Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission

Stewart Holbrook
By Brian Booth 2000

    Portland's Stewart Holbrook (1893-1964) became a leading American journalist and historian by writing what he called "lowbrow" or "non-stuffed shirt history." His writings, sense of humor and social criticism also made him a sort of combination of Will Rogers, Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken for Portland and the Pacific Northwest.

     Holbrook helped record in a readable and colorful manner the lowbrow history of this region, which was generally overlooked by historians during his lifetime and only recently has become a subject for academic study by the "New Western Historians." Holbrook's trail through the Northwest was a very different type of Oregon Trail than Chambers of Commerce promoted or the conventional heroic view of the pioneers and missionaries of the West that prevailed during his lifetime. Holbrook's writings reflect his sympathy for and romanticizing of loggers and other workers, underdogs, visionaries and fanatics, his interest in the humorous and offbeat, and his penchant for puncturing myths and poking fun at stuffed-shirts and hypocrites from all walks of life.

     Holbrook's career was remarkable when you consider that when he moved to Portland in 1923 he was a 30 year old unemployed ex-logger without a high school degree.

     By the time of his death, the former logger had become an almost legendary figure for anyone in the Pacific Northwest with an interest in writing, journalism, history, current affairs, or the area's leading industry ?- forest products. His byline in magazines and newspapers, including The Oregonian for 36 years, was known to readers across the country. Author of three dozen books and one of the nation's most popular historians and commentators, he taught at Harvard, lectured at Reed and was known as the "Lumberjack Boswell." He was the nation's leading spokesperson for what he called the "Far Corner" - Oregon, Washington and Idaho. As one scholar recently wrote, "he single-handedly put the region on the literary map in the mid-20th century."

     But Holbrook's celebrity also came from his reputation as a "24-karat character": a witty raconteur and storyteller; a colorful dresser in his derby or rumpled stetson, who carried a snoose can in his pocket; and an irreverent and skeptical social critic who gleefully took on institutions such as the Church, Chambers of Commerce and the "Cult of the Pioneers." His circle of friends was scattered from Madison Avenue to skidroads, and included H.L. Mencken, Alfred Knopf, Bernard DeVoto and assorted executives, college presidents, loggers, radicals and Wobblies. To date, Holbrook is the only writer to have served as Grand Marshall of Portland's famed Rose Parade.

     Holbrook was an early forest conservationist and an advocate of sustained yield forestry. As the founder and leading spokesperson of the imaginary James G. Blaine Society, Holbrook campaigned against unplanned population growth and development in the Pacific Northwest. His concern about the problems that growth would bring to the Pacific Northwest preceded by many years the similar concerns of Oregon Governor Tom McCall and today's environmental organizations.

     Holbrook was the patron and fictive alter-ego of the remarkable Mr. Otis, founder of the Primitive-Moderne School of art. Mr. Otis's paintings explore the same historical subjects Holbrook wrote about. Colorful, entertaining and satirical, they depict historical events and his environmental and political concerns while parodying styles of contemporary art from his era. Holbrook's sophisticated understanding of modern art was applied in a whimsical manner, much as he used humor in his writing.

     From the end of World War II until his death in 1964, Holbrook was perhaps the Pacific Northwest's best-known personality. The press covered his books, his travels, his views on current issues, and the famous people who came to Portland to visit the Holbrooks. One would have to turn to the very different Norman Mailer in the in New York of the '60s and '70s for a literary figure who was so omnipresent and highly visible in a major community.

     One of the few residents of our region with a national reputation in any field, his celebrity was a matter of local pride. In those days before TV, the Global Village and the Trail Blazers, Holbrook linked the remote Northwest with the glamorous world of publishing and entertainment headquartered in New York.

Stewart Holbrook and Bernard DeVoto Holbrook (right) with Bernard DeVoto, well-known American historian and critic
(Courtesy of Brian Booth)      Ironically, for a writer and public figure who specialized in "lost men and women of American history," Holbrook's fame did not last long after his death, and he became one of the lost men he wrote about. Proposals to honor Holbrook with statues and memorials never came about. His books gradually went out of print.

     Brian Booth's Wildmen, Wobblies & Whistlepunks: Stewart Holbrook's Lowbrow Northwest published by OSU Press helped revive interest in Holbrook and his work, including Mr. Otis. The book has gone through six printings and has been judged one of 19 "essential" works constituting the "Northwest canon."

