The awards–given out by the Washington Center for the Book (an affiliate of the Library of Congress Center for the Book, administered by the Washington State Library)–are intended only to honor “outstanding books published by Washington authors in 2021,” whatever their subject matter. But, of course, many Washington authors choose to write about this fascinating and beautiful part of the world.
This year’s list of finalists includes more than a dozen books that touch in some way on the Northwest. (My count is based on what I could determine by reading each book’s description, so there may be more.)
While the awards are “based on the strength of the publication’s literary merit, lasting importance and overall quality,” the judges all come from Washington, so having your book set in the Northwest can’t hurt, right?
Here’s a list of the Northwest-related finalists, some of which I’ll be reviewing on the WNW site in the coming weeks (just click on the title for a description):
When James Delmage Ross died suddenly on March 14, 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt mourned his passing by telling the country it had lost “one of the greatest Americans of our generation,” a man whose “successful career and especially his long service in behalf of the public interest are worthy of study by every American boy.”
Yet “J. D.,” as he was called by everyone who knew him—from the president to senators to children in his neighborhood—is virtually unknown today. Even in Seattle, where he was once the city’s most powerful—and popular—figure, those who recognize his name know it only because a dam and lake on the Upper Skagit River were dedicated to him.
In the Depression years, however, as the nation suffered the aftermath of predatory practices by private companies, Ross became known across the land as a tireless advocate for publicly-owned electrical power. FDR held him in such high regard, he chose him to sit on the Securities and Exchange Commission, to keep tabs on the country’s private power companies, and then to serve as the first superintendent of the Bonneville Power Administration, one of the most important strategic positions in the years leading up to World War II.
By then, Ross had built Seattle City Light into one of the world’s model municipally-owned power systems and championed changes to both the production and distribution of electricity that reduced power rates to a fraction of what they had once been. He had also toured the country for years, making the case for public control over the nation’s electrical grid.
If the country had listened to him—or he had lived longer—there’s no doubt our power system would be in much better shape than it is today and people everywhere would understand FDR’s words of praise.
A self-taught electrical engineer who rose from humble beginnings to become the ideal civil servant and a close friend of the 20th century’s most powerful president, Ross is the kind of figure whose story—and example—we need today. Which is why I’m pleased to announce that I’m writing the first biography to ever be written of him.
My work on Ross is being supported, in part, by the Oregon Historical Society’s 2022 Donald J. Sterling Senior Research Award in Pacific Northwest History. In the weeks ahead, I’ll be posting more about my finds in the months of research I’ve already done, as well as updates as the research and writing continue.
If you follow me on Instagram or Facebook–or go to my personal website, michaelnmcgregor.com–you’ll see images in the coming days from Ross’s hometown of Chatham, Ontario, once known as the Black Mecca because it served as a terminus for the Underground Railroad. His journey from Chatham to Seattle began in 1897 when he walked—walked!—from Edmonton, Alberta, to the Klondike gold fields after a doctor told him his lungs were failing and he needed more exercise.
[Dr. Laura Laffrado is a Professor of English at Western Washington University. Her full bio can be found at the end of her essay.]
In the last decades of the 19th century, the Pacific Northwest, especially the far corner of northwestern Washington, was a remote place where it was hard to earn a living and difficult to find the leisure to write, even if you were literate. If someone did manage to write something, the region was so distant from Northeastern publishing centers, there was little chance the writing would be published and even less that it would achieve literary success.
Yet there was one writer there—a woman—who was not only being published but winning national awards for her work. The Chicago Tribune claimed she had “the hallmark of genius.” The San Francisco Chronicle said her characters were “as strong, as individual, as any created by Dickens or Thackeray.” Others compared her writings to those of Jane Austen, Sarah Orne Jewett, Jack London, and Leo Tolstoy.
She was, in fact, the first Northwest writer to be nationally—and even internationally—recognized, a woman who, according to the Kansas City Star “revealed the wildness and witchery of that northwestern corner where, watched by immemorial pines, Puget Sound lies sparkling in the clean air, and the horizon sweeps down to the great blue ocean.” For readers across the country, she put the Northwest on the literary map.
Yet today Ella Rhoads Higginson is almost completely unknown.
When I first stumbled upon Higginson’s substantial holdings in the Washington State archives a few years ago, I was stunned, confused, excited, and nearly overwhelmed by unanswered questions. Who was this woman I’d never heard of? What kinds of things had she written? What could the twelve linear feet of her archive possibly contain? Why hadn’t I heard of her?
