of these writers write about nature or even about the NW, but it’s a good bet many of them do.)

I list these items not to criticize the people who put them together or those who appeared in the Oregon film or have read in the OSU series, but merely to point out how much of what people (inside and outside the NW) have imagined to be “Northwest writing” has been related to nature and written by white people.

(In more recent years, Boudinot has founded an organization called Seattle City of Literature which runs a program called Racial Equality and the Literary Arts and has a board with a majority of people of color, while OSU’s MFA program has brought an impressive number of writers of color to campus for its Visiting Writers Series and actively pursues diversity. As for the film, its focus is nature and the writers featured in it have devoted much of their writing to the celebration and preservation of nature.)

Even now, in the midst of a racial reckoning and reevaluation, when some of the most visible protests have taken place in Portland and Seattle, the visions readers have of NW writers and writing subjects generally have little to do with people of color. They also have little to do with the parts of cities where most Chinese immigrants, Asian Americans, and African Americans in the NW have resided; the kinds of farming most Japanese did before WWII or many Latinx immigrants have been forced to do; or earlier regional battles for racial justice.

If you were to ask most readers—especially those from other areas—what antagonists NW characters face, their answers would likely be: environmental threats, the hardships of living in nature, natural disasters like fire or earthquakes, internal demons (brought on by all that rain, you know), and maybe—just maybe—some kind of prejudice, generally of the settlers-vs.-Indians sort. (The online summary of the entry on “Writing the Pacific Northwest” in Cambridge University Press’s A History of Western American Literature, for example, is devoted exclusively to what it calls “the persistence of the Pacific Northwest as an ecological rather than social or political imaginary.”) The unexamined assumption behind most of these is that the protagonists and authors are white.

It’s no surprise, of course, that most literature written about the Northwest up to and including the 21st century has been written by whites and focused on white interests. Since the devastation of the indigenous population in the 18th and 19th centuries, the region’s residents have been overwhelmingly white and the writers born of this dominant group have written for white audiences. While many of these authors have written books that are deeply sensitive (especially toward indigenous culture) and focused in the broadest sense on what it means to be human, the fact remains that the experiences of NW people of color have been terribly underrepresented.

Among the voices seldom heard beyond a small circle are those of: the Native Americans who have outlasted repeated white predations; the Chinese immigrants who settled in the area in the 19th and early 20th centuries, only to be driven out again; the tens of thousands of African Americans who’ve flowed into the region since the start of World War II; the Japanese Americans who developed successful farms and small businesses before being brutally bundled off to internment camps; and the increasing number of Latinxs, Asians and Asian Americans who have arrived in more recent times to take jobs in the tech industry and a wide variety of other fields.

There have been exceptions, of course, to the lack of attention paid to the lives lived by NW people of color. Among the breakthrough books are:

* Almost anything by Sherman Alexie, who did more than anyone else to highlight the self-told history and contemporary life of NW Native Americans before his personal actions caused many readers to shun him.

* Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s widely-read Thousand Pieces of Gold, which explores the plight of Chinese immigrants in the days before and after the Chinese Exclusion Act.

* Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, which gives a glimpse of prewar Japanese American life in Seattle before taking readers into the hardships caused by FDR’s Executive Order 9066.

* Mitchell S. Jackson’s bestselling novel Residue Years and his hugely popular memoir Survival Math, both evocations of daily life in the Black areas of N. Portland.

Fortunately, in a region of increasing diversity, more and more writers of color are publishing works about their own experiences, as well as the stories of relatives, historical figures, or imaginary characters living rich and often difficult lives. These works provide alternative views not only of the NW but also of life itself—views that have the potential to move readers beyond the stereotypes of the past, showing them that the NW is more than salmon, weather, and trees.

Links to help you find some of these writings:

* From the Seattle Library: “PNW Asian American and Pacific Islander Authors

* From Humanities Washington: University of Washington English Professor Anu Taranath’s “Top Ten Pacific Northwest Authors of Color

* The Seattle-based African-American Writers’ Alliance

* Resilience Through Writing: A Bibliographic Guide to Indigenous-Authored Publications in the Pacific Northwest before 1960 (The writings here aren’t literary, per se, but the 2,000 entries give some idea of the volume of Native American writing available.)

A few books you might start with:

These offerings are only a sample of all that’s available.

What are your favorite books that explore the NW lives of people of color?

