Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission

Thomas Wolfe follows Paul Bunyan out to the Northwest's Tall Timber

By David Milholland, 2002

     Thomas Wolfe, whose literary vitality and brief, nearly evanescent life has drawn us together this weekend, built his career upon the foundation of his small town, provincial roots. Even as his larger-than-life trajectory swept him into fame and the possibilities of fortune, the grip of the culture, flora and fauna of Asheville and environs defined his take on the larger world he captured so voluminously for the generations of readers he dreamed would follow. We're pleased many of you made the trip here to another literary and provincial world. "Oregon is the citadel of the spirit," said Ken Kesey, who passed on late last year, one of America's and our region's significant 20th century literary figures. Tonight we'll explore that concept, focused on the period leading up to and tailing from Thomas Wolfe's late-'30s visit here just before his untimely demise.

     I'm president of the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission, a decade-old group that believes strongly in the intrinsic value of any regional culture revisiting its roots. We explore, critique, raise public awareness, and celebrate our many creative antecedents. Out here in the Far West, though often considered the last frontier, Oregon's creative culture is scarcely younger than most of our nation's heartland. A thread of continuity goes back several millennia when we factor in the longstanding Native American cultures. The biological world, springing from our maritime climate, volcanic soils, Cascade peaks and the high desert just beyond, largely predates the human factor.

     His brief sojourn left a clear but spare impression on Wolfe, as he visited Portland in mid-1938. He came west purportedly to rest up from the outpouring of 1.2 million words that became his posthumous novels The Web and the Rock and You Can't Go Home Again. That he chose spontaneously, soon after his arrival, to accompany two decidedly non-literary fellows - Edward Miller, the Sunday editor of The Oregonian and Ray Conway of the Oregon State Motor Association - on a 13-day, 4,600 mile early summer marathon through parts of eight large Western states, makes it clear that he was less on vacation than intent once again on unleashing the passion he had "to take in all of life, in monstrous gulps."

     In the first pages of his log, which became A Western Journal, he refers to "The gigantic unconscious humor of the situation - C[onway] 'making every national park' without seeing any of them…" Through the eleven-park Odyssey, Wolfe repeatedly describes himself as weary, awakened early every morning, with no day-or-two stop along the way to rekindle his spirits and revive his energy. Though his best descriptions are classic Wolfe, his language flags, as the amazing sights blend into one another. Mountain chains as disparate as those rising up behind Salt Lake City, the Grand Tetons, and the peaks of Glacier Park are all called "hackled". Yet so complete is his traveling mania, that landing in Seattle in early July, seemingly gulped out and with the non-stop voyage behind him, the following day he boats to Victoria, chills himself in the wet night air, rekindles a tubercular lesion, and passes on just 9 weeks later. Thus his "Oregon vacation" swallowed up what Wolfe's travel companion Miller described as his "enormous kindliness," leaving the final observation in his Journal as a fitting epitaph for Wolfe and the America he'd struggled mightily to put down in words - "the pity, terror, strangeness and magnificence of it all."

     The pity is that Wolfe didn't settle in for a while to experience a smaller slice of Northwest life, forsaking the "grand tour" for a more intimate visit to provincial Portland at its floral peak, to meet the artists and writers who were his kindred souls. Then again, the best and brightest of the Northwest scene had themselves been rung through the ringer of the Great Depression, and were variously caught up in WPA projects, grinding out words for the pulps, or out and away because personal vendettas had taken their toll.

     What happened here in the years around Wolfe's visit? How fully had anyone realized the challenge Wolfe had thrown up for himself in The Story of a Novel…

Out of the billion forms of America, out of the savage violence and the dense complexity of all its swarming life; from the unique and single substance of this land and life of ours, must we draw the power and energy of our own life, the articulation of our speech, the substance of our art.

