Sunday, May 9, 2010

Remembering The New Northwest, Part III: Samuel L. Simpson's "The Beautiful Willamette"

Poor Samuel Leonidas Simpson (1845-1899). He was six months old when his family moved from Missouri to the Willamette Valley via the Oregon Trail. His mother reportedly taught him the alphabet by drawing letters in the fireplace ashes. Despite having minimal schooling, he earned a law degree from Willamette University in 1867 and was admitted to the Oregon Bar, but—according to the Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest—his law practice failed and he took to newspapers, poetry, and drink; one biographer called him "the most drunken poet, and the most poetical drunkard that ever made the Muses smile or weep." In 1868, a year after completing his law degree, he published "The Beautiful Willamette" in the State Rights Democrat of Albany, Oregon. Forty years later, the Democrat would call that verse "the finest poem ever written in this state."

The "sweet singer of Oregon's beauty" hasn't fared so well in more recent accounts, however, as striving Oregon poets, hot on the trail of modernist literary credibility in the early 20th century, made Simpson a sort of whipping boy for what they thought the region's earlier poetry lacked. James Stevens and H.L. Davis wrote off 19th-century Oregon poetry en toto as nothing but an "avalanche of tripe"; three-quarters of a century later, the University of Washington's John Findlay has pretty much agreed, using Simpson's "The Beautiful Willamette" as the quintessentially bad starting point for the region's literary history. From that beginning, Findlay argues, Pacific Northwest poetry had nowhere to go but up, and, in his estimation, it's done nothing but improve ever since. (See Findlay's essay "Something in the Soil: Literature and Regional Identity in the 20th-Century Pacific Northwest" in the Fall 2006 issue of the Pacific Northwest Quarterly.) We suppose, though, that "Beautiful Willamette" fans don't really have that much to complain about. Unlike other popular poets, at least Simpson made it onto the map, even if his position there is only to signify the dark ages of Oregonian verse that are necessary in the staging of a modernist Renaissance .

Here—before we move on to the 1871 convergence of Simpson's verse and Abigail Scott Duniway's poetry-lovin' suffragist newspaper The New Northwest—is "The Beautiful Willamette":

The Beautiful Willamette

From the Cascades’ frozen gorges,
Leaping like a child at play,
Winding, widening through the valley,
Bright Willamette glides away;
Onward ever,
Lovely river,
Softly calling to the sea;
Time that scars us,
Maims and mars us,
Leaves no track or trench on thee.

Spring’s green witchery is weaving
Braid and border for thy side;
Grace forever haunts thy journey,
Beauty dimples on thy tide;
Through the purple gates of morning
Now thy roseate ripples dance,
Golden, then, when day's departing
On thy waters trails his lance.
Waltzing, flashing,
Tinkling, splashing,
Limpid, volatile, and free—
Always hurried
To be buried
In the bitter, moon-mad sea.

In thy crystal deeps, inverted
Swings a picture of the sky,
Like those wavering hopes of Aidenn,
Dimly in our dreams that lie;
Clouded often, drowned in turmoil,
Faint and lovely, far away—
Wreathing sunshine on the morrow,
Breathing fragrance round to-day.
Love would wander
Here and ponder.
Hither poetry would dream;
Life’s old questions,
Sad suggestions,
"Whence and whither?" throng thy stream.

On the roaring wastes of ocean
Soon thy scattered waves shall toss;
‘Mid the surge’s rhythmic thunder
Shall thy silver tongues be lost.
Oh! Thy glimmering rush of gladness
Mocks this turbid life of mine!
Racing to the wild Forever
Down the sloping paths of Time!
Onward ever,
Lovely river,
Softly calling to the sea;
Time that scars us,
Maims and mars us,
Leaves no track or trench on thee.

So, okay, the description of the Willamette river as "Waltzing, flashing, / Tinkling, splashing, / Limpid, volatile, and free" didn't exactly make the P&PC interns jump for joy when they read it for the first time either. But then they thought a bit more about what it might have meant for readers who encountered it in the pages of The New Northwest on Friday, July 14, 1871. Simpson wasn't a total stranger to The New Northwest; in fact, despite his reputation as a drinker (Duniway's paper was part of the temperance as well as women's suffragist movement), another poem of his, "The Fate of Mississip'," had appeared in the paper just a few weeks before.

For Findlay, "The Beautiful Willamette" was popular because it represents a 19th-century aesthetic that valued poetry for being "good thoughts happily expressed in faultless rhyme and meter." But we here at P&PC can't shake the language in Simpson's first stanza about Time which "scars us, / maims and mars us." Nor can we ignore the fact that the speaker's dreams, in stanza three, are "drowned in turmoil." Ditto "turbid life of mine" in stanza four. Like, how does all that add up to a happy expression of the human condition? Well, it's doesn't, and the speaker of "The Beautiful Willamette" envies the river because (supposedly) the river isn't subject to the scars, maims, and mars of Time's passing as human beings are. For critics like Findlay, Simpson's poem may appear to be a naively waltzing, tinkling, splashing, and limpid set piece of genteel America, but for us, the poem's scars, maims, mars, turmoil and turbidity loom large. We think the tinkling, splashing waters of "The Beautiful Willamette" run much, much deeper than Findlay would like to think.

