The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume 6, Number 3, Pages 22-32
by Glen A. Love
Glen A. Love received his Ph.D. in English in 1964 from the University of Washington. He taught at San Diego State before moving to the University of Oregon, where, as a Professor of English he teaches in the fields of American literature, rhetoric and composition. He was director of composition at Oregon from 1965 to 1970. His publications related to the Pacific Northwest include a Boise State Western Writers Series pamphlet on Don Berry: Northwest Perspectives, a book of essays on the culture of the region, co-edited with E. R. Bingham and published by the University of Washington Press in 1979; and an essay on William Stafford in Fifty Western Writers, edited by Fred Erisman and Richard Etulain and forthcoming from Greenwood Press. Glen Love's book, New Americans: The Westerner and the Modern Experience in the American Novel is coming out this year from Bucknell University Press.
The essay printed here was given as the keynote address to a meeting of the Pacific Northwest Regional Conference on English in the Two-Year College at Bend, Oregon, in the Fall of 1980.
Most writers and poets harbor feelings of ambivalence about being labeled "regional," for it is a term which may include the best and worst of literature. Thomas Hardy, William Butler Yeats, Willa Cather, Robert Frost, and William Faulkner represent the best artists whose work has not only defined the uniqueness of their own place, but has also become part of the enduring literary canon. One example of the worst sort of regionalist appears in Kingsley Amis's novel, That Uncertain Feeling, in Amis's satiric portrait of a sham regionalist named Probert, who, having presumably found all legitimate avenues to literary fame closed off to him by his lack of talent, has worked up a new image for himself as a Bard of Old Wales. To those who knew him then, however, he is a ridiculous figure, a fairy from the very bottom of the garden, a fakelore Dylan Thomas as he might appear on an unsuccessful Welsh version of "Sesame Street." "Why did this Probert pretend to be so Welsh," muses Amis's librarian-narrator:
"I remember that like me he'd been awarded nought for Welsh in School Certificate. Such a result, in that language, means an almost psychotic ignorance. It's standard practice, of course, with writers of Probert's allegiance to pretend to be wild valley babblers, woaded with pit-dirt and sheep-shit, thinking in Welsh the whole time and obsessed with terrible beauty, etc.,but in fact they tend to come from comfortable middle-class homes, have a good urban education, never go near a lay preacher and couldn't even order a pint in Welsh."(1)
Closer to home, H.L. Davis and James Stevens, two of the best of our Northwest writers, flayed the work of their less-talented local brethern and bemoaned the cruel trick of geography which linked them with such literary "posers, parasites, and pismires" - so they termed them - as occupied the Northwest region. Davis and Steven's "Manifesto Upon the Present Condition of Northwest Literature," entitled Status Rerum and privately printed in The Dalles in 1927, is less an expose of rotten logger-poets and rain-forest warblers than of those who had neither regional awareness nor any other ability to recommend them. Status Rerum attempted to do to the Northwest what H.L. Mencken had done to the South a few years earlier in his pointedly outrageous attack, 'The Sahara of the Bozart." Mencken had recognized and published the work of Davis and Stevens, and perhaps out of their admiration for America's leading critic, the two Northwesterners produced in their scathing regional attack an imitation of Mencken's diatribe on the South which parallels the master right down to the vocabulary and syntax. How, they ask, can one account for a region which has produced such
a vast quantity of bilge...Is there something about the climate, or the soils, which inspires people to write tripe? Is there some occult influence which catches them young, and shapes them to be instruments out of which tripe, and nothing but tripe, may issue?'(2)
In answer, Davis and Stevens indict as the most notorious well poisoners the professors of creative writing at the Universities of Washington and Oregon, and one Col. Hofer of Salem, editor of a periodical called The Lariat. Some conception of the literary quality of The Lariat's offerings can be gleaned from a representative selection such as P.E. Chance's ode on the restriction of immigration:
Now our mothers and wives can go
And get themselves a seat
In our moving picture show
Without sitting next to a Greek
A city has grown up from a few small shacks
Since the departure of that foreign band.