As I dove into researching her life and work, I learned that many people across the nation and around the world were first introduced to the Pacific Northwest when they read Higginson’s award-winning writing. Her descriptions of the majestic mountains, vast forests, and scenic waters made the distant and unfamiliar Northwest captivating. “Here comes a woman,” Philadelphia’s Globe Quarterly Review said, “all the way from Seattle, breathing the air of the Western mountains and seas.”
Remarkably, in her almost 80 years of life, Higginson (1862?-1940) authored over eight hundred works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and screenplays. She was published by the prestigious Macmillan Company in New York, earned best-story prizes from popular magazines such as Collier’s and McClure’s, and was Washington State’s first Poet Laureate. Popular composers set her poems to music and celebrated singers, including the great Enrico Caruso, performed and recorded them.
By the time Higginson died, however, both she and her work had been forgotten.
Higginson’s writings were especially notable in her day because they were set in Oregon and Washington, with infrequent forays into Alaska, British Columbia, and Idaho. At the time, the Northwest was not only remote and thinly populated but also largely male, and Eastern readers were captivated by it, especially as described by a woman.
Higginson’s first publication came in 1876, when an Oregon newspaper printed one of her poems. She was 14 years old. By then, her family had moved west from Kansas, where she was born. Although she attended public school, she was privately tutored and benefited from her parents’ substantial library. She might have become known exclusively as an Oregon writer if she hadn’t married Russell Carden Higginson (a distant cousin of New England author and editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson) in 1885 and moved with him to what is now Bellingham, Washington, where she lived the rest of her life.
It was a poem, too, that first earned Higginson a national reputation. When “Four-Leaf Clover” was published in 1890, it quickly became a nationwide—and then international—sensation. Appearing in periodicals and on postcards (see below), greeting cards, calendars, paper weights, and other ephemera, it was also set repeatedly to music. Even today, it is the one piece of writing her name is still connected to.
A savvy promoter of her own work, Higginson played on the popularity of her breakthrough poem every way she could. She named her dog Clover and her house Clover Hill. She wore four-leaf-clover jewelry and led an unsuccessful campaign for the wild clover to be named the official Washington State flower. She had four-leaf clovers imprinted on many of her books’ covers and used them on her bookplates. She even wrote a literary column for the Seattle Times called “Clover Leaves.”
But although “Four-Leaf Clover” was incredibly popular, it was only a tiny part of her body of work. Among her most important books are the short-story collections From the Land of the Snow Pearls (1897; originally published in 1896 as The Flower That Grew in the Sand) and AForest Orchid (1897), the poetry collections When the Birds Go North Again (1898) and The Voice of April-Land (1903), and her one completed novel, Mariella, of Out-West (1902), which some reviewers called the best novel of the season.
Her last book, the literary travelogue Alaska, the Great Country (1908), was called essential reading for any intrepid traveler headed north to Alaska.
All of these books sold well, ran through multiple printings, and were positively reviewed nationally and internationally. However, like many once-popular women writers, Higginson’s literary star dimmed in the early 20th century. Her books went out of print and her fame faded. Near the end of her life, aggrieved at being forgotten, she wrote on a folder of saved correspondence, “Letters from famous folks; and from publishers, proving that I didn’t need to seek publishers—they sought me.” (Emphasis in original).
Higginson died at 78 on December 27, 1940, and is buried in Bayview Cemetery in Bellingham, beneath a self-designed granite marker featuring four-leaf clovers, quotations from her poetry, and the proud line, “Ella Higginson, Poet-Writer.” It seemed at the time that no one would know her name or her work again.
Fortunately, though, after decades of obscurity, Higginson and her work have been rediscovered, not only by me but by other scholars and readers. Her writings are even being taught in high school and college courses today. Much remains to be done, however, to return her to the prominent position she deserves, as the first of the Pacific Northwest’s literary stars.
Ella Higginson books for sale! (Disclosure: WNW is an affiliate of Bookshop.org, where your purchases support local bookstores. If you purchase a book through a click on this website, we will earn a small commission that helps defray the costs of maintaining WritingtheNorthwest.com.)
The awful rise in attacks on Asian Americans in recent months has reminded me how horribly Chinese immigrants were treated in the Pacific Northwest in the latter half of the 19th century, as well as how difficult it has been through the years for local Asian Americans to be heard on issues affecting them.
