The Pacific Northwest Forum
Second Series Volume I, Number 2, Pages 3-9
Spring, 1988

At the Edge of America with James Swan and Ivan Doig

by Harold P. Simonson

Harold Simonson is Professor of English and American Literature at the University of Washington. He has written about a variety of topics including, Turner's Frontier thesis, the American Puritans, Soren Kierkegaard, and John Muir. In this essay he revises an earlier estimation of Ivan Doig's work.

Ivan Doig's first book, This House of Sky (1978), was nominated for a National Book Award. Here was a virtually unknown former Montana ranch hand, newspaperman, small-time magazine editor, and a University of Washington Ph.D. in history suddenly hitting the big time. It appeared that with this first book Doig had proved himself a master of historical narrative. In it he recounted not only his childhood in Montana but also the deeper rhythms of love and landscape and truly turned these things into the stuff of art.

The book was no flash in the pan; it was followed two years later by Winter Brothers (1980), which won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award. This second book was more original than the first. It set forth how Doig met the former Bostonian James Swan, over a hundred years his elder, met him in the University of Washington library where Swan's diaries and journals lay untouched--yes, met him in imagination and temperament and, as if by grace, recognized him as a brother, a "winter brother," both men living on the farthest western edge of America, living mysteriously as if out of time on this far-away corner of Washington's Olympic Peninsula. (4)

Two years later Doig's third book appeared, The Sea Runners (1982), a splendid lyrical story of four men canoeing for their very life against all the ocean could throw at them, making their way down the hostile coast line from the Russian Sitka of 1853 (then called New Archangel) to Astoria.

Following still another two-year gestation, Doig's fourth book appeared, English Creek (1984), set in 1939 as the clouds of the coming war replaced those of the Depression and containing a wealth of details true to its western Montana locale. It's a fictional study of fourteen-year-old Jick McCaskill who, one supposes, will grow into full Western proportions when the trilogy that Doig promises to write is completed. Indeed, Doig's is a remarkable achievement: in less than a decade a reputation placing him atop Pacific Northwest's literary Mt. Olympus.

One of Doig's books, Winter Brothers, stands apart from the others in both subject and conception. Informing, the book is Doig's belief that words incarnate a person whom the outsider through these same words can meet and call "brother." In retrospect I realize that my book review--published in Western American Literature [16 (August 1981), 169-171], played down what Doig was attempting to do. I called his mindscape in this book mere "mist-icism" and generally questioned the notion that one mindscape fuses with another, specifically Doig's with Swan's, when in fact a hundred years and a thousand differences in culture and in nurturing separated the two writers. Doig was trying to convince us that his own Western mind discovered linkages with Swan's, and then to delineate the eventual fusion. Using impressionistic prose that sometimes rivaled Faulkner in its italicized stream-of-consciousness and that everywhere befitted a wintry Puget Sound fog, Doig (I said) sought to weave his own spell that supposedly would eventuate in a colloquy of three:

Swan, Doig, and the reader's tallying response. I said then that Doig's effort failed to ring true. I want now to reconsider that judgment.

First let us look at Winter Brothers. Doig begins by remembering the day at the University of Washington library when he made a side trip into "archival box after box of Swan's diaries and began to realize that they held four full decades of his life and at least 2,500,000 handwritten words" (3). Doig began to read and, he says, "At closing hour, Swan got up from the research table with me"(4). Thinking a magazine piece on Swan would do nicely--one of those "smooth packets of a few thousand words" that would show Swan as "a figurine of the Pacific Northwest past"--Doig soon (5) realized that Swan was refusing "figurinehood"(4). With each attempt to summarize Swan, the more Doig sensed that to know this diarist would take more time than he could ever grant it. Yet, year after year, Swan remained alive in Doig; the "Westernness" of both, their mutual quest for place, called each to each. Swan had gone West first. Doig had followed in what he calls "this matter of sitting oneself specifically here: West" (5).

And the diaries? Doig confesses that they dazzled him, forty years of diaries, page after page, volume after volume, "the simple stubborn dailiness of Swan's achievement" (5)--comparable, say, to a carpenter hammering away on the same framework for forty years, or a monk spending that time tending the same vineyard, or a Tolstoy writing out a manuscript the equivalent length of five copies of War and Peace.

