A History of Washington Literature in Fourteen Books
Before we begin: This isn’t an argument for Washington’s best books. It’s a list of books born from our state’s landscape and culture, and that helped put us on the literary map. But of course there are hundreds of books—and hundreds of opinions—that can lay claim to regional significance. As a start, I recognize that I left out some great writers and organizations: Copper Canyon Press, Poetry Northwest, Theodore Roethke, Frank Herbert, David Guterson, Charles Johnson, Tess Gallagher, Denise Levertov, Jonathon Raban, Betty MacDonald, and many more. So we want to know: What books would you include? Let us know on Facebook or Twitter.
Harry Robinson, Write It on Your Heart: The Epic World of an Okanagan Storyteller (1989)
There are many recorded narratives, poems, and speeches by Natives, but this particular book, the first of three by a storyteller from the upper Okanagan Valley, is unlike any other Native account I know. Robinson’s stories came down to him from his grandmother as well as from other Okanagan elders. Write It on Your Heart is a delightful, humorous, and geographically precise account of Native culture and history in the Northwest. What makes this work different from so many other accounts is the way his transcriber, the anthropologist Wendy Wickwire, inserted Robinson’s vocal pauses as line-breaks, which makes the stories appear as poems. These breaks give the stories accurate emphases and timing. As the novelist Thomas King says, when reading Robinson, “one is virtually forced to read the story out loud, thereby closing the circle, the oral becoming the written becoming the oral.”
George Vancouver, A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and Around the World (1798)
Who named Mt. Baker, Mt. Rainier, and Puget Sound? It was the rather grumpy and meticulous George Vancouver, who thrived on taking measurements, and who disparaged those “theoretical geographers” who backed his own voyage in hopes he’d find a passage from the Northwest coast to some great inland sea or a shortened way to the Atlantic. To his credit, as reflected in this sprawling and detailed account of his voyage, he noticed what we notice still: our state is spectacular. One day, shortly after entering Puget Sound, he wrote, “Our attention was immediately called to a landscape, almost as enchantingly beautiful as the elegantly finished pleasure grounds in Europe.” Our region, he continued, was “designed by art.”
Ivan Doig, Winter Brothers: A Season on the Edge of America (1980)
Unless you’re Native, your family arrived here from somewhere else, and perhaps they would have continued West if it hadn’t required swimming. And given the constant rain, the first soggy settlers on the Pacific shore must have felt themselves afloat even on land. Ivan Doig, an original Montanan, deliberately set himself on the same spot as had James Swan, a nineteenth century Bostonian-turned-pioneer. From 1862-1890, Swan kept a faithful diary about our edge of America, in particular about the islands of our Salish Sea. Doig imagined a brotherhood with Swan in this century-separated book. Swan’s stories, wrote Doig, “carry a sense of this rough margin of the West as true as a thumb testing the teeth of a ripsaw.” Doig knew how to write voice. With his PhD in history, he researched local language, and nobody has handled the regional vocabulary as winningly or as inventively. Read him and you’ll swear you’ve found someone who learned our landscape’s grammar.
Fred Beckey, The Challenge of the North Cascades (1969)
If you’ve climbed any cliff or peak of consequence in this state, chances are Fred Beckey helped you up. He is unofficially recognized as the climber with more first ascents than any other climber in the world. By his detailed and generally clear directions, his guidebooks have helped hundreds of climbers and scramblers to summit safely. Published in 1969, The Challenge of the North Cascades is a colorful history of the mountains we Washingtonians see day by day—weather permitting. For the last sixty years, Beckey was often up there looking back at us. “Sleep came in starts and fits amid the night-long noises of falling rock and ice,” he wrote about bivouacking on a new route up Mount Rainier. “In the chill, on our beds of sharp stones, we tossed and turned. We could see the Seattle-Tacoma Airport beacon and the faint orange beads of the Lake Washington Floating Bridge. I remember thinking about the ice cliff above. It seemed so menacingly poised.”
