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Driving Home: An American Journeyby Jonathan Raban
In the spring of 1990 I packed up as much of my life in London as would ﬁt into a suitcase and four large plywood boxes and ﬂew to Seattle to set up house. It was a selﬁsh and irregular move. I had “met someone” and liked what I’d seen of the Paciﬁc Northwest during a two-month stay there the previous autumn. I liked the aquarium lighting, the sawtooth alps forested with black ﬁrs, the compact cities encrusted in dirty Romanesque stucco. Most of all, I liked the place’s wateriness. At forty-seven I felt cracked and dry. My new home territory was as rainy as Ireland, puddled with lakes and veined with big rivers. Seattle was built out on pilings over the sea, and at high tide the whole city seemed to come aﬂoat like a ship lifting free from a mud berth and swaying in its chains.
We took a house on the wrong side of Queen Anne, the innermost of Seattle’s hilltop suburbs. The tall wooden house, built like a boat from massive scantlings of Douglas ﬁr, carvel-planked with cedar, had been put up in 1906, in the wake of the Yukon gold rush, when the hill itself was logged. It had warped and settled through a string of minor earthquakes: the ﬂoors sloped, doors hung askew in their frames, and on a silent night it groaned and whifﬂed like a sleeping dog.
Barely a mile from the new banking and insurance skyscrapers of downtown, the house felt as if it were hidden away in the woods. Shaggy conifers, survivors of the original forest, darkened the views from every window. The study looked down over the Ship Canal, where trawlers stalked through an avenue of poplars on their start to the Alaskan ﬁ shing grounds, eight hundred miles to the north. From the top-ﬂoor deck one could see out over the pale suburbs, like shell-middens, to the serrated line of the Cascade Mountains, still snow-capped in May.
For someone fresh off the plane from London, it was a vast prospect in which making oneself at home would not be easy. It had been ﬁne to be a tourist in this landscape, when I had been enjoyably awed by its far-western heights and distances; but now that I’d signed up as a permanent resident, the view from the window seemed only to reﬂect my own displacement.
Even the very near-at-hand was strange. I kept Peterson’s Western Birds and the Audubon Guide to Western Forests by the typewriter. I made lists and pinned them to the wall. Cedar, cypress, dogwood, laurel, madrona maple, I wrote, trying to distinguish individual personalities in the jumble of damp and muddy greens framed by the window. I took the tree book down to the garden and, wary of attracting derisive looks from the neighbors, matched the real-life barks against their close-up color pictures; the peeling, ﬁsh-scale skin of the lodgepole pine, the frayed hemp rope of the western red cedar. It took a month, at least, to be able to see the black-crested Steller’s jay in the madrona with something like the comfortable indifference with which I’d used to notice a song thrush in the sycamore in Battersea. It took a good deal longer to adjust to how adeptly the rufous hummingbird, like a tiny thrashing autogyro, redisposed itself in space, zapping from point to point too fast for the eye to follow. Glancing up from the typewriter, stuck for a phrase, I’d catch sight of a bald eagle slowly circling on a thermal over the Ship Canal, its huge wings still and ragged, and lose the logic of the sentence to another half hour of involuntary ornithology.
The German word for “uncanny,” as in Freud’s famous essay on the Uncanny, is unheimlich—unhomely. The tourist thrives on the uncanny, moving happily through a phenomenal world of effects without causes. This world, in which he has no experience and no memory, is presented to him as a supernatural domain: the language of travel advertising hawks the uncanny as part of the deal. Experience the magic of Bali! The wonders of Hawaii! The enchantment of Bavaria!
But for the newly arrived immigrant, this magic stuff is like a curse. He’s faced at every turn with the unhomelikeness of things, in an uncanny realm where the familiar house sparrows have all ﬂed, to be replaced by hummingbirds and eagles. The immigrant needs to grow a memory, and grow it fast. Somehow or other, he must learn to convert the uncanny into the homely, in order to ﬁnd a stable footing in the new land.
Hunkered down in the second-ﬂoor study of the comfortingly old and memorious house on Queen Anne, I tried to read my way home. My best guides were fellow aliens in the Paciﬁc Northwest, from the early explorers of the region to such relatively recent arrivals here as the poet Theodore Roethke and the novelist Bernard Malamud. From the late eighteenth century to the late twentieth, they kept striking the same note of shock at the stupendous unhomelikeness of this landscape.
It drove George Vancouver into a pit of what now appears to have been clinical depression. Between May and June of 1792, as he probed the inlets of Washington and British Columbia, he went from dizzy elation to sullen melancholy—and wrote his changing moods into the permanent nomenclature of the region. To begin with, he was high on his discoveries: this was “the most lovely country that can be imagined.” He saw the Paciﬁc Northwest as a kind of unusually verdant Devonshire, and imagined orderly villages with churches and manors laid out between the wooded hills. At this stage of the voyage, the names he gave to the headlands, bays, and ﬁords were upbeat: Discovery Bay, Protection Island, Restoration Point (the most beautiful and useful features, like Mount Rainier and Port Townsend, were named by Vancouver after his relations, friends, and patrons).
