The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume 2, Numbers 1, Pages 12-17
Winter, 1977

The Northwest Passage into the Twenty First Century

By Jack W. Bennett

 

Does the Pacific Northwest have a distinctive culture? In a recent series of lectures at the University of Oregon, a distinguished group of authors explored this question.

Jack W. Bennett, who teaches in the Honors College, University of Oregon, organized the lectures. In conjunction with the series he taught two classes an Honors College seminar, and a class for non-matriculate townspeople. He reports, "We read books, poems, and plays written by our guest speakers. The chance to meet the authors of the books we studied provided a very stimulating focus for the class."

Bennett notes that "several themes recurred and reinforced each other, despite the divergent backgrounds of the speakers." It is interesting to note that at least one of the themes mentioned by the lecturers is present in other articles in this issue of the Forum. The "reductive and humanizing" quality of folktales in the Northwest, a characteristic noted by Barre Toelken, is apparent in the descriptions of Toughy Sooter, Silent Bill, and Windy Jack, whose heroics are described elsewhere in this issue.

 

The Northwest Passage into the 21st Century.

During the spring of 1976, the Honors College at the University of Oregon, with financial help from seven university agencies and departments, sponsored a series of "Centennial Lectures," entitled "The Northwest Passage into the 21st Century." The hope was that an interdisciplinary medley of scholars, poets and dramatists would help to clarify some of the Northwest's particular attitudes, and its regional ethos could be articulated so that Northwesterners would recognize themselves and their place. Among the lecturers was Dr. Kevin Starr, who identified an "Oregon formula" of "external simplicity and internal richness," set in a "classic landscape of moral response," which "sustains vision" and "resists eccentricity," especially when contrasted with the dramatic and heroic grandeur of California.

Is it possible that the different environments attract different kinds of people, affecting them in different ways? That the Northwest was a selective magnet for families intent on transplanting the New England promise west of the prairies to a more congenial environment? That Anglo and Scandinavian immigrants joined phlegmatic forces to unconsciously implant the ethos of a region? These and other questions about the Pacific Northwest were raised by Dr. Starr and the other symposium participants, and they were pertinent enough to want to share with a wider audience through the pages of this journal. Because regionalism is only rarely equated with parochialism, anymore, and is a concept that we in the Northwest are learning to explore and exploit, a bicentennial evaluation of the region that looks back in order to prepare for the twenty first century is a necessary consideration.

In addition to Dr. Starr, whose recently published Americans and the California Dream 1850-1915, is a model of regional study, presentations were made on successive Monday evenings by Oregon folklorist, Dr. Barre Toelken; Mr. Thomas Vaughan, executive director of the Oregon Historical Society; Dr. William Stafford, poet; Dr. Norman Clark, a historian and author from Everett, Washington; Dr. Theodore Roszak, from California, and best known for his book, The Making of a Counter Culture; and the Eugene Repertory Company, which staged a special presentation of Joaquin Miller's play, "Forty-Nine." From the blend of divergent opinion and experience a sense of regional identity and anticipated problems emerged.

Kevin Starr, with his personal roots deep in California, looked north and risked generalizations about the region. Oregon, he said, was a place where, historically speaking, nothing much has happened. In California, living was so easy that excess became the norm, and anything short of excess was a disappointment. In a various, colorful, multi-national, sun-drenched EI Dorado, ambition swelled and outreached itself. By contrast, Oregon was staid, and settlement, on the agrarian pattern, was modest in its returns. A Jeffersonian motivation had lured families to try again the New England promise, but in Oregon the land was settled without conquest, without the sort of struggle and tragedy and high adventure that provokes serious art. Where California, a symbol of great hope, was sometimes tragically inadequate, Oregon seemed to offer less, and its settlement was more even. Modest gains resulted from coming to terms with nature; human domination seemed, and seems, presumptuous.

Dr. Toelken, with his lecture-presentation of regional and occupational folksongs of the Northwest, reinforced this image of Northwestern expression full of self-mockery and wry acknowledgement of rain and mud softening and slowing men's more grandiose plans. Even the tall story, a favorite genre among men in the Northwest, is most likely to have a reductive and humanizing sting in the tail, unlike the boastful half horse half alligator chants of the Southwest, or the Davy Crockett miracles of cosmic dimensions. Even Paul Bunyan, the giant logger who dreamed of a clear cut as long and wide as the Willamette valley, was revealed as the creation of a lonely writer making commercials for a logging company. At night, in the traditional loggers' bunkhouses, or in the Springfield bar, under the sign, "No caulks allowed," loggers have seldom made Paul Bunyan the hero of their conversations. When they have, it has been to parody the storybook style and achievements of this phony folk hero, about whom they have learned from their children's readers. Their tales are about stylish survivors, beautiful losers, not Paul Bunyan.