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What Does It Mean to “Write the Northwest” Today?

Exactly 75 years ago—on Halloween weekend in 1946—a group of authors, journalists and academics gathered for three days at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, for the first and only Writers’ Conference on the Northwest. The conference organizers’ stated aim was not to hold a traditional writers’ conference, in which young writers learn from more-established writers, but to discuss the essence, history and future of a region: the Pacific Northwest.

In his introductory remarks, Reed College President Peter H. Odegard said that, in many respects, “the Pacific Northwest is coming of age. In literature and art, in history and biography, in music, the record and resources of the region should be a source of pride and confidence. We need to discover our own cultural heritage and to encourage our own youth to look about in their own back yard to find inspiration and employment for their creative talents. It ought not to be necessary for them to go to New York for recognition or for their need of glory and reward. New York will come to them.”

The conference took place just after the end of World War II, which did more to focus attention on the Northwest than anything before it. Northwest contributions were viewed as vital to the Allies’ victory: Boeing planes built in Seattle, Kaiser ships assembled in Portland and Vancouver, nuclear weapons created in secret at Hanford, and aluminum and other metals forged in scattered plants—all powered by FDR’s huge new Columbia River dams.

Given what Odegard called the region’s “coming of age” and the inevitable self-examination (and self-regard) occasioned by its outsized role in the war, it must have seemed natural in 1946 to consider how those writing about the region would depict it. After all, scant years before the war, the Northwest had been a backwater to most Americans.

“During most of its history,” Odegard said, “the Pacific Northwest has been a colonial outpost of the East. It has been looked upon and has regarded itself as a source of raw materials to be shipped to eastern cities for processing or fabrication.” After comparing the region to the American South and talking about “cultural colonialism,” in which a region or country is guided by cultural standards set elsewhere, he proclaimed, “There are signs that the colonial period of northwestern history may be coming to a close.”

While Odegard and the other conference participants—including politician and journalist Richard L. Neuberger, folk writer and Northwest interpreter Stewart Holbrook, and noted Columbia University historian Carl Van Doren—deserve some credit for beginning the difficult task of defining a region in literary and historical terms, they, like other white men of their time (and today), failed to see that what they were engaged in was a colonializing enterprise itself.

The Pacific Northwest they were discussing was a white Pacific Northwest that began, in their minds, when “tens of thousands of migrants” moved into a region that “lay hidden on the outer fringes of western civilization, inhabited only by people of primitive culture, whose science was magic and whose literature was the folklore of the tribe.

It goes without saying, I suppose, that all of the conference organizers and speakers were white men, as were all but a few of the participants in its discussion panels—and those few were white women.

I learned about the 1946 conference when, in the course of doing research for a Northwest-centered project, I discovered a book called Northwest Harvest: A Regional Stock-Taking (The MacMillan Co., 1948), a collection of the conference’s major papers. As you might expect, given the time and makeup of the conference, the entries in it are chockful of ethnocentric and supremacist views, not only of the Northwest but of literature, the United States, and the idea of “progress.” Its main value lies in the snapshot it gives of dominant-culture thinking about the Northwest at a time when its straight, white, privileged, and male inhabitants were just beginning to consider it a distinct place.

The purpose of this website is to do a new kind of stock-taking—to present and examine literary and historical depictions of the Pacific Northwest in a contemporary context. Over the past 75 years, the Northwest has become not only a place people pay attention to but also a place of diverse perspectives and strong, divergent voices. Among the Northwest writers who have entered the national literary conversation are: Mitchell S. Jackson, Cheryl Strayed, Kathleen Dean Moore, Sherman Alexie, David James Duncan, Molly Gloss, Sharma Shields, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Timothy Egan. The visions these writers present of the Northwest region are not only vastly different from those expressed in that 1946 conference, they’re also vastly different from one another.

While contemplation of contemporary literary depictions of Northwest life and history will be one of the website’s main aims, it will also present less-lofty considerations of the region’s history, environment, social change, and popular culture. The main intent is simply to explore the many ways writers and others are—and have been—Writing the Northwest.

To that end, I hope you’ll send me suggestions for topics to explore and writings to present or link to, especially those that might be less-known. And if you have a post to propose, please send me a query. I’ll get things started with a few initial posts, but my hope is to make this site a place of many viewpoints and robust discussion.

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