The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume 4, Number 4, Pages 20-27
Fall, 1979

Notes on Past and Contemporary Northwest Writing

By Roy Carlson

Roy Carlson is an Associate Professor of English at Oregon State University. He has developed a special interest in Northwest writing. This piece served recently as the "introduction" to: Roy Carlson, ed., Contemporary Northwest Writing (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1979).

It is customary for the editor of a collection of regional writing to announce that the literature of the area has finally come of age, that here we have a harvest of some of the finest fiction and poetry in the United States. 1 certainly feel this is true of the work included in this book. But anyone who sets out to edit a collection and takes the time to search out regional anthologies published during the last one hundred years will find the literary survival rate of the writers included disappointing. Upon realizing this, there is an urge to take stock of oneself and agree with Herman Melville when in the "Extracts" section of Moby Dick he said:

Thou belongest to that hopeless, sallow tribe which no wine of this world will ever warm; and for whom even Pale Sherry would be too rosy-strong; but with whom one sometimes loves to sit, and feel poor-devilish, too; and grow convivial upon tears; and say to them bluntly, with full eyes and empty glasses and in not altogether unpleasant sadness Give it up, Sub-Subs! For by how much the more pains ye for ever go Thankless!

Putting together a regional collection is to a large extent a thankless job of trying, in a small way, to assure the literary immortality of a group of writers whose work one values. Melville is a good writer to consider in this regard, not only because by identifying with the "poor devil of a Sub-Sub" the editor assumes the appropriate perspective, but because of the ironic ups and downs in the esteem in which Melville's writing has been held over the years. It is impossible for anyone to predict which of our contemporary writers will be read fifty years from now. One can only say the work of these people is valuable to us now.


"The Northwest - Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana - has produced a
vast quantity of bilge, so vast...that the few books which are entitled to respect
are totally lost in the general and seemingly interminable avalanche of tripe."


For instance, none of the poets included in May Wentworth's Poetry of the Pacific, published in 1867, is still read today. Unfortunately, this is also true of all of the Northwest poets who published before the World War. The one exception is Joaquin Miller, whose work was included in the major anthologies of American literature thirty years ago. But today his work too has been universally dropped, and perhaps this is as it should be. The truth is that when compared with the writers of the nineteenth century whose work continues to be read, Miller, in spite of his appeal as a literary personality, does not measure up. The conclusion one is forced to draw is that our Northwest literary past has not been as rich as we would like it to be.

Writing in 1902 John B. Horner said in the Preface to his anthology Oregon Literature, "the men and women who made Oregon have already produced more genuine literature than did the Thirteen Colonies prior to the American Revolution." One can't help but admire Horner's pride in the accomplishments of what was still a frontier society. However, of the more than seventy writers he included in his book, only three of four would be recognized today by anyone other than a specialist in the literature of the region. These are Joaquin Miller, his wife Minnie Myrtle Miller, Ella Higginson, and the cartoonist Homer Davenport. For all of fellow "Sub-Sub" Horner's good intentions, this is not a rich harvest.

In 1934 James Stevens and H. C. Davis, in their pamphlet "Status Rerum," assessed the Northwest literary situation:

The present condition of literature in the Northwest has been mentioned apologetically too long. Something is wrong with Northwest literature. It is time people were bestirring themselves to find out what it is.

Other sections of the United States can mention their literature as a body with respect. New England, the Middle West, New Mexico and the Southwest, California - each of these has produced a body of literature of which it can be proud. The Northwest - Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana - has produced a vast quantity of bilge, so vast, indeed, that the few books which are entitled to respect are totally lost in the general and seemingly interminable avalanche of tripe.

In this caustic vein, Stevens and Davis ripped into the magazines of the area, the writing teachers of the various universities, writers' clubs, and poetry societies for their part in corrupting the literature of the Northwest. There is no question that they overstated their case, but unfortunately they weren't too far off the mark.


During the winter at Fort Clatsop, Clark recorded that there had
been only twelve days without rain and only six with sunshine.


At one point in their diatribe they asked if it might not be something "about the climate, or the soil, which inspires people to write tripe?" This is an interesting question in that far more serious critics than Stevens and Davis have pondered the influence of the environment on Northwest writers.

There are two basic schools of thought: the first is that a country filled with so much natural beauty would have to inspire an equally glorious literature, while the second holds that all that rain and subsequent lack of bright clear sunny days would have to warp a person's mind and produce a literature of despair. There is evidence to support both points of view, but when one considers the personal lives as well as the product of the more prominent writers, one is inclined to accept the rain as the dominant element.