For they sent their money back
To their native land.
This sawmill has prospered beyond a doubt,
As can be plainly seen
And if we can keep the foreigner out
We can keep the village clean.(3)
After this, Davis and Stevens may be excused for referring to The Lariat, in a burst of Menckenian bombast as "an agglomeration of doggerel which comprises the most colossal imbecility, the most preposterous bathos, the most superb sublimity of metrical ineptitude, which the patience and perverted taste of man has ever availed to bring between covers."(4)
Indeed, in 1927, when Statsu Rerum was published, there was as yet very little in the way of memorable literature from the Northwest to counter this venomous protest. The most notable Northwest novelist up to that time, Frederick H. Balch, whose works were published in the 1890's, had written as a teen-ager that he hoped
to make Oregon as famous as Scott made Scotland, to make the Cascades as widely known as the Highlands; the Santiam as celebrated as the Ayer of Tweed; to make the spendid scenery of the Columbia and Willamette, a background for romance.(5)
But out of this high-flown motive came in Balch's best-known book, The Bridge of the Gods, not so much a defining interpretation or a powerful romantic myth of the region, but rather a memorialization of the conventions of sentimental historical romance of the day, into which category this early Northwest best-seller so easily slipped. The extent of Balch's failure to realize his youthful dream is made most evident when it is compared to another western boy's similar ambition, that of Willa Cather's fictional Jim Burden, the narrator of My Antonia, who not only resolves, like young Balch and the Roman poet Virgil, to "be the first, if I live, to bring the Muse into my country," but who actually achieves in his narrative the great task of melding his new prairie land with the enduring configurations of the human spirit.
It was not until the 1920 sand 30s that writers of the quality of Davis and Stevens, and an editor like Harold G. Merriam with his University of Montana regional journal, The Frontier, began to give the Northwest a more authentic literary expression, as George Venn has pointed out in his important essay, "Continuity in Northwest Literature."(6) Now, half a century later, the Northwest has come further toward achieving a body of literature of which Davis and Stevens need not feel ashamed. From transplanted Midwesterners like Theodore Roethke and William Stafford, from Eastern sojourners like Bernard Malamud, from English immigrants like Roderick HaigBrown and Malcolm Lowry, and from native products like Vardis Fisher, Robert Cantwell, A.B. Guthrie, Allis McKay, Archie Binns, Earle Birney, Richard Hugo, Don Berry, John Okada, Ken Kesey, Gary Snyder, Mary Barnard, and Jack Hodgins, to name some of the most notable, has come a group of works shaped by, and in return helping to shape, a sense of the Northwest region.
''The world begins here," says the Nez Perce shaman. One of the most important contributions of a regional consciousness is the recognition that all art begins with some kind of particular experience. "All events and experiences are local, somewhere," says William Stafford, "and all human enhancements of events and experiences - all the arts - are regional in the sense that they derive from immediate relation to felt life. It is this immediacy that distinguishes art. And paradoxically the more local the feeling in art, the more all people can share it; for that vivid encounter with the stuff of the world is our common ground."(7) It follows then that a real advantage in the classroom teaching of the literature of one's own region is that students discover that their own place, too, and the people of that place are the source from which literature is created. There are many barriers between students and literature, as George R. Stewart has pointed out in discussing regionalism in the classroom, barriers of time and place and language and understanding.(8) Regional literature removes at least one of these obstacles and, in the greater sense of immediacy with which it comes to the students, helps to dissolve some of the difficulties that may arise between reader and text. Like George Stewart, I have seen students in my own regional literature classes come to life as readers of literature for perhaps the first time as a result of working with local materials, and I would guess that others of you may have had the same experience.
Place carries with it strong connotative and emotional potentialities, and that is especially true in America, a nation whose course of development from its earliest Edenic stirrings in the minds of western Europeans, through its first settlements and long history of westward movement, and down to its present restless concern for "liveability," has been an unremitting search for the right place. The primacy of setting, always evident in western American writing, in a region where natural features are not only notable, but are of such scope as to threaten the significance of human events - this primacy of place remains even more pronounced in the Northwest as a kind of West's West, carrying with its dramatic natural scenery the historical obligations of a land of plenty and the contemporary role of an environmental leader, even, in utopian form, an "Ecotopia."