     Alfred Powers, who gave us the History of Oregon Literature in 1935, claimed this an excellent locale for said endeavor:

Whether it's a mixture of sunshine and gloom, whether it's the peculiarity of gorgeousness in our herbiage - the riotous show of nature really is a product of the rain. I really believe that same kind of germ exists here in Oregon that leads to the creative kind of thing.

     That germ sounds peculiarly like Wolfe's swarming life.

     The early years in Oregon are little known nationally, yet there are several major figures. Our first widely-recognized poet, Joaquin Miller, is in fact a wonderful writer. Here's his description of an early group of locals:

"Let us look at these silent, lean and despised Oregonians in their blankets… Be it remembered that away back before California was at all known these Oregonians had met under the pines and most emphatically, as well as ungrammatically, had proclaimed that they were a part of the United States, and not of England. They had declared war against aggressive tribes, had raised an army, maintained it in the field, and finally had coined their own money out of their own gold, paid off that army, and proclaimed peace, all on their own account."

     This do-it-yourself style is reflected in both the lives and works of Oregonians from the beginning. Significant early figures include editorial cartoonist and author Homer Davenport, poet, author and artist Charles Erskine Scott Wood, author and the mother of Western suffrage Abigail Scott Duniway, journalists John Reed and his wife Louise Bryant, and poets Mary Carolyn Davies and Hazel Hall. The latter's works first began entering the canon some seventy years after her 1924 passing.

     Yet overall, writing in Oregon and the Northwest was highly stylized, and firmly indebted to 19th century prose and poetry models. Sam Simpson provided the classic poetic standard in his "Beautiful Willamette," featuring this opening verse:


    From the Cascade's frozen gorges,
         Leaping like a child at play,
    Winding, winding through the valley,
         Bright Willamette glides away;
    Onward ever,
         Lovely River,
    Softly calling to the sea,
         Time that scars us,
         Maims and mars us,
    Leaves no track or trench on thee.

     Simpson at his best talks of things that are meaningful to his primary audience, and his local following continues to the present day. Most of those who walked in his footsteps were tightly married to traditional structure and rhyming patterns. It was typically verse meant to uplift rather than reveal undercurrents of "pity" or "terror."

     Local writing had only begun to reach the larger stage. The magazine Pacific Northwest developed many early talents, several who went on to appear in the radical New York publication The Masses. Two editors who early sought out and published voices emerging from the region were Harriet Monroe of Chicago, whose Poetry Magazine set national standards for several decades, and H.L. Mencken of Baltimore, whose flagship was the American Mercury. When authors such as Reed, Wood, Davies, and Hall appeared in those national settings, writers here took notice, and notched up their sights accordingly.

     By the late 1920s, Oregon writers had begun to cultivate a variety of national publishing outlets. Many drifted in from disparate locales across the planet, including Albert Richard Wetjen, an English able-bodied seaman who'd washed ashore in Salem and later Portland; James Stevens, a hard-working man of the people from Iowa; and Stewart Holbrook, a New England logger who'd crossed the nation to experience the tall timber first hand.

     Holbrook and Stevens each strongly credited the draw of Portland's public library, both for research and inspiration in their creative lives. Holbrook called it "the finest in the west," the reason for his moving to the city in 1923. It should be duly noted that all three authors made their livings with hard labor. Each began with stories to tell that they've lived and seen first hand.

     They joined several local products in the literary trenches, including most prominently H.L. (Harold Lenoir) Davis, a man of the range from The Dalles and smaller burgs in Wasco County, dry country up the Columbia River to the east of Portland; Ernest Haycox, who'd spent his early years in logging camps in the forests around Portland; and Charles Alexander, an Oregonian from age four who created a major outlet for regional work in the Albany Democrat, a small-town newspaper south of Portland. They joined a host of journalists, children's authors, poets, and pulp writers in forging a literary community that shared leads, celebrated publishing triumphs, and made Portland highly receptive to visiting authors from across the nation.