Things have improved in recent decades but Americans and Canadians of Asian descent—who make up 9% of the population in Washington, 5% in Oregon, and an impressive 25% in British Columbia—are still underrepresented in the governments and news outlets in their regions.
Fortunately, in addition to more narrowly targeted newspapers, the Northwest now has three daily publications dedicated specifically to news and issues affecting Asian American residents: Asian Journal in Vancouver (BC), Northwest Asian Weekly in Seattle, and the The Asian Reporter in Portland.
A Little History
Asians and Asian Americans have maintained a continual presence in the Pacific Northwest since the 1850s, when the first Chinese miners migrated north to Oregon and Washington from California. These miners were soon followed by others who worked in salmon canneries and logging camps as laborers or cooks, or ran small businesses.
When the railroads began to snake their way into the Northwest, Chinese workers helped to blast pathways and lay rails, earning a reputation for diligence, skill, and speed—as well as the enmity of white workers, who hated them for their willingness to do more for less and their skin color.
As the 19th century progressed, other Asian groups followed, arriving from Japan, the Philippines, Hawaii, and elsewhere. Virtually all of these early Asian residents were young men willing to work hard for whatever they could earn.
By 1870, there were over 4,000 Asian immigrants in Idaho—a third of the population—as well as over 3,000 in Oregon, most of them Chinese. While there were fewer than 400 in Washington at that time, by 1880 that number had grown to over 3,000 too .
Despite being subject to targeted restrictions (such as special taxes and laws against marrying whites or owning property) and, in the mid-1880s, attacks by mobs, many of these residents remained in the area or returned when conditions improved. In other words, they persisted.
Even 1882’s vile Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese immigration into the U. S. for 10 years, didn’t shake the determination of those already in the country to stay and make their living wherever and however they could.
Northwest residents of Japanese extraction, of course, were subject to another cruel law in 1942, when President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which forced them to leave their homes, their farms, and their businesses to move to government-run internment camps. When World War II ended, many who went back to where they’d lived before the war had to start from scratch among neighbors who had greedily acquired the property they’d been forced to abandon.
While early Asian settlers in the Northwest sought both identity and protection in their own nation-of-origin-focused groups, a greater Asian American identification began to grow in the later part of the 20th century. In Seattle, for example, the former Chinatown was renamed the International District (over the objections of some Chinese leaders) to recognize the mingling of many Asian American groups in the area.
Although there have always been newspapers for Asian Americans from different groups (often published in languages other than English), it wasn’t until late in the 20th century that English-language papers focused on Asian Americans from all backgrounds began to appear in Northwest cities.
Today, as the percentage of people in the Northwest who identify as Asian American continues to grow, the news sites dedicated to keeping them informed and representing their interests are good sources for all Northwesterners wanting to expand their understanding of their neighbors and their vision of the world.
Here are some useful links related to news and other writing by and about Asian Americans in the Northwest:
When I was in the MFA program at Columbia University in the mid-1990s, a poetry professor assigned a book called The Business of Fancydancing (Hanging Loose Press, 1992) by a writer from my home state I’d never heard of: Sherman Alexie. When I turned the book over, the black-and-white on the back showed an enviably-young man in a checkered shirt beside a listing of journals he’d published in. Below was a quote from a front-page review in the New York Times that called the book “wide-ranging, dexterous and consistently capable of raising your neck hair.”
I don’t know that the book raised the hair anywhere on my body, but it did raise my consciousness and my sense of what poetry and short stories and writing of any kind can do and be. A Spokane/Coeur D’Alene Indian who seemed to love basketball as much as I did, Alexie not only knew how to explode expectations but how to challenge those who felt they had a right to impose them, and how to wrestle the language his people were forced to speak into forms and lines and juxtapositions that made it seem entirely new.
Here, for example, is a poem from that book called “Evolution”:
Buffalo Bill opens a pawn shop on the reservation
right across the border from the liquor store
and he stays open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
and the Indians come running in with jewelry
television sets, a VCR, a full-length beaded buckskin outfit
it took Inez Muse 12 years to finish. Buffalo Bill
takes everything the Indians have to offer, keeps it
all catalogued and filed in a storage room. The Indians
pawn their hands, saving their thumbs for last, they pawn
their skeletons, falling endlessly from the skin
and when the last Indian has pawned everything
but his heart, Buffalo Bill takes that for twenty bucks
closes up the pawn shop, paints a new sign over the old
calls his venture THE MUSEUM OF NATIVE AMERICAN CULTURES
charges the Indians five bucks a head to enter.
