Our Old West corner has produced and hosted artists, writers, poets and musicians of international stature. Many have not been home-grown but instead borrowed our turf and waters as they created some of America’s seminal work. Some came out this way to escape Eastern or Big City influences, and I like to think that our quiet natural bounty inspired some of their works.
The list below is mostly national authors who had a glancing relationship with the Northwest. Many famous names are omitted who truly spring from the local soil (Ken Kesey, Tom Robbins, Richard Hugo, Marilynne Robinson, Ivan Doig, Denise Levertov, David Guterson, Charles Johnson, Ray Carver, Sherman Alexie, Ursula Le Guin). I hope readers will supply more names and anecdotes in the Comments section that follows.
SINCLAIR LEWIS. America’s first winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1916 found the old Chelsea Hotel on Seattle’s Queen Anne Hill just right for investigations of labor strife and blue collar life. Lewis looked up radical labor leader Anna Louise Strong, while taking notes of Seattle waterfront activity. He also gave lectures at the University of Washington.
UPTON SINCLAIR. Author of “The Jungle,” in 1922 Sinclair roamed Puget Sound giving talks and (he claims) avoiding being arrested for his “revolutionary” activities.
VERNON LOUIS PARRINGTON. “Main Currents in American Thought,” which favored realistic American writers and dismissed effete Henry James, surprised the local literary community and irked establishment critics by winning the Pulitzer for history in 1927. Parrington had settled in the Seattle area and became one of the most popular classroom teachers in the University of Washington’s history.
DYLAN THOMAS. John Malcolm Brinnin’s book, “Dylan Thomas in America,” describes Thomas’ boozy visits to Seattle’s Blue Moon tavern and his friendship with the University of Washington’s poet-in-residence Theodore Roethke.
JAMES STEVENS. Besides the famous “Paul Bunyan,” Stevens’ many books about the great trees and undergrowth of the Pacific Northwest are local staples. His early work was cited by critic H.L. Mencken, who helped him achieve national recognition.
CARL SANDBURG. During the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair sandy-haired Sandburg hauled his guitar onto the old Opera House stage, placed it on a chair, and quietly told stories about Abraham Lincoln and the Depression for about an hour. Smiling to applause as he completed his show, leaving his untouched guitar on the lonely chair.
RICHARD HALLIBURTON. Author of travel books “The Royal Road to Romance,” “The Flying Carpet,” and other international best-sellers, Halliburton arrived on the Seattle waterfront in 1923 as an able-bodied seaman aboard the liner President Madison. On a later visit Halliburton was challenged to swim Puget Sound and climb Mt. Rainier. He declined those invitations.
H.L. DAVIS. Oregonian and author of the 1935 Pulitzer winner, “Honey in the Horn,” Davis lived for many years in Seattle, later moving to California.
BETTY MADONALD. At one time the Pacific Northwest’s most famous writer, MacDonald’s “The Egg and I” was a national bestseller, followed by “The Plague and I,” “Onions in the Stew,” and other humerous works. The Ma and Pa Kettle films were spun from MacDonald’s early tales of farming on the Olympic Peninsula, just south of Port Townsend.
ALICE B. TOKLAS. Gertrude Stein’s longtime companion was raised in Seattle, where her father owned one of the city’s early department stores.
DASHIELL HAMMETT. Before his writing career blossomed, especially “The Maltese Falcon,” Hammett was a Pinkerton detective in Spokane. He also spent time in a Tacoma hospital recovering from TB.
THEODORE DREISER. In 1944, after 25 years of life with Helen Richardson, the author of “An American Tragedy” agreed to get married IN TINY Stevenson, Washington. Dreiser gave his name to the county clerk as “Herman” Dreiser (his middle name).
JOHN DOS PASSOS. His trilogy “U.S.A.” notes in some detail the 1920s labor strife in Seattle, Everett, and Centralia, Washington. One such incident, the beating in Everett of Ben Compton, is one of Dos Passos’ most vivid descriptions.
JACK LONDON. According to local legend, in July 1897 a Port Townsend prostitute steered a drunken London to the new jail (now a local museum) in order to save him from being relieved of his money and to be sure he boarded the ship for Juneau and the Klondike the next morning.
ZANE GREY. The author of “Riders of the Purple Sage” fished the streams of Oregon and Washington, notably Oregon’s Rogue River, writing about these adventures in both his fiction and non-fiction.
WILLIAM JAMES. The philosopher wrote to his brother Henry James from Seattle in 1929, observing that “the historic silence of Puget Sound fairly rings in your ears when you listen.”
Eugene O’Neill spent time in Seattle. August Wilson many years. Annie Proulx was in western Washington for a while, not sure if it was specifically Seattle. Jack Kerouac in a firewatcher station in the nearby Cascades.
