Jonathan Raban's lonely journeys

The eccentric West through the eyes of Seattle's British expat author is a landscape of strange customs, forlorn towns, and back roads. His mantra: "To be alone is to be safe."

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Jonathan Raban's new collection of essays.

The eccentric West through the eyes of Seattle's British expat author is a landscape of strange customs, forlorn towns, and back roads. His mantra: "To be alone is to be safe."

Jonathan Raban is a gifted writer. Those gifts include his erudition, his powers of description, the links his mind makes between literature and the landscape. An essential ingredient for the travel writer is also a misfit status, maintaining discomfort that allows him to look fresh at his surroundings, to be a stranger in a strange land. It gives his work edge, and distance.

This is especially true when Raban writes about his adopted home, Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. Even though he came here by choice, Raban writes about the region from the standpoint of the solitary traveler nosing around the new neighborhood. In the lead essay in his new collection of works, Driving Home: An American Journey (Pantheon, $29.95), Raban writes:

More than any other place I've ever lived, it felt all right for me to be a stranger here. I was happy in the Northwest not because I felt at home but because no one else much seemed to be entirely at home either.

As an "American journey," the book is a bit of a bumpy ride, drawn from articles for publications ranging from Vogue and Playboy to The New York Review of Books and The Guardian. It is not simply a Northwest book, though the region has a strong profile in the collection. The pieces cover writing, sailing, art, Mark Twain's Mississippi, Philip Larkin's poetry, life among Tea Partiers, and the misadventures of Shackleton. It's hard to make a wholeness out of such a patchwork, as each assignment is for a specific audience. But Raban's voice is smoky and strong, his accent distinct, his eye sharp. If there is not always a unity of purpose, perspective or subject matter, there is one of voice.

On the subject of the Northwest, Driving Home is all over the map. Raban loves the region, but is alien in it. Many of the pieces in this collection make reference to his first arrival in Seattle in 1990, discovering it to be one of the only cities in the world where people move to be closer to nature, and of being "a newcomer in a city of newcomers." That arrival is repeated so many times in Driving Home's essays that it comes to feels like Raban is stuck in Bill Murray's perpetual Ground Hog Day loop, doomed to eternal repetition of a moment. 

Once landed, Raban explores his new home. He was a world traveler before he got here, a voracious reader, a man with a driven curiosity of place. I remember back in 2001 I was planning to attend the WTO meeting in Qatar and looking for a good book on that country. I was assured that the best piece for westerners on the country was still Raban's book Arabia, written in the late '70s. He's a stranger who often gets the goods.

And I always find Raban's descriptions fresh, avoiding classic cliches about the region. Where Northwesterners see nature writ large, Raban sees the manufactured landscapes of the Columbia Plateau. Where we see a mildewy old logging town, Raban sees nobility in the loggers who once swung Paul Bunyan's axe. Where our history tells us that Captain George Vancouver came to map an untouched county, Raban reminds us of the culture clash on board his ship Discovery, between those, like Vancouver, who were horrified at the bleak wilderness (like Desolation Sound), and the places where budding shipboard Romantics experienced awe and saw grandeur. That's an aesthetic generation gap you never learned about in history class.

Raban's determination to cut against Northwest type is sometimes amusing, though also often contradictory. He even finds himself attracted (at one point) to the "gimcrack townships...built by people whose skill as architects and carpenters are not much better than my own." (That's you, Pomeroy.) In an essay on steelheading for Esquire, "Last Call of the Wild," Raban falls in love with Concrete, Washington:

In Concrete, people knew how to relate to nature: they chopped it down, shot it, trapped it, killed it, ate it. I liked Concrete a lot. It was a welcome escape from the goody-goody atmosphere of Seattle.

Oddly, for a writer who loves to find the literary link wherever he goes, there's no mention of Concrete's being Tobias Wolff's hometown and subject matter. But determined to fit in, Raban makes himself home at a local establishment, where "I dined on chicken fried steak, lit up a Swisher-Sweet, and called for a Christian Brother's brandy..." Yes, just one of the boys in Concrete: the only thing lacking is a monocle and top hat.

For all Raban's attempts to be at a remove, he does sometimes fall into the classically comic role of Englishman on the plains. The frontier is full of wonderful incongruities — think of Oscar Wilde riding a bucket into a mine shaft in Leadville, Colorado. Raban's efforts to explain Western patois to the readers of the Sunday Independent are as amusing as a tenderfoot ordering milk in a saloon: "To call someone 'pardner' is to make the significant announcement that you are on close tutoyer terms...." It's not only the Indians who get to laugh at white anthropology.

Raban at times embodies the determined effort to civilize a place even while professing to love its roughness. One way Raban does this is by bringing great literature to his perspective. When he writes about Seattle, he is not concerned with what Murray Morgan, or Emmett Watson, or Betty MacDonald or Tim Egan or David Guterson have said about it. He leads with a brief impression of Henry James who passed through once. Forget Barry Lopez or Sherman Alexie: perspective is provided by Dickens and Trollope, who often are Raban's traveling companions. In his piece "Seagoing," he tells us who sits on the bookshelf of his sailboat: its your senior literature list.

Raban also embodies the region's tensions between urban and rural. Concrete is not a place to encounter a fellow admirer of Trollope, but is a delightful escape. Raban finds discomfort in Seattle, and has fun pounding the pinata of "Metronaturals" and the smugness of a provincial, bourgeois town whose chief landmark, the Space Needle, he writes, is akin to a "black-velvet portrait of Jesus." While the town makes a great base camp (more than that, as Raban has helped to raise a Seattle-born daughter here), it still lacks the kind of intellectual engagement of London, the entertaining parties, the social gatherings of brilliant literary minds. One feels Raban's sense of unspoken kinship with a British expat of an earlier generation, Sir Thomas Beecham, who lamented, somewhat sympathetically, Seattle's looming reputation as an "aesthetic dustbin."