As a teacher in western Oregon, I am never disappointed in the reaction of my students on first looking into Ken Kesey's remarkable novel, Sometimes A Great Notion. I can tell students, of course, of the importance of place in American literature, of the characteristic American obsession with building one's own world, with shaping outer reality to conform to a private inner vision, to be shared, if at all, with only a chosen one or two. I can point out how this American sense of creating one's own world-as-house differs from the attitudes fostered in older countries and cultures, where the individual is expected to fit his life and expectations into houses and structures which have stood for centuries, and whose patterns of living are already formed and waiting for him. I can go on to explain, correspondingly, the primacy of the house as a central and controlling symbol in classic American literature: Judge Temple's rough but ambitious mansion and the mysterious forest hut of Natty Bumppo and Mohegan John as the opposing poles of Cooper's social myth in The Pioneers, set in the colonial wilds of upstate New York; Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables with its ancient curse, lifted at last by the interfusion of young and hopeful life within its walls; Thoreau's spare, scrubbed little cabin at Walden Pond, a fit container for that examined life which it contains; Jim and Huck's raft home on the great river, a haven of perfect community, a sanctuary from the degraded shore society; Silas Lapham's tastefully expensive new Boston town-house, gutted by fire, presaging his own return to earth after a brief, but amply corrupting, rise to prosperity; the wandering Joads of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, scattered and dispossessed, their tragic vulnerability exemplified by nothing so much as what John Milton calls their houselessness...The examples may be carried out indefinitely. The subject is one of the givens in American literature, but, of course, to most students it is news. I may lecture to them on the concept, assign them the works, and hope that the point sinks in. But when they begin reading Kesey's novel, I'm fairly sure that they know. They know in that fine and proper way of knowing which comes only when a major idea intersects with the individual's personal experience. They know because they've seen the Stamper house, or one like it, across the Siuslaw River from the highway to the coast from Eugene, between Mapleton and Florence, or perhaps on a bend of the Umpqua above Scottsburg on the road to Reedsport. They've seen such a house above "a river, flat as a street, cement-gray with a texture of rain," "an ancient two-story wood-frame house [that] rests on a structure of tangled steel, of wood and earth and sacks of sand, like a two-story bird with split-shake feathers, sitting fierce in its tangled nest." They know how the "rain drifts about the windows," how rain filters through a haze of yellow smoke, and how "the sky runs gray, the smoke wet yellow. Behind the house, up in the shaggy hem of mountainside, these colors mix in windy distance, making the hillside itself run a muddy green."(9) I can almost see them nodding in agreement as we read the passage together. And when they have finished with Kesey's description of that Stamper dwelling, there can be no question as to the importance of the American house as metaphorical expression of the lives and aspirations of its inhabitants. The Stamper house defies the natural forces of rain and river, protruding into the water, shored up on all sides with logs, ropes, cables, burlap bags filled with cement and rocks, welded irrigation pipe, old trestle girders, and bent train rails, timbers, spikes, sheets of plywood braced by barrel staves, all lashed together and anchored to the hillside by webs of wire rope, cables and logging chain. My students know this for what it is: a rural Oregon front yard. And they know that this "two story monument of wood and obstinacy that has neither retreated from the creep of erosion nor surrendered to the terrible pull of the river" must be striking objectification of the toughness and mettle of the Stampers who live there, a race of dinosaurs disguised as gyppo loggers, whose motto will be, as it must, "Never give an inch!"(10)
If a shared awareness of place offers advantages to the student as reader, it presents a corresponding lesson of benefit to the student as creative writer, namely, that he might till his own garden to some advantage. Indeed, as Ellen Douglas wrote recently in an essay on "Provincialism in Literature,"
It may well be impossible for a writer to create serious fiction, fiction with the print of the craftsman's thumb on it, fiction that will continue to be read, unless he belongs somewhere or has a sense of place where he should belong, from which he is absent: in some milieu the concrete, specific details of which he can make real to us. He must be able to say, this is where I am, and this is what it's like to be here. Or, this is where I was and this is the place to which I long to return. Or, this is where I am going, if I can get there. Or, most terrible of all, this is the only place I know and I hate it and I know there must be some better place to be.