Sherman Alexie was not the first Native American writer to break through the white wall, but over the next 25 years he was certainly one of the most successful. And he did more to shine a light on the real lives of Indians in the Pacific Northwest than anyone else.
One year after Fancydancing, which contains a mix of poems and short stories, Alexie published his first all-story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1993). I didn’t need to see more than the title to know I’d love it and be challenged by it and feel uncomfortable reading it, all at once.
Until he stopped doing tours a few years ago, his readings were must-see events, with Alexie not only giving distinctive voices to individual characters but acting out his stories to both hilarious and poignant effect.
Unfortunately, not long after his memoir came out, several women stepped forth to say he had sexually harassed them. Since that time, he has remained quiet and a number of institutions have renamed or recalled awards associated with him or ended promotion of his books.
The question now is how we recognize or appreciate or contextualize one of the most important Native American voices in Pacific Northwest history. If we read his books, are we condoning his behavior? If we don’t read his books, are we denying ourselves and those who come after us an important perspective on our region, culture, and collective history? Is there a statute of limitations?
I don’t have any answers. All I can say is that back near the end of the 20th century a voice spoke to me in a language and form I’d never heard or seen before, and I will always be grateful for how it opened me up. How it challenged me. And how it changed me for the better.
Earlier this week, the winners of the 2022 Oregon Book Awards were announced. While the awards honor books by Oregon writers rather than books specifically about Oregon, a fair number of the award finalists are usually set in the state or explore some aspect of it.
Soon, I’ll be posting a review of one of this year’s finalist, rough house by Tina Ontiveros (this site’s first book review), but today I’m thinking of a wonderful and unique award winner I picked up at the ceremony a few years ago.
While he quotes from some academic sources–such as Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown’s classic look at the Columbia Chinook,The Chinook Indians: Traders of Lower Columbia(University of Oklahoma Press, 1976)–Aquilar’s main sources of information are other descendants of the Columbia tribes. And his intention isn’t to add to the historical record so much as give his people a sense of their own traditions, customs, and, yes, history.
“In a recent visit to Wolford Canyon, where I was brought up,” he writes, “there was only silence. The memories remain, but the echoes of the canyon are calm. No children play in the springwater pools. No sweathouse fires heat the rocks. No deer hides are soaking. No buckskin tanning. No gardens. No wheat or hay growing. The fields are now teeming with juniper trees where the golden heads of wheat once swayed to the whispers of the wind.”
To replace that silence, Aguilar excavates the memories of people he knows and others whose reminiscences have been recorded. Out of these and his own experiences, he weaves a kind of handbook for Chinook descendants like himself, especially the younger generations of the 21st century, who have no contact with anyone who lived by the old ways.
In the midst of chapters that explore the Chinooks’ traditional foods (both plants and animals), religions and beliefs, myths and legends, and warfare, Aguilar includes set pieces on practices such as the sweathouse, meat drying, the use of traditional nets, and something known as “butt slapping,” a way for native fishermen on platforms over the Columbia River to indicate which fish they’ve caught they want to keep for themselves.
The chapter on salmon fishing on the Columbia is worth the book’s cost alone. Not only does Aguilar evoke the heyday of Celilo Falls, he also talks about salmon runs, salmon festivals, fishing techniques, and customs that regulated how and where the salmon were fished for.
In other sections, he writes about the other species the Chinook relied on–Pacific lamprey, crayfish, sturgeon, smelt–and gives an exhaustive list of the plants they ate or used in other ways, as well as how they prepared them.
Beginning with his own experiences in forced boarding schools and government programs ,like one in the 1950s that attempted to get younger Indians to move off the reservation into cities, Aguilar takes us through the hardships his people have had to endure while also celebrating the endurance of a vibrant culture in danger of being completely lost.
One of the most important aspects of Aguilar’s project is his naming of individual tribal members, past and present–names that have been left out of the history books. He traces the lineage of individual names, tells us how names have been given, and looks at the meanings of those names. He is careful to name important local figures who are unknown to the general public and tell their stories too.
“The River People are the Northwest Klickitat and the Eastern-speaking Chinookan Kiksht,” Aguilar writes. “They are the Wascos, the Cascades, the Wishxams, the Clackamas, the Multnomahs, the Hood Rivers, the Skamanias, the Skilloots, and others who lived in villages on both sides of the Wilmaɬ, the Columbia River.”
