The first Americans generally credited with “writing the Northwest” were Captain Meriwether Lewis and 2nd Lieutenant William Clark, who reached the Pacific Ocean on this date 216 years ago. The journals covering their approximately-two-and-a-half-year journey, written by them and four of the three dozen men in their Corps of Discovery, stretch to over a million words. Not all of them are about the Pacific Northwest, of course, but a fair number are.
The entry for November 16, 1805, their first full day in view of the Pacific, for example, contains these lines:
“We are now in plain view of the Pacific Ocean . the waves rolling, & the surf roaring very loud. on the opposite shore to us we discovered, the Tops of trees which we supposed to be on an Island laying a very great distance in the Ocean.  We are now of opinion that we cannot go any further with our Canoes,  & think that we are at an end of our Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, and as soon as discoveries necessary are made, that we shall return a short distance up the River & provide our Selves with Winter Quarters, & We suppose that we shall find a considerable Quantity of Game low down on the River.”
It also says: “A Number of Indians staid with us all day.”
The entry was made near the mouth of the Columbia River, almost exactly one year and six months after the Corps left St. Louis. Historians tend to agree that the explorers would never have made it that far if not for the help of many individuals in the estimated 100 Indian tribes whose lands they crossed on their long voyage. The most famous, of course, is Sacagawea, a young Shoshone woman who grew up among several tribes and served the Corps as guide, interpreter and promoter of friendly relations with those whose lands they traveled through. But there were others too.
For example, a recent article by journalist Will Phinney on the website Underscore News mentions that “[a] Nez Perce woman named Watkuweis helped guide the expedition over the Bitterroot Mountains in Montana, persuading her people to befriend rather than kill the weak and starving strangers from the east.” And five Nez Perce teenagers “helped the men cross the mountains and make camp at Lolo Hot Springs.”
Phinney goes on to talk about tribes in the Columbia plateau providing the expedition with dogs for food; Indians near the Columbia and the Pacific supplying elk and deer, as well as blubber and oil from a beached whale; and indigenous people everywhere offering maps and directions and other essential help. Among the NW tribes the article mentions are the Umatilla, Cayuse, Yakama, Wasco, Wishrams, Wanapum, Walla Walla, Cowlitz, Multnomah, Chinooks, Clatsop, Skilloots, Tillamook, Kathlamets, and Wahkiakums.
According to Phinney, the two groups are collaborating “to develop online itineraries to promote the tribes that intersected with Lewis and Clark on their way across what became the United States.” In addition to information on tribal events and sites, the online guides will provide stories that “reflect the expedition from an Indigenous perspective, as told by the descendants of those who encountered the explorers as they made their way west.” To find out more, go to the websites LewisAndClark.travel and NativeAmerica.travel.
Sadly, we will never be able to read the actual writings of indigenous people from pre-contact times in what has come to be called the Pacific Northwest. We will always be forced to try to intuit their thinking from writings written by others, often for exploitative purposes. But perhaps the project Phinney has written about will help us imagine what their perspective might have been and provide a necessary corrective to the traditional American narrative, in which outsiders like Lewis and Clark are inevitably portrayed as the heroes.
The Pacific Northwest has a large number of quality publishers—some larger, some smaller, some known across the country, some known only to a few thankful readers. One thing almost all of them have in common is publishing Northwest writers who write about their home region in memoirs, essays, histories, fiction or poetry.
Below are thirteen you should know about, along with quotes from their websites about what they offer and a representative sampling of their books about the Northwest.
Just click on any title for a full description of the book.
“The University of Washington Press is the oldest and largest publisher of scholarly and general interest books in the Pacific Northwest. We publish compelling and transformative work with regional, national, and global impact.”
“For sixty years, Oregon State University Press has been publishing exceptional books about the Pacific Northwest—its people and landscapes, its flora and fauna, its history and cultural heritage.”