This is understandable. While newcomers dominate, there is also a kind of inward, inbred impenetrableness of a neighborhood town of isolates who eschew public life, organize at the community level, and maintain a Western sense that an intellectual life, like a religious one, should be kept somewhat private. Seattle is changing in this regard, but still its egalitarian roots look somewhat askance at rich guys and know-it-alls pontificating outside of Town Hall.

Still, Raban is doing yeoman's work attempting to drag the Pacific Northwest into a global context, in terms of history, literature, economics, even travel. This is partly explained by the fact that in most of these essays (save a few for the Seattle Times), Raban's audience is in New York, London, Boston, folks who don't know us from Adam. So what might seem fresh and exotic for the readers of Granta is less so for Northwest readers.

The most remarkable thing about Raban's talent is his eye. He is masterful at describing imagery, and looking into pictures for their meaning. When Raban writes about painters like Albert Beirstadt, or the photographs of Dorothea Lange, he brings their work to life and critiques them with tremendous insight. Writing about Lange's classic portrait called "Migrant Mother" in the essay "American Pastoral," Raban observes: "It's not the woman's plight one sees first so much as her arresting handsomeness: her prominent rather patrician nose; her full lips, firmly set; the long and slender fingers of her right hand; the enigmatic depth of feeling in her eyes."

He contrasts the power of the work, a Mona Lisa of the Great Depression, with the impact on its subject who was not at all happy to become a symbol of poverty, and the kind of artistic ruthlessness of a photographer like Lange who shoots and edits to make a statement. He helps us to notice things right under our noses.

In another chapter, "White Warfare," he describes a photograph taken by Frank Hurley, photographer with Shackleton's miserable Antarctic expedition:

The harnessed men have become sled dogs; their animal exertions vivid in the blurring of their legs and arms, and in the straining diagonal angle of each man's body to the ground. But the one-ton lifeboat remains in obdurate, immobile sharp focus. Here Hurley has overexposed the snow and sky, so that the puny humans are laboring against a horizonless white abstraction, like an empty page.

Raban is at his most readable when he is writing about the sea. One of my favorite Raban books is Passage to Juneau, and while not generally a fan of the adventure genre — mountaineers and 'round-the-world soloists are not my thing — I have read enough to think this is where Raban excels. He is clearly in his element on the water, an avid sailor and writer cocooned in his subject. In the chapter "Seagoing," an essay for Outside written as he prepared for the Juneau trip of his book, Raban writes, "Out on the open sea, with a breaking swell and the wind a notch too high for comfort, you are the loneliest fool in the world." Raban goes on to note how the seagoing experience translates to people of an island nation:

To be alone is to be safe. It's no coincidence that those two most English of attitudes, being 'standoffish' and 'keeping aloof,' are nautical terms that have long since passed into the general currency of the language.

Sailing becomes a kind of metaphor for the writer's life, for life itself, as Raban points out that we're all in thin shells tossing on the sea of time. He's embraced that loneliness in his work, turned it into an asset for his observer's status, used it to create narrative tension as he sails, rafts, wades, and drives through American waters yearning for a kind of human connection, yet also "keeping aloof" because too much engagement can drown you, or at least swamp the creative dinghy.

His semi-loner status frees Raban to play something other than cheerleader, and he can play tough with received regional wisdom. Raban has staked out doing battle with the legacy of John Muir. While Raban can sometimes seem pretentious, he is never precious, and worship at the church of Muir and Nature bugs the hell out of him, and is perhaps why he has sympathy for the lads of Concrete.

Raban and I have discussed this subject over a beer, and he explains his position well in his chapter "The Curse of the Sublime," a Playboy essay from 2008, calling Muir "the sacred godfather of the conservation movement," and a man who brought the "cult" of the sublime back to life, "stamping it with his own brand of evangelical fervor."

The secular religion of Nature-worship offends Raban, who is not religious himself. He doesn't think an environmental ethic that pushes man out of the picture is healthy. The "virgin" landscape we see and try to preserve is often anything but, already transformed by man even from prehistoric times (what happened to the megafauna? Who created those oak prairies?). He is rightly suspicious of "the undercurrent of class and racial elitism that runs through Muir's writings." As scholars like Matthew Klingle have pointed out, there were outdoor boosters in the 19th and early 20th century Northwest who saw wilderness recreation as reserved for well-to-do white Anglo-Saxon health nuts. 

Muir himself rather thought that the native Americans of Yosemite did nothing to enhance the experience of Nature. This translates today into groups that are still elitist when it comes to the preservation of public lands. "You can't," writes Raban, "move around the rural West without bumping into the stereotype of the environmentalist as someone who is messianic, impervious to argument, insufferably superior in manners, with a lofty disregard for the lives, jobs, and communities of ordinary people."

I detect not a little snobbery in the term "ordinary people," as if the working class crofters of the resource economy are somehow normal, and the rest of us are not. Still, there is a little truth here: Some greens are like Christian fundamentalists reading from the text of Muir and evangelizing from their own experiences of the sublime.

Still, while Raban is well-read in Muir, the proto-green was part of his times and a continuum. Muir's father was a conservative Christian fundamentalist; Muir rebelled but took some of the paternal character with him. If one is going to condemn the sublime, one would have