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)

Guest Post: The Myth of the “Other World” in Oregon-Set Films

by Michael Schepps

Despite Oregon’s geographic proximity to Hollywood, films shot in the state are a rarity. Rarer still are films actually set in Oregon, films that embrace it as a place unto itself. The singularity of the setting and its place in the American psyche may help account for this paucity. Oregon, and the larger bioregion of the Pacific Northwest, continues to occupy a place apart in the American imagination, ensuring that its presence in narrative ties neatly in with the storytelling motif of the monomyth, or hero’s journey. This trope refers to the quest in which an individual must enter the “other world” in order to achieve a victory before returning, changed, to the world from which they came. This storytelling framework helps account for the enduring popularity of some of Oregon’s most defining films: the adolescent quest narratives of Stand By Me, The Goonies, and Coraline.

 For generations, “The Oregon Trail”—whether as an actual physical track, the beguiling siren for scores of itinerants throughout the 19th century,  or as the setting for a ubiquitous computer game— represented the ultimate terminality, the promised destination at the end of the arduous odyssey. In some atavistic  corner of the American psyche, the Northwest remains a transcendental locale shaped by the journey and the quest when contrasted with the “ordinary world” of the remainder of the country.  On film that division  is even stronger. Much of  the Pacific Northwest is filmically distinct, encompassing ecological and geographical extremes and standing utterly apart. In cinema, Oregon is a fantastical place—the other world— where anything can happen.

In 1986’s Stand By Me, director Rob Reiner replaces the Maine of Stephen King’s original short story with the small town of Brownsville in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The Oregon landscape reflects and enhances the gauzy second-order nostalgia of the post-war pastiche, in which a group of boys encounter the ultimate terminality of death in the form of a rumored cadaver. Quietly moldering pioneer townships and vital, pulsing greenery, with death lurking in the margins, are perfect for inducing an “otherworldly” presence, which helps account for the movie’s enduring popularity. The environment is a strange and threatening place—full of rattling trains on narrow bridges, hungry leeches and murderous bullies—the crucible in which the realized adult is formed. To travel there, in memory or on foot, is a challenge. 

Offering a more fantastical take on a similar adolescent quest narrative, 1985’s Goonies is another beloved classic with lasting influence among those who came of age in the 1980s and 90s. Trading the verdant landscape of the Willamette Valley for the riparian setting of the Oregon Coast and the Columbia River, Goonies has the feel of a 19th century “boy’s own” adventure transplanted to the gently decaying rot of Reagen-era Astoria. 

The propulsive script is fully immersed in the tropes of the monomyth. In it, a group of children–the titular Goonies– undertake a collective quest to find a pirate’s treasure, dodging obstacles in the form of murderous gangsters and elaborate booby-traps, in the hopes of saving their neighborhood from development. The “otherworldliness” of its ordinary setting is established in the opening scene, with a high-speed car chase sweeping through Astoria and ending near the remarkable seaside monolith of Haystack Rock. Long before the Goonies embark on their own journey into the fantastical, the viewer is transported to the numinous landscape of the Northwest itself.

A more recent addition to the canon of coming-of-age narratives set in Oregon, Laika’s 2009 hit Coraline takes the uncanny possibilities of the region to the extreme. The protagonist, the eponymous Coraline, begins the story newly transplanted from Michigan to the damp surreality of Ashland, Oregon. It is a grim and sodden place, inhabited by eccentrics and semi-neglected children, where the ignored Coraline soon discovers a mysterious portal to a literal “other world” in the form of a sinister mirror to her own.

Here the usage of the hero’s journey is explicit, with the “other world” a defined location and named as such.  Coraline’s journey to, and subsequent flight from, this other world helps define her presence in the ordinary world, the exoticism of the Ashland setting made pedestrian in contrast to the baleful other. 

As a new cohort of artists and filmmakers arises in the Pacific Northwest, Oregon’s potential as a narrative setting remains large and largely unexplored. The success of Travel Oregon’s recent Only Slightly Exaggerated” campaign, with its surreal  Miyazaki-inspired depiction of the state, points to the ways the state remains distinct; with a setting that can accept, challenge  and strengthen whatever narrative it encounters.

[Editor’s note: A more recent addition to the kind of Oregon cinema Schepps explores here is “Leave No Trace,” based on the novel My Abandonment by Portland writer Peter Rock.]

Michael Schepps lives in Portland, Oregon where he is an editor for Kithe Journal, a publisher with Korza Books and a writer at large. In his free time he juggles, hikes and takes photographs of birds. For more of his work, go to MLSchepps.com and look for his debut novella Split Aces, to be released on January 22, 2022. 