     Yet even the very successful of these figures had inevitable tussles with a sense of limitations. Consider these words, in a 1937 letter from Charles Alexander to his friend and fellow pen pusher Howard McKinley Corning:

I've often wondered about the big rush of scribblers who gushed up in the Northwest so uncalled for; of every slant and mostly mediocre, and how mostly they've been unable to handle themselves, to scrape free of the provincial quagmire tugging them back down. Like the first fish that crawled ashore, I guess, trying to stay clear of the sea and breathe, and gasping themselves out after a bit. Primitive throes…

     In Corning's words, Alexander: ...was an excellent writer who never seemed to reach his potential… In his 1923 novel The Fang in the Forest, Charles Alexander wrote with a degree of detachment that approached greatness. But the book suffered from its Jack London similarities. In all of the early Alexander stories, the characters moved vigorously, realistically, honestly, and-within their backgrounds-thoughtfully. His use of the language was clean and deft and very American…. The limitations, then, were in the author and in his restrictive background of experience; there was so much of life that he did not know and seemingly could not experience or recreate, through reading and study alone.

     The inevitable restrictions of their backgrounds challenge all writers, who transcend them at great personal cost. It's rarely a safe career. Most tap out at a young age, succumb to alcohol, other dependencies, or financial difficulties, or trip on even modest celebrity. Several Oregon and Northwest writers who emerged in the late 20s and early 30s were deeply experienced in the ways of their trade and this corner of the world, ripe with tales to tell and energy to stay at the task. The first success story of the period was James Stevens. His early novels revolve around the teams of horses and their crews used throughout the West to work on construction projects, logging and agriculture. Today's Teamsters derive their name from those hard-driving men and the massive steeds they commanded.

     Here's a stirring passage from Stevens' 1926 Brawnyman:

Forests of big firs on each side of the right of way, the red glow of sunrise shining through the east one, the sky a clean morning blue overhead. Gager singing "Satchel Nose Pete," and I making some harmony in bass tones. The big machine in the end of a new cut. Hitch up fast, for Red Grabby is coming up on his single-footing mule. Indiana Beaut is on the pushcart, Gager is on the platform, I am on the high seat, unwinding my slasher from its stock. The dump wagons are waiting. "Let's go!" Red Grabby shouts. Whr-r-r-rack! Whr-r-r-rack! Whr-r-r-rack! Whr-r-r-rack! Twice the slasher cracks out on a line over the leaders, twice it cracks in twists over the wheelers' backs. I start the machine in Paddy the Devil's finest style.

     Stevens celebrates that now disappeared world - endless forests of big firs, mule and horse teams, and burly men aptly tagged as Indiana Beaut, Red Grabby, and Paddy the Devil - capturing their power and poetry as well as it could be done. He'd found a home here among people he admired, as he told H.L. Mencken in a query letter:

     …the race of laborers in the Webfoot state is a race apart…it glitters with more picturesque qualities, it is flushed with more vitality and energy than the toilers of any other region of the country. Consequently, Oregon is a treasure house for the writer… Here are materials to draw words from any pen."

     Though largely self-educated, his early success in getting workers' yarns published with Mencken - "the Uplift of the Frontier" appeared in 1924 - and his early success drew the curious and hopeful writing community up around him. He was the first to codify the larger-than-life Paul Bunyan legend.

     Ernest Haycox, perhaps the best-educated of the bunch, was inspired by his University of Oregon professor W.F.G. Thacher to make a career of writing. Haycox soon found his voice in the popular genre of Western writing, and went on to publish more than 400 short stories and nearly 30 novels. Corning describes him as "an almost instantaneous success." Haycox reported some 40 initial rejections. His rise from pulp sales to monthly appearance in such prestigious venues as Collier's and Saturday Evening Post kept him writing daily at his office for nearly three decades. Success held him captive, as film sales augmented his magazine income. He's perhaps known best for writing the short story on which the John Ford film Stagecoach is based.

