O Cascadia!

A new Northwest literary history reveals the enduring conflict between corny romantics and cranky realists.

RAY BRADBURY ONCE wrote a story that claimed the whole trouble with Thomas Wolfe was that he never found a landscape to match his outsized romantic imagination. In the story, Wolfe goes to Mars and, thus inspired, writes the jumbo masterpiece that always eluded him. Yet the reality is that extracting great literature from a great land is far trickier, as Seattle historian Nicholas O'Connell explores in On Sacred Ground: The Spirit of Place in Pacific Northwest Literature (University of Washington Press, $24), which spans local literary figures from Chief Seattle to Barry Lopez. To oversimplify, O'Connell sees Northwest literary history as originating in a struggle between two responses to nature: romanticism and realism. Faced with a landscape still more dramatic than the Lake District, our earliest local writers responded with a pale pastiche of the Lake poetsand readers ate it up. Our first true literary celebrity was arguably the ghastliest hack ever to mangle the language in these partsthe appalling yet influential Cincinnatus Hiney "Joaquin" Miller (1837-1931), a Pony Express rider, nearly hanged horse thief, jailbird, newsman, and poet whose 1871 The Songs of the Sierras made Tennyson and Swinburne hail him as "the Oregon Byron." "He put Northwest literature on the map," O'Connell told me in a recent interview. Like many a local rock band, the wild-haired, fierce-bearded Miller got nowhere at home and made it big in Europe. Audiences swooned when he unfurled his buffalo skins and actually gnawed on debutantes' ankles. Not all critics were so swayed; Ambrose Bierce called him "the greatest liar this country has ever produced." But truth, like fiction, is a commodity, and you have to admire Miller's entrepreneurial nerve, the pioneering huckster spirit that's sustained us from Doc Maynard to Darth Microsoft. His savvy hawking of a self-made frontiersman persona sartorially, tonsorially, and pop culturally paved the way for Buffalo Bill. And his genius for marketing a stony Northwest style of barbaric yawp presaged Sub Pop. "It helps sell the poems, boys," he used to say of his antics. IN THE REALIST CAMP, our first big-time writer who could actually write declared war on Miller's brand of ersatz regional romanticism. H.L. Davis (1896-1960) began as the bard of the Dalles, Ore., and later became David Guterson's predecessor as the most world-famous author on Bainbridge Island. "He doesn't glamorize the life of the frontier," says O'Connell. In fact, Davis was more steeped in the life of the frontier than Miller, and he was lyrical enough in his precisely observed natural details to win the Levinson Prize from Poetry magazine, run by Ezra Pound's pen pal Harriet Monroe. He also got a huge break from H.L. Mencken, who published him in The American Mercury, the era's major literary magazine. (It was a bigger deal then than Sherman Alexie writing for The New Yorker today.) Even more impressive, his now-forgotten novel Honey in the Horn won the 1936 Pulitzer Prize, plus a MacArthur-like cash prize equivalent to $100,000 in 2003 money. What's the novel about? Basically the coming-of-age of a sensitive soul sprung from Davis' own youthful environs near Antelope, Ore. Its hero is reminiscent of Huck Finn, but he's only one of the quirky, cranky eccentrics who populate Davis' Northwest. One such yokel has the opposite response to nature than, say, Thoreau: The grand landscape doesn't inspire him, it makes him stupid. Davis writes, "Living off by himself with wild animals that thought and acted all at the same clatter, and wild mountains that never thought or acted at all, had thickened the brain behind his eyes until a good half of what he saw never got through to it." This sounds suspiciously like Miller. To him, the Cascades were merely convenient symbols to peddle to credulous Europe: "White pyramids of Faith where man is free/White monuments of Hope that yet shall be," as he writes in Songs of the Sierras. By contrast, Davis mocks the mind-forged manacles of the self-emancipated natural man. In Honey, he writes of the same yokel: "He'd cut himself off from society to be independent of rules and restrictions, and the only thing he could think of to do with his freedom was to get up other rules and restrictions of his own which weren't a lick more sensible than the ones he'd escaped from." So much for finding inspiration at Walden, or Wordsworth's Windermere, or Kerouac's Desolation Peak fire-watch lookout. SUBSEQUENT NORTHWEST writers have faced the romantic/realist dilemma in more complicated ways. Theodore Roethke called Seattle, Mencken-esquely, "the worst bore in the U.S." Yet in his analytically spiritual response to nature, he found the genius within himself. Gary Snyder and Ursula Le Guin have tapped veins of myth to fuse man and nature in prose you could call both realist and romantic. Sherman Alexie has permanently blown away the romanticism that reduced Indians to symbols. Guterson's nature writing is as romantic as Miller's, only good; yet his eye for rural folly is as merciless as Davis'. In 1927, Davis famously summed up what our climate inspired in Northwest literature: "tripe, and nothing but tripe." It's still there in certain travel tomes and what I term Northwest Nature Porn. But our best local writers manage to see both the wilderness and the warts, the soaring spirit of place and the hard facts on the ground. To get it right, they get real without letting the land turn their minds to mush. Nicholas O'Connell will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co. (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 7:30 p.m. Thurs., Oct. 23. tappelo@seattleweekly.com

 
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