By naming and writing for the descendants of these people–his people–Aquilar is trying to make sure they and their ways are not forgotten.
When the River Ran Wild!
Indian Traditions on the Mid-Columbia and the Warm Springs Reservation
by George W. Aguilar, Sr.
Published by Oregon Historical Press, in association with the University of Washington Press
A lot of my writing on this site so far has been focused on Washington and Oregon as the core states in what we call the Pacific Northwest, but the writer most associated with Northwest writing is probably a Montanan–Norman Maclean–in part because Maclean’s two books, A River Runs Through Itand Young Men and Fire are consciously about Northwest life: traditional Northwest life, iconic Northwest life, what we might call real Northwest life, for there’s nothing more Northwestern than his main subjects: fishing and trees.
But Maclean wrote about more than fishing and trees, of course–more even than family and fire. As James R. Frakes, who reviewed Young Men and Fire for the New York Times, wrote:
You can learn a lot from this book: detail-crammed pages on the special qualities of logging boots, on the delicate differences between ‘general and specials’ and ‘counter flies,’ on fighting forest fires, on the lost art of horse- and mule-packing, on cribbage, on draw poker, on iambic pentameter, and on ‘walking whorehouses.’ Also a lot about Montana, where drinking beer doesn’t count as drinking, where they don’t care whether the whiskey is much good if they can get strawberry pop for a chaser, and where being acquitted of killing a sheepherder isn’t the same as being innocent.
One of Maclean’s most important contributions to the literary world is his deft blending of fiction, memoir, and narrative nonfiction into something that is far more compelling and profound than if he had stayed in his lane, so to speak, trying to write only one of the three, as most writers are cautioned to do today. The one other writer I can think of who does something similar, though in a very different way, is W. G. Sebold.
Of course, Sebold wrote about places that have a long and valued literary tradition whereas Maclean wrote about a place the literary gatekeepers in New York and elsewhere gave little credence to. (Even the Frakes paragraph quoted above can be read as somewhat condescending.) As he relates in his Acknowledgements in River, Maclean had difficulty finding a publisher for his stories not only because he finished his collection when he was already in his 70s but also because they “turned out to be Western stories–as one publisher said in returning them, ‘These stories have trees in them.'”
In the end, it was the University of Chicago, where Maclean had been a professor for decades–teaching classes, creating programs, and helping students instead of doing his own creative writing–that published both of his books. Although the second one, Young Men and Fire, which he hadn’t quite finished when he died at 87 in 1990, dealt even more completely with trees (and those who fight the fires that threaten them), it won a National Book Critics Circle Award–a sign not that New York had embraced the Northwest but that readers had (and some of the wiser critics listened to them).
It was Robert Redford’s 1992 movie version of A River Runs Through It that transformed its central story from one readers loved into one embraced by the larger American culture. It was the Redford movie that made Maclean a household name. And it was his movie that turned western Montana into a mythical flyfishing paradise, leading to influx of wannabe fishermen and the buying up of former ranches and other rural lands.
But Maclean’s real Northwest, his traditional Northwest, his truly iconic Northwest is only approximated in Redford’s film. To find it, understand it, savor it, you have to dive into his books.
Note: For a deeper look at Maclean’s life and the real-life stories behind those in A River Runs Through It, check out his son John Maclean’s beautifully evocative and highly informative 2021 memoir, Home Waters: A Chronicle of Family and a River
It may be hard for Seattleites to swallow but their city didn’t count for much in anyone’s eyes but its own until the end of the 19th century. That’s when the city’s Chamber of Commerce hired a man named Erastus Brainerd to promote it–and the advertising campaign he concocted and carried out succeeded beyond anyone’s dreams.
From the time the first migrants moved west in the 1830s into what was then called the Oregon Country, Oregon’s Willamette Valley with its rich alluvial soil was the premier destination. And the town near the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette rivers that came to called Portland was the locus of white gatherings and businesses and, eventually, mansions built by those who struck it rich in agriculture, logging or fishing.
In time, more and more immigrants ventured north of the Columbia River and established towns in what would eventually become Washington Territory. But despite the hopes of groups like the original settlers of Seattle–who, when they founded their town in 1851, envisioned it as a future New York of the West Coast–no one paid much attention to the Puget Sound region except as a source of timber and other raw materials for cities like San Francisco.