Entry after entry in the Journals of Lewis and Clark begins by describing the Northwest rain:

The fog so thick this morning that we could not see a man 50 steps off...Rained all the after part of last night, rain continues this morning A cool wet raney morning A cloudy foggey morning. Some rain A cloudy morning. Some rain rained very hard the greater part of last night & continues this morning...A hard rain all last night...

During the winter at Fort Clatsop, Clark recorded that there had been only twelve days without rain and only six with sunshine. A wet beginning for the literature of the white man in the Pacific Northwest, but a very good beginning. The Journals are the workmanlike, often crude, account of the exploration of this wet, heavily wooded, wild country. They are a description of the journey in terms of the hardships and pleasures as well as an attempt at scientific observation of the land and its plants and animals. The result is a marvelous document, as impressive as anything that has been produced since.

Another fascinating book of this kind is James Swan's Northwest Coast or, Three Years' Residence in Washington Territory, the first book written in what is now Washington state. Published in 1857 it is a description of life at Shoal-Water Bay, now called Willapa Bay, among the oyster pickers who, using Indian labor, loaded California schooners with shell fish to be sold in San Francisco.

Norman H. Clark, in his Introduction to the University of Washington Press edition of this book, described Swan as "a moral refugee disguised as a businessman when, in 1853, he found shelter and solace in the wilderness of the Northwest Coast," At the age of thirty-four he had used the gold rush as an excuse to escape from wife, family, and business in Boston to reshape his life in the West.

Swan's scholarship, adventuring, and ability to accept and be accepted by the Indians produced the unique character of this book. Swan is not only an accurate, painstaking observer but a good storyteller. His is a charming book, filled with fine description of the rugged Northwest country and a good humored desire to enjoy it as well as survive it.

The territory south of the Columbia was not so fortunate in terms of the first books written in the region. While the intent of these works was clearly literary, the results were not as satisfactory as The Northwest Coast.

The first of these was a novel, Prairie Flower, probably written by S. W. Moss but possibly written by J. Emerson Bennett or Overton Johnson. While there is controversy over its author, there is none about its merit. It is universally seen as relatively popular but bad novel. It is a sentimental romance made more interesting by an unusual setting.

The first book both written and printed in Oregon was a spelling book. The second was a political satire written by an ex-minister turned schoolteacher named William L. Adams, who published his work, A Melodrama entitled "Treason, Stratagems, and Spoils," under the pseudonym Breakspear. First appearing in the Weekly Oregonian in 1852, it was later reprinted as book. It dealt with the political ramifications of moving the capitol from Oregon City to Salem. Herbert Nelson was entirely correct in his monograph The Literary Impulse in Pioneer Oregon when he wrote, "Like hundreds of political satires produced throughout the United States, it is now dead literature, without interest except as the earliest literary effort produced entirely in Oregon."

Another interesting failure is The Grains, Or Passages in the Life of Ruth Rover, with Occasional Pictures of Oregon Natural and Moral by Margaret Jewett Bailey. Published in 1854 in Portland, this early novel is pure soap opera. It is clear that Mrs. Bailey is writing about her own unhappy life with Dr. William J. Bailey. It is the story of what happens when a pious missionary lady marries a hot tempered drunkard with a passion for Indian women. When the Baileys were finally divorced she was outraged by the fact that the judge only gave her one hundred dollars as a settlement, and she revenged herself by writing a novel. Given her material it might have been a dandy if she had been a better novelist, but as it stands it is interesting only because of the place and time when it was written.

The first important literary figure in the Northwest, and in many ways one of its most outrageous, was Joaquin Miller, however, it wasn't until he went to London in his flamboyant Western clothes that he was discovered as a poet. A combination of Buffalo Bill and Lord Byron he was accused by some critics of being a fraud, but Cincinnatus Hiver Miller was no phony frontiersman. He had lived the Western pioneer life.

Born in 1841 in Indiana, Miller came to Oregon with his family in a covered wagon in 1854. When he was fifteen he went to northern California to work in the mines. He lived with the Indians and took one for a wife. Returning to Oregon, he enrolled at Columbia College, where he became class valedictorian. Later he practiced law, tried his hand at mining again, rode for the Pony Express, edited newspapers, became a judge, took a herd of cattle from the Willamette Valley to eastern Oregon, fought the Indians, and planted the first orchard in the Canyon City area. With those credentials it is no wonder that the English accepted him as the real thing.

Songs of the Sierras, which was published in London in 1871, made him an immediate success. The reviews were outstanding and he became a celebrity throughout Europe.


