OSU Libraries | OSU Home


The literature of the Pacific Northwest reveals the rich and diverse themes that are the staple ingredients of life in the region. Typically, Northwest writers have reflected the especially close bond of humans to nature, the sense of abundance--of nature, of the human spirit--of the place, and the quest for a temporal paradise--a new Eden on the Pacific shore--that have always been hallmarks of the thinking about the region by its most articulate inhabitants.

An extraordinarily evocative element of this literature, but one that goes largely unappreciated, is the part of it dedicated to portrayals of the pacific Northwest's work life. Among those who have labored on the region's farms, in its forests, on its waterways or in its offices, stores, and factories, mining the ground for precious minerals, fishing the rivers, lakes, and sea, cutting the plentiful timer, making the rich soil yield its bounty, or engaging in commerce, many have thought they were building a paradise inside time--as it were, a new Eden. When the Oregon Spectator extended its welcome "To the Oregon Emigrants of 1846," it did nothing to undermine that view. It promised an end to "weary pilgrimage and toil." The Spectator's anonymous poet painted a picture of "verdant prairie and prolific field, / Rich forest dells, where giant cedars stand,/ Shading fresh treasures yet to be revealed."

The newcomers of 1846 may have been disappointed to find that the Northwest required of them no less effort to subsist than did their points of origin. They and their posterity were forced to grapple with the usual vagaries of human existence in a place just as beset by joys, sorrows, and tedium as every other part of the world. But this land is also one visited by the more than occasional hard rain. And yet, even when wet, it is one enveloped in beauty. So their written observations, those of their posterity, and those of others who have depicted workers' triumphs and frustrations in this place, are coupled with a frequently chaotic and sometimes bloody tradition of labor radicalism and organization. Their accounts of rough and perilous employments, like fishing, mining, and lumbering, of workers, champions of workers, and shrewd observers of the working life, make unique and richly revelatory reading about the character of the region and its people. They add a compelling dimension to our knowledge of the Northwest's literature.

The editors of this anthology, which includes poems, excerpts from short stories and novels, manifestos, songs, memoirs, and oral histories, have tried, in the divergent works collected here, to represent the varied expressions of what it is like to toil triumphantly and sometimes fruitlessly in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana.

We have divided the selections into three parts with distinct motifs. Section 1, "Clearing the Ground," concerns itself with expressions of optimism. Some selections betray an artlessness, a sense of grand enterprises, of self-identity through toil, of pride in work done well, and of nature seemingly at the service of man. In the second section, "The Industrial Frontier," the pieces display an awakening to a more worldly understanding of the intractability of nature and of humans' inability to master it. Frequently, work involves struggle: struggle between strong and weak, rich and poor, worker and boss; there are even moments when workers are pitted, or pit themselves, against each other. Work, to the voices raised here, is not a celebratory experience but a necessity to be endured. The readings in the third section "Working Ahead," illustrate evolving attitudes toward work that range from the disillusioned to the whimsical. One finds a mix of realism, lively satire, even good-natured wit.

At any stage in the Pacific Northwest's life one can find hope and hopelessness coexisting, bone-weary pessimism and bursting optimism contending, edgy irony and the straightforward embrace of life co-mingling. In the culture of the Pacific Northwest, the literature of work represents not just an expression of a particular geography, but a region of the enigmatic, all-too-human heart.

Member of AAUP