LAST WEEK was not a good one for Northwest arts and letters legends. First was the death of Alan Hovhaness, age 89, a composer whose symphonies often captured the moodiness of the Northwest landscape, especially the mist-snagging, volcanic Cascades. His death was followed shortly by that of Murray Morgan, dean of Northwest historians, newspaper columnist, reporter, novelist, teacher, and mentor to many local writers. Morgan was 84.
Morgan is known primarily for his book on Seattle, Skid Road, which stands as a testament to his skill as a storyteller: After 50 years, it's still in print and no one has written a better single volume about the city. According to Seattle Weekly founder David Brewster, what always struck him about Morgan's work "was Murray's sense that Seattle was made by giants." Morgan captured the essence of such rascals as Doc Maynard and Dave Beck, depicting them with Paul Bunyan proportions.
In Morgan's eyes, the larger-than-life characters who built the Puget Sound region were large and alive. He once told me the story of how, as a small child, he sat on the lap of Northwest pioneer Ezra Meeker, a man with Old Testament whiskers who came out in a covered wagon on the Oregon Trail. Meeker was one of the most important pioneers in the region—his covered wagon resides in the state historical society.
The history of European settlement in this region is literally close enough in time to touch, and that meeting between historic figure and future historian helps explain why Morgan's writing often featured a kind of familiarity with subject matter and an eye for detail that made you think he'd actually been there. In some cases, he had.
A great irony of the success of Skid Road is that Morgan wasn't a Seattleite. He lived near Trout Lake in Auburn, and his city of choice was Seattle's sad second cousin, Tacoma, the City of Destiny. A longtime columnist for the local daily, Morgan loved to cover politics with a Damon Runyonesque eye for characters: He helped the reader see the humor and life in Puget Sound's great blue-collar boneyard. Morgan didn't like Tacoma's occasional attempts to put on airs. Periodically, for example, Tacomans attempt to rename Mt. Rainier after themselves or proclaim there is no local aroma. Some years ago, Morgan's paper, the Tacoma News-Tribune, changed its name to simply The News Tribune. Marketing required it to cut itself loose from its origins and become more regional and suburban-friendly. David Brewster remembers Morgan asking in disgust, "What is this place called 'The'?"
Murray Morgan's smarts and talent, wisdom and kindness will be missed in many places up and down Puget Sound. I can imagine Mosquito Fleets of mourners setting sail to pay their respects to the man who taught us about our pioneer roots and helped us learn to love this place a little more. Even the citizens of "The."