Guest Post: Writer Stewart Holbrook Was the NW’s ‘Best-Known Personality’ But Never Received the Credit He Deserved

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 The New Yorker, The American Mercury, and Esquire at the same time his East Coast contemporary Joseph Mitchell was publishing the character sketches 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.

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.