Mink River by Brian Doyle (“It’s the tale of a town, written in a distinct and lyrical voice, and readers will close the book more than a little sad to leave the village of Neawanaka, on the wet coast of Oregon, beneath the hills that used to boast the biggest trees in the history of the world.”–a much-beloved debut novel by one of the NW’s most distinctive voices.)
The Brightwood Stillness by Mark Pomeroy (“With its vivid look at friendship and the challenges of cross-cultural communication, its poignant take on the legacy of Vietnam, and its Pacific Northwest setting, The Brightwood Stillness will remind readers of the best elements of A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain and Snow Falling on Cedars…”)
Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hell’s Canyon by R. Gregory Nokes (A former AP & Oregonian reporter digs for the truth behind the 1887 massacre of 30 Chinese gold miners on the Oregon side of Hell’s Canyon. Along the way, he “examines the once-substantial presence of Chinese laborers in the interior Pacific Northwest…“)
“Our passion is telling unique, focused stories of the Northwest—lesser-known yet fascinating accounts of people, places, and events that matter in the region’s history or culture and are part of the broad picture of Western expansion.”
Teaching Native Pride: Upward Bound and the Legacy of Isabel Bond by Tony Tekaroniake Evans (“Native and non-Native voices tell the story of the federally sponsored Upward Bound program at the University of Idaho, intertwining personal anecdotes and memories with accounts of the program’s inception and goals, as well as regional Native American history and Isabel Bond’s Idaho family history.”)
Writing the Northwest: A Reporter Looks Back by Hill Williams (“Award-winning, amiable journalist Hill Williams…transforms his stories into inviting, candid narratives about Hanford, Celilo Falls, whale-hunters, salmon researchers, growing up on the dry side of Washington, and more.”)
Queen of Spades by Michael Shou-Yung Shum (“With a breathtaking climax that rivals the best Hong Kong gambling movies, Michael Shou-Yung Shum’s debut novel delivers the thrilling highs and lows that come when we cede control of our futures to the roll of the dice and the turn of a card.”)
A Simplified Map of the Real World by Steven Allred (Named a #1 book of 2013 in the Powell’s Staff Top 5s and a 2014 Multnomah County Library PageTurners Book Club Pick. “Fifteen linked stories chart a true course through the lives of families, farmers, loggers, former classmates, and the occasional stripper.”)
This Particular Happinessby Jackie Shannon Hollis (“When Jackie Shannon Hollis marries Bill, a man who does not want children, she joyfully commits to a childless life. But soon after the wedding, she returns to the family ranch in rural Oregon and holds her newborn niece. Jackie falls deep into baby love and longing and begins to question her decision.“)
“Based in Seattle for over 30 years, Sasquatch Books, together with our children’s imprint, Little Bigfoot, publishes books by the most gifted writers, artists, chefs, naturalists, and thought leaders in the Pacific Northwest and on the West Coast…“
Chief Seattle and the Town that Took His Name by David M. Buerge (“This is the first thorough historical account of Chief Seattle and his times–the story of a half-century of tremendous flux, turmoil, and violence, during which a native American war leader became an advocate for peace and strove to create a successful hybrid racial community.”)
“Ooligan Press is a student-run trade press rooted in the Pacific Northwest dedicated to cultivating the next generation of publishing professionals. We prioritize literary equity and inclusion. Ooligan strives to publish culturally relevant titles from our local, marginalized voices in order to make literature accessible and redefine who has a place within its pages.”
Faultland by Suzy Vitello (As the Sparrow family’s shaky foundations collide, an earthquake levels their city [Portland] in this debut novel.)
Oregon Stories, edited by Ooligan Press (“This collection of 150 personal narratives from everyday Oregonians explores the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of the people who live in this unique state.”)
“Copper Canyon Press publishes new collections of poetry by both revered and emerging American poets, translations of classical and contemporary work from many of the world’s cultures, re-issues of out-of-print poetry classics, anthologies, and prose books about poetry.”