     "Dick" Wetjen was another early success in the pulps, where his sea stories, which soon began finding homes in prestigious publications, drew prompt comparison with Conrad, Dana, and other maritime masters. He was one of several local authors to win O' Henry awards for his short fiction. His books, which include Captains All, Fiddler's Green, and Way for a Sailor, were reviewed well but sold poorly, and today all are unfortunately out of print.

     Wetjen's opinions on native talent were often caustic, though for most of his years here he was an avid host of the literary community. Growing up in the great British tradition of Wordsworth and Coleridge, he found the locals mired in mediocrity. He derided the archaic styles many Oregon writers emulated, most particularly Sam Simpson's 19th century classic "Beautiful Willamette." When a local group threatened to erect a memorial to its bard in 1926, Wetjen decided to "put some things right," unfortunately late at night and somewhat under the influence. Later defending his "scathing critique" against the host of Simpson defenders who'd appeared as on cue, Wetjen stated in a letter to Corning:

I suppose you've heard about the uproar I've started about Simpson being a fourth-rate poet and it being foolish to hold him up as an Oregon standard? … The printed result was something to make the gods weep as an example of rotten writing, but I managed to keep my subject matter straight enough. And as usual, the opposition picks up on the obvious and slams me for my bad English, sentence construction, etc., and grows very sarcastic without answering at all my premise that Simpson is a very over-rated man.

     This tempest in a teapot over a poem and poet of the previous century shows that Oregon and the Northwest were still struggling with the birth of modernism. The transition was helped greatly by the fact that many of these young authors were selling well to national publications. Then again, traditions do not, perhaps should not, fade easily.

     A strong advocate for the new voices of these rugged regional writers, H.L. Mencken, loved vitality in language and the strongly masculine voice emerging from the raw NW world of woods and range. Both he and Harriet Monroe responded favorably to the early poetry submissions of H.L. Davis, who had briefly attended Stanford, but was far more a product of the challenging desert clime east of the Cascade Range. He won the prestigious Levinson award from Monroe's Poetry Magazine in 1919 for a set of poems titled "Primapara."

     His career, however, aside from some well-placed poetry, was still an inkling of his imagination, when he and the already established James Stevens got together in 1927 in a Eugene hotel room - it's home of the University of Oregon - and banged out a challenge to the literary status quo. What emerged - Status Rerum, A Manifesto upon the Present Condition of Northwestern Literature: Containing Several Near-Libelous Utterances, upon Persons in the Public Eye - was published in some 200 copies and circulated to many of the very people they attacked. It left Dick Wetjen's attack on Sam Simpson in the dust. Before it reached print the daring duo tried to ensnare Wetjen to sign on to their brigandage. Once burned, he declined. Their thesis was quickly outlined:

     The Northwest has produced a vast quantity of bilge, so vast, indeed, that the few books which are entitled to respect are totally lost in the general and seemingly interminable avalanche of tripe.

     Though some understood their endeavor as idealistic and intent on inspiring the young - Seattle writer Bushnell Potts said that Status Rerum "holds forth not only a great hope but a splendid determination" for Northwest literature - many friends and fans took issue with its attacks on the literary mainstays of the day.

     Their easiest target was Colonel E. Hofer of Salem, publisher of The Lariat, which he called "a monthly roundup of western discussion and criticism devoted to higher standards of literature on broad cultural lines of expression." Hofer advocated "clean literature" as opposed to modern poetry, which like jazz he saw as morally corrupting - "Ourselves we condemn free verse as a form. To us it is anathema."

     Hofer, presenter of verse that "must be tender, melodious and romantic," woke up to strong coffee. Davis and Stevens called The Lariat:

an agglomeration of doggerel which comprises the most colossal imbecility, the most preposterous bathos, the most superb sublimity of metrical ineptitude, which the patience and perverted taste of man has ever availed to bring between covers.