E.B White was a reporter at the Seattle Times, and was fired. He also worked for the P. I. O’Neill was awarded his Nobel Prize while living in Magnolia.
Jonathan Raban hung around for years. He may still be here.
I’m not sure if Betty Macdonald meets your criteria. She was a local almost her entire life, until she moved from Vashon to California shortly before her death.
And Earnest K. Gann lived his last years in Northwest Washington. There is (was?) an Ernie’s Cafe at the Friday Harbor airport named in his honor. Tobias Wolfe’s “This Boy’s Life” recounts his boyhood in West Seattle and Concrete.
Nice job here! I enjoyed seeing your choices. You might enjoy my books, At the Field’s End: Interviews with 22 Northwest Writers and On Sacred Ground: The Spirit of Place in Pacific Northwest Literature where I discuss some of the authors who wrote about Seattle and the rest of the region. Best, Nick O’Connell
Annie Dillard lived on Lummi Island at taught in Bellingham.
Tess Gallagher – Poet. Raymond Carver’s partner. Read Carver’s “Gravy” to appreciate the relationship.
I often walk by the house Mary McCarthy lived in, at 36th and E. Cherry in Madrona. When her parents died from the 1917 flu, McCarthy moved here from Minneapolis to live with her maternal grandparents, the Prestons. (Harold Preston founded the Preston Gates lawfirm.) She writes about her schooling at Forest Ridge and Annie Wright in “Memories of a Catholic Girlhood.”‘ She soon rebelled from Catholicism, but always felt it taught her much about “being on the losing side.”
Octavia Butler found a home here in Seattle.
I was introduced to Annie Proulx when she spoke to a group at the Seattle Public Library in 2015. We made a lunch date, talked about our mutual journalistic backgrounds. She wanted to know more about the history of the area and how its towns and cities had gotten their names. She wasn’t happy with some of the sketchy sources available. At the time, she was living near Carnation, having relocated to be near a younger son who was working in tech. I believe she later moved to Port Townsend.
I like the way listicles like this inspire everyone to add their own knowledge about our forgotten or unknown past hosting of greatness. Did Mark Twain ever pass through our way?
Yes. August, 1895 – on the lecture tour aimed at his recovery from bankruptcy. Seattle Times published a photo of Twain/Samuel Clemens on Seattle’s waterfront, supplied by “Then and Now” writer Jean Sherrard, March 19, 2020 – with a quote from the humorist who’d arrived during high forest fire season: “I regret that your forests are being destroyed by fire. As for smoke, I am accustomed to that. I am a perpetual smoker myself.”
This Boy’s Life, by author Tobias Wolff, of Concrete, WA. this is the book The Goldfinch wanted to be. IMHO this one is superior.
We can’t forget Thomas (not Tom) Wolfe, who became fatally ill with tuberculosis at Mt. Rainier while touring the West’s national parks. He was sent to a Seattle hospital (seemingly Virginia Mason) but did not recover. His sister accompanied him to Baltimore, where he died.
Others claim Wolfe was treated at Seattle’s Providence Hospital.
Evelyn Sibley Lampman wrote 38 Young People’s fiction novels based on Oregon history or Science.
Wonderfully entertaining. Sadly, they are mostly out of print now although I believe some were reprinted by the Oregon Historical Society.
She was born in Dallas, Oregon and passed away in Portland, Oregon.
Don’t forget David James Duncan! ‘The Brothers K’ is a fabulous read. In the middle of his essay/short story collection ‘River Teeth’ now.
Joanna Russ was a U of Washington professor whose acquaintance I made through the Seattle Lesbian Resource Center in the 1970’s. Per Wikipedia “she was named to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame in 2013”. Wikipedia also says “The late 1960s and 1970s marked the beginnings of feminist SF scholarship—a field of inquiry that was all but created single-handedly by Russ.”
This is great fun-here’s a potential addition: Robinson Jeffers, apparently an unfocused only child with indulgent parents, spent some years in the early nineteen-teens as a forestry student at the University of Washington before relocating to Carmel where he would eventually find his voice as a celebrated American poet. The love story between Robinson and Una Jeffers, scandalous at the time, is exceptional. They were actually married in Tacoma. Quite a celebrity- including a Time magazine cover- in hindsight his major works were quite odd and it is mostly his shorter poems that seem to be still read and appreciated. He also had some unforgivable opinions about race and society. A complicated thinker.
Great list. But give Owen Wister at least passing mention. He spent time in the Methow Valley in the 1890s. Yes, he did inhabit Wyoming for a time, but visited his old Harvard pal Guy Waring who settled in Winthrop. History Link has an account of this – stating some of Okanogan County’s locals and events there inspired Wister’s “The Virginian” – generally called “the first true Western novel.”