Writing Oregon

My state’s literature, in all its brilliance and depth

By Brian Doyle | February 21, 2014


I was at book club recently, as the grinning guest whose novel was the subject of discussion, when I was asked to name the finest writers and books in the long history of Oregon, and yet again, fulsome garrulous wholly debatable opinion rose in me like sap, and out poured a headlong speech of such remarkably subjective nature, albeit informed by much reading and a great deal of chat with Oregon readers and writers, that it seems entertaining to reproduce some of it here.

To answer the first question: In no order, Ken Kesey, Ursula Le Guin, Barry Lopez, Beverly Cleary, and Stewart Holbrook—the last of whom was the funniest and most headlong and colorful of them all, and is now almost forgotten, which is a shame, because his Holy Old Mackinaw (a cheerful history of American logging) is a masterpiece.

To answer the second question: Kesey’s two masterpieces, Sometimes a Great Notion and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—the latter arguably the better, more coherent book, but the former a sprawling epic thing that all Oregon writers, I notice, agree is the best Oregon novel of all. The Lathe of Heaven by LeGuin. The Brothers K and My Story as Told by Water by the terrific David James Duncan. The Country Boy by Homer Davenport, a hilarious memoir entertainingly illustrated by himself. Lopez’s Winter Count. Sallie Tisdale’s Stepping Westward. Hole in the Sky by William Kittredge, a searing memoir of his youth on the high dry side of Oregon. True Believer by Virginia Euwer Wolff, and Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary. The Nez Perce and the Opening of the Northwest by Alvin Josephy, a brilliant historian who earned a Bronze Star as a Marine in World War II. Voyage of a Summer Sun by Robin Cody, who canoed from the source of the Columbia River to its mouth, which took him one whole summer. Fire at Eden’s Gate: Tom McCall and the Oregon Story by Brent Walth, a great biography of our best governor. The Jump-Off Creek by Molly Gloss, the best novelist in the state today. Riverwalking by Kathleen Dean Moore, the best essayist in the state today. Every War Has Two Losers by William Stafford, who was not only Oregon’s poet laureate but America’s, and who not only wrote some 60 books of poems but was also a brilliant asker of questions about the foul calculus of war; for all that we sing and celebrate the poet this year, his centennial, it’s the question-asker I most admire, and would inflict on every citizen in the state, if I could; not to mention this sweet wild silly glorious selfish violent brave nation of ours.

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