Good Pacific Northwest literature peels back the layers of cant that have accumulated over time about this region and gives readers a glimpse into ways of being that are distinctive about this place. Some literary genres do this better than others. The beautiful neo-romantic lines of Theodore Roethke, for example, show the power that poetry has in expressing the region’s stunning landscape as a metaphor for the unfolding of an authentic life. In the hands of a writer like Annie Dillard, whose 1992 The Living is the best work of serious Pacific Northwest historical fiction, the novel proves a sturdy genre for comprehending the storied interplay between the region’s peoples, geography, and development, even if over time its practitioners have met with lesser success. And in Raymond Carver’s austere realism, the short story successfully hews the intricate edges of the region’s working class; but the genre has seldom found such a skilled hand, even as its practitioners are legion.
The literary genre that most consistently paints a successful portrait of the region’s distinctiveness or best illustrates the way the dramatic physical place molds and is molded by the lives of those who have lived here is the memoir. The memoir demands of its author both an inventory of personal experience and a generalizing of that experience into a narrative form that, when it is done successfully, gives readers a sense of the whole that is grounded in the lived experience of a particular life and a specific place. While the genre by its nature is subjective, the sum of the author’s experience is successful in a literary sense only if it is universalized in a manner that accords with a general sense of reality. It is this generalization of particular experience that makes the memoir the best genre for recovering an authentic sense of what makes the Pacific Northwest a distinctive place historically and presently. For a constant theme in nearly all Pacific Northwest literature is the manifest and unique ways in which the natural world shapes and is shaped by individual lives, as though nature itself were an omnipresent central character in the region’s drama.
It is not surprising that one of the region’s best memoirs was also the first to create a Northwest aesthetic, one that pervades Pacific Northwest literature, culture, and politics even today. In 1853, at the age of 24, Theodore Winthrop, a son of New England gentry, traversed the Pacific Northwest’s snowcapped mountains, primeval forests, and sprawling waterways. He later died in the Civil War, and his journey across Washington State was published posthumously in 1862 in a popular novelized memoir, The Canoe and the Saddle, which saw no fewer than 55 editions by 1876. Traveling over 80 miles by dugout canoe from Washington State’s Straits of Juan De Fuca to the southern Puget Sound and then by horseback across the Cascade Mountains to The Dalles on the banks of the Columbia River, Winthrop’s memoir is the self-described “story of a civilized man’s solitary onslaught at barbarism.”
From his first contact with the inebriated leader of the S’Klallam Tribe that concludes at knife point on the pebbled beaches of the Puget Sound to his abandonment by a Klickatat native guide that ends with guns drawn in the vast piney foothills of Eastern Washington, Winthrop is “the spokesman of civilization.”
“We come hither as friends for peace,” he lectures his native guides, whom he portrays as truculent and traitorous. “No war is in our hearts, but kindly civilizing influences. If you resist, you must be civilized out of the way . . . Succumb gracefully, therefore, to your fate, my representative redskin.” Winthrop gives his Eastern audience a familiar and engaging narrative of progressive westward expansion manifestly destined. His narrative speaks directly to those who by century’s end would come by the tens of thousands to settle, to prosper, and to seek their fate in this new Eden. Hence, he envisions in these territories a “grander New England of the West a fuller growth of the American Idea.” For “[c]ivilized mankind has never yet had a fresh chance,” he later writes, “of developing itself under grand and stirring influences so large as the Northwest.” Indeed it would be, he sermonizes, “unphilosophical to suppose that a strong race, developing under the best, the largest, and calmest of conditions of nature, will not achieve its destiny.” While time has dated Winthrop’s language and rendered many of his sentiments distasteful, the notion that this region’s geography lends itself to a greater if not simpler expression of a certain American ideal endures.
The same character of mind that animates Winthrop the civilizer also gives original and often eloquent expression to the stunning physical world that surrounds him and, at times, to the way of life of the indigenous peoples who simultaneously vex and captivate him. Winthrop is also the first to record the Pacific Northwest landscape not in utilitarian or merely geographical terms, but in an aesthetic idiom. His description of a staple of the Pacific Northwest diet, for example, is representative and iconic: “The colors that are encased within a salmon, awaiting fire that they may bloom, came forth artistically. On the toasted surface brightened warm yellows, and ruddy orange; and delicate pinkness, softened with downy gray, suffused the separating flakes.”
Winthrop’s delight in language is omnipresent. He learns the common tongue of the Pacific Northwest natives, Chinook Jargon, and is at length to recover their traditional names for geographical phenomena. “Mount Regnier Christians have dubbed it in stupid nomenclature perpetuating the name of somebody or nobody,” he scorns, “[m]ore melodiously the siwashes [forest dwellers] call it Tacoma.” Reflecting on one of Tacoma’s glistening glaciers, he writes in painterly words: “The blue haze so wavered and trembled into sun-light, and sunbeams shot glimmering over snowy brinks so like a constant avalanche, that I might doubt whether this movement and waver and glimmer, this blending of mist with noontide flame, were not a drifting smoke and cloud of yellow sulphurous vapor floating over some slowly chilling crater far down in the red crevice.” Winthrop interprets his experience and physical environment in an idiom, as Lindholt suggests in his learned introduction, akin to the way in which the Hudson River School of painters put the Adirondacks and Catskills to canvas. In other words, Winthrop’s memoir gave his contemporaries a familiar language for understanding this unfamiliar land that today seems natural.
Winthrop civilizes the Pacific Northwest less through knife and sidearm—though he wields both freely—than through his narrative and language. Nature and the savages who inhabit it are for Winthrop, as they were for the Transcendentalists whom he emulates, finally a source for the renewal and regeneration of the very civilization that conquers them. The Pacific Northwest natives have been tutored by nature’s didactic hand, which, like the snowy slopes of Tacoma that rise up like a “tower of light and illumination to the world,” is a ready teacher. By its very vastness, the Pacific Northwest has a greater lesson to teach its future inhabitants than do other lesser regions. “Our race has never yet come into contact,” Winthrop rhapsodizes like Wordsworth sitting above the Wye River, “with great mountains as companions of daily life, nor felt that daily development of the finer and more comprehensive senses which these signal facts of nature compel.” In these lines, Winthrop expresses a sentiment that seems as up to date as the scolding of his indigenous guides seems retrograde. As he concludes his narrative on the shores of the Columbia, Winthrop reflects on how “the great lessons of the wilderness deepened into my heart day by day, the hedges of conventionalism withered away from my horizon, and all the pedantries of scholastic thought perished out of my mind forever.”
Readers of The Canoe and the Saddle will be repelled by Winthrop’s attitude and treatment of the Pacific Northwest’s indigenous peoples and many may squirm at his nineteenth-century meliorism. More thoughtful readers will claim him as their ideological forefather, recognizing the profound influence that Winthrop’s brand of progressivism had on the settlement of the West and on more recent ideas about Native American culture and the environment; and they may wonder if the author’s romanticism and his racial intolerance are not two aspects of the same romantic habit of mind. Finally, they will discover in his story a way of writing, and therefore of thinking, about the Pacific Northwest’s people and environment that finds its most familiar expression in the genre of the memoir.
Jeffrey Cain lives in Poulsbo, Washington, with his wife and three children.
Posted: November 30, 2008