[Portland] is but a little place; but some of its 21,000 or 22,000 inhabitants raise claims to greatness and even supremacy that make it difficult to suppress a smile.
-Wallis Nash, 1877
Time has changed nothing, eh?
I discovered William G. Robbins' great writing when I bumped into "This Land — Oregon
" on the Oregon Historical Society's website sometime in 2005. The writing was evocative and clear, the content reflected an understanding of history that reached far beyond dead white Europeans (snoozeville), and I was learning intriguing details I never knew about my home state. Life had given me a delicious taste of Oregon history pie, Robbins style, which made me hungry for more. The next time I found myself at the Oregon Historical Society store, I purchased this book and another social history of Oregon.
Robbins is Professor Emeritus of History at Oregon State University. He gives what I think to be a very fair, even-handed telling of Oregon's chronology. The early years are a little slow going, but historians know so little about pre-European contact since those points of contact resulted in such destruction of population. Naturally, many of the pre-European stories are lost to time.
As time progresses though, he raises points ignored by most treatments of local history. He includes interesting quotes from contemporary sources, and refutes popular notions of certain periods of time.
Case in point: the decline of the timber industry in Portland. Robbins dedicates several pages throughout the book to exploring Oregon's timber story through the years. When I read a short-sighted article this week in the Portland Business Journal
blaming the spotted owl for singularly destroying the state's livelihood, I was able to use a short quote from this book in a letter to the editor to succinctly explain why they were clearly buying into a myth that was simply untrue. (While OHS Press published books like these specifically to influence public discourse, it is sad to note that budget cuts led them to cease all book projects for the foreseeable future.)
Robbins also seems to me to have the heart of a poet. He closes the book with a passage by Oregon author Ken Berry, vividly describing standing on the Oregon coast.With the moon rising over my shoulder and the sun setting before me, I stilled my mind and tried to feel only the truths of this place—the eternal ones of tide and wind and sun and moon, the forest behind me, the sea before.
-Don Berry, mid-1980s
Like this passage, Robbins clearly has an intimate knowledge and love for his state. His informed content and well-chosen language stirs the love of Oregon in me as well.