The reviewers said that Jonathan Raban’s new essay collection Driving Home: An American Journey was uneven, that it could have benefited from a bit of pruning. And after grazing my way through it I can assure you they were right. But his essays on the landscape, culture, and history of Seattle are spot-on. That’s the reason I soldiered on to the end of the book, and it was worthwhile.
My father’s family is from Seattle. To be precise, my father’s mother’s family is from Seattle. My grandmother (who is still living out her destiny as queen of the family hive) was born in Seattle a bit more than a century ago, was the first valedictorian of the then-brand-new Garfield High School, grew up in a house on Yesler Way where her brother ran out to catch the streetcar as they heard it clang past. (My father’s father grew up in Spokane, and came to Seattle to court and marry my grandmother. Two Jewish families in Washington at the turn of the century, go figure.)
My grandparents moved to Los Angeles in 1927 (my Spokane-born father was barely out of swaddling clothes when they caught the train south), and most of my remaining family left Washington long ago, mostly for California; but one branch of cousins has stayed on to this day, and others have returned to Seattle in their old age, preferring to live out their last years in a familiar place. Seattle isn’t a place I visited frequently as a child, but it was symbolically important to my family, I did experience it enough times that I have memories of it from each stage of life, early childhood and tweenhood and young adulthood and, more recently, my twenties and thirties and forties. I have only the most rudimentary Seattle geography in my head, but the directions toward mountains and sea and canal are usually clear, and on each adult visit I get better oriented.
After spending longer in the East than in my childhood California, the Seattle landscape always surprises me with its Western brightness and crispness. It’s an evergreen city, with surprisingly traditional houses on secluded hillside streets and unexpected water views everywhere. Portland is like that, too, but Portland is somehow softer, gentler; Seattle is angular, craggy, proud.
I loved the way Raban captured the aspirational cosmopolitanism of Seattle in these essays, not just now, but throughout history. It’s a big city with an unusually large rural catchment area — Raban claims the hinterland of urban Washington State reaches to North Dakota, barely 600 miles from Minneapolis, the next place of note as you travel in an easterly direction. This may sound absurd, but I must point out that my great-grandparents, before moving to Spokane at some point in the nineteen-teens, came from the Pale (from a village in present-day Belarus) first to Fargo, North Dakota, where my grandfather attended elementary school. Someone or something they encountered in Fargo drew them west to Spokane.
Seattle has always had an unusually large proportion of midlife arrivals (Raban points out that early explorers like Vancouver and Puget were among them), disproportionately non-American immigrant in origin, disproportionately Scandinavian (perhaps matching the weather). People who don’t know Seattle are often surprised at how international a place and how self-consciously cosmopolitan a place it was from the very beginning, which is reflected in the architecture and in the healthy civic life and self-consciousness. People call it provincial, but it isn’t, really; it’s merely a frontier city (as Raban, through someone he quotes, observes), with all the positives and negatives that that implies.
Charleston, South Carolina (another city I have some experience with, which is worth its own post) is another bright and cultured, internationally aware urban settlement at the edge of the wilderness, or at least it was 300 years ago. But Charleston faced directly toward both England and more established Caribbean colonies such as Barbados, giving it a cultural connectedness that a place like Seattle never had in its earliest days. Even in 1900, before the Panama Canal, when the typical rail journey from Chicago to Seattle took three or five or seven days, the place must have felt awfully remote. And so it built its own heimishness, which is still much in evidence.
My dozen or so visits to Seattle are seared in my memory. I think of the trip to the Kingdome I took in 1977 to see the Mariners, with my great-uncle and some cousins, and I remember everything I saw and heard and tasted and smelled. I remember taking two elderly relatives (both now deceased) to dinner in Pike Place Market five years ago. I remember visiting my great-aunt’s modest house in View Ridge in the mid-1970s, a traditional-style home that’s common in any city built before 1950 but which in my childhood I thought incredibly romantic. I remember driving around trying to find the location of my grandmother’s childhood home on Yesler Way in early adulthood and realizing it was probably buried under Interstate 5.