[T]he fact that [Miller] had deserted his Indian wife and child and had left
Minnie Myrtle with three children to support did not go over well in Oregon.


Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the reaction was a mixture of disbelief and hostility. A writer for the Albany Democrat was one of the most outspoken:

C. H. Miller, ex-editor of the Eugene Register, and ex-County Judge of Grant County, has published a book of poems and become a man of fame in London. The fact makes us think no more of Miller, but much less of Londoners.

Also participating in the attack was Miller's ex-wife Minnie Myrtle Miller, a poet whose work was well accepted locally. She hired a hall and gave lectures on "Joaquin Miller, the Poet and the Man." A bright lady with a gift for satire, she was able to keep her audiences laughing from beginning to end. She undoubtedly knew things about Miller that the Londoners did not. For instance, the fact that he had deserted his Indian wife and child and had left Minnie Myrtle with three children to support did not go over well in Oregon.

For reasons of this kind, it was very difficult for the people of the Northwest to make an objective judgment about the value of Joaquin Miller's writing. This is still true today but for different reasons. The particular style of poetry written by many poets during the nineteenth century, even Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, is no longer appreciated. Poetic diction, heavy use of rhyme, and the kind of emphasis on alliteration that would cause Theresa Dyer to change her name to Minnie Myrtle do not appeal to the contemporary reader. Joaquin Miller has been dropped from the American literature texts. Longfellow is still included but seldom taught. Even taking literary fashion into consideration, Miller is not in the same league with Longfellow and certainly no competition for the poet he most admired, Byron, but given the circumstances of his life, his achievement is remarkable. And seen in this context, the achievement of Minnie Myrtle, who many felt was his equal as a poet, is even more remarkable.


Poetic diction, heavy use of rhyme, and the kind of emphasis
on alliteration that would cause Theresa Dyer to change her name
to Minnie Myrtle do not appeal to the contemporary reader.


To a certain degree Joaquin Miller must be recognized as the creation of an ambitious publisher out to exploit a sophisticated public's interest in the uneducated, intuitive poet of the Western frontier. An even more dramatic example of this fascination with the child of nature was the short but internationally known career of Opal Whiteley.

In 1919, under the editorship of Ellery Sedgewick, The Atlantic Monthly published The Story of Opal : The Journal of an Understanding Heart. This supposedly is the diary of a six or seven year old child written while living in the Oregon woods. In it she tells her thoughts to Michael Angelo Sanzio Raphael, a 250 foot fir tree. Her companions are Lars Porsena of Clusiu, a crow, Thomas Chatterton Jupiter Zeus, a wood rat, Peter Paul Rubens, a pig, and other animal friends with equally classical names. Through the use of a series of acrostics in French the story reveals that Opal is really the daughter of Henri d'Orleans and that there has been the usual switching of babies that occurs in melodrama. Elbert Bede, the leading authority on Opal, feels that the book is both hoax and plagiarism, but he also points out that Opal was able to get a letter of introduction from the Secretary of State, that she was accepted by the mother of d'Orleans, and that she was accepted at least for time as an Indian princess in the household of the Maharana of Adaipur. Hoax or not, this is a significant fulfillment of one's fantasies.

Unfortunately, The Story of Opal is not great literature. It is simply evidence of zany character of part of the Northwest literary tradition. Lewis and Clark probably would have blamed this weird streak on the rain.

Fortunately, there is also a sunny side to early Northwest literature. A fine example of this strain is the work of Ella Higginson, who was brought to Oregon by her parents in the 1860's but spent most of her adult life in Bellingham, Washington and eventually was named poet laureate of that state. She wrote short stories for such magazines as McClure's and Collier's and published one novel, but her best work was poetry in praise of the Pacific Northwest.

At times Higginson is perhaps too lyrical and romantic for today's readers in her descriptions of the land and rivers of the region. Yet she had a fine mastery of phrase and brought freshness and a unique clarity to her observation of the commonplace.

In 1931 Harold Merriam published an anthology called Northwest Verse. The poetry included in it was, almost without exception, very good, which is surprising in that he included the work of seventy-eight people. However, of that number only a half dozen names are still remembered today, and two of them, H. C. Davis and Vardis Fisher, are better known for their novels.

The others, Howard McKinley Corning, Ethel Romig Fuller, Ben Hur Lampman, and C. E. S. Wood, are all accomplished poets whose work deserves a wider audience than it has had in recent years. While I suppose the odds are against it, it seems possible that one of them might still be accepted as a poet of lasting national prominence.