In short, a province or a parish, the details of whose scenery are engraved upon his heart and the people of which are as familiar to him as his own face in the mirror. This kind of provincialism will never make a bad writer of anyone.(11)
If this is true for the student of creative writing, it is equally valid and important for the student in our expository writing classes. Effective exposition, we tell those students, is rich in specific detail, whereas poor writing is likely to be a collection of unexplored topic sentences, a string of generalities devoid of the vital layers of observed and clearly articulated particulars. Good writing is heavily textured with such levels of detail, as Francis Christensen's work has shown us. And so we teach our students to range back and forth between the general and the particular, but always with the awareness that there must be many details to support a few generalizations, and that the conviction of the argument or description or analysis will finally be determined by the authenticity of its details. Get the details right and the generalizations will take care of themselves. Universality is the felicitous by-product of a scrupulous attention to particulars.
As to the question of the relative merit of Northwest writing, while it is true that the Pacific Northwest has as yet produced no artist of the stature of a Hawthorne or a Mark Twain or a Faulkner, it has given us a number of writers worth our attention, writers who exemplify my conception of regionalism as the memorable artistic expression of that which is unique to a place. Many of us have found ample materials from among such books and authors for a solid course in Northwest literature. There is even something to be said for at least passing attention to be given in such a course to some of the less than notable or forgotten writers of the region. Local libraries and historical collections may be a source for their work, if the college library is not. What can one hope to learn from these Sweet Singers of Roseburg and Penticton, these Bards of the Okanogan and inglorious Sagebrush Miltons? They can, I think, demonstrate some important lessons to our students in their capacities as both writers and readers. Looking at the work of a forgotten writer, our students may profitably ask how it treated or failed to treat its portion of immediate, felt life. If the writer once achieved a significant measure of popular acceptance, what does that success tell us about the preconceptions of his audience, as compared to our contemporary attitude? Why did the work's popularity fail to transcend its own times? Let me give an example from my own region.
Probably the most famous and popular in the history of Oregon literature is titled "Beautiful Willamette," a gem of 19th century popular culture. Today, it is not known, I would guess, to even one in ten thousand Oregonians, although it was standard declamation fare in schoolrooms and parlors and at various gatherings on behalf of cultural uplift in the Willamette Valley for the 50 years or so following its publication in 1867. Its author, Sam L. Simpson, was a small-town newspaper editor who had early in his life been brought across the plains from Missouri by his parents in a covered wagon, and had grown up in Polk and Marion counties, attending Willamette University and graduating at the age of 20 in 1865.(12) He wrote "Beautiful Willamette" at 22, a work that quickly brought him regional renown. By the age of 30 he had succumbed to what the newspaper obituaries at his death referred to discreetly as "the besetting sin of his life." He became a drinker. While his occasional poetic productions in the following years earned him a place of some stature as a literary man in the late nineteenth century Oregon community, he was never again to equal his early success. He died in 1899, at which time he was the subject of a brief flurry of laudatory tributes from his newspaper colleagues, as might befit an unofficial poet laureate of the region, one whose personal habits were something of an embarrassment, but who nevertheless, had possessed at least a spark of the Muse's divine fire.
"Beautiful Willamette," with its swinging trochaic meter, is still rhythmically pleasing to the ear, especially to those who like their poems to sound like poems:
From the Cascades' frozen gorges,
Leaping like a child at play,
Winding, widening through the valley,
Bright Willamette glides away;
Softly calling to the sea,
Time, that scars us,
Maims and mars us,
Leaves no track or trench on thee.
