America’s Midnight in the Pacific Northwest

Adam Hochschild is not known for writing light books, nor is he known for writing about the Pacific Northwest. His best-known book is probably King Leopold’s Ghost (1998), an unrelenting exploration of the brutality, exploitation and outright slavery Belgian overlords used to extract rubber from what was then called the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

That’s about as far from Washington, Oregon and Idaho as you can get.

But Hochschild’s new book, American Midnight, is set in the United States, in the years 1917-1921, when America’s entry into World War I set off some of the most brutal and repressive government and vigilante actions in this country’s history. And it contains numerous examples of courage and hope, many from the Northwest.

President Woodrow Wilson, image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Subtitling his book “The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis,” Hochschild explores the ways Woodrow Wilson’s administration and the country’s reactionary elements used the war to go after anyone who didn’t support their jingoist enterprise or the corporate entities and plutocrats who made money off it.

The resulting terror–aimed at Socialists, labor leaders, peace advocates, conscientious objectors, and, most brutally, African Americans–brought democracy to its knees. But a number of brave advocates for the common people resisted the violent coercion, often at the cost of their livelihoods, their health and even their lives.

Any Northwesterner who believes in progressive politics–including the advancement of worker rights, a woman’s right to control of her own body, fair taxation, alleviation of poverty, and even the basic right of freedom from arbitrary search and seizure–will find plenty in Hochschild’s book to feel proud of.

Marie Equi, MD, image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

There’s Marie Equi, for example, a Portland physician and suffragist, who was in a same-sex relationship at a time when that was far more dangerous than it is today. A brash woman with a fiery temper, Equi “ignored the law that outlawed distributing birth control devices and information, and defied both the government and the American Medical Association by performing abortions,” treating poor women for free.

Once, to avoid arrest for speaking out against the war, Equi “borrowed the crampons of a telephone company lineman, and used them to climb high up a pole. From there, she unfurled a banner reading DOWN WITH THE IMPERIALIST WAR.”

There are also the leaders of the Seattle General Strike, which, in 1919 shut down an entire city for the first time in American history, but did so in an orderly way that avoided bloodshed and undue hardship for most citizens.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

And there’s the International Workers of the World labor union, which was particularly strong in the Northwest. The Wobblies, as they were called, were singled out again and again for the harshest treatment. The union suffered destruction of its property, arrest of its members, and sometimes death at the hands of those who thought it a haven for foreign-controlled socialism (including members of the American Legion).

At a time when almost 15% of Americans were foreign-born, much of harshest treatment was meted out to immigrants, who had flooded into the Northwest in those days to work in the timber, mining, and fishing industries.

To be fair, the Northwest had its share of villains too. One of the worst, in Hochschild’s estimation, was a Congressman from the coastal timber country in Washington State named Albert Johnson, who sat on the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization and was vicious in his denunciation and harassment of immigrants.

Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson in 1919, the year of the Seattle General Strike, image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Another was Ole Hanson, Seattle’s mayor at the time of the General Strike, who blamed not only the strike but everything he thought wrong with America on Socialist and Communists. Hanson went on lucrative speaking tours around the country, spewing his hatred to all who would listen, and even ran for President with anti-immigrant and anti-socialism as his platform.

According to Hochschild, vociferous denunciation of the Seattle strikers as advocates for the “anarchy of Russia” and enemies of law and order “launched Hanson as perhaps the first member of an occupation that would prove lucrative for other twentieth-century Americans: professional anti-Communist.”

American Midnight is primarily about a country in a life-or-death crisis, its democracy threatened by warmongering, government oppression, hunger for profits, vigilante “justice,” white supremacy, and a misguided defense of some supposed American Way of Life.

Sprinkled throughout it, however, you’ll find ample evidence of a previously neglected part of the country coming into its own and lending its voice, for better or worse, to the national conversation: the Pacific Northwest.

Other links:

Video: Oregon Public Broadcasting “Oregon Experience” profile of Marie Equi (3:40)

Marie Equi: Radical Politics and Outlaw Passions by Michael Helquist, OSU Press

Video: “The Wobblies” (1:43)

International Workers of the World (Wobblies)–IWW History Project, University of Washington

Seattle General Strike Project, with video introduction (3:47), University of Washington

Woodrow Wilson and Race (& Immigration), President Wilson House

U. S. Participation in the Great War (World War I),” Library of Congress

Washington State Congressman Albert Johnson

Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson,

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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