Along with Davis and Fisher, the region has had a succession of fiction writers who have addressed themselves to Northwest themes. Among them are Ernest Haycox, James Stevens, Robert Cantwell, Anita Pettibone, Max Brand. (Frederick Faust), Nard Jones, Clara Weatherwax, Archie Binns, and Sheba Hargreaves. None of these writers achieved the national recognition of Davis or Fisher, but it must be considered that they were writing at a time when the novel was flourishing in America and the competition was tough.

Unfortunately, in my judgment, fiction writing today is not what it once was in the Northwest. The exception is science-fiction. Led by Ursula K. LeGuin and Frank Herbert, this genre is prospering.

Whether the decline of conventional fiction is part of a national trend or the result of the impact of television and film, I have no idea. I can only say it is my impression that more and better poetry is being written in the Northwest today than at any time before, but this is not true of fiction.

While it is generally accepted that Ken Kesey and Tom Robbins are major novelists, they have each built their literary reputations on just two novels. But both are relatively young men who will undoubtedly continue to produce outstanding fiction. Don Berry is also a fine writer, but his last novel was published in 1963 and among his other activities he is writing poetry. David Wagoner has novels to his credit, but in my judgment he is a better poet than novelist. Davis and Fisher, who also wrote poetry, are carryovers from a previous generation and have been added to the collection to increase the number of first-rate established writers.

Such addition has not been necessary with the poets. While this is not a particularly young group of poets, only one, Theodore Roethke, seems to stand at that man-made dividing line where the past meets the present. His importance to Northwest literature is such that he not only constitutes our past and our present, but, perhaps more than the others, our future as well.

Carolyn Kizer, David Wagoner, Richard Hugo, Robert Huff, Madeline DeFrees and Beth Bentley have all been influenced by Roethke in one way or another, usually because of having been associated with him at the University of Washington. The sense of community that results from this focus on a gifted individual could be defined as regionalism.

Ironically, ten of Roethke's poems appeared in 1940 in a regional anthology called New Michigan Verse. Roethke's biographer, Allan Seager, tells us that Roethke was flattered to be included, but had "a few misgivings also because he did not want to be considered a regional poet."

While in many ways Roethke seems to be the most representative Northwest poet, it was late in his career that he began to make full use of Northwest imagery. We claim him as a poet of our region because he spent the major portion of his last sixteen years in Seattle, partially out of choice and partially because of circumstances. Had he been able to make the right academic connection, he very likely would have moved to a warmer, dryer climate because of his arthritis.

William Stafford is another case of mixed regional loyalties. His early works speaks of Kansas as unmistakably as his later poetry is grounded in the Northwest. Region is important to him, but his writing has not been inspired solely by the characteristics of one part of the country.

Robert Huffs work also has been included in an anthology of Midwestern poetry, and I'm sure that other contributors to this volume have been claimed by more than one region as well. This is not surprising in a country and, for that matter, a world in which the population is as mobile as it is today.

Perhaps Olga Broumas is the best example of this kind of mobility. Born in Greece on the Cyclodes island of Syros, she was nine years old when she was brought to the United States but returned to Greece at twelve. At eighteen she came again to this country and spent three years in Philadelphia. The next seven years, she lived in Eugene, Oregon, and even the casual reader of her poetry, I am sure, will be impressed with the way this Oregon experience permeates her work at this stage in her life.

Next year she will be in Vermont and perhaps New England will become a dominant influence in her writing.

I am not arguing that environment is always the key to the origin or meaning of literature. I think more often than not regionalism is simply a convenient way for an editor or critic to give sense of organization and unity to the work of an extremely diverse group of writers.

However, there is more to it than that. When I asked Sandra McPherson if she would like to be included in this collection, she responded in somewhat the same way Roethke must have in Michigan. She said, "1 hope the book isn't going to be full of clams and salmon and all of that." The answer, of course, is that it is. McPherson herself supplied a fair share of unmistakable Northwest plants and creatures, both dead and alive, and they enrich her work.

The fiction writers are even more deeply preoccupied with region than the poets. The exception is Ursula K. LeGuin who lives in Portland but is as little confined by region as anyone I have read. Vardis Fisher, H. L. Davis, Don Berry, and Ken Kesey are all deeply concerned with the land and the relationship of their people to it. Tom Robbins, at least in Another Roadside Attraction, is preoccupied with the rain. But the rain is part of the beauty of the place and along with the clams and the salmon and the sagebrush and the blue heron, it deserves its poet too.