Once committed, Doig kept his daily appointment with this man who had come to the Pacific Northwest a hundred years ago--this oyster entrepreneur, schoolteacher, railroad speculator, amateur ethnologist, lawyer, judge, homesteader, linguist, ship's outfitter, explorer, customs collector, author, small-town bureaucrat, artist, clerk--this Bostonian who in 1850 at the age of thirty-two had left his wife and two sons behind, never to return to them. Doig wonders, "Did Swan simply come onto the porch one day, back there in Boston, and say to his wife, 'Matilda, I have been thinking I will go to California'" (15) The household had been divided, Swan living in a Boston boardinghouse and Matilda in Chelsea with the two children. But Swan pointed no accusing fmger at either her or himself, nor explained his real reason for leaving. Doig likewise refrains from any accusations; he accepts Swan for who he was and is. As for Swan's Western impulse, Doig is content--no, is compelled--to read on and on then to write about this man.

Swan went around Cape Hom in 1850, worked the waterfront in San Francisco and the river steamers on the Sacramento, sailed aboard a schooner to Hawaii, and returned to San Francisco but not for long. He headed north along the coastline, plopping ashore in what Doig calls the "misty, spongy, oozeful" tideflats of the Shoalwater sloughs, now called Willapa Harbor, a few miles north of the Columbia.

In those days Shoalwater Bay, named for the shallowness of its muddy flats, was a perpetual sea banquet, offering clams, crabs, shrimp, mussels, sand lobster, salmon, sturgeon, trout, sole, flounder, and oysters. Swan paid Indians to harvest oysters, which he shipped to San Francisco on passing schooners. As another kind of harvest he wrote his first book, The Northwest Coast, Or (6) Three Years' Residence in Washington Territory, a movable feast of its own that included a look at the coastal Indians as human beings rather than the frontier's "tribal rubble"(21). Doig says that the book, which was published by Harper & Brothers in 1857, "stands as a jaunty grandfather of us all who face west above our typewriters"(21).

From the frontier Washington at Shoalwater Bay Swan's trajectory looped him up and around the Olympic Peninsula to the governmental Washington, specifically to a village called Port Townsend, situated at the point where the broad strait of Juan de Fuca sends an arm southward, down Admiralty Inlet and into Puget Sound. Swan arrived in Port Townsend in February 1859. He was forty-one, the mid-point of his life. Forty-one years later, May 1900, he died in the same town. Left behind were his 2.5 million handwritten words telling of his Port Townsend life that included other specializations such as episcopal choister, secretary to Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens, teacher at the Makah Indian reservation at Neah Bay, collector of Indian (Makah, Elwaha, Mootka, Tlingit, Haida) artifacts for the Smithsonian Institute, author of scientific monographs, drinking man, and most conspicuously diarist.

On page after page of Doig's Winter Brothers, Swan's quoted and italicized words appear like wisps of fog so evanescent they barely brush Doig's thoughts. Doig beckoned the words to appear and a century later to speak their own embodying things; the words are almost perishable to be sure and yet foreboding like an ocean fog or stark like a mountain ridge. I say that Doig beckoned Swan but the reverse is also true. What Doig lets happen was a merging, his own consciousness with that lying beneath Swan's silent words.

Doig, a Seattle man, makes journey after journey to Port Townsend and the remote places at Neah Bay and along the coast where Swan lived and traveled and where he sometimes had his own epiphanies. Traveling back and forth from the University's archival boxes to the Olympic Peninsula, from Swan's words to their headland and heartland origins, from one remote time to a time a hundred years later, from one mindscape to another, Doig resolved that nothing would avail to keep the two apart. His book records ninety such journeys, each seen as a day ("Day One ... Day Twenty-five ... Day Ninety"). Each day confirmed Swan's words because the researcher Doig experienced to the extent he could their originations and thus completed their meaning. The task was not easy; Doig insists that Swan was an "inward man," not an "elaborate" man but an inward (7) one, a "winterer within himself as well as his far-frontier surroundings"(61). Doig finds this season of the soul congenial with his own, and so persists. Here is "Day Twenty-five":

I like about Swan that he has arithmetic in his eye.

When he and the Makahs dig around in the rubble of the short-lived Spanish fort at Neah Bay, the clay tiles they unearth are 10 inches long 4 1/4 wide & 1 1/4 thick. When Swan visits the lighthouse on Tatoosh Island, the Fresnel lens measures 6 ft. across and is composed of 13 rings of glass above 6 rings below. When he is curious about how large the clearing behind the Indian lodges at Neah is, he finds out by pacing it off . .235 paces long 60 paces wide this will give at a rough estimate of 29110 acres.