Five Poets of the Pacific Northwest, Edited by Robin Skelton (1966)
In the late 1940s, when poet William Stafford began his long tenure in Portland, and Theodore Roethke stormed down on Seattle, the region’s poetry life was middling. To be sure, there was the 24-year-old, Seattle-born Audrey Wurdemann, who won a 1935 Pulitzer for her volume Bright Ambush—she was and remains the youngest poet to win a Pulitzer. Still, David Wagoner, the poet Roethke brought to the University of Washington in 1952, once replied to my question about pre-Roethke poets in the state by saying, “There weren’t any.” Roethke, Wagoner said, helped the region’s editors, schools, and students “wise up to what’s corny.” Roethke won the Pulitzer in 1954, and Stafford the American Book Award in 1964. Five Poets of the Pacific Northwest is an important book, being the work of William Stafford and four Roethke-influenced poets—Carolyn Kizer, Richard Hugo, David Wagoner, and Kenneth O. Hanson—who had been together at the University of Washington during Roethke’s era. Five Poets shows solid evidence of the region “wising up.” All of the writers in Five Poets taught other young poets, and the region’s quality of writing grew significantly because of them.
Monica Sone, Nisei Daughter (1953)
We live in a time of heated talk about deportations, border walls, and immigration bans. The country’s done it before—gathered up its citizens for isolation, deportation, and imprisonment. In 1953, when Nisei Daughter was first published, many Americans were not ready to regret the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans, and most of those Japanese who lost property, family connections, and years of their lives were not eager to talk about it. With perspective, humor, and understanding, Monica Sone describes growing up in Seattle in the 1930s, then being deported with thousands of other Japanese Americans during World War II. Her descriptions of the roundup, the move to the Puyallup fairgrounds, and life in the camps opened the hearts and eyes of her readers, and the book continues to urge Americans to be more decent to all its people.
Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (1980)
Robinson is from north Idaho, but as she says of her childhood, “I looked to Galilee for meaning and Spokane for orthodonture.” For a lot of us who grew up east of the Cascades and west of the Rockies, Spokane was our capital city in a wide, dry land. After Coeur d’Alene High School and Brown University, Robinson got her PhD from the UW, so let’s call her ours. Housekeeping is the story of two orphaned sisters, their series of substitute mothers, and the individual personalities that keep the sisters together and then push them apart. You’ll never see a deep lake or a railroad bridge quite the same way again. It is an ideal book for introverts, for readers who retreat to the imagination, yet wander silently about among the regular folk. Robinson wrote in her 1990 essay “My Western Roots,” “I went to college in New England and have lived in Massachusetts for twenty years, and I find that the hardest work in the world—it may in fact be impossible—is to persuade easterners that growing up in the West is not intellectually crippling.” Housekeeping proved something important: that great writing can come from under Ponderosa pine trees, from the shores of lonely Northwestern lakes, and from youthful scholarship among the tomes held in small school libraries.
Seattle is now an international center for serious comic art. Fantagraphics leads the industry by publishing comics that are elegant, eloquent, and edgy, with a roster that includes Daniel Clowes, Peter Bagge, the Hernandez brothers, and Charles Burns. In fact, the New York Times says that Fantagraphics is publishing “the finest cartoonists working today.” But in addition to publishing iconic indie series like Love and Rockets, Fantagraphics also publishes bound editions of familiar, serialized newspaper comics including the Complete Peanuts, Prince Valiant, and Krazy Kat collections. Fantagraphics does its part to keep Seattle and Washington State its unconventional self. Washington was settled, according to demographers, by independent, reclusive, idealistic, and unconventional citizens. The others went to Oregon.
Raymond Carver, A New Path to the Waterfall (1989)
A book of immense bravery and beauty, it was assembled by Carver and his wife Tess Gallagher shortly before his death from lung cancer in 1988. It is a book of prose, poetry, and epigraphs, mostly by Carver but also by his inspirations: Anton Chekhov and Czeslaw Milosz. The result is a scrapbook of courageous meditations. To read this book, composed with the knowledge of impending death, is to marvel at how Carver held to love and art, how it fortified and clarified his life. Carver is best known as a short story writer, but to understand his own life, read his poems. This book shows his generosity of spirit—his desire to give us all a final gift.
