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.”