May turned into June. As Vancouver sailed north, the mountains grew steeper, the inlets narrower, the woods more impenetrable. His lieutenant, Peter Puget, who kept a parallel journal, was increasingly excited by the romantic sublimity of what he saw: a few years younger than Vancouver, he was much more in tune with the rising generation’s taste for wild nature. For Puget, the unfolding landscape was “majestic” and full of “grandeur”; for Vancouver it was increasingly “dreary,” “unpleasant,” “desolate,” “gloomy,” “dismal,” and “awful”—the words pepper his descriptions, often being used twice in the same sentence. Five minutes north of the ﬁ ftieth parallel, Vancouver brought his ship to a “dreary and unpleasant anchorage”: “Our residence here was truly forlorn; an awful silence pervaded the gloomy forests, whilst animated nature seemed to have deserted the neighbouring country . . . ” He called the place Desolation Sound.
Thirteen years after the Vancouver expedition, in the autumn of 1805, Lewis and Clark reached the Columbia River valley from the continental interior, after climbing to the headwaters of the Missouri and crossing the Rocky Mountains in what is now Montana. William Clark, with his botched spellings and childish exclamation marks, was a resoundingly lively presence on the page. He was an original vernacular narrator as he conﬁ ded his discomforts, Dear Diary–style, to his journal. “O! how horriable is the day—” he wrote when the tidal Columbia cut up rough in a westerly gale and waves drenched the explorers’ camp. “We are all wet and disagreeable.” Clark had grown up in Virginia and Kentucky, and, like almost every newcomer to the Northwest, was incredulous at the monotonous fall rains that soaked the country west of the Cascades. It rained day after day, hour after hour— with the ﬁne-sifted thoroughness and regularity of a gigantic lawn sprinkler. “This morning Cloudy and drisley.” “Rained all the last night we are all wet.” “Rain as usual.” “Rained without intermition.” “A blustering rainey day.” “A hard rain all the last night we again get wet.” “Rained verry hard.” “Conﬁned on a tempiest coast, wet.” The swollen river carried with it the trunks of uprooted trees, “maney of them nearly 200 feet long”; as they spun around and around on the current, they often came close to capsizing the expedition’s canoes. “Those monsterous trees—” wrote Clark, summoning the vocabulary of the uncanny to convey the gross abundance of this landscape.
In 1947 Theodore Roethke came west to Seattle, drawn here by the offer of a job in the English department at the University of Washington. The city itself (“a kind of vast Scarsdale . . . no bars for anything except beer and light wines in the whole of Seattle”) was tame and provincial, but the surrounding landscape roused Roethke, as it had roused Vancouver, to ﬂights of concentrated pathetic fallacy. Before 1947, his poems had been full of emotional turmoil projected onto a vivid vegetable world of crocuses, geraniums, cyclamens, peaches, butternuts, pear trees, and spiders—a world enclosed by the same fences that bordered his father’s market garden and nursery in Saginaw, Michigan. In the Paciﬁc Northwest (“ . . . the peaks, the black ravines, the rolling mists / Changing with every twist of wind . . . ”) Roethke found a nature that was extravagant enough to give physical body to the extremes of his own morbidly dishevelled nature.
His new poems mapped a wild, volcanic, thickly forested region of the heart and mind. In the geological melodrama of the Washington landscape, he found a spectacular objective correlative to the upheavals of his mental life—the uncontrollable ascents into mania, the whiskey, the compulsive womanizing. His last collection, The Far Field, posthumously published in 1964, is an inspired gazetteer of places that are simultaneously states of mind and visitable destinations within easy reach of Seattle. “Journey to the Interior,” for instance, is both a ﬁne description of driving on a logging trail in the Cascades (Roethke bought his ﬁrst car, a Buick, in 1950, when he was forty-two and was thereafter an enthusiastic—and alarming—motorist) and a lightly encoded account of a life spent skirting the edge of insanity:
In the long journey out of the self,
There are many detours, washed-out interrupted raw places
Where the shale slides dangerously
And the back wheels hang almost over the edge . . .
As the mountains represented the menacing heights, the rivers, lakes, and sea afforded renewal and balm. Roethke wrote beautifully about water, its movements and stillnesses. In the mental hospital, he spent long hours in hydrotherapy; sane, he found another kind of hydrotherapy, ﬁshing for coho salmon from the Oyster River resort on the east coast of Vancouver Island, watching birds on Lake Washington, walking on the rocky margin of Puget Sound, watching small waves break. From “The Rose”:
I live with the rocks, their weeds,
Their ﬁlmy fringes of green, their harsh
Edges, their holes
Cut by the sea-slime, far from the crash
Of the long swell,
The oily, tar-laden walls
Of the toppling waves,
Where the salmon ease their way into the kelp beds,
And the sea rearranges itself among the small islands.
Near this rose, in this grove of sun-parched, wind-warped madronas,
Among the half-dead trees, I came upon the true ease of myself,
As if another man appeared out of the depth of my being . . .
It was exciting to watch Roethke making himself at home in western Washington by discovering that western Washington had always, as it were, been inside himself. To the view that I could see from my own window, Roethke attached names and meanings that went far deeper than Vancouver’s. Of all the incomers to the Northwest, who had put this landscape to use and made cognitive sense of it, from fur traders and timber barons to aeronautical engineers and Dutch bulb-growers, Roethke was the most generous: if a stranger had as baggage nothing except Roethke’s Collected Poems, he would have a solid imaginative foothold here.
In 1949, Bernard Malamud left New York to take a job as an instructor in the English department at Oregon State College in Corvallis, lately an agricultural school. In 1961, he returned to the East Coast, where he had been appointed writer- in- residence at Bennington College in Vermont—and published his third novel, A New Life, a bitter comedy about a New York Jew, an English instructor, who ﬁnds himself stranded in a narrow-minded town in the wide-open country of the Paciﬁc Northwest. Malamud’s revenge on Oregon (as it was generally perceived by Oregonians) had for a long time been my favorite campus novel—though for years I believed that it was set in an invented landscape, a fabulous Far West that Malamud had cooked up in his Manhattan fastness.
I had come across the book in 1964, in the paperback carousel at the new service station at Newport Pagnell on the M1 motorway. The cover was suggestive. Above the blurb, “He found strange refuge—love with another man’s wife,” was a drawing of a young woman reaching for the zip of her Levi’s. The man in the background was small and wore a hat. I knew Malamud’s name from the stylized short stories of New York Jewish life in Idiots First. I hadn’t heard of this surprising novel.
I read it in a sitting and have owned three separate copies since, but it wasn’t until around the beginning of the second copy that I woke up to the fact that Malamud’s “Cascadia” was Oregon, not an urban Jewish fantasy of some Eden far beyond the range of the road atlas. I hadn’t then been to the United States, and the landscape described by Malamud—a green paradise infected by the encroaching spectre of Senator Joseph McCarthy—rang no speciﬁc bells for me. It read like the landscape of allegory, and worked so well in those terms that I wasn’t tempted to go looking for its latitude and longitude.
In the book, Marathon, Cascadia, is a rigidly conformist college cow-town, with a winning football team and a paranoid contempt for Reds, misﬁts, and intellectuals. Seymour Levin, “from the East,” “formerly a drunkard,” an admitted liberal with a beard, is destined for a painful roasting in this 1950s version of a Puritan township enjoying a witch trial. At every turn in the story, the philistinism and uncharitableness of town and college are set against a landscape of mountains, forest, and ocean so ironically magniﬁcent that any reader bred to the landscape of Newport Pagnell must have doubted its literal existence. A New Life seemed to me to be written in the freehand, fantastic tradition of the Jewish folktale: Malamud was painting the richness and promise of the idea of America—and its betrayal by a mean-spirited citizenry, people too small to deserve to inherit their gigantic land.
It slightly diminished the novel to learn that there were “originals” (or so my knowing American informant claimed) of the Fairchilds, the C. D. Fabrikants, the Buckets and Bullocks, and that Malamud’s poisoned Arcadia was drawn directly from the life—that Marathon was Corvallis, sixty-ﬁve miles down the road from Portland. This American, a Berkeley professor, thought I was offbeam when I claimed the novel was a work of ambitious fabulism. No, he said, the landscape of the Paciﬁc Northwest was in itself an unrealistic stretch of country—it was just naturally fabulous.
The uncanny again. Twenty-ﬁve years on, I sat out on the deck of the house on Queen Anne on a sunny day in autumn when the visibility was good, rereading A New Life for the umpteenth time. To the right lay the Cascades, to the left the raised and snowy edge of the Olympics, and in the middle the mixed woodlands of the rolling suburbs of Seattle. A big ketch was sliding through the poplars. The sun made the print jump on the page, but now I very nearly had the opening of the novel by heart:
. . . They were driving along an almost deserted highway, in a broad farm-ﬁlled valley between distant mountain ranges laden with forests, the vast sky piled high with towering masses of golden clouds. The trees softly clustered on the river side of the road were for the most part deciduous; those crawling over the green hills to the south and west were spear-tipped ﬁr.
My God, the West, Levin thought. He imagined the pioneers in covered wagons entering this valley for the ﬁrst time, and found it a moving thought. Although he had lived little in nature Levin had always loved it, and the sense of having done the right thing in leaving New York was renewed in him. He shuddered at his good fortune.
“The mountains to the left are the Cascades,” Pauline Gilley was saying. “On the right is the Coastal Range. They’re relatively young mountains, whatever that means. The Paciﬁc lies on the other side of them, about ﬁfty miles.”
“The Paciﬁc Ocean?”
Just off to the side of the page margin, there was a ﬂittering disturbance in the holly tree in a neighbor’s yard. I shifted my attention from Cascadia to Washington, from the 1950s to the 1990s. A big ﬂock of yellow-bellied waxwings had settled on the holly and were distributed on its branches like so many ornaments on a Christmas tree.
High over the city, above the mufﬂer shops and 7-Elevens and steep streets of pastel-colored frame houses, an eagle wheeled, sublimely.
I was with Seymour Levin. My God, the West—
Independent on Sunday, July/August 1993
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