Daniel James Brown, The Boys in the Boat (2014)
Daniel James Brown tells the story of the University of Washington men’s crew team who battled through injury, illness, and class boundaries to win the Olympic Gold in the 1936 Berlin games, crushing Hitler’s planned display of German superiority. Of course, the book’s driven by stories of scrappy, lower-and-middle-class public school boys overcoming the odds, but the book goes far beyond the usual plot of underdog triumph. It is a finely researched, fully human exploration of what is possible through belief, rigor, craft, teamwork, and striving. Readers around the world have been inspired by this book to cheer with every pull of the historic crew’s oars.
Jess Walter, Citizen Vince (2005)
Anyone who reads Citizen Vince by Spokane’s Jess Walter will consider citizenship in a new light. The Edgar Award-winning book makes you want to get out there and vote. Vince Camden is a Witness Protection Program fellow from New Jersey who has gone state’s witness against a mobster. He’s sent for his own safety to Spokane, where he sells maple bars at a shop called Donut Make You Hungry, and persists in his larcenous arts as well. But Vince has been given, with his new identity, a voter’s ID, and it changes him. It’s a rollicking, profane, and convincing novel.
Horace Cayton, Long, Old Road (1963)
Certainly there were Black settlers and citizens in our state early on. But in the literary realm, and the socio-political realm as well, the Cayton family is singularly significant. Born in Seattle in 1903, Horace Cayton was the son of a Seattle newspaper editor and a strict Quaker-rooted mother whose father, Senator Hiram Revels of Mississippi, was the first Black man elected to a national legislature. Horace Cayton’s autobiography shows how the relative freedom of the Northwest disoriented him as he later worked in Chicago and New York as a sociologist and United Nations reporter. But living in the Northwest, Cayton wrote, “allowed me to develop more completely the aspirations which all Americans have.” It is an honest, funny, fiery revelation of a particular Black experience in our state during the early 20th century.
Tom Robbins, Tibetan Peach Pie (2014)
Tom Robbins books always unleash a troupe of trickster words that flip, bounce, break wind, and do loops in front of mirrors and windows. And, like townsfolk at the circus, Robbins’ crowd of readers feel something of him in themselves: some general anarchy, and perhaps some connection to the mysteries that our forest floors—mushrooms, specifically—contain. And reading Robbins might let one feel the art those dancing chemicals cook up in a gifted writer. His recent autobiography, Tibetan Peach Pie, describes how he grew his art. Part of it was, of course, preternatural. The child performer became the young rake, who became the literary star, who became the well-seasoned old guy at the La Conner tavern. The soil of every culture grows its particular fruit, and Robbins is one of the Northwest’s largest and ripest offerings.
Sherman Alexie, The Summer of Black Widows (1996)
Sherman Alexie was born in 1966 to parents of the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene tribes, and he grew up in Wellpinit, Washington, on the reservation northwest of Spokane. Alexie has published, at this writing, 25 books, and won numerous literary awards. His novel for young readers, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, has been the most frequently banned book in America—a testament to how often it’s taught in schools. To pick one of his books is mostly arbitrary, but I’ll offer The Summer of Black Widows as the book I read most frequently because of its remarkable range. Alexie is masterful at what’s also present in Harry Robinson: the rhythm of natural storytelling. To be a storyteller often means to present an un-consenting person’s story as if it were your own; Alexie admits this, and wonders if he’s “become an accomplished liar” in his stories from the reservation. Regardless of which book of his you choose, reading Sherman Alexie is like boxing with a tragicomic pugilist who’s considerably above your weight class—you can’t decide whether to duck for cover or crack up and take it.
Dan Lamberton directs the Humanities program at Walla Walla University. He is the author of On the River Through the Valley of Fire, and with the University of Washington’s John Findlay wrote an on-line anthology called “Reading the Region” for the UW’s Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest. He is a board member of Humanities Washington.
- Category: Feature
- Tags: Books, History, Literature, Poetry, washington state