If California had forests proportional to its coast or mountains, a Paul Bunyan figure would have fitted the trend there for grotesque and dominating figures. For the folk of the Northwest, Bunyan was excessive. Yet the literary legend is part of the rest of the nation's Northwest consciousness, and this documentation of a region is part of a historian's responsibility and problem.

Mr. Vaughan, from the Oregon Historical Society shared his enthusiasm for history in a talk entitled "View From the Pass." As an airplane flies far above the terrain, flattening the topography and making quaint curls of blue ribbon of the Rogue and Willamette, so a historian makes inclusive and useful generalizations about a region. But, in his quest to identify a useable past, it is necessary to come down from the plane, experience the spray of the Rogue's white water and the constant rain that Clark expressed in his explorer's journal: "Eleven days of rain and the most disagreeable time I have experienced." That imaginative fusion of the past with the present, so that a drive through the Cascades may become a re-enactment of a pioneer family's painful struggle, was part of Mr. Vaughan's call for a "useable" past. The old fashioned notion of the value of a "body of information" about one's home region, provides the necessary base for an intelligent regional consciousness. And without this consciousness the Northwest's twenty first century will not be plotted by local people with minds and attitudes alive with regional sentiment, but by aggressive outsiders, with no roots in the area.

To show us how to live with an appreciation of the past woven into our experience of the present came William Stafford, Oregon's radical and gentle poet. He describes his hands as "loyal diplomats," negotiating a sensuous place in the world; knowing how that place must not be taken for granted; knowing the senses must be constantly tuned so that sensuousness is a mental as well as a tactile experience. From the nooks and crannies as well as the rivers and mountains of the Northwest, Stafford makes a philosophy that echoes Kevin Starr's depiction of Oregon as a "classic landscape of moral response," which encourages containment rather than explosion.

Freedom is not following a river.
Freedom is following a river, though, if you want to.
It is deciding now by what happens now.
It is knowing that luck makes a difference.

The humility, the sense of human limitations implicit in the final line, seems to be part of the moral response evoked by the landscape. But there is reassurance learned from reaching out to feel the world, its rain and its cliffs. So much so that:

- Even on the last morning
When we all tremble and lose, I will reach
Carefully, eagerly, through the rain, at the end-
Toward whatever is there, with this loyal hand.

If Stafford shows individual responses to landscape and situations, and stirs the ghosts of the past to participate in our present experiences and visions of the future, Norman Clark, an Everett Historian, spoke of communities, yoked by the common desire for riches, and sometimes finding them in the cedar and fir forests of the Northwest. As a bicentennial historian, he remembered a triumphant 1876 centennial speech of manifest destiny realized, the Indians subjugated and disappearing, and the railroads, avenues of settlement and emblems of dominance, laying their iron fingers across the land. From this look backwards, Clark led us to an overwhelming question: how will tercentennial historians, surveying our Northwest generation, judge our performance?

To understand the present it is necessary to know the past, and the Washington story is dominated by the railroads with "their inalienable right to industrialize the frontier, to subdue the wilderness of the Oregon country and lead it to civilization." The mountain men, the trappers, the traders - those picturesque pioneers, were part of the pattern of early settlement. But their influence and example was lost in the "chamber of commerce" mentality when, for thirty-five years, the Northwest hummed with self-congratulatory optimism. But, in 1912, the boom lowered. The 'democracy of profit' was revealed as a good times illusion. It gave way to business autocracy, prepared to exploit the surplus labor situation. The limits of an easy optimism were revealed. Locked into growth as an economic and social necessity, communities had few reserves of harmony or tolerance. Without prosperity, profit, there was sourness, resentment. Immigrants stopped coming. By 1914 Clark's harrowing image of the Northwest timber towns was desperate men huddling under a railway bridge. From easy optimism to a consciousness of sin, failure and loss was a difficult transition.

Clark suggests that the world war probably prevented class and civil war in Washington State. Over the protests of I.W.W.leaders, who cried that the European war was for profiteers, the disjointed factions coalesced around the patriotic banner. Profits were up; so were wages, and there was a common enemy in Europe. The radical fringe of the unions was easily discredited.

