James Stevens (1891-1972)
By Walt Curtis © 1995
The first Northwest author to achieve national fame in the 1920s was James Stevens. H.L. Mencken loved his work. Many of his pieces were published in Mencken's influential American Mercury magazine. Stevens is the novelist of the logger, mule skinner, and hard-rock miner. His work shows us labor history and struggles of the ordinary man (and woman).
His first book - Paul Bunyan - was brought out by Alfred Knopf in 1925. It was a great American epic. The New York World newspaper said: "Paul Bunyan is the magnificent history of the North woods...This book admits (Stevens) to the company of Carl Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson, Vachel Londsay, Ring Lardner."
Stevens' success brought along his two cohorts, Stewart Holbrook and H.L. Davis. Holbrook would become a famous historian. But Stevens was in the Mercury first. Davis had been a poet but Mencken encouraged him to write prose. Thank goodness! Both Davis and Stevens were ballad lovers and hell raisers in prose. Satirists, rebels, iconoclasts, they co-authored the hilarious and libelous manifesto Status Rerum (1927). It raised eyebrows and ruined reputations when it asked the question: "Why has The Northwest - Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana - produced a vast quantity of bilge...Is there some occult influence which catches them young and teaches them to produce tripe?" They name names. What a wonderful purgative to the literary scene.
James Stevens was born in Iowa but traveled alone to Idaho at age 10. One tough kid! By the age of 13, he was laboring around the Western states. He became a hobo, a logger, a peace singer, a poet, an agnostic, a labor propagandist. And he dreamed his dreams. His autobiographical hero, Big Jim Turner (1948, Doubleday), was a working class hero. Although Stevens surmounted the inner torment and struggle in the soul of every poor boy "between their creative spirit and their legacy of American Puritanism", he is highly sympathetic and descriptive of the wars between capital and labor, religion and revolution. Big Jim Turner is also funny and fun to read. Set mainly in Idaho, the novel contains historical figures like Joe Hill and C.E.S. Wood.
Let's sample a little from Paul Bunyan and Portland, Athens of the West. When the skid roads of Portland and Seattle were places of death and dream, a few boozy old-timers could hark back to the most famous "bull of the woods."
According to Stevens; "The Paul Bunyan legend has its origin in the Papineau Rebellion on 1837." In French Canada, the logger's name was spelled with an "o" (Bunyon). The big, bearded giant fought the English troops. "By 1860, Stevens informs us, Paul Bunyan had become a genuine American legendary hero."
In the chapter "New Iowa" , Paul Bunyan must temporarily leave the camp and puts Big Swede and Johnny Inkslinger in charge. Unfortunately, the country was so enchanting that the loggers forgot how to work. It had orange and coconut palms. Hot Biscuit Slim prepared food which they were unable to eat. The Lavender River flowed right through the middle of it. The loggers lost their wits! The boys took off their clothes and swam in the warm, crystal waters of the Southern Sea. They picked up pink and white seashells from which beguiling music emanated. They warbled and pranced back to camp buck naked. They began writing and reciting poetry. Finally Paul Bunyan returned and watched them make damned fools of themselves...
"Are these Paul Bunyan's loggers?" he roared. "I don't recognize them!"
The poets were all tumbled from their feet by the force of that wrathful voice, and all but Bab Babbitson lost their poems in the scramble.
"Where are my old comrades of labor?" their leader went on more gently. "Where are the happy bunkhouse gangs that told loggers' tales and sang loggers' songs after their honest twelve hours of labor were done? Are you still loggers, or have you really degenerated into poets?"
They were shamed and they did not answer; but just then Johnny Inkslinger came out of his office and told Paul Bunyan of the terrible effect which the climate and scenery of New Iowa had on the soul after some living in it.
"Then it is no country for loggers," declared Paul Bunyan.
He ordered the Big Swede to make the camp ready for an immediate move, and sent his men to the bunkhouses.
Then he took the felling ax he had devised for the tall timbers, and through the forests of orange palms he strode, smashing them into splinters. Kicks from his caulked boots tore up the pink meadows and filled the lavender river with mud. Next, he demolished the hills, leaving them in scattered piles of barren sand. He regretted that he could not dissolve the climate also, thus banishing forever the enervating prettiness of the land. But he felt that he had done a good night's work as it was.....
Eventually Stevens and his wife would live in Seattle. Before he left, his rip-roaring article "Portland, The Athens of the West " was published in the Mercury (March 1936). It tore into Portland. Did Portland have that many pretensions in those days?
Oregon is the only state in the Republic that has ever reveled in the services of an official Commissioner of Literature. This attempt to prime art with a political pump was made in the roaring days of Chicago poetry and Greenwich Village prose. When the noise of these movements began to thunder nigh the Pacific, the editor of the Portland Journal was infected with the idea of boosting home literature into a commodity equaling Willamette Valley prunes and the bald-faced beef of Harney County. The selected slogan was "Make Oregon the Indiana of the West!" Journalists and club secretaries in all corners of the state began to whoop it up.
One lofty result of the booster campaign was the creation of a literary department by Governor Walter (Tax-Buster) Pierce. The new commissioner was a lady who had to her credit a book entitled Tilly of Tillamook, a romance in which the bucolic virtues and the cream cheese of Tillamook County were impartially extolled. Madame Commissioner was going great guns, bombarding Eastern editors with explosive blurbs about the authors of the state, when the Republicans supplanted the Tax-Buster with a pious salmon fisherman, and the literary office, alas, was crowded out to make room for deserving Prohibitionists.