     The manifesto proceeded, claiming the motto of University of Washington's long-esteemed short story professor M. Lyle Spencer should be: "Promote Pecuniary Prose." They slurred the reputation of the University of Oregon's W.F.G. Thacher, the same man with whom Ernest Haycox maintained a lifelong correspondence and that he acknowledged "started me off right." They lambasted the U. of O. Extension's Mabel Holmes Parson, whom Charles Alexander and many others saw as friend and mentor. Battle lines were drawn. Their intent, to stir up a hornet's nest, had succeeded beyond their wildest imaginations. The reverberations didn't die out quickly.

     Stevens had ill prepared himself for the stinging response the work of one night had received. Having been accused of self-promotion in an article titled "Status Rerum Bunkum Est," Stevens wrote to his friend Lancaster Pollard of the Seattle Post Intelligencer: Why all the bother over Status Rerum? It appears to me its reception is confirming its charges… I owe nothing to Seattle or Portland or any of its babbling birds or braying asses. I have never complained about the reception accorded the books I wrote my heart and guts out to create. I didn't particularly give a damn what anyone thought of them, and I don't now.

     While Stevens licked his wounds, Davis rode out the storm in his desert retreat, and planned out a strategy to deliver on their call for creative excellence: "Our Hercules has not appeared," the manifesto concluded, "but hope is surely not lacking."

     So who were those Hercules waiting in the wings. Several figures that would soon play major roles in U.S. cultural history were in Portland and environs in the twenties and thirties. James Beard grew up here in a culinary household led by his talented mother and her regular cooking partner Ju Let, "the one person mother couldn't dominate." Mel Blanc, "Man of a 1000 voices," honed his craft here, creating the voice soon to become Woody Woodpecker in the halls of Lincoln High School. Others here in the period included Linus Pauling, the world's only sole two-time winner of a Nobel prize, for Chemistry and Peace. Proto-poet Gary Snyder and soon-to-be abstract impressionist Mark Rothko were both here in grade school. Clark Gable had a two-year run at Portland Civic Theater before heading south to let the world know he frankly "didn't give a damn."

     There were plenty of talented writers here during the period, successful at selling stories to the pulps and the slicks. Robert Ormond Case and later his wife Victoria, Vivian Bretherton, Palmer Hoyt, Harold Bradley Say, Anne Shannon Monroe, and many others made or supplemented their incomes at the trade. Few had the talent and ambition to create literature. In 1927, Charles Alexander, who wrote the delightful Bobbie, A Great Collie, summed up the temptation to "fellow scribbler" Corning. My royalties have come in and I've had really good sales. [The Splendid] Summits surprised me by coming back the last six months for a 3500 sale. I thought that book was dead. Bobbie stacked up about 6000. I've sold the Swedish translation rights to Bobbie! Ray for the Swedes. Also I've sold the film rights to Fang to Robertson-Colar. That will be my first picture.

     Alexander soon found, however, that the publishers were less than interested in his next novel, North Smith, perhaps too reminiscent of the poor-selling Summits. And so he languished: I know little of how Oregon literature is proceeding. Aside from an occasional short story of no consequence, I've just drifted. I may say I've been satisfied to do this, though there is always the feeling of an awakening some other morning. I am tired of the fields I have worked and dislike reworking them as the man with the hoe (or the hack pen) forever does. I don't despise these people and their work; perhaps I'm just personally procrastinate.

     Published poets, who followed the now established paths to Poetry and the American Mercury included Ada Hastings Hedges, Charles Oluf Olsen, Ethel Romig Fuller, Laurence Pratt, Verne Bright, and Queene Lister. Only Corning and Davis had consistently won prizes and recognition for their work, and only Davis had the ambition to step to the next literary plateau.

     Nearly a decade after winning the Levinson prize, H.L. Davis began writing stories on Mencken's urging. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, he'd been able to avoid the 2-5 a word pulp learning curve, and set right out to writing evocatively about the lands from which he'd sprung. The first story he published under his own name, "Old Man Isbell's Wife," appeared in the February, 1929 American Mercury. He'd moved to Seattle with his young wife, but his heart and mind were still firmly set in the small town/rural world of Wasco County. His great gift for portraying Eastern Oregon landscape in loving detail was often overshadowed, especially in their eyes, by more clinical portrayals of his friends, family, and neighbors. Local pride in Davis' literary success was soon tempered, mightily, by fear that the next story told might just be one's own. Davis got the break he'd been hoping for, when in 1932, with strong support from both Mencken and Monroe, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. He abruptly left the foggy shores of Puget Sound for a two-year sojourn in Mexico.