As the poem's second stanza indicates, those waters also run "free"—a major keyword for The New Northwest and its readers. Could the "freedom" from the scars, maims, and mars of Time in "The Beautiful Willamette" thus be read as a specific type of freedom—the freedom for women to vote, own property, and hold public office? In other words, do the poem's drowned dreams and turbid life read as a conversation about the fight for women's rights?

We believe so—and a look at the issue of The New Northwest in which "The Beautiful Willamette" appeared in fact backs us up. In that very same issue of Duniway's 4-page paper, Frances H. McDougal has published a re-written version of the song "America" that she has re-titled "Song of Freedom: Written for the Fourth of July, 1871." That the poem equates "freedom" in the U.S. with the universal right to vote is clear. Here is McDougal's poem

Freedom, to thee we sing;
Then let our glad notes ring
O’er land and sea,
Till all our Yankee boys
Leave their rude sport and noise,
To learn the higher joys
Of liberty.

Freedom is ours of right,
Her honor and her might
To us belong.
In all this lovely land
The Mind and Working Hand
Shall swell with triumph grand
Our yearly song.

Freedom to live and grow,
Freedom to think and know,
Our Fathers won:
Then let us claim their dower
By manhood’s noblest power,
And build the loftiest tower
Beneath the sun,

Sacred to Human Right,
The honor and thy might,
Majestic Man!—
Whence our great light shall flow
And set the world aglow
With truth it yet must know
By grace or ban

Out from the present spring
Eagles of bolder wing;
All freedom human
That through the ages pined,
At length restored, refined,
Endowed with heart and mind,
Is crowned by woman.

So shall each rolling year
Bring light more fine and clear,
With nobler law.
Quick, with true human fire,
O, may our souls aspire,
Forever high and higher!—

When we read "The Beautiful Willamette" next to "Song of Freedom" today, the two poems can't but speak to each other, as the swelling, growing, flowing, rolling current of McDougal's freedom—which flows "out from the present spring"—finds an appropriate metaphor in the very river that Simpson writes about, and as the "freedom" that Simpson mentions in turn finds its specific referent in the struggle for women's rights. Strike that last part. Simpson's "freedom" doesn't exactly find its specific referent in the women's movement; rather, it is given a specific referent by editor Duniway, who rearticulates the popular verse of Oregon's "sweet singer" to the cause of women's suffrage. That is, while "The Beautiful Willamette" didn't necessarily start out its circulation history as a suffragist poem, by 1871 it had in fact become one.

So, in the end, the problems with Findlay's approach to Simpson are several. In pre- suming that all 19th- century "genteel" poetry fits into a single aesthetic category (lyric poetry with "good thoughts happily expressed"), he misses the actual ability of the poem to signify ambivalently; that is, he only sees that type of poem because he believes that's the only type of poem to see. Furthermore, in isolating that lyric poem from its print and historical contexts, he prevents us from seeing what else "The Beautiful Willamette" might have been. And in dissing "The Beautiful Willamette," Simpson is also pretty much dissing the ways that poetry contributed to progressive social causes like women's suffrage. We here at the P&PC office realize that he—and many other critics like him—needs to oversimplify the popular and the genteel so that the 20th-century "literary" poetry he champions looks better in comparison. But where's the triumph in that?


Capital Taps said...

It appears that Simpson came to the school just before or just after the flood of 1861, which wiped out Champoeg and remains the biggest recorded flood here in the valley. The imagery of scarring and turbidity also likely point to recollections of the catastrophic flooding.

Thanks for a fascinating piece on landscape and the literary imagination!

Mike Chasar said...

Thanks for the additional info, Capital Taps. I love thinking of "The Beautiful Willamette" as ironic!

Capital Taps said...

Forgot to might find it interesting that Duniway was the first school-teacher at the Eola (then called Cincinnati) schoolhouse. If it hasn't been done already, a longer study on the place of the Willamette River in all these writers' imaginations & literary productions would be interesting.

Thinking of Bierstadt (et al), is it better to read the poem as an expression of the sublime than the beautiful? Maybe this captures the ambivalence/ambiguity better.

Capital Taps said...

The Findlay essay was interesting - thanks for pointing it out. And though this goes down a different path than your note, it strikes me that a comparison of Simpson's poem with Carl Hall's paintings (examples here and here) is an interesting way to think of many of Findlay's points. (Personally, though, I think he undervalues the importance of WPA projects in developing the regional identity in art.)

Capital Taps said...

Well, to comment again is probably otiose, but, Houston, we got ourselves a flood!

The Willamette seems to have crested at about 29 feet. The flood of 1861 is estimated to have crested at 47 feet. To gain nearly 20 vertical feet, while also spreading horizontally, several blocks into downtown Salem - that's a hella firehose o' water!

Also, Cafe Unknown has posted an interesting note on the 19th century debate on the spelling and pronunciation of "Willamette," and used Simpson's poem as the lede.