    Reviewing Wildmen, Keith Edgison of Washington State University wrote that: "Above all, Holbrook was an individual who believed that history could be both important and readable. We could use a few more Stewart Holbrook's today."

     Wildmen also stimulated the art world's rediscovery of Mr. Otis and his works, which satirized the modern art world and made political statements so offensive in their time that only now are they becoming politically acceptable. Major exhibitions of Mr. Otis have been held at the University of Oregon Museum of Art and the World Forestry Center.

A Checklist of the Books of Stewart H. Holbrook

  • Holy Old Mackinaw: A Natural History of the American Lumberjack; New York: The Macmillan Company, 1938. New, Enlarged Edition; New York: The Macmillan Company, 1956. Reprint: Sausalito, CA: Comstock Editions, Inc., 1979.

  • Let Them Live. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1938.

  • Iron Brew: A Century of American Ore and Steel. New York, The Macmillan Company, 1939.

  • Ethan Allen. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1940. Illustrated Edition; Portland: Binford & Mort Publishing, 1958.

  • Tall Timber. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1941.

  • Murder Out Yonder: An Informal Study of Certain Classic Crimes in Back-Country America. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1941. Reprint: Glenwood, IL: Meyerbooks, 1989.

  • None More Courageous: American War Heroes of Today. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1942.

  • A Narrative of Schafer Bros. Logging Company's Half Century in the Timber. Seattle: Dogwood Press, 1945.

  • Burning an Empire: The Study of American Forest Fires. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1945.

  • Green Commonwealth: A Narrative of the Past and a Look at the Future of One Forest Products Community. Seattle: Dogwood Press, 1945.

  • Promised Land: A Collection of Northwest Writing. Editor. New York: Whittlesey House, 1945.

  • Lost Men of American History. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1946.

  • The Story of American Railroads. New York: Crown Publishers, 1947.

  • Little Annie Oakley & Other Rugged People. New York. The Macmillan Company, 1948.

  • Northwest Corner: Oregon and Washington, the Last Frontier. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1948.

  • America's Ethan Allen. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1949. The Yankee Exodus: An Account of Migration from New England. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1950.

  • The Portland Story. Portland: Lipman Wolfe & Co., 1951.

  • Far Corner: A Personal View of the Pacific Northwest. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1952. Reprint: Sausalito, CA: Comstock Editions, Inc., 1987.

  • Saga of the Saw Files. Portland: Armstrong Manufacturing Co., 1952.

  • Wild Bill Hickok Tames the West. New York: Random House, 1952.

  • The Age of the Moguls. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1953. Reprint: Salem, N.H.: Ayer Co. Publications, Inc.

  • Down on the Farm, A Picture History of Country Life in America in the Good Old Days. New York: Crown Publishing, Inc., 1954. (Commentary by Holbrook; pictures assembled & collected by Milton Rugoff.)

  • James J. Hill: A Great Life in Brief. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955.

  • Machines of Plenty: Pioneering in American Agriculture. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1955.

    Davy Crockett. New York: Random House, 1955.

  • Wyatt Earp: U.S. Marshall. New York: Random House, 1956.

  • The Columbia. New York: Rinehart & Co., 1956. Reprint: Sausalito, CA: Comstock Editions, 1991.

  • The Rocky Mountain Revolution. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1956.

  • Dreamers of the American Dream. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1957.

  • The Swamp Fox of the Revolution. New York: Random House, 1957.

  • Mr. Otis. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1958.

  • The Golden Age of Quackery. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1959.

  • The Golden Age of Railroads. New York: Random House, 1960.

  • Yankee Logger: A Recollection of Woodsmen, Cooks and River Drivers. New York: International Paper Co., 1961.

  • The Old Post Road: The Story of the Boston Post Road. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1962.

  • The Pacific Northwest. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1963. (Co-author with Nard Jones and Roderick Haig-Brown. Edited by Anthony Netboy.)

  • The Wonderful West. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1963.

  • The Columbia River. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965.

  • Wildmen, Wobblies & Whistlepunks: Stewart Holbrook's Lowbrow Northwest. (Edited and introduced by Brian Booth.) Oregon State University Press, 1992.