     Unrelenting effort was rewarded with the 1935 Harper and Row publication of Honey in the Horn, a novel ambling across the Oregon landscape. Mencken himself, in a New York Herald Tribune review of his protege, stated: The noble old quality of gusto, which dribbled out of the American novel when its practitioners began to remember their duty to humanity, here returns at high voltage. It would be hard to think of another native tale, save it be Babbitt or Huckleberry Finn, which testifies more to the author's delight in concocting.

     Ample praise and strong sales were soon followed by lasting reward - Davis received the 1936 Pulitzer Fiction Prize. No Oregon author, before or since, has been so rewarded. Trouble was, Davis had burned several bridges, and though most of his best writing continued to be set around his childhood haunts, he never again returned for more than a passing visit. Davis understood his dilemma, as he wrote in "Eastern Oregon - the Old Fashioned Land": For the adventures, I can dream myself into almost any quarter of the earth; but for the profounder incidents this is the country where I must take them to examine them with any truth or exactness… The people there are my people, as they were when I rode across Shaniko Flat under all the snow peaks, and wondered whether men didn't become poets to console themselves for being unable to learn cigarette rolling.

     His next scheduled novel, announced by Harper's for their spring 1938 list was Beulah Land. Corning says that Davis wrote him that the novel was constantly running "into holes." It ultimately appeared 9 years later. The problem, Corning concludes, was that:

     Davis, like Thomas Wolfe, had a resourceful and effusive mentality that readily led him astray; characters and situations had to be analyzed in full and with every aspect of their significance, before he could let them go. His deep interest was people, and why they were as they were. More and more this fact became evident in the short stories he continued to write and publish in the Post, many of them very fine stories, but each one growing longer and longer. In the end, and because of his stupid refusal to cut, he cancelled himself entirely out of that magazine.

     His Status Rerum partner James Stevens, had a troubled decade. A few months after the manifesto appeared, he set off with Dick Wetjen on a long sea voyage, to gather story material but clearly also to escape the ongoing scandal. He'd been accused of trying to establish himself as the Mencken of the west, and in fact, on his return he continued his campaign in the American Mercury's pages with an article titled "the Northwest takes to Poesy."

    The Davis/Stevens efforts bore some fruit with the dedication to the task they'd outlined of The Frontier, a publication edited by former Reed College [in Portland] professor H.G. Merriam, now at the University of Montana. Merriam wrote: We in this region need to realize that literature and all art is, if it is worth anything at all, sincere expression of real life. And the roots for literature among us should be in out rocky ground, not Greenwich Village dirt of Mid-west loam or European mold or, least of all, in the hothouse, sifted, fertilized soil of anywhere. Out of our soil we grow, and out of our soil should come expressions of ourselves, living, hating, struggling, failing, succeeding, desponding, aspiring, playing, working-being alive…

     James Stevens placed several early stories in The Frontier, as did Davis, but the years of publishing in Colonel Hofer's The Lariat made it difficult for most poets of the region to escape its history and provincialism. The Frontier struggled along through the '30s, only to crash in 1939 as its long-term support from the University dried up Stevens traveled to meet with his New York publisher Alfred Knopf, reaching the city just as the banks started to fail in the early '30s. Sick with colitis contracted during his sea adventure with Wetjen, Stevens and his wife lost all the money they had in a Michigan bank collapse. They ended up living through most of the Depression decade in Koontz Lake, Indiana, grinding out a precarious living. His wife recalled the period: This is when he began turning out this junk just so we'd have something to eat… We didn't mind so much being poor, and being alone, but when you're a writer and you can't turn it out, and it won't come, and you get sicker and sicker and the psychology of the situation increases the sickness, it is really rough.