After the Point of No Return by David Wagoner (“In After the Point of No Return, Wagoner finds wonder in the world of the senses as he reveals the melodies of an ancient rainforest, remembers boyhood rituals, and captures the swift movement of a fox at the edge of vision.”)
The Novice Insomniac by Emily Warn (“Whether invoking the persona of Esther to examine Jewish culture, musing upon the threatened landscape of her native Northwest, or witnessing the frustration of the insomniac’s darkened domain, [Warn’s] poems offer solace to what is most vulnerable in this world.”)
“Our independent press publishes high-quality literary projects and distributes titles from like-minded publishers.
Gielgud by Dan DeWeese (“In scenes of humor, anxiety, tenderness, and desire, Gielgud chronicles men and women who, in a world of streaming video and nonstop commentary, quietly struggle through personal crises almost entirely unobserved.”)
A Simple Machine, Like the Lever by Evan P. Schneider (“Nick’s struggle to position his aesthetic within the world is the story of a perfectionist who is far from perfect, who is considerate but clumsy, and may be invisible. Like Nick, A Simple Machine, Like the Lever is short, toned, observant, generous, purposeful, and brimming with bicycle wisdom.“)
“CALYX exists to nurture women’s creativity by publishing fine literature and art by women.”
Harvest by Barbara Baldwin (“Embracing both the personal and the universal—from her love of nature viewed from her home in Oregon’s Willamette Valley to the realities of love, life, and loss—this intensely powerful collection stands as a tribute to a wife and environmentalist, mother and activist, and, above all, a writer.”)
Indian Singing by Gail Tremblay (“Indian Singing is not a quiet book; the musical poetry of Gail Tremblay demands to be read, sung, out loud. Her poetry is a visionary quest, a work of hope presenting enduring lessons to accommodate change in our troubled times.“)
“Black Heron Press is a literary press located in Seattle, Washington.”
North Fork by Wayne M. Johnston (“The three main characters tell their stories separately as first-person written responses to an English class assignment to keep a personal journal. Each struggles to face life with integrity while entangled in a web of difficult situations. To triumph, each must confront the challenge of forgiveness.”)
The Remains of River Names by Matt Briggs (“The novel is told in twelve linked stories, each of which is a chapter told in turn by the members of a counter-culture family in the process of destroying itself.”)
“Hawthorne Books is an independent literary press based in Portland, Oregon, with a national scope and deep regional roots.”
The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch (2012 Finalist, Pen Center Creative Nonfiction Award. “This is not your mother’s memoir.”)
Little Green by Loretta Stinson (“Like Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Loretta Stinson portrays the psychology of a woman who has experienced violence at the hands of someone she loves and the complexity of leaving with sensitivity and insight.”)
Wolves in the Land of Salmonby David Moskowitz (“Observing [wolves] at close range, David Moskowitz explores how they live, hunt, and communicate, tracing their biology and ecology through firsthand encounters in the wildlands of the Northwest.“)
“With more than 700 titles in print, Mountaineers Books [specializes in] outdoor recreation, sustainable lifestyle, and conservation titles, published respectively under our Mountaineers Books, Skipstone, and Braided River imprints.”
Crags, Eddies and RipRap: The Sound Country Memoir of Wolf Bauer by Lynn Hyde and Wolf Bauer (“Bauer was a whirlwind of outdoor pursuits that inspired some of America’s greatest climbers. And as an engineer, he developed methods for preserving coastlines that have been adversely impacted by human development…He was one of those unsung Amercan heroes who moved ahead each day to make a difference and, in his hurry, ended up creating a legacy of accomplishment that many of us now lean on today.”)
If you Google “writing the Northwest,” one link that pops up is a 2004 tongue-in-cheek piece from The Stranger called “How to Write a Great Northwest Novel.” Among the elements author Ryan Boudinot suggests be included are several that are nature-centric: salmon, weather, and trees. While the others—like strong-willed women, technology and industry, and boats or cancer—don’t relate exclusively to white people, it’s hard not to think the type of novel Boudinot is poking fun at would have a white protagonist and be written by a white author.