This opening stanza suggests some of the possibilities for study by the modern reader. The heavy use of poetic diction (later stanzas are particularly rich in roseate ripples, crystal deeps, and purple gates of morning) raises the question of appropriateness of language. Simpson's diction, borrowed from eighteenth century English nature poetry, makes no attempt to name and describe the Willamette on its own terms. A useful contrast can be made, at this point, with Kesey's Wakonda Auga Riger, whose description immerses us in concrete, local nouns, the names of native plants, the profusion of real things, like washes, sheep sorrel, clover, fern, nettle, bearberry, salmonberry tamarack, Douglas fir. Then, too, Kesey's language is closer to human speech, and his river is not "beautiful," as is Simpson's, but flat and gray, with clots of yellow foam. The rain, which receives only equal time in Simpsons' well ordered universe, asserts itself in Kesey's book as the dominant force which it is in Western Oregon. Kesey's Wakonda Auga does not yield its meanings openly to man as does Simpson's Willamette. In the classic fashion of Emerson and the nineteenth century romantic poets and philosophers, Simpson goes to nature, to the river, to read its meanings for mankind. This leads him to the central idea of the poem: that the river mirrors human life, both individually and collectively. This is not a new idea: in fact it may be termed something of a philosophical cliche, paralleling the well-worn poetic diction of the poem. And yet, it is worthwhile to trace the ideas and images out with our students as revelations of the mind of Simpson and his audience and as points of comparison with another river-watcher like Kesey. Neither reading of the river settles it once and for all. Rivers are still part of the ungraspable phantom of life, and there will always be the need and the opportunity for new verbal maps of our native waters.
So, while Sam Simpson's name and fame are as lost to today's reader as that of some obscure potentate from the Ming dynasty, his "Beautiful Willamette" repays study for its very failure to survive, as a revelation and an object lesson for us and our students as both readers and writers when we, too - nearly all of us - judge and are judged by a time and a place to which we no longer can speak meaningfully. And, in the case of "Beautiful Willamette" I sometimes wonder if it hasn't affected eternity perhaps more than I've given it credit for. Is it not possible that the generations of Western Oregonians who read and recited the poem along with such other schoolhouse favorites as Longfellow's "A Psalm of Life" and Joaquin Miller's "Columbus" may have been sufficiently sensitized by the poem to hold the Willamette in rather more special regard than other waters, and may have passed along some sense of that regard to their children and grandchildren? Might not, then, some measure of this regard have accounted for part of the public acceptance of the program initiated in the 1960's under Governor Tom McCall to rescue this once-bright river from death by pollution? The saving of the Willamette is one of the nation's most widely recognized environmental success stories. How tempting to speculate that this restored river may owe something of its rebirth to this forgotten poem, and that Sam Simpson might, after all, be one of the unacknowleged legislators of the world.
A related lesson which less than notable literature can make clear is that every truly memorable literary work rests atop a great mass of works of lesser distinction. The masterwork, like the tip of the iceberg, is supported, below the surface of our recognition and awareness, by an enormous pyramid of generically similar works. While our students, quite properly for the most part, spend their time studying the tip of the iceberg, it is instructive for them to at least catch a glimpse of that forgotten and unseen body of works below the surface. This glimpse below may not only help to reveal how cultural and artistic values and practices shift over the years, but also may demonstrate, as nothing else can, why the enduring masterpieces are what they are, why only those works which touch us with their immediacy become, oddly enough, those which transcend their temporal and cultural boundaries and achieve universality, assuming their place in the sun.
