Thursday, June 28, 2012

Steward Holbrook's Little Details


Repetition of a Holbrook fiction is a sure indication of lazy scholarship and gullibility.

 In an earlier post I mentioned the little detail that Stewart Holbrook added to his Nancy Boggs story to make the floating bordello believable—it was "painted Nile green and red." Apparently the trick worked in this case, since the exact detail was repeated by writers of popular history ever since. I don't think this detail was invented by Edward C. (Spider) Johnson, the Erickson's Saloon bartender/bouncer from whom Mr. Holbrook got so many of his tales. It has a distinctive Holbrook ring to it.

Let it never be said that I have no respect Mr. Holbrook. He was a fine storyteller, far better than I will ever be. He was also a talented painter in oils. Few people in the Portland art community thought so—his crude primitives seemed to be poking fun, rather than reaching for some ineffable transcendence. A New York gallery gave him a showing, but this was ignored by the Portland elites. 
Holbrook painted under the pseudonym, Mr Otis. This is a work called, "Fido Can Set Up!"


He was a real character who loved pulling the wool over the heads of intellectuals, editors, and anyone else who stood with a gaping jaw listening to his yarns. It was the same joy that a grandfather feels putting one over on his little grandkid. He also loved Portland, and his tales were intended to embellish the past from being plodding, endless grey days ruled by merchants and commerce into something more wonderful. The real tragedy is that by listening to Spider, and making up his own stories, instead of researching the old archives, he missed an even more interesting past. The lines of old newsprint open up a world far more interesting than any of the yarns spun over cheap beer on 3rd and Burnside.
detail from "Call Me Ishmael, He Cried"

Portland's real past could only be told in hundreds of volumes, and is full of acts of imbecilic cruelty, institutional stupidity, prejudice, racism, pompous vanity, acts of self sacrifice, gentle love, and all the other things that make us who we are. I have spent hundreds of hours in several different newspaper archive databases. I am beginning to feel like a visitor from the past. I am also approaching a sort of overload to where I am beginning to question whether it is even possible to bring certain things from the past into the light of the present. The reason books that aim to be "serious" history are usually so terribly boring is that there is so much background that must be established before anything, and I mean anything, can be properly understood. With objects such as bridges, or monuments, the job of writing history isn't that hard; but human beings—it’s a different story, one that is intricately complex and intertwined with a million other stories.

Holbrook was very good at caricatures—in oils, as well as in print. Caricatures are rarely flattering and usually reduce human beings into simplified objects—usually objects of ridicule. This is a skill, it takes talent and hard work, so I am not demeaning Holbrook by pointing this out. It isn't history by any stretch of the imagination. But it has been treated as though it were history by Portlanders ever since the 1930s when Holbrook's writing started appearing in the Oregonian, the Atlantic Monthly, the American Mercury, and other places. 

For instance, in Holbrook's book, the Portland Story, he calls captain John Couch, "a weather-beaten, deep sea skipper who wore thumping great earrings." Anyone who has seen a photograph of John Couch will find this utterly preposterous—a Victorian era gentleman with a starched white collar. It ain't true. It's one of his little details added into the tale because he thought that the real captain wasn't colorful enough. The only references I could find to these earrings were in history books published after 1970 where Holbrook's line was quoted. I think Holbrook would be amused that this little detail has made it into the history books.
Captain John Couch minus earrings

Someday, when I have lots of time, instead of going fishing for trout on the Metolius river, I will go through all Holbrook's stories and make a detailed list of his fictitious little details that have made it into the pages history books.