Another link you’ll find is for a film called “Writing Oregon,” a lush tribute to the natural beauty of that state, with gorgeous video of gently flowing streams, snow-capped mountains, and austere sageland alternating with writers talking about the importance of being in nature and the dire need to preserve it. Although the film includes poems by Native American authors, all but one of the writers who appear on screen are white.
A third link takes you to the home page for the Oregon State University MFA in Creative Writing program’s ongoing Literary Northwest Series, in which 23 of the 27 writers who have read to date have been white. (I don’t know how many of these writers write about nature or even about the NW, but it’s a good bet many of them do.)
I list these items not to criticize the people who put them together or those who appeared in the Oregon film or have read in the OSU series, but merely to point out how much of what people (inside and outside the NW) have imagined to be “Northwest writing” has been related to nature and written by white people.
Even now, in the midst of a racial reckoning and reevaluation, when some of the most visible protests have taken place in Portland and Seattle, the visions readers have of NW writers and writing subjects generally have little to do with people of color. They also have little to do with the parts of cities where most Chinese immigrants, Asian Americans, and African Americans in the NW have resided; the kinds of farming most Japanese did before WWII or many Latinx immigrants have been forced to do; or earlier regional battles for racial justice.
If you were to ask most readers—especially those from other areas—what antagonists NW characters face, their answers would likely be: environmental threats, the hardships of living in nature, natural disasters like fire or earthquakes, internal demons (brought on by all that rain, you know), and maybe—just maybe—some kind of prejudice, generally of the settlers-vs.-Indians sort. (The online summary of the entry on “Writing the Pacific Northwest” in Cambridge University Press’s A History of Western American Literature, for example, is devoted exclusively to what it calls “the persistence of the Pacific Northwest as an ecological rather than social or political imaginary.”) The unexamined assumption behind most of these is that the protagonists and authors are white.
It’s no surprise, of course, that most literature written about the Northwest up to and including the 21st century has been written by whites and focused on white interests. Since the devastation of the Indigenous population in the 18th and 19th centuries, the region’s residents have been overwhelmingly white and the writers born of this dominant group have written for white audiences. While many of these authors have written books that are deeply sensitive (especially toward Indigenous culture) and focused in the broadest sense on what it means to be human, the fact remains that the experiences of NW people of color have been terribly underrepresented.
Among the voices seldom heard beyond a small circle are those of: the Native Americans who have outlasted repeated white predations; the Chinese immigrants who settled in the area in the 19th and early 20th centuries, only to be driven out again; the tens of thousands of African Americans who’ve flowed into the region since the start of World War II; the Japanese Americans who developed successful farms and small businesses before being brutally bundled off to internment camps; and the increasing number of Latinxs, Asians and Asian Americans who have arrived in more recent times to take jobs in the tech industry and a wide variety of other fields.
There have been exceptions, of course, to the lack of attention paid to the lives lived by NW people of color. Among the breakthrough books are:
* Almost anything by Sherman Alexie, who did more than anyone else to highlight the self-told history and contemporary life of NW Native Americans before his personal actions caused many readers to shun him.
* Mitchell S. Jackson’s bestselling novel Residue Years and his hugely popular memoir Survival Math, both evocations of daily life in the Black areas of N. Portland.
Fortunately, in a region of increasing diversity, more and more writers of color are publishing works about their own experiences, as well as the stories of relatives, historical figures, or imaginary characters living rich and often difficult lives. These works provide alternative views not only of the NW but also of life itself—views that have the potential to move readers beyond the stereotypes of the past, showing them that the NW is more than salmon, weather, and trees.
Exactly 75 years ago—on Halloween weekend in 1946—a group of authors, journalists and academics gathered for three days at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, for the first and only Writers’ Conference on the Northwest. The conference organizers’ stated aim was not to hold a traditional writers’ conference, in which young writers learn from more-established writers, but to discuss the essence, history and future of a region: the Pacific Northwest.