Finally, the fear that giving some attention in our curricula to regional literature may foster a narrow-minded provincialism, may turn us into apologists for the second-rate, mindless rooters for the home team, is, I think, something of a paper tiger. Even allowing for the curious curricular promiscuity of our profession and even assuming a wild enthusiasm for matters local and regional which might accrue from this and other testimonials, it is unlikely that we shall soon be reading Kesey by the light of classic fed bonfires, or writing Snyder-inspired haikus on our desk tops with chain-saws. But it is worth admitting that nearly all of us will live much of our lives as provincials in the sense that we are citizens of a region, a community, and city or town or neighborhood. In our civic life, we join in a variety of local activities for reasons which we do not consider wholly trivial. We often take our local and regional elections seriously and we vote in them as we do in national elections; indeed, in recent years it is the region rather than the nation which has received our primary attention. The point seems inescapable that for that not insignificant portion of our lives which must necessarily remain provincial, the choice is whether we shall be ignorant or intelligent provincials. Following Josiah Royce, I opt for a "wholesome provincialism" which recognizes the strengths and weaknesses of our region and which is familiar with its principal cultural interpreters.
And if the opposite of provincialism comes to mean, as it threatens to, only a vast network of interchangeable urban experiences, an undifferentiated and featureless army of consumers eating the same pre-cooked dinners and watching the same shows on the same tv channels, driving ubiquitous freeways in identical cars to reiterated parking-lots before photocopied shopping centers, whether one finds oneself in Dallas or New York or Seattle, Vancouver or Munich or Paris, or even, one day, in Kashmir or the isles of the sea - if this universal technological zombiism comes to be the alternative to the immediate and the particular and the unique, we shall be hanging on to our provinces for dear life. But because the nomadic and undifferentiated global village threatens us is no reason why we must meekly accommodate ourselves to it, or deny the opportunity to fashion alternatives less destructive and wasteful of both the human spirit and the physical world.
To close with something other than jeremiad, let me repeat one of the most graceful tributes which I know, that of William Faulkner to his early mentor and friend, Sherwood Anderson. It is a tribute not only to Anderson, but also to some of the notions of regionalism with which we are concerned here:
I learned [from Sherwood Anderson, wrote Faulkner] that, to be a writer, one has first got to be what he is, what he was born; that to be an American and a writer, one does not necessarily have to pay lip-service to any conventional American image such as his and Dreiser's own aching Indiana or Ohio or Iowa corn or Sandburg's stockyards or Mark Twain's frog. You had only to remember what you were. "You have to have somewhere to start from: then you begin to learn," he told me. "It don't matter where it was, just so you remember it and ain't ashamed of it. Because one place to start from is just as important as any other. You're a country boy; all you know is that little patch up thee in Mississippi where you started from. But that's all right too. It's America too.(13)
Fair counsel. It might serve as well for those writers of the future who are, to paraphrase Melville, this day being born on the banks of the Fraser or the Columbia. The world begins here.
1. Kingsley Amis, That Uncertain Feeling (London: Victor Gollancz, Ltd., 1968), pp. 48-49.
2. James Stevens and H.L. Davis, Status Rerum: A Manifesto, Upon the Present Condition of Northwestern Literature (The Dalles, Ore.: n.p., ), p. 1.
3. Quoted in James Stevens, 'The Northwest Takes to Poesy," The American Mercury, 16:61 (January 1929), 65.
4. Status Rerum, p. 1.
5. Quoted in Leonard Wiley, The Granite Boulder: A Biography Frederick Balch (Portland: Dunham, 1970), p. 23.
6. In Northwest Perspectives: Essays on the Culture of the Pacific Northwest, ed. Edwin R. Bingham and Glen A. Love (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1979), pp. 99-118.
7. "On Being Local," Northwest Review, 13:3 (1973), 2.
8. 'The Regional Approach to Literature," College English, 9 (April 1948), 370-75. I am indebted to Professor Stewart's stimulating essay for several points in this discussion.
9. Ken Kesey, Sometimes a Great Notion (1963; rpt. New York: Bantam Books, 1965), pp. 1-2.
10. Kesey, pp. 5, 30.
11. The New Republic, (July 5 & 12, 1975)
12. For the biographical details on Sam Simpson, I m indebted to Alferd Power's History of Oregon Literature (Portland: Metropolitan Press, 1935), p. 289-304.
13. "Sherwood Anderson: An Appreciation," The Atlantic Monthly, 191 (June 1953).