Saturday, April 24, 2010

Remembering The New Northwest: The Perplexed Housekeeper

May 5 of this year will be the 139th Anniversary of the first edition of The New Northwest—the weekly suffragist and reform-oriented newspaper edited out of Portland, Oregon, for 16 years (1871-1887) by former teacher and dressmaker Abigail Scott Duniway. Over that time and under the motto "Free Speech, Free Press, Free People," The New Northwest published all sorts of news, editorials, advertisements, and entertainment, most of which was related in one way or another to the fight for national and international women's suffrage. Via that four-page weekly, Duniway (pictured here) became the region's most prominent voice advocating for women's rights, and so, when Susan B. Anthony came to the area in 1871, it was Duniway who played host and travel companion. And in 1912, when Oregon became the 7th state in the U.S. to pass a women's suffrage amendment, she was the first woman to register to vote in Multnomah County.

While it's not surprising to learn that The New Northwest published poetry, it is surprising to see just how prominent a place poetry occupied in the paper, as nearly every single issue had a poem or two prominently displayed on the front or back pages. In fact, it is the growing opinion of the Poetry & Popular Culture Office that Duniway's paper should occupy a significant place in the literary, as well as the political, history of the Pacific Northwest, as it provided a regular venue for home-grown or locally-sourced poetic talents—some overtly political, some made political by virtue of their situation in the paper—and published them alongside nationally-known writers like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Quaker poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier, and Bret Harte, thus making early Portland into a crossroads of poetic activity and establishing the Rose City as the region's poetic, if not legislative, center. Long before Woody Guthrie came to the Columbia River basin to write songs promoting the Grand Coulee and Bonneville dams, and long before folks like Theodore Roethke, William Stafford, David Wagoner, and Richard Hugo moved here to teach in university-based creative writing M.F.A. programs, Duniway and The New Northwest provided a vehicle for the region's poets to connect and make their work public.

As of this posting, though—despite the paper's importance to the history and culture of the region, and despite the financial backing that's got to be there in the locally-head- quartered pockets of Nike, Adidas, and Columbia Sportswear (employees, corporations, and foundations alike)—The New Northwest does not yet exist in an easily accessible, searchable, digitalized form. Instead, it's on these wacky, poor-quality, old-school strips of plastic that the librarian calls "microfilm," and so it's difficult and frustrating to access and at times very difficult to read. The filmic reproductions are sooooooooo bad that they won't even print out with much legibility.

These challenges have not prevented six intrepid undergraduate students in a Poetry of the Pacific Northwest course being offered at Willamette University this semester from braving the archive, however. (This is the same group of students who, earlier in the semester, attended the Fisher Poets Gathering in Astoria, Oregon.) Kali Boehle-Silva, Isabella Guida, John McKenzie, Gunnar Paulsen, Jonathan Shivers, and Sarah Spring have been unearthing this poetry, some of which will be showcased here over the next couple of weeks. We begin with this tasty treat from week five (June 2, 1871) of The New Northwest (note the pun on "rights" in line two and the break in meter in the poem's penultimate line):

The Perplexed Housekeeper
by Mrs. F. D. Gage

I wish I had a dozen pair
Of hands this very minute;
I’d soon put all these things to rights—
The very deuce is in it.

Here’s a big washing to be done,
One pair of hands to do it—
Sheets, shirts and stockings, coats and pants—
How will I e'er get through it?

Dinner to get for six or more,
No loaf left o’er from Sunday,
And baby cross as he can live—
He’s always so on Monday.

And there’s the cream, ‘tis getting sour,
And must forthwith be churning,
And here’s Bob wants a button on—
Which way shall I be turning?

“Tis time the meat was in the pot,
The bread was worked for baking,
The clothes were taken from the boil—
Oh dear! the baby’s waking!

Oh dear! if P—— comes home,
And finds things in this bother,
He’ll just begin and tell me all
About his tidy mother.

How nice her kitchen used to be,
Her dinner always ready
Exactly when the dinner bell rung—
Hush, hush, dear little Freddy,

And then will come some hasty word,
Right out before I’m thinking—
They say that hasty words from wives
Set sober men to drinking.

Now isn’t that a great idea,
That men should take to sinning,
Because a weary, half-sick wife
Can’t always smile so winning?

When I was young I used to earn
My living without trouble;
Had clothes and pocket money too,
And hours of leisure double.

I never dreamed of such a fate,
When I, a lass! was courted—
Wife, mother, nurse, seamstress, cook, housekeeper, chambermaid, laundress, dairywoman and scrub generally doing the work of six.
For the sake of being supported.