A Small NW Museum’s Presentation of a Japanese American’s Life and Art Raises the Question of What Might Have Been…

Sometimes you find the most interesting and informative visions of an area like the Pacific Northwest in out-of the-way places. After reading an article in the Seattle Times, my wife and I traveled out to Edmonds, WA, the other day to view the works of Kenjiro Nomura, an amazing and quintessentially NW artist who moved to Washington state from Gifu, Japan, in 1907 when he was 11.

Within a few years, Nomura was studying with the Dutch immigrant artist Fokko Tadama, who, according to the exhibit, “taught a plein air style of painting with loose brushwork that was similar to impressionism.” Like Nomura, many of Tadama’s students were of Japanese heritage and began to be recognized for the quality of their work while still students. That is to say, a group of talented young Japanese and Japanese American artists was thriving in the Seattle area as early as the 1910s.

Portrait, 1925, Kenjiro Nomura

Throughout the 20’s and 30’s, Nomura continued to grow as an artist, painting both urban scenes and landscapes in oils and watercolors. Somewhere around 1930, he moved beyond Tadama’s impressionist style and developed a more modernist style of his own: “a personalized approach that emphasized form, color, texture, and the atmospheric light unique to this region.” When the Seattle Art Museum opened in 1933, Nomura was the first local artist to have a solo exhibition there. Soon, his work was being exhibited across the country.

Yesler Way, 1934, Kenjiro Nomura

During the depths of the Depression in 1933-34, Nomura was part of the New Deal’s Public Works of Art Project, a program meant to help struggling artists. A year later, he became part of Seattle’s progressive Group of Twelve, a collection of leading local artists from many backgrounds. In other words, he was a full and integral part of a local American art scene with a growing national reputation…

…and then came Pearl Harbor and FDR’s Executive Order 9066, ordering the incarceration of almost 120,000 Japanese Americans, 2/3 of them American citizens.

Nomura was interned, with his wife and son, at a collection camp called Harmony, where the Puyallup Fairgrounds stand today. From there, they were sent to the Minidoka Relocation Center in a wasteland in south-central Idaho, where they remained until the end of WWII. (“The first thing that impressed me was the bareness of the land,” said camp resident Shozo Kaneko in a 1943 interview. “There wasn’t a tree in sight, not even a blade of green grass. Coming from the northwest where there was a lot of green fields and forest, the sights staggered most of us who had never seen anything like that before.”)

Here’s what one of the exhibit signs says about the effect on Nomura of his time at Minidoka: “The same government who paid for his artistic services less than ten years earlier had now created a devastating personal situation that would affect the rest of his life. He and his wife and son returned to Seattle in 1945 only to have his wife commit suicide the following year.”

Barracks and Water Tower, 1943, Kenjiro Nomura
George, Fumiko & Kenjiro Nomura, circa 1945

When Nomura reluctantly resumed painting after his wife’s death, he turned to abstraction and soon his work was popular again. The height of his success came in 1955 when his paintings were part of a major exhibition of NW artists in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and a show called Eight Washington Painters at the Portland Art Museum. A year later, his work was included in an exhibition titled Pacific Coast Art that traveled to top museums around the country. But that June, at only 59 years of age, Nomura died from complications from surgery.

Harbor, 1953, Kenjiro Nomura

What I find most intriguing, saddening, and infuriating about Nomura’s story is the promise his talent, associations and success represent–a promise cut short for so many Americans and hardworking immigrants in the NW by prejudice and fear of “the other.” In the days before he was sent to Minidoka, Nomura said about his art:

“My desire in painting is to avoid the conventional art rules, so that I can be free to paint and approach Nature creatively. I have gradually and almost unconsciously been influenced by the work of early Japanese painters. Now realizing this influence, I am consciously trying to utilize those qualities that I want, such as color, line and simplicity of conception, in my own style of painting. Due to the great difference between the Western style of painting and the Japanese, the problem is a very difficult one, but I am devoting every effort to achieve this.”

What other fine integrations of East and West–what advantageous hybrids and creative leaps–did we lose when a vital population was uprooted; deprived of their homes, businesses and artistic pursuits; and sent to live in concentration camps because of a deep-seated racism in this country?

I’m grateful to Cascadia Art Museum curator David F. Martin, who put the Nomura exhibit together, not only for introducing me to some of the most moving and impressive art I’ve seen in a long time but also for telling Nomura’s story: for writing the Northwest in this too-rare and much-needed way.

Kenjiro Nomura, American Modernist: An Issei Artist’s Journey runs through February 20, 2022, at the Cascadia Art Museum at 190 Sunset Ave. S., #E in Edmonds, WA.

Exhibit hours are:

11 a.m.-5 p.m. Thurs.-Sun.