When the Northern Pacific finally connected the NW to the rest of the country by rail in the 1870s, its line ran through Portland. And, although Seattle offered “7,500 town lots, 3,000 acres, $50,000 in cash, $200,000 in bonds, and a 30-foot-wide strip along its waterfront,” the railroad chose little-developed Tacoma as its Washington terminus. Between 1880 and 1890, Seattle managed to grow from a population of 3,500 to over 42,000, but most of the growth came in the timber industry and, when the Panic of 1893 caused a depression across the country, the Puget Sound region was especially hard hit.
But then came the opportunity that led to Erastus Brainerd’s advertising campaign and Seattle’s ascension to the pinnacle of NW city rankings: the Klondike Gold Rush. It lasted only a year, from 1897 to 1898, but while it was going on, an estimated 70,000 of the 100,000 people (mostly men) who traveled via Alaska to the Yukon Territory in northern Canada to seek their fortune passed through Seattle.
When the rush began, San Francisco was better equipped to outfit miners heading north, and Victoria and Vancouver in Canada were closer to the gold fields, but thanks to Brainerd’s promotion, Seattle became known worldwide as the place to start your Yukon adventure.
Appointed by the Chamber of Commerce shortly after the steamship Portland arrived in Seattle on July 17, 1897, with the first wave of weary but ecstatic miners and what one creative newspaper writer called “a ton of gold,” Brainerd lost no time in starting his campaign. The first thing he did was place ads in newspapers across the U. S. promoting Seattle as the “Gateway to the Yukon” although there was little to justify that claim.
[Brainerd] then convinced the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper to print a special edition focusing on this bogus claim.The newspaper printed more than 200,000 copies and mailed them to postmasters across the US for distribution at local post offices. Twenty thousand were sent to newspaper editors and business organizations in the United States and Europe. Ten thousand were mailed to mayors, town councils and librarians.
Next came a promotional pamphlet. Authorities in Europe were so impressed with the circular they reprinted and distributed it for free. And Brainerd kept the publicity machine running by writing letters to every governor and mayor in the U.S., requesting information on “how many men to expect in Seattle” for the gold rush. Included in the letters were maps and guides to the gold fields – through Seattle, of course.
San Francisco also staged a PR campaign, but in December 1897, a writer for a national magazine called their effort a “sluggish” affair that paled beside the spirit displayed by Seattle.
Vancouver and Victoria also promoted their advantages, but warned prospective miners about the dangers of the adventure, and the chance of finding no gold. Seattle also acknowledged the risks, but wisely urged travellers to guard against them by purchasing plenty of supplies – in Seattle!
A decade after the Klondike stampede not only lifted Seattle out of the depression but infused it with capital and labor and made it famous worldwide, the city hosted a world’s fair called the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. Running from June through October, the fair drew 3,700,000 to what, only a couple of decades before, had been a remote and mostly neglected corner of the United States.
The fair’s name was a nod to the success of Brainerd’s campaign and a signal that Seattle was setting its sights on something even bigger: being the gateway to the greater riches that lay across the Pacific.
You don’t have to do more than scratch the surface of Pacific Northwest history to see how unwelcoming the area has been for African Americans. Oregon’s constitution, enacted on this date (February 14) in 1859, made it illegal for Blacks to even stay overnight in the state. As late as 1941, Portland–the only Oregon city with more than a handful of African Americans–had fewer than 2,000 in a population of 300,000.
And Seattle wasn’t much better. Despite being desperate for workers at the start of World War II, Boeing refused to hire even highly skilled African Americans. And most of the neighborhoods in Seattle’s north end (where I grew up) were formed with covenants forbidding house sales to people of color.
The Northwest’s midsize cities, smaller towns, and rural areas were no better. Even now, it’s rare to see a Black face anywhere outside the larger cities. According to the Census Bureau, in 2020 Washington State was only 4% Black, Oregon 2%, and Idaho 1%.
Given this history, it will come as no shock to hear that the area’s white-owned newspapers generally ignored its Black residents. The dearth of stories about people who looked like her became so painful to Portland resident Kathryn Hall Boyle (1906-2003) that in 1937 she arranged for a meeting with the Oregonian‘s city editor to show him the pitiful number of Black-oriented articles she’d found in his paper. His response was to ask her to write something herself.
While Bogle’s article may have been a watershed moment for the area’s white press, it was far from the first piece to be written about African American life in the Northwest. The region has been home to Black-owned and Black-focused newspapers since at least the 1890s.
