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Subtopic : Education, Arts, and Letters: Person and Place Wedded Together

Themes: Arts

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Portrait of Joaquin Miller
Leeander Moorhouse Photograph
OrHi 95226

The earliest writing in the Pacific Northwest involved descriptive journal literature, the works of the fur men and explorers. The many journal-travel accounts that have been published include the writings of Alexander Ross, Ross Cox, Peter Skene Ogden, Osborn Russell, David ThompsonDavid Douglas, and, of course, Lewis and Clark. Theirs was a literature that described the people and the landscape and recorded information about climate, topography, and river systems—establishing the facts of place.

The journals, travel accounts, reconnaissance reports, and the later federal surveys gave the region and state an identity for the rest of the nation. Most of the literary efforts that followed—prose, poetry, memoir, fiction, and history—reflected varied efforts to understand the raw details of the earlier descriptive writings. These literary efforts moved toward larger interpretive themes that linked events and circumstances over time. When regional literature comes of age, literary historian Harold Simonson contends, “both artist and the region come alive through the transforming power of imagination and spirit. Person and place are wedded to each other.” A selective survey of a few Oregon writers suggests the degree to which they truly represented a unique regional literature.

William Lysander Adams, a schoolteacher with an eccentric, sarcastic wit and a sharp pen, wrote Oregon’s first literary piece, A Memodrame Entitled “Treason, Stratagems, and Spoils” in Five Acts, under the pen name Breakspear. First published in five parts in the Oregonian in 1852, the play ruthlessly skewered Oregon’s Democratic Party, especially its public voice, the Statesman and its editor, Asahel Bush. Historian Edwin Bingham has called Adams’s play “local literature with a vengeance.”

Equally fixed in place is Margaret Jewett Bailey’s Grains, or Passages in the Life of Ruth Rover (1854), the region’s first novel. Bailey was the first women writer to appear in print in Oregon. Grains, a thinly disguised story based on the author’s marriage to William Bailey, a drunken missionary, was shredded by the Oregon press, with most of the venom directed at the author because she was a woman and a divorcee. While the book is not a work of literary art, Grains was entertaining and critics suggest that the novel was equal to other contemporary works published at the time in the East.

The first important writer to emerge as a significant regional and national figure was Joaquin Miller (1837-1913), a colorful character who moved about Oregon through a series of careers as a schoolteacher, judge, and defender of the South during the Civil War. Miller eventually moved to Portland and then on to California, where he made his reputation as the “Poet of the Sierras.” He never achieved the acclaim at home that he received in Europe, where he appeared dressed in buckskin and portrayed himself as the “Byron of the West.”

Miller wrote two interesting histories, Unwritten History: Life Among the Modocs (1873) and An Illustrated History of Montana (1894), and his most acclaimed book of poetry, Songs of the Sierras (1875). Many critics have claimed that his estranged wife, Minnie Myrtle, was a much better poet. An energetic woman with a flair for life, she published a contemptuous “defense” of her wanderlust former husband in the Oregonian (reprinted in the New Northwest). She assured readers that, with her request for a divorce, Miller would “no longer be chained to the annoying cares of a family” and would be free to “give his whole attention to his poems.”

© William G. Robbins, 2002

Themes: Arts

Regions: Oregon

Date: 1860-1900

Author: William G. Robbins

Descriptive journals, travel accounts, and federal surveys formed the first layer of regional literature. Most literary efforts that folowed reflected efforts to understand the raw details of theearlier writings. Joaquin Miller was the first regional writer to emerge as a national figure.

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