Does a 1941 description of Seattle still ring true?

“Nothing can ever take away from Seattle the dramatic splendor of its natural setting, and it is perhaps the challenge of this setting which makes one wish for Seattle a destiny somehow comparable in greatness to the landscape in which it lies.”

This stinging passage comes from the chapter on Seattle in Farthest Reach: Washington and Oregon. That’s the travel narrative-cum-social-critique by Nancy Wilson Ross published way back in 1941. Ross was a Washington State native and novelist better known for her later books on Eastern religions. She died in 1986 at age 84.

Ross portrayed the Seattle of 1941 as a social-climbing, overreaching town full of provincial phonies with unsophisticated tastes and unjustified prides, a city notable mainly because of beautiful surroundings. The fact that Farthest Reach was issued by the fancy New York publishing house of Alfred A. Knopf, insuring a national audience, likely inflamed the wounds.

For me, New To Seattle, the question is how much of Ross’s pointed 17-page description of Seattle rings true today, more than seven decades later. I’d say some, but hardly all.

Clearly, the barbs she tossed drew Seattle blood. “I am greatly annoyed at those who make fun of their city,” Glenn Hughes, a professor at the University of Washington who ran its drama school, told a luncheon audience as recounted at unusual length the next day in The Seattle Times. “I speak of a book, ‘Farthest Reach’ … If you rest the case of the city and the state on the beauty of Mount Rainier alone, then you immediately ask what the half a million people are doing here. If that is all we have to offer the world–Mount Rainier–then we have not much to speak of in the way of civilization. The Japanese have worshiped Mount Fuji for years and it has not brought them a very high type of civilization.”

It should be noted that Hughes was speaking six months after Pearl Harbor, during World War II. It also should be noted that the Times article contained no rebuttal from Ross, whose chapter at one point praised the now-deceased-in-print Seattle Post-Intelligencer for its arts coverage while–sub silentio–omitting any mention of The Times. (I’ll get back below to this point.) Finally, it should be noted that notwithstanding Hughes’ statement, Ross did not reside in Seattle proper but for some years had lived a ferry ride away on the other side of Puget Sound along the Hood Canal 20 or so miles west of the city.

The core of Ross’s criticism was her perception that Seattle was largely a hick town when it came to culture and the arts (quite likely the basis for the anger of Professor Hughes, who regularly staged sold-out theatrical performances). She really laid it out, lamenting the absence of an independent art museum coupled with the presence of “people whose success at contract bridge or real estate does not necessarily entitle them to be judges of painting.” Ross wrote that Indian art was especially disrespected and given short shrift.

As for the music scene, she said the Seattle Symphony was well supported but “second-rate.” Seattle, she declared, was “the greatest ‘sucker town’ in America, and takes more ‘series’ of concerts by dancers and singers than any other place.”

In my judgment, still on the money are her observations about what I have written is a collective inferiority complex, especially if anything bad is said.  “Sometimes if the visitor is articulate, or famous enough to be asked his opinion, he speaks out about his disappointment, and Seattle is peculiarly sensitive to such criticisms.” Ross wrote. “Sometimes this insistence that all visitors give only praise, leads one to wonder if Seattle is not rather like a human being who has failed to fulfill his potential destiny–abnormally afraid of any intimations of the truth.”

Ross cited several examples. Muriel Draper, a well-known New York socialite and travel writer of the era, “told Seattle that she had come three thousand miles to see some authentic bit of Americanism and she saw only a synthetic culture, a syndicated ghost of New York.” Asked about the way Seattle was laid out, the famous urban historian Lewis Mumford opined, in Ross’s summary, “it was too bad it couldn’t be torn down and a fresh start made.” Given that Seattle had leveled part of its downtown area, Ross wrote that citizens “found this criticism galling.”

In what may be a prescient early reference to the characteristic known now as the Seattle Freeze, Ross wrote, “The Scandinavian element is so large that one is told it accounts for Seattle’s famous ‘cold’ audiences.”

Nor was Ross especially impressed with the Pike Place Market. “Here are all sorts of special little shops where you can get Chinese rice, begonias, old copies of Scientific American, phonograph records from Siam, or Mount Rainier painted on velvet,” she wrote. “Here also, among the Seattle matrons with their neat paper shopping bags, float aimless tide-borne fragments of humanity, men from flophouses and dumps, thin men in bizarre garments.”

I have to think the swells in Seattle really hit the roof at Ross’s description of the society scene. Without specifically identifying anyone, Ross wrote about the competition–mainly by women–to get mentioned in the newspapers and the “great deal of minor hysteria attendant on names omitted, gowns overlooked, and so on.” She chalked it all up to “chatty snobbishness.”

Ross was also critical of an unnamed Seattle newspaper–undoubtedly The Times–for ginning up vapid society copy, as well as its unnamed society columnist–undoubtedly Virginia Boren, the pen name (fashioned from two streets near the paper) of Marie Newberger, the paper’s society editor for 10 years until 1942. Again without specifying the publication, Ross gave an example of what she called a “typical” society-page headline: “Spiritual Solemnity and Glamour Blended in Church Ceremony.” Thanks to the magic of a Seattle Public Library borrower card and an online database, I can confirm these very words actually appeared over a Virginia Boren-bylined wedding notice The Times published Sunday, November 3, 1940 (on page 30 if you really want to take a look).

In addition, Ross related some unpleasant incidents in Seattle history. One zinger: Civic leaders got funding for a library from Andrew Carnegie after writing him, “Seattle’s population all white and all readers.”  (For my take on Seattle’s highly segregated past, click here.) And despite an ongoing boom due partly to looming war (the book was published just 42 days before Pearl Harbor), “There are still jobless men on the Skidroad, and Seattle’s shanty town along the railroad tracks is second to none in America for picturesque despair.”

Nevertheless, Ross held out the prospect that things could change for the better. “It is easy to criticize Seattle because one’s heart is a little sore at the promise this city had–and has–and the picture it makes today,” she wrote. “And one can criticize Seattle full-heartedly because it is not yet crystallized, has still a chance, and this can take it! … With some community understanding and support Seattle could make a truly indigenous and original contribution to American culture. The question as to whether it will or not is still an open one.”

No longer, I would say. When it come to culture–and a lot of other areas, too–Seattle certainly has made a positive mark. And the scenery is still nice, too.

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Does a 1941 description of Seattle still ring true? — 3 Comments

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