Last summer on a visit to the Hudson River Valley, I took a morning to explore Washington Irving’s home. Wandering through the property in the sticky humidity so particular to the East Coast I peered into Irving’s vine-covered house, Sunnyside, and pictured the author at his desk honing his iconic New England stories like the “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle.” Never did I imagine the prolific writer also sat there crafting one of the first descriptions of the West Coast for a nation of readers.
Astoria, published in 1836, traces the efforts of John Jacob Astor, the nation’s first multi-millionaire, to establish a fur trading colony on the Pacific Coast. Aided by journals and letters of the adventurers who Astor hired to establish a post, and without ever setting foot on the West Coast, Irving detailed both “savage and colonial life on the borders of the Pacific” with rich images of shores “low and closely wooded, with such an undergrowth of vines and rushes as to be almost impassable,” “a range of hills crowned by forests,” and “stupendous precipices.” Like many histories of the West over the past 150 years, Astoria greatly distorted the story of the settlement; nonetheless it provided the nation with its first descriptions of the Northwest.
But a near-forgotten writer named Frances Fuller Victor was the true literary pioneer of the West Coast. As resident of Portland, Oregon, in the 1860s and ’70s, she had opportunity to record first-hand accounts from the region’s pioneers and make rich observations of the climate and scenery for her books like River of the West and All Over Oregon and Washington. She also wrote much of the content for the Washington and Oregon portions of Hubert Howe Bancroft’s histories of the West.
Fuller Victor’s writing was the greatest resource on the West for a range of East Coast writers, noted Robert Cantwell in his 1972 The Hidden Northwest. Helping themselves to Victor’s descriptions and tales, the pulp writers had fresh territory to explore.
“The Pacific Northwest was an ideal locale for the tireless hacks who wrote dime novels,” wrote Cantwell, a novelist, literary editor, and Washington native who grew up in Hoquiam in the 1920s. The real West was so far removed from their readers, notes Cantwell, that “factual accuracy was not necessary, and the reputation of the region was such that almost anything said about it would be believed.”
Irving, Fuller Victor, and even the dime novelists laid the groundwork for historian Frederick Jackson Turner to float his “Frontier Thesis” in the 1890s and set the notion of the West as a wild frontier waiting to be conquered. The sweeping notion became the foundation for teaching the history of the American West for many decades to come.
But now, with new resources and new approaches, we continue to reconsider the stories of our corner of the country. As we see in this issue, our University’s historians, archivists, archeologists, anthropologists, and cultural studies and literary scholars lead the way.
—Hannelore Sudermann, content editor