     Finally, in 1936, Stevens got regular work with the West Coast Lumberman's Association in Seattle, and returned to the region. But his literary ambitions had been stilled by the years of struggle, and he settled into two decades of the security of steady employment. Many artists and writers survived the period through the federally funded projects of the WPA. Howard McKinley Corning found work through writer and Extension Division dean Alfred Powers. Together they edited a 383-page History of Education in Portland, before the project shut down in 1937. Excited to be making a living with his skills, he wrote H.L. Davis, now in northern California, and received a characteristic rejoinder:      It would be amusing if the thing weren't so obvious, to point out that one can think up nothing better to do with a genuine and acknowledged poet than to put him to cobbling up gouty particulars about grade school curriculum in 1850… It would be precisely as idiotic if the WPA artists were hired for their ability to paint pictures and then put them to work whitewashing chicken houses.

     Logger Stewart Holbrook had his story "Wobbly Talk" published by Mencken in 1926, but he had his sights set much higher. He placed stories infrequently, and was soon caught up in surviving the depression, but he stored up his material and waited for the breakout moment. As the Depression raged, Holbrook took a brave leap in 1934, leaving a full-time position to launch himself into the freelance market. Surviving gamely for a year, he sought economic refuge in late 1935 as editor of the WPA Oregon State Guide. Unhappy in the role - "the boondoggerel goes on apace" - neither he nor others were able to use the project to pursue creative endeavors. As Karen Reyes reports: ...it could provide neither the cohesion badly needed within the disintegrating writing community, nor any direction for the writers of the state… The high hopes and aspirations of the early twenties, which had been a major factor in establishing a sense of community were replaced by a sense of disillusionment…

     Some individuals survived the period with their visions intact. Holbrook's first book, the introit to a several-decade career in 40-published works, was his 1938 Holy Old Mackinaw. It's a fabulous account of logging's sweep, culture, and ultimate devastation across the North American continent, from Maine and New Brunswick through the Great Lake states and out to the "unconquerable" forests of British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. Here's a sample of his energetic prose: The boss man of a yarding crew was called the hook-tender, a name that technically meant nothing in the machine age but was a survival from bullwhacking days, when logs were hooked together for hauling. The hooker, as he was more generally known, was the martinet, the top sergeant, the Legree of the woods, the vital driving force of steam logging. As an authority next to the camp foreman, the hooker took the place of the howling bullwhacker. Loggers of the lower ranks called all hookers the progeny of the Devil and a mythical bitch woman by name of "Molly Hogan."

     Power dubbed Holbrook a "lowbrow historian" He played an ongoing role in the writers' world here through several decades. Only in his last few years did Ernest Haycox begin writing the type of books that he hoped would gain him lasting literary recognition. Long Storm, The Adventurers, and The Earthbreakers - all set in an earlier Oregon, offer a glimpse of his attempted transition from the genre writing he did so well. Haycox died in 1950 at age 51. Here's a brief passage from The Adventurers: It was unseasonable. The earth waited for the due rains, the grasses needed it for growth, the hills slowly became tinder boxes for want of it; this Oregon land, living on the fatness of moisture, turned lean and infallow and cranky; and the roundabout people, accustomed to a soft air, were made irritable. The cycle was delayed, the rhythm disturbed.

     Today Haycox is known as the Dean of Western writing. Though personally dissatisfied with his presumed literary shortcomings, regular fans during his lifetime included Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein.

     H.L. Davis, who paid his piper with physical problems, isolation from the source of his best work, and perhaps spiritual exhaustion, perhaps best exemplifies the challenges faced by all the region's writers as they sought to create a voice that transcended provincial limitations. His best work - the Selected Poems, the Pulitzer Prize winning Honey in the Horn, the challenging and rewarding Winds of Morning, and several of the tales in his collection Kettle of Fire - capture the sweep of the landscape, the local idiom, and the impact of Oregon's natural world on its generally stoic inhabitants.

