One of my goals for this site is to introduce readers to writing set in the Northwest that hasn’t reached a large audience, especially works by writers other than white men. To that end, I’m working on future reviews of exciting new literature as well as posts by myself and others about past writings that should be better known. But I don’t want to ignore iconic Northwest books.
So, to get a lot of great books onto the site quickly, here’s a link to a post the folks at Powell’s Books put together back in 2014 titled, “40 Books Set in the Pacific Northwest.” The list is a bit male-, white-, and Oregon-centric, but, to be fair, it was produced eight years ago and the intention seems to have been to alert people to some of the biggies. Maybe the Powell’s staff will produce a follow-up with more-current works soon!
by Michael Schepps (you’ll find a full bio, including a link to Schepps’s new book, Split Aces, at the end of the article)
Throughout much of his life, the writer Stewart Holbrook (1893-1964) was considered “perhaps the Pacific Northwest’s best-known personality.” In seemingly endless articles that garnered a devoted local readership and were often excerpted in the national press, Holbrook captured and caricatured what he called the country’s “Far Corner” during its rapid mid-20th century modernization, painting an indelible portrait whose legacy lives on today. But Holbrook did more than just portray the Northwest. His stylistic innovations in the field of creative nonfiction are the equal of the more-celebrated Joseph Mitchell, but he has never received the credit he deserves.
One of Holbrook’s primary interests was timber. After years of working in Northwest logging camps (as well as sojourns in the theater world and on the battlefields of France), he took a position in Portland in 1923 as the associate editor of the 4-L Lumber News, the mouthpiece for a government-and-industry-backed labor union meant to be an alternative to the radical Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies. Seeking to supplement his income through freelancing, he found a home in the pages of The Oregonian. There, he regaled readers with histories, character studies, and reportage about whatever crossed his path, including his observations during drinking sessions with the grizzled waterfront tough Edward “Spider” Johnson.
Written with considerable brio while invoking a demi-realm of myth and history, these articles are much of the reason for Holbrook’s lasting influence. In particular, his vivid evocation of the Pantagruelian proportions of Augustus Erickson’s gargantuan bar and the sinister chthonic depths of the city’s Shanghai Tunnels helped create the popular perception of nineteenth-century Portland as an “anything-goes” fantasia.
In Holbrook’s depiction, a wild drinking session at the “longest bar in the world” might end with the drinker being drugged and trafficked (alongside dead men and cigar-store statues) through tunnels honeycombing the waterfront, only to wake up in chains (while facing a year’s harsh service) on a rotting clipper ship rounding the Horn.
Although Holbrook’s work appeared in national publications such as TheNew Yorker, The American Mercury, and Esquire at the same time his East Coast contemporary Joseph Mitchell was publishing the charactersketches that would make him famous as a progenitor of what is called “new journalism,” he has never received adequate credit for his own innovations in prose. When literary historian Norman Sims named Joseph Mitchell a major influence on “new journalism” (or literary journalism) he pointed to Mitchell’s penchant for “merging fiction and nonfiction, the symbolic and the literal, biography and reportage, the real and the imagined landscapes of the city.” What is true for Mitchell is equally true for Holbrook.
Along with Mitchell, Holbrook wrote from a participant-observer perspective and often focused on “lowbrow” life, which are valuable tools today in any nonfiction writer’s toolkit. Of course, he shared some of Mitchell’s more questionable practices too, including the use of composite characters, invented dialogue, and hyperbole in the service of a larger truth (practices for which Mitchell has more recently suffered a dramatic reappraisal, with some even wondering if he was truly a journalist).
Read as imaginative literature or “literary journalism,” Holbrook’s work remains clean and compelling, the deeper truths beneath the varnish of embellishment and hyperbole shining through as bright as ever. But as serious history, it is greatly lacking. One historian has gone so far as to say that “repetition of a Holbrook fiction is a sure indication of lazy scholarship and gullibility.”
During his lifetime, Holbrook published over 30 books and countless articles. At its best, his work ties together strands of deep research and interviewing, a bright sense of place and character, and a singularly appealing voice. The East Coast transplant understood an essential truth about the region where he made his home and set his writing: it was a place of malleability and reinvention whose story had not yet been fully told—a place where the telling of its story could both define it and make it new.
Michael Schepps is a writer, editor and publisher in Portland. His exploration of authorial invention and identity continues in his debut noir novella Split Aces, available now from Korza Books, in both e-book and print. To read more of his work, visit MLSchepps.com.
by Jim Carmin (John Wilson Special Collections Librarian, Multnomah County Library, Portland, OR, email@example.com)
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.
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.
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.
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.)