He scares me a little, though, about this winter's effort at precision, my try at knowing as much as possible of Swan. There is that easy deceit of acquaintanceship; in the months since This House of Sky was published. I have heard again and again from schoolmates and Montana friends, "I figured I knew you pretty well, but... " If I myself am such an example of private code, how findable can Swan be in his fifteen thousand days of diary words? Findable enough, I still believe, for by now I have a strengthening sense of how it is that some of those coastal paths which for so many years carried him now hold me. But Swan does maintain boundaries, often numerical ones, with the deft pen. He may let me know exactly what size coat he wore, yet generally is going to make me guess about the inside of his head. Which perhaps is as much as one measurer can comfortably grant another (90; italics are Swan's , quoted words).

Questions Doig never answers are whether he writes from his own mid-point, or ever gets inside the other's mind, or how congeniality between himself and Swan works. Yet a clue etches the importance of place. For Doig makes clear enough that had he remained in Montana he would never have understood Swan. Montana was not the place to discover this new kinship. "Not winters of white steel but the coastal ones of pewter-gray, soft-toned, workable, with the uninsistent Northwest rain simply there in the air like molecules made visible, are the necessary steady spans for me to seek the words" (103). Had Doig wished to work with different words, Montana words, he would have stayed; more to the point, his inner chambers already overflowed with Montana and he could go to them again. But in writing Winter Brothers he needed a different place to be. (8)

Place bridges time; place evokes the past and makes possible its re-creation. Ordering is remembering, re-creating, but place begins the ordering. The fact that a different place evokes a different past or a different way of ordering only corroborates the generating force of place itself. This, I think, is what Doig seeks to verify in this book. Place is existential. Something happens that makes one place different from another, makes responses different, makes words different, and makes responses to those same words different too. Reading Swan in Alabama is out of place; so, too, is reading Faulkner in Port Townsend.

Granted that imagination bridges space and time, yet every Shelleyian skylark has its local nesting, every metaphor its local point or moment. Of course we read our Faulkner even though we've never spent a day or year or half a lifetime in Mississippi. But once having given ourselves to the place however briefly, once having strolled through the whispering streets of Oxford at dusk, the magnolia heavy and the burnished fragments of sunset still violent, we recognize Faulkner and in his words we find our kinship. This is what Doig found: kinship.

Before he began to share that winter season with Swan at the edge of America, something had first invited him in as if the diaries themselves had said, "Read me. "

Through them Doig entered another's consciousness, barriers dissolved, certain thoughts and feelings of the old Northwesterner became identical with those of the younger, and the common element joining the two was place.

To interpret Doig's response to the diaries as passive is not to think of it as dull or sluggish but rather as his being "gripped" or possessed. It's what Georges Poulet has called "the experience of interiority"; the reader is held by and within the consciousness of the writer.! On the other hand, one might also interpret Doig's response as truly active. While joining Swan in the same sea mists and listening to the same relentless heft beyond, Doig had his own creative work to do. No author even of Swan's generous eye ever sets forth the whole picture of anything. The reader fills the gaps, makes connections, supplies tone and shading, and becomes a creator too. The phenomenologist Wolfgang Iser insists that reading is an event, in some ways as active for the reader as the writer.2 Something happens, not on the page where we are accustomed to look for it but, according to Stanley Fish, "in the interaction between the flow of print (or sound) and the actively mediating consciousness of the reader-hearer."3 In Doig's case, reading Swan summoned up a private world, and he used it to fill in and complete the other's work (9) while creating his own.

What gives Winter Brothers its force is Doig's own risk-taking, his courage to let Swan's enigmas intenningle with his own. Doig wonders what "urges of the night" worked in Swan, what moved behind Swan's brow, under his thatches of beard, atop his thighs. In such wondering Doig dares to show himself as one alike and also "western-edged." After musing so long in Swan's West, Doig realized that his own Westemness was going to have to be "a direction of the mind ... a personal geography"(214). Like Swan and Doig, I confess the same. Unlike before, when I ftrst read this elusive book called Winter Brothers, I now take my place in this colloquy of three. I understand what Doig means when he says that "atoms merge out of the landscape into us"(241). Places fresh to them are fresh to me:

"Whidbey Island, gulls balleting along the roofs of wind. Dungeness Spit, days there glossed with sea ducks and crowned with an eagle, the thrusting Capes, Flattery and Alava, their surfs bring in perpetual cargoes of sound and thought" (241).


1. George Poulet, "Criticism and the Experience of Interiority," reprinted in Reader-Reponse Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism, ed. Jane P. Tompkins (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1980), pp. 41-49.

2. Wolfgang Iser, The Implied Reader: Patterns in Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Becket (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1974). See especially his chapter, "The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach," pp. 274-294.

3.Stanley Fish, Surprised by Sin:

The Reader in Paradise Lost (Berkeley: University of California, 1971).

(Figures in parantheses indicate page numbers in Winter Brothers.)