     The once tight knit literary community had struggled to survive its own built-in tensions, and doing so, had watched several of its brightest lights spin out of orbit. Perhaps it's fitting that those who reach for the stars - like Thomas Wolfe, and those Pacific Northwest talents of his ilk, Davis, Stevens, and Haycox in his last efforts - often crash in flames. An epilogue for Davis - who'd ever so briefly grasped the flame itself - is provided by his friend and editor Thomas Hornsby Ferrill. He calls Davis: …a famous American author nobody ever heard of, truly a ridiculous idea, but I cannot forbear mentioning some sad and absurd happenings of his last days. On October 17, 1960, Bettie, his wife, called me in Denver from San Antonio, saying they were snarled up in red tape at the border. The Davises had been living in Oaxaca, Mexico, and had decided to return to this country, but immigration bureaucrats were not about to admit any illegal aliens. Who was Harold Lenoir Davis? Did anyone know anything about him? Had he been born in the United States?

     …Read the poems. Read them aloud over and over. They tell you who H.L. Davis was and is. If you are sensitive and deserving, they'll tell you a good deal about who you are.

     That "germ" of Powers, Wolfe's "swarming life" inspired so many writers to try to escape the hold of the 19th century. Successful or not in the judgment of history, their efforts underpin Oregon's latter-day reputation as a literary epicenter. It is a place known today for contemporary writers as various as Ken Kesey - Sometimes a Great Notion; Ursula K. Le Guin - The Earthsea Trilogy; Jean Auel - Clan of the Cave Bears; and Chuck Palahniuk - Fight Club. The list of figures in many genres includes Raymond Carver, Katherine Dunn, Craig Lesley, Molly Gloss, Barry Lopez, William Stafford…though in length and quality it is far longer.

     We belatedly welcome Thomas Wolfe to this citadel of the spirit that offers and demands so much of its creative talents. Please poke around and find a writer from Oregon or the Northwest to add to your appreciation of our natural beauty and complex culture. Hopefully this has provided some intriguing leads. Welcome, thank you, and good evening.


     Selected Bibliography

  • The Adventurers, Ernest Haycox, Little Brown and Company, Boston, 1954
  • All the Words on the Pages, Howard McKinley Corning, Oregon Historical Quarterly,
  •   December 1972 - "H.L. Davis";
  •   March 1973 - "Charles Alexander: Youth of the Oregon Mood;
  •   June 1973 - "A.R. Wetjen: British Seaman in the Western Sunrise";
  •   September 1973 - "The Prose and the Poetry of It"
  • Ernest Haycox, Stephen L. Tanner, Twayne Publishers, New York, 1996
  • Finding a New Voice: The Oregon Writing Community Between the World Wars, Karen Stoner Reyes,
  •   Thesis paper for a Master of Arts in History, Portland State University, 1986
  • Holy Old Mackinaw, Stewart Holbrook, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1938
  • Honey in the Horn, H.L. Davis, Harper and Brothers, 1935
  • Selected Poems, H.L. Davis, edited by Orvis Burmaster, with an introduction by Thomas Hornsby Ferrill,
  •   Ahsahta Press, Boise State University, 1978
  • Selected Writings of Joaquin Miller , edited by Alan Rosenus, Urion Press, Eugene, 1976
  • Status Rerum, A Manifesto upon the Present Condition of Northwestern Literature: Containing
  •   Several Near-Libelous Utterances, upon Persons in the Public Eye, James Stevens and H.L. Davis,
      The Dalles, Oregon, privately printed for the craft, 1927
  • The Story of a Novel, Thomas Wolfe, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1936
  • Thomas Wolfe, The Final Journey, Brian J. Berger, Willamette River Press, West Linn, Oregon, 1984
  • A Western Journal, Thomas Wolfe, University of Pittsburg Press, 1951