I can’t remember the riffle that sent my mind in this direction, but for some reason I was thinking about how many of my favorite writers and poets lived, worked and taught in the Pacific Northwest.
At any rate, it led me to this laborious piece from the Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest at the University of Washington: “Reading the Region: Northwest Schools of Literature.”
The writers mentioned do not to me seem well enough remembered. Maybe it has to do with what someone once called the snobbery of the “East Coast literary mafia.” This piece at least recognizes great poets and writers who, one way or another, sometime or another, called the Pacific Northwest home. It searches exhaustively for definition and in the end seems honest in an inconclusive way.
I have read Wallace Stegner, Ivan Doig, Larry McMurtry and others objecting to their classification as “Western” writers. This piece on writers and poets sometimes of the Pacific Northwest goes back and forth on definition but kept me reading mostly because it mentions so many of my favorites, including Stegner, Doig, Theodore Roethke, Richard Hugo and Carolyn Kizer.
I admit that I seem to mostly read and like writers who come from and write about the West. I am intrigued that “urban neurosis” might define much of what I find unreadable from writers from the East, and I admit that landscape often has a lot to do with why I like writers from the West. “‘Elbow room,’ cried Daniel Boone.” I guess I lean toward landscape and the nature of living in the 19th and 20th Century West shaping a lot of what I like to read, but I don’t know enough yet to put my foot down on either side of the Mississippi.
Meanwhile, Roethke’s physical background seems to me as much Michigan as anything, maybe just because I know that’s where he was from. Couldn’t “Child on Top of a Greenhouse” been written about a greenhouse anywhere? I like the fact that his student, Richard Hugo, was a trout fisherman and wrote one my favorite poems from a town in Montana — Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg — but I’m not sure he is a “Western poet,” nor that he is a Pacific Northwest one because he studied with Roethke at the University of Washington. Ivan Doig’s “This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind” is mostly about a father and son, but living close to the land in Montana has a lot to do with shaping their lives. (I think he moved to the Pacific Northwest to make a living). The Pacific Northwest gives Ken Kesey’s “Sometimes a Great Notion” a great dramatic backdrop, but could much of what Kesey or Raymond Carver wrote been about misery anywhere?
I’ll just cut to today’s chase. Here is the last paragraph of Reading the Region: Northwest Schools of Literature, which seems to carry neither byline or date. Read the whole thing if you at least want to be reminded of some of the great voices of 20th Century.
“In the end, William Stafford concluded that the organic model simply could not explain his relationship as a writer to the Northwest. “It’s a pleasant thought, but the idea that the style is rooted to the landscape just sounds sort of quaint to me.” If the Northwest possesses a regional style, he continued, it had less to do with place than with the people in a place with whom one associates. The “company the writers keep” has had much greater influence than the nearby “scenery” and “mystique.” In the case of the post-war Northwest that special company came from elsewhere. “If Theodore Roethke hadn’t moved to Seattle, the scene would be the same, but the literary scene wouldn’t be the same” (Stafford quoted in O’Connell 1998:259-60). Good writing in and about the Northwest in the end has perhaps stemmed less from the place than from the individuals—both native-born and newcomers—who have inhabited it.”