I have never met William Deresiewicz, but I am guessing that he spent just as much time hanging out in Butler Library as I did. Reading that he moved from Morningside Heights to Portland, not long after I had done so myself, I felt an immediate kinship with him.
His recent American Scholar post, Think Again, The Secret To Portland’s Success, inspired this piece of fan mail.
I know you are just waiting for someone to give you a leg up on understanding all things Oregon.
For advanced practitioners, there is a distinction between all things Oregon and all things Cascadian, but for the purposes of an introduction designed for newcomer, I will collapse the two.
The key text is no surprise.
Ken Kesey’s Sometimes A Great Notion (1964) contains almost everything you need to know about our regional identity. The narrator copes with the same disorientation you must feel, adjusting to the difference between East and West Coast. Kesey never lived on the East Coast, but his awareness of the difference shows you how deeply this cognitive code switching is embedded in our regional identity. He was able to deploy it as an artist, even though it was not part of his own personal experience. Sometimes A Great Notion is not “about” Leland Stamper’s divided awareness, but the tension of his dual East Coast/ West Coast identity is central to the plot.
To fully understand how fully Oregonians have come to choose sludgy group think over quick urban wit, a cultural value you summarized as “You don’t have to be a genius. Just don’t be a dick.”, I recommend going back to the beginning.
Here are the first two Cascadian texts. Most elemental, most essential. Don’t waste time. Go straight to the source.
The Canoe and the Saddle (1863) Theodore Winthrop travels across the state of Washington accompanied by hired Indian guides and his own Yale education.
This extraordinary urtext reveals, in its first pages, that Theodore “Yes, that Winthrop” Winthrop is fully aware that he is a dick. He has no choice. A laudanum addicted homosexual alone in the West, he floats in and out of the transcendental register, choosing to perform his arias in the key of complete disorientation. He is the oppressor. He knows it. Utterly alone.
Unwritten History: Life Amongst the Modocs (1873) Joaquin Miller rewrites Winthrop’s “lone white man among the Natives” narrative, jettisoning the racial superiority, but retaining the broken compass sense of disorientation (viz. how does one write an “unwritten history” ).
These are the most important two books, in terms of laying out the imaginative territory Northwest writers would explore. Miller’s public persona, a cross between Buffalo Bill and Emily Dickinson, is the first delineation of the Oregon choice to be neither genius nor dick. He is too self enthralled to be a genius, and not empty enough to be a dick.
Read those two books to lay the best groundwork for a deeper understanding Cascadia’s deep dislike of thinking. Although Winthrop wrote as an outsider and Miller as a native son (not born here, but arrived in a covered wagon), both men attribute all to landscape. Sounds shallow, seems brutish. Might be, but landscape is bedrock, as you will see.
I am convinced you might need further guidance, so I include the following reading list, in which I pair two texts, the only way for you to discover the shimmering truth of our regional identity which hovers between them.
I will go chronologically.
You can pick and choose your way around this croquet field.
Two books by Oregonians-turned-New Yorkers begin the list:
Oregonians In Exile, in New York :
Country Boy: The Story Of His Own Early Life (1910) W. R. Hearst’s leading cartoonist, Homer Davenport, idealizes his Willamette Valley childhood. Apparently “You don’t have to be a genius” includes covering your tracks if you are one.
Ten Days That Shook The World (1917) John Reed lives up to the ideals of his father C. J. Reed, who fought land fraud from Pioneer Courthouse. Three years later he would be dead.
Oregonians in exile, without leaving the Pacific Northwest:
Honey In The Horn (1935) H.L. Davis crammed every rural occupation he could think of into this portrait of pre automobile, pre electrification Oregon. This is the West of social desolation. People are tumbleweeds.
Yellow Wolf: His Own Story (1940) He–Mene Mox Mox, an aging hops picker on the Colville Reservation, dictates his eyewitness report of the 1877 Nez Perce war. Includes his emergency initiation into the non-Christian spirituality for which his tribe was being persecuted.
The Haunting of Celilo Falls:
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) You know this one.
The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening Of the Northwest (1965) Knopf scion turned Harvard dropout Alvin Josephy rewrites the history of the Pacific Northwest, from an Indian point of view. The best “quick course” for the deeply regional history Kesey evokes.
Oregon Beats & Post-Beats
Trout Fishing In America (1967) Richard Brautigan, an exact Eugene contemporary of Ken Kesey, minus the wrestling and good grades.
An Introduction to the American Underground Film (1967) Sheldon Renan grew up on an Oregon City turkey farm, his leftist parents (Portland mom, Queens dad) in hiding from the Feds during the blacklist.
Turtle Island (1974) Gary Snyder, the “jewel of Reed”, wins a Pulitzer.
Mala Noche (1977) Walt Curtis, mentor of Gus Van Sant and high school classmate of Sheldon Renan, documents unrequited love on Skid Row.
The Left Hand Of Darkness (1969) Ursula LeGuin, the leading portraitist of pre-Portlandia Portland. Much of her fiction embodies “you don’t have to be a genius, just don’t be a dick” ethos.
Goat Brothers (1993) Larry Colton charts the gender role dislocation of the 1960‘s via the lives of his fraternity brothers. Extraordinarily closely observed. Could only have been written from the psychological distance of Cascadia.
The Earth Is Our Mother
Owning It All (1987) William Kittredge explains why he jettisoned the ranch his family worked for, and passed down to him. Also The Prairie Keepers (1996) Marcy Houle went to the most remote corner of northeast Oregon as a scientist hoping to change the way ranchers viewed the land. Not exactly what happened.
Fire At Eden’s Gate: Tom McCall & the Oregon Story (2000) Brent Walth compresses three generations into one epic. Required reading.
Just Don’t Be A Dick
The Radical Middle Class: Populist Democracy and the Question of Capitalism in Progressive Era Portland (2006) Robert Johnston wrote an entire book about the way Progressive Era Portlanders collectively chose not to be dicks.
Sometimes A Great Notion (1964) Back to where we started.
The three most important books, if you are in a hurry, are Sometimes A Great Notion, The Radical Middle Class and Fire At Eden’s Gate. But you will get more out of those books if you wander freely through earlier Cascadian texts.
I hope this helps you understand your new home.