An Essay from “Seismic” by Dr. Charles Johnson
November 7, 2020
This essay appears in Seismic: Seattle, City of Literature, an anthology edited by Kristen Millares Young, featuring writers from all across the city. Seattle was designated a UNESCO City of Literature in 2017 and has been working as part of the international network since then.
Seismic is a collection that asks writers to consider what the designation means for our city and how literature might be an agent of change. Learn more and download your copy now!
By Dr. Charles Johnson
Seattle has many profiles, but for the last 43 years, the “River City” I’ve known best is the one she shows to artists transplanted from elsewhere, like me. It is a remarkably liberal city—often called a “city of neighborhoods,” residential and industrial, radiating out from a relatively small downtown area—with a distinguished history of supporting progressive causes. Among these are the Seattle General Strike in 1919 (the first official general strike in United States history) and the “Battle of Seattle” in 1999, when as many as 75,000 people converged on the city from around the world to protest the World Trade Organization’s plans for globalization.
In its cultural texture, Seattle has always struck me as being, until a few years ago, a less expensive version of San Francisco. Clearly, these days we’re struggling with soaring housing prices and gentrification that has increased homelessness and forced many black residents in the historically black Central District to move farther south. Like Rome, Seattle was built on seven hills, and both cities are well acquainted with earthquakes. Both once burned to the ground. Both have steep streets, which caused considerable chaos when car-congested Seattle experiences heavy snow, which shuts down schools and makes hills treacherous. And both, after early periods of ethnic conflict (to name a few of Seattle’s stains, the anti-Chinese riots of 1885–86 and the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II), now feature racially diverse populations. Among these are Native Americans, whites who sprang from Scandinavian and German stock, Chinese and Japanese, Senegalese and Eritreans, Hindus and Sikhs, Koreans, Filipinos, Vietnamese and Jews and blacks whose families moved into the territory in the years between Seattle’s 1853 establishment as a settlement and the Klondike gold rush of the 1890s. That boom period turned a timber town into the main transport and supply point for miners in Alaska and the Yukon. According to archaeologists, humans have lived here for thousands of years.
But for any traveler or transplant with a literary sensibility, one of the most striking things about everyday Seattle is its typically West Coast, laid-back attitude and frequently cited civility. The late William Gerberding, a former president of the University of Washington (number ten in the U.S. News & World Report’s Best Global Universities ranking), once called the Northwest “this little civilized corner of the world.” Perhaps that fabled civility, despite the “Seattle Freeze” friendliness that forecloses actual closeness, is the reason so many young, single, iconoclastic, open-minded and driven people do seem to thrive here. Some 63 percent of Seattle’s residents have bachelor’s degrees. It is listed as one of the country’s top three most literate cities (often with Minneapolis and Washington, DC). The IT industry employs many people in health, medicine and aerospace. It is one of America’s least religious cities and most supportive of LGBTQ communities. There are about 100 theatrical production companies here, about two dozen live theater venues, and an opera house notable for its production of works by Richard Wagner. But literary events thrive here as well, among them Humanities Washington’s yearly Bedtime Stories gala, where for twenty years I’ve composed a new story to read with other writers on a festive night in October, the proceeds from the event supporting cultural and educational programs.
Furthermore, there is a pregiven poetry in the extravagant beauty outside our windows: the looming volcanic cone of Mount Rainier and, west of the city, the Olympic Mountains descending into Pacific rain forests; to the east there are desert lands, glacial lakes, 3,000 kinds of native plants, and hundreds of islands in Puget Sound. The presence of so many talented local writers and musicians—grunge, avant-garde jazz, rap, and indie rock are big here—is enough to have made Seattle a magnet for world-class artists like the late painter Jacob Lawrence and playwright August Wilson. But in addition to its art galleries and festivals, among them the yearly Bumbershoot and Bite of Seattle events, the city is synonymous with Starbucks coffee, Microsoft, the Space Needle, Amazon, Boeing aircraft, the Museum of Pop Culture that honors hometown heroes like Jimi Hendrix and, perhaps more than anything else, rain that has become nearly mythic in the popular imagination.
The truth is that Seattle’s climate is mild with wet winters, and until recently cool, dry summers. (Sadly, climate change is everywhere.) The place has a Mediterranean feel. But, yes, starting in October the sky melts steadily until March. Coming to Seattle from the environs of the Chicago area, I learned to love the rain, the misty, meditative mood it creates and moist evening air that sets parts of the geography to gleaming and hazes others in an atmosphere that is a perfect trope for the brooding inner climate.
Dr. Charles Johnson, University of Washington professor emeritus and the author of 25 books, is a novelist, philosopher, essayist, literary scholar, short-story writer, cartoonist and illustrator, an author of children’s literature and a screen- and teleplay writer. A MacArthur fellow, Johnson has received a 2002 American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature, a 1990 National Book Award for his novel Middle Passage, a 1985 Writers Guild award for his PBS teleplay Booker, the 2016 W.E.B. Du Bois Award at the National Black Writers Conference, and many other awards. The Charles Johnson Society at the American Literature Association was founded in 2003. In February 2020, Lifeline Theatre in Chicago debuted its play adaptation of Middle Passage. Dr. Johnson’s most recent publications are The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling and his fourth short story collection, Night Hawks, which was nominated for a 2019 Washington State Book Award.