In his introductory remarks, Reed College President Peter H. Odegard said that, in many respects, “the Pacific Northwest is coming of age. In literature and art, in history and biography, in music, the record and resources of the region should be a source of pride and confidence. We need to discover our own cultural heritage and to encourage our own youth to look about in their own back yard to find inspiration and employment for their creative talents. It ought not to be necessary for them to go to New York for recognition or for their need of glory and reward. New York will come to them.”
The conference took place just after the end of World War II, which did more to focus attention on the Northwest than anything before it. Northwest contributions were viewed as vital to the Allies’ victory: Boeing planes built in Seattle, Kaiser ships assembled in Portland and Vancouver, nuclear weapons created in secret at Hanford, and aluminum and other metals forged in scattered plants—all powered by FDR’s huge new Columbia River dams.
Given what Odegard called the region’s “coming of age” and the inevitable self-examination (and self-regard) occasioned by its outsized role in the war, it must have seemed natural in 1946 to consider how those writing about the region would depict it. After all, scant years before the war, the Northwest had been a backwater to most Americans.
“During most of its history,” Odegard said, “the Pacific Northwest has been a colonial outpost of the East. It has been looked upon and has regarded itself as a source of raw materials to be shipped to eastern cities for processing or fabrication.” After comparing the region to the American South and talking about “cultural colonialism,” in which a region or country is guided by cultural standards set elsewhere, he proclaimed, “There are signs that the colonial period of northwestern history may be coming to a close.”
While Odegard and the other conference participants—including politician and journalist Richard L. Neuberger, folk writer and Northwest interpreter Stewart Holbrook, and noted Columbia University historian Carl Van Doren—deserve some credit for beginning the difficult task of defining a region in literary and historical terms, they, like other white men of their time (and today), failed to see that what they were engaged in was a colonializing enterprise itself.
The Pacific Northwest they were discussing was a white Pacific Northwest that began, in their minds, when “tens of thousands of migrants” moved into a region that “lay hidden on the outer fringes of western civilization, inhabited only by people of primitive culture, whose science was magic and whose literature was the folklore of the tribe.”
It goes without saying, I suppose, that all of the conference organizers and speakers were white men, as were all but a few of the participants in its discussion panels—and those few were white women.
I learned about the 1946 conference when, in the course of doing research for a Northwest-centered project, I discovered a book called Northwest Harvest: A Regional Stock-Taking (The MacMillan Co., 1948), a collection of the conference’s major papers. As you might expect, given the time and makeup of the conference, the entries in it are chockful of ethnocentric and supremacist views, not only of the Northwest but of literature, the United States, and the idea of “progress.” Its main value lies in the snapshot it gives of dominant-culture thinking about the Northwest at a time when its straight, white, privileged, and male inhabitants were just beginning to consider it a distinct place.
The purpose of this website is to do a new kind of stock-taking—to present and examine literary and historical depictions of the Pacific Northwest in a contemporary context. Over the past 75 years, the Northwest has become not only a place people pay attention to but also a place of diverse perspectives and strong, divergent voices. Among the Northwest writers who have entered the national literary conversation are: Mitchell S. Jackson, Cheryl Strayed, Kathleen Dean Moore, Sherman Alexie, David James Duncan, Molly Gloss, Sharma Shields, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Timothy Egan. The visions these writers present of the Northwest region are not only vastly different from those expressed in that 1946 conference, they’re also vastly different from one another.
While contemplation of contemporary literary depictions of Northwest life and history will be one of the website’s main aims, it will also present less-lofty considerations of the region’s history, environment, social change, and popular culture. The main intent is simply to explore the many ways writers and others are—and have been—Writing the Northwest.
To that end, I hope you’ll send me suggestions for topics to explore and writings to present or link to, especially those that might be less-known. And if you have a post to propose, please send me a query. I’ll get things started with a few initial posts, but my hope is to make this site a place of many viewpoints and robust discussion.
(To leave a comment, click on the blog post title.)