Ticket prices are:

Adults: $10
Seniors: $7
Youth (0-18): Free
Students: Free

To learn more about the exhibit, go to the Cascade Art Museum’s website.

For an in-depth look at Nomura’s life and art, consider purchasing art historian Barbara Johns’ Kenjiro Nomura, American Modernist, available for $39.95 on the CAM site.

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.”

2022 Donald J. Sterling, Jr., Senior Research Fellowship in Pacific Northwest History

I learned this week that I’ve been awarded the 2022 Donald J. Sterling, Jr., Senior Research Fellowship in Pacific Northwest History…which means, I guess, that my position as the curator of this website is a bit more legitimate now.

The Oregon Historical Society gives out two Sterling fellowships each year, one to a graduate student and one to a senior researcher. The award funds research in the OHS archives, with each recipient in residence at the archives for four weeks at some point during the award year. (I haven’t learned yet who this year’s graduate student recipient is.)

I’ll be using my archive time for research related to a new biography and preparation for writing an article or two for the Oregon Historical Quarterly.

According to the OHS website, the fellowships are funded “through an endowment, made possible by the family of Donald J. Sterling, Jr., to encourage original, scholarly, interpretive research in the Oregon Historical Society Research Library.

The catalog description for the Donald J. Sterling, Jr., Papers at OHS gives this brief bio:

Donald J. Sterling, Jr. (1927-2000) was the last editor of the Oregon Journal, serving from 1972 to 1992. He attended Princeton University and worked as a reporter for the Denver Post from 1948 to 1952. He joined the Oregon Journal when his father, Donald J. Sterling, retired, and in the early 1980s he helped to consolidate the newspaper with its former rival, the Oregonian. He was active in civic organizations including the City Club of Portland, the Housing Authority of Portland, and the Oregon Historical Society.”

Receiving this award and learning about Donald J. Sterling, Jr., has me thinking about the importance of newspapers in writing about the Northwest or any other place. As the saying goes, “Journalism is the first rough draft of history.” For historians and biographers, newspapers are a vital primary source of information. But what happens when, as with the Oregon Journal, newspapers consolidate or simply disappear? Can we trust a single paper in a major market like Portland or Seattle to give us the kind of accurate and non-biased information good history and biography rely on?

I’ll explore these questions and related ones in my next post.

(To leave a comment, click on the title of this post.)

Guest Post: “Oregon, My Oregon” Exhibit at Portland’s Central Library Gives Expansive View of How Writers, Artists, and Others Have Depicted the State Throughout Its History

by Jim Carmin (John Wilson Special Collections Librarian, Multnomah County Library, Portland, OR, jimc@multcolib.org)

Mr. Otis painting, image courtesy of Jim Carmin

When, in October, I was asked, at the last minute, to install an exhibition at the Central Library, my eyes closed and my mind raced as I wondered how I’d approach this new challenge. Then, when I opened my eyes, I saw a Mr. Otis painting sitting atop a shelf in the special collections and it all came together.

It’s not surprising that our collection represents much of what Oregon has been and is, as our library is only five years younger than the state itself. Built by the generosity of this community, past and present, our special collections holdings reflect the economic and social history, the art, the writing, and the natural history of our great state.

  • “Oregon, My Oregon” from the John Wilson Special Collections
  • November 13, 2021 – January 24, 2022
  • 10-6 M, W-Sat., 10-5 Sun., 12-8 T
  • Collins Gallery, 3rd Floor
  • Central Library, Multnomah County Library
  • 801 SW 10th Avenue, Portland, Oregon 

On view in the new exhibition are large maps of Portland neighborhoods, including Sellwood and Mt. Tabor Heights, produced just before the turn of the 20th century to induce home buyers to move to these “most desirable” new neighborhoods. Another case features a plan of Vanport, Oregon’s second most populous city in the 1940s, built quickly to house shipyard workers during World War II. Also on exhibit are photographs of the aftermath of the terrible flood that destroyed Vanport in 1948, displacing thousands, including Black workers who were suddenly homeless in Portland; there is also the only copy of a report written to determine why the calamity occurred.

Oregon has a harsh history of treating its people of color poorly and stark evidence of that is on exhibit, including the original 1849 Oregon Territory Statute excluding Black people from moving into or living in the state. In the same case is Masks Off! Confessions of an Imperial Klansman from 1925, exposing Oregon politicians’ affinity with this terrible hate group. Oregon’s Indigenous people also suffered mightily. On display is a map showing ancestral locations of various tribes in, ironically, an 1875 publication meant to encourage white settlement in the state, as well as photographs of the Indian Training School in Forest Grove from the early 1880s showing young men and women, calling them “new recruits” despite being forcefully brought here.