And so, following the flow of the Columbia river from the rusting wagon wheel on its shore, to the first nuclear power plant, there is a story as varied as a human biography. There is success and prosperity; failure and cupidity. Clark's theme of the struggle for community would have pleased Josiah Royce, the Californian philosopher-historian, and his method reinforces Mr. Vaughan's insistence on the importance of regional studies. Who, after listening to Dr. Clark, or, better still, reading his book about Everett, called Milltown, could visit or live in the communities he discusses without deeper perceptions and commitment to them?

Joaquin Miller, Oregon's poet, poseur and playwright, was able to evoke the Northwest landscape with color and conviction. In the semi-autobiographical, Unwritten History, Miller's persona travels from the Willamette valley to Mount Shasta, close to the California border. By contrast with Mount Hood, Mount Jefferson, or the Three Sisters in central and northern Oregon, whose grandeur is dissipated by being among a family of mountains, Shasta is imperial in its massive isolation. And, as the Oregon Mountains cluster in communities, so do its people. The Oregon story, said Kevin Starr, was a story of women as well as men; of children and families and communities. And, among the music and melodrama and jokes of Miller's play, "Forty nine," Starr's idea about Oregon is reinforced.

The play begins in Coburg, near Eugene, where the apparently widowed mother, the faithful black family servant, the rakish but salvageable son and the cad who would drag this good lad down into his world of drink and gambling are introduced. It's hard to imagine a melodrama where a lawyer is not a villain, but in Oregon, a land of constraint and respectability, the family protector is a stump lawyer of sound principles. When the much beloved husband of the lonely mother, and father of the dissipated but good lad (then a cradled infant), forsook his farm for the California gold mines back in 1849, then the lawyer protected the lady and guided the lad. Now the lad is grown, the husband is presumed dead in California, and the lawyer has to find the heiress of most of the land in the Willamette Valley. She is somewhere in California, and the lad and the cad set out from Coburg to California to track her down.

By contrast with the genteel Coburg setting, the mining town in the Sierras, where the plot is resolved, is a brawling, vigilante dominated community, whose natural center is not the family hearth, but the saloon. Women may be mothers, but they are seldom wives. Avarice and lust, laughter and violence are the milieu where ingrained Oregon goodness is tested, and found sufficient. And when the Coburg lawyer finally overcomes vigilante lynch law with his oratory and a few lucky breaks, and when the good are rewarded and the evil chastised, the good set out for a compatible environment on their inherited Willamette Valley estates. Although Miller sets most of his play in California, amidst the color and the crises, it is Oregon where families settle for undramatic and more genteel lifetimes.

It may be stretching the limits of criticism to find in Miller's melodrama reinforcement for Starr's hypothesis formed from a comparative treatment of the history and literature of the regions. Yet the fact of regional contrasts is embedded in the play, and the theme of the Northwest's urge for community, developed in folklore and history, is further reinforced.

Although Theodore Roszak spoke for "intimate revolution," and his focus was the person rather than the community, he traced a mystic interaction between the individual and his environment - what wounds the planet, wounds the person - which echoes the organic metaphor favored by Stafford and other Northwest poets. The bigness of things is a major threat, and Roszak condemned the "inordinate scale of industrial enterprise that must grind people into statistical grits of the marketplace and work force." To achieve a satisfactory alternative to the technocratic society, Roszak looked to communities - communities of 'persons' making constructive lives for themselves and each other while rejecting the rapacious and bellicose mores of the dominant culture. "The search for the person," suggests Roszak, "is a quiet exploration undertaken in candor and curiosity. Its aim is neither success nor celebrity, but self-knowledge - knowledge of the self for whatever the self happens to be. Substitute 'region' for 'self,' and the quest is equally relevant. And if, as the individual seeker needs to secede from his regular life-style to achieve the perspective he needs to examine it, so a region should be prepared to respond to its own rhythms. But in order to trust those regional rhythms they must be deeply felt and clearly articulated." Kevin Starr suggested that the Oregon and Northwest experiences are different from California's. Duller, nature dominated, family centered, conservative, and thin in artistic and scholarly expression, the Northwest exudes its own rhythms. With Wallace Stegner, I believe that history is an artifact, shapeless and useless until it is vividly imagined and recorded. I think that the Northwest is distinctive, though I'm not sure of its boundaries. Like Edwin Fussel's frontier, it may be more a state of mind than a place contained in geographic borders. The region has its artists, whose vivid imaginations contribute to a composite regional identity. But the Northwest still lacks the comprehensive and unifying study, which would make an artifact of its history, so that its people may have an adequate guide in their exploration of regional ethos. Hopefully, somewhere, somebody steeped in the region, not only its archives and literature, but cities and deserts and ocean and mountains, is preparing to do for the Northwest what Kevin Starr has done for California.