One of the region’s most successful early Black papers was the Northwest Enterprise, published from 1920 through 1952. Although centered in Seattle, the Enterprise had a Portland bureau where several women from the Bogle family served as editors. In fact, the Enterprise was an early leader in hiring women as writers and editors. You’ll find facsimiles of several issues of the paper here.
Today, you’ll find Northwest news for and about the African American community in several newspapers, including:
And for a fascinating look at many issues of Portland’s older African American newspapers, visit the Portland State University library’s Historic Black Newspapers of Oregon site, where you can browse and download editions from the Rutherford Family Collection.
by Michael Schepps (you’ll find a full bio, including a link to Schepps’s new book, Split Aces, at the end of the article)
Throughout much of his life, the writer Stewart Holbrook (1893-1964) was considered “perhaps the Pacific Northwest’s best-known personality.” In seemingly endless articles that garnered a devoted local readership and were often excerpted in the national press, Holbrook captured and caricatured what he called the country’s “Far Corner” during its rapid mid-20th century modernization, painting an indelible portrait whose legacy lives on today. But Holbrook did more than just portray the Northwest. His stylistic innovations in the field of creative nonfiction are the equal of the more-celebrated Joseph Mitchell, but he has never received the credit he deserves.
One of Holbrook’s primary interests was timber. After years of working in Northwest logging camps (as well as sojourns in the theater world and on the battlefields of France), he took a position in Portland in 1923 as the associate editor of the 4-L Lumber News, the mouthpiece for a government-and-industry-backed labor union meant to be an alternative to the radical Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies. Seeking to supplement his income through freelancing, he found a home in the pages of The Oregonian. There, he regaled readers with histories, character studies, and reportage about whatever crossed his path, including his observations during drinking sessions with the grizzled waterfront tough Edward “Spider” Johnson.
Written with considerable brio while invoking a demi-realm of myth and history, these articles are much of the reason for Holbrook’s lasting influence. In particular, his vivid evocation of the Pantagruelian proportions of Augustus Erickson’s gargantuan bar and the sinister chthonic depths of the city’s Shanghai Tunnels helped create the popular perception of nineteenth-century Portland as an “anything-goes” fantasia.
In Holbrook’s depiction, a wild drinking session at the “longest bar in the world” might end with the drinker being drugged and trafficked (alongside dead men and cigar-store statues) through tunnels honeycombing the waterfront, only to wake up in chains (while facing a year’s harsh service) on a rotting clipper ship rounding the Horn.
Although Holbrook’s work appeared in national publications such as TheNew Yorker, The American Mercury, and Esquire at the same time his East Coast contemporary Joseph Mitchell was publishing the charactersketches that would make him famous as a progenitor of what is called “new journalism,” he has never received adequate credit for his own innovations in prose. When literary historian Norman Sims named Joseph Mitchell a major influence on “new journalism” (or literary journalism) he pointed to Mitchell’s penchant for “merging fiction and nonfiction, the symbolic and the literal, biography and reportage, the real and the imagined landscapes of the city.” What is true for Mitchell is equally true for Holbrook.
Along with Mitchell, Holbrook wrote from a participant-observer perspective and often focused on “lowbrow” life, which are valuable tools today in any nonfiction writer’s toolkit. Of course, he shared some of Mitchell’s more questionable practices too, including the use of composite characters, invented dialogue, and hyperbole in the service of a larger truth (practices for which Mitchell has more recently suffered a dramatic reappraisal, with some even wondering if he was truly a journalist).
Read as imaginative literature or “literary journalism,” Holbrook’s work remains clean and compelling, the deeper truths beneath the varnish of embellishment and hyperbole shining through as bright as ever. But as serious history, it is greatly lacking. One historian has gone so far as to say that “repetition of a Holbrook fiction is a sure indication of lazy scholarship and gullibility.”
During his lifetime, Holbrook published over 30 books and countless articles. At its best, his work ties together strands of deep research and interviewing, a bright sense of place and character, and a singularly appealing voice. The East Coast transplant understood an essential truth about the region where he made his home and set his writing: it was a place of malleability and reinvention whose story had not yet been fully told—a place where the telling of its story could both define it and make it new.
Michael Schepps is a writer, editor and publisher in Portland. His exploration of authorial invention and identity continues in his debut noir novella Split Aces, available now from Korza Books, in both e-book and print. To read more of his work, visit MLSchepps.com.