There are numerous 19th-photographs of Portland including a well-known three-panel large panorama by Carleton Watkins from 1867 given to library by Matthew Deady; there are also several new acquisitions purchased (with funds from The Library Foundation) during the current pandemic, including a two-part photo from 1884 of Portland school children that shows the rare presence of three Black children; and a spectacular photo album containing almost 300 images around the turn of the 20th century, open to a two-page spread of Portland firehouses and firefighters.

A small number of Oregon’s many writers are represented here, including Ken Kesey (his seminal Oregon novel Sometimes a Great Notion; and an original drawing by former Oregonian editorial cartoonist Jack Ohman of Kesey’s obituary); Elizabeth Woody (her first book of poems and an early manuscript of a short story, with corrections); Beverly Cleary (born in McMinnville; Henry Huggins is here along with a map of his northeast Portland neighborhood); Ursula K. LeGuin (a signed broadside of a poem written for Oregon’s Calyx Journal, one of the first journals ever that celebrated women writers and artists); Edwin Markham (Oregon’s first Poet Laureate most well known for “The Man with the Hoe” from 1898); Kim Stafford (a broadside he wrote for former Governor John Kitzhaber and a poem he wrote in Spirit Land, a fine press book with beautiful color lino prints by Oregon artist Peggy Prentice of Eugene); and Barry Lopez, represented here with his provocative essay Apologia about his empathy to roadkill while driving from Oregon to Indiana, and a moving printed plan of his McKenzie River property showing where the late National Book Award winner found cougar tracks, and where he planted trees–all the more poignant now after most of this land was devastated by a wildfire in 2020, just a few months before he died on Christmas day.

drawing of Barry Lopez property, image courtesy of Jim Carmin

Other prominent Oregonians appearing in the exhibition include the aforementioned Mr. Otis (and coincidentally, Stewart Holbrook); Laverne Krause; George Flanders; Henry W. Corbett; John Wilson; Paulann Petersen; David Sohappy, Sr.; and George Johanson. Natural Oregon is here too with unusual views of Mr. Hood glaciers; of early Oregon logging camps; and 33 reels of three-dimensional mushrooms, along with the Viewmaster device in which to see them. And of course there’s more, including our newly revised state song, “Oregon, My Oregon,” so take a look and let me know if you have any questions or comments.

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.

Two Excellent Websites Offering Brief Writings on People, Places, and Events in Pacific Northwest History

“Whitman Mission, drawing,” date unknown, photograph by Arnold Studios, State Library Photograph Collection, 1851-1990, Washington State Archives, Digital Archives, http://www.digitalarchives.wa.gov, accessed 11-23-21.

Sometimes you don’t want to have to dig through a big history book to learn more about a particular person or event you’ve heard about somewhere. Fortunately, there are excellent websites that offer vast collections of useful and often intriguing writings about all aspects of history in both Washington and Oregon.

WASHINGTON

The Washington site is called HistoryLink,org. Billing itself as “the free online encyclopedia of Washington state history,” it offers 7961 articles (and counting) on everything from the indigenous tribes that lived in different parts of the state in pre-contact times to the particulars of important political races in more recent days.

A pleasantly designed and usefully organized site, it is easily navigated from the home page, where you’ll find not only a search box and tabs for useful links (such as classroom-specific resources) but also:

  • a featured article about something that happened during the current week in history called “This Week Then
  • historical news bits with links to related articles called “News Then, History Now
  • links to articles about things that happened on today’s date called “Today in Washington History
  • links to the newest articles on the site
  • a featured historical image
  • a “Quote of the Week

OREGON

The Oregon site is called simply The Oregon Encyclopedia. Assembled under the auspices of the Oregon Historical Society, it, too, offers thousands of articles that cover all aspects of the state’s history (and pre-history).

Like HistoryLink.org, The Oregon Encyclopedia is well thought-out and put-together. In addition to a search box, the attractive and helpful main page features:

  • a link for educators that includes access to pre-prepared “Primary Source Packets
  • a variety of sample articles focused on important subjects
  • suggestions for especially intriguing reads
  • a link to an interactive map of notable places, people, and events in Oregon history
  • a link to the Oregon Historical Society’s digital resources and online narratives
  • a feature called “The Corner Gallery,” focused on a subject of current interest (right now, its focus is Indigenous Peoples Day and it offers related links)

MONTANA AND IDAHO

Although Montana and Idaho don’t have websites dedicated to them that are as extensive and entertaining to read, you can find many useful links to online resources and articles on pages offered by their respective historical societies:

Montana History Links” on the Montana Historical Society’s “Montana: Stories of the Land” webpage

Idaho History at Home” on the Idaho State Historical Society’s website

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