My brief on Northwest Literature

A while ago someone said to me that they can’t help talking about Seattle and region but they don’t think it makes a difference to them when they sit down with a blank piece of paper. For me, on the other hand, this my understanding of my environment makes a difference when I go to the store to pick up a quart of milk.


When humanity escaped the African savannah, it developed the need to understand its environment. This awareness was built by collective gathering of environment data in the construction of a conceptual model of their environment. In the similar way, social interaction between people depends on a situational model. Both of these models, environmental and situational, are combined into a regional model, which encompasses environmental and social narratives.

1) Our cognition of our environment requires an environmental aesthetic.

In How the Mind Works, Stephen Pinker writes about humanities ‘habitat selection.’ “Home sapiens is adapted to two habitats. One is the African savanna in which most of our evolution took place. […] Our second-choice habitat is the rest of the world.” Even though humanity evolved in a very predictable, hospitable place (lawn, trimmed trees and hedges, tasteful water features, the occasional fast food joint), because of humanities brian organ, we were able to adapt to just about any environment. “People explore a new landscape and draw up a mental resource map, rich in details about water, plants, animals, routes, and shelter. And if they can they make their new homeland into a savanna. Native Americans and Australian aborigines used to burn huge swaths of woodland, opening up for colonization by grasses.” This awareness was built by collective gathering of environment data in the construction of a conceptual model of their environment. [376]

2) Environmental Awareness

With little conscious effort, people assess the interrelated conditions of the environment in which they are presenting themselves. Contextual information provides performers with vital cues with which to determine what is appropriate behavior in a particular situation. Likewise, context provides readers with a model for evaluating one’s behavior. In particular, two context cues provide the majority of the information that people actively integrate – situational and interpersonal context information. Situational context refers to the aspects of the architecture and environment that suggest what activities normally take place here and now. Situational knowledge requires an understanding of the social qualities of the environment including the location, the time period, the particular occasion, and the general politics and values of the society. Based on previous experiences in a given context, people start developing mental models of these situations, just as they build mental models of people. These models allow people to associate particular architectural forms with functions and behaviors, allowing people to more rapidly process the situation. People have learned to understand particular design forms and they can quickly separate a fast food restaurant from a pub. Likewise, they understand the meaning of specific situations, thereby realizing that a solemn funeral is an inappropriate place to scream the latest football scores. — Faceted Id/entity :: Negotiating Identity in Social Interactions, danah boyd

In a way similar to environmental awareness, then, social interaction between people depends on a situational model.

3) A Region’s literature constitutes a dynamic model of the region it represents.

Both the environmental and social are combined into a regional model, which encompasses environmental and social narratives.

A region’s literature constitutes a representation of the region. A regional literature constitutes a conceptual model of the region. A regional literature is in motion. New books mean that there are old books. As the language changes and as the region changes the region’s literature changes. New literary work is in dialogue with the model and the reality of the region. It is generated both in response to and as a reaction to the dissonance between the model and reality.

New literary work changes the conceptual model of the region. Finally, to close this circle, the region’s conception of itself, its literary conception of itself, informs some of the real world changes in the region. Someone has a dream of Seattle as the “Gateway to Alaska,” and Seattle becomes the Gateway to Alaska, the Portal to the Pacific; Seattle becomes a door.

This isn’t to say that all work produced in a region engages with a regional model. This isn’t to say that that all literature produces in a region changes this conceptual model. This is outlining the terms of the conversation. There is a regional conversation between work produced in and about the region and the region’s conception of itself.

Too, some new work engages with an old or static vision of the regional model. This work ratifies an out of data model. At best this work, then, seems nostalgic. Molly Gloss’ book Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek or the novels of Earl Emerson. At worst the book is just faded shtick. Ryan Boudinot’s list in The Stranger would be a way to produce work in this route. Timothy Egan’s Novel, The Winemaker’s Daughter would be an example.

Work that engages the regional model, then, would seem to be creating a second model of the region in the terms of the work. The work creates a self-contained conception of the region. Books such as Sometimes a Great Notion or Housekeeping create then their own models of the region and at the same time alter the region’s conceptual model.

4) How to define this model?

Having grown up in the Northwest, I’m aware of this model in some fundamental ways and am unsure if I can fully separate the regional from a world view. However, I also suspect that there are two ways of charting this model.

1) To collect repeated myths and stories of the region in a kind of Greek Myths style book. This would, though, begin to find the archetypical regional stories.

2) To identify underlying regional energies. This seems similar to the idea that new vocabularies are needed to fully understand our region. A new vocabulary seems like a new lens. In a similar vein, though, I think understanding various energies may provide hierarchies that would lend themselves to attaching these new vocabularies.

Some possible energy:

(Urban/surban/rural) / Wilderness. This seems in part what Diana George is working in regard to the Abject Pastoral. However, I wonder if there isn’t another layer to this interesting line of inquiry… and that is how the wilderness manifests itself in the west. I’m specifically thinking of this as a nonsocial space, as an unknown space, where our conceptual models do not apply. Maybe this is already part of the argument?

Romantic / Naturalistic. On Sacred Ground by Nicholas O’Connell. This books the history of Northwest writing through the competing visions of naturalistic writers and romantic writers. The naturalistic writers attempt to verify and capture their subject as accurately as possible. The romantic writers attempt to impose an internal, personal vision on the landscape. Often these two competing impulses overlap in the same writer. For instance, O’Connell quotes Vancouver, “The serenity of the climate, the innumerable pleasing landscapes, and the abundant fertility that unassisted nature puts forth, require only to be enriched by the industry of man, with village, mansions, cottages, and other buildings, to render it the most lovely country that can be imagined.” Vancouver both sees the land as it is and as it could be, the two impulses for him are inseparable.

Myth / allegory. I realized a while ago that I don’t really understand myth because I can only make sense of a myth by making it an allegory, by assigning values to the various figures in a myth and then deciphering it. I think this is perhaps why I can’t make sense of West Coats Indian stories. Even aware of my deficiency, I still can’t make sense of this thing. These seem like two at odds ways of seeing the region.

Local / federal (global).

Center / Boundary. The northwest, too, has been defined either as an edge, a margin, of Canada, the United States, the Pacific and it is also a place where people are passing through. In a conversation I was having about Seattle in the mid-1990s, someone called Seattle a pit-stop on the way to somewhere else. Narratives that seemed related to this are Boeing, Microsoft, UPS, and Starbucks — business that have to do with passing through/beyond boundaries. The Northwest is not a center. The mouth of the Columbia River is the entrance to the Columbia, a port on the Pacific, and not a place by itself.

Anyway this is what I’m thinking about in regard to this topic now. I wonder if this ends would eventually arrive at enough generalization that they could be applied to most regions. And then to create a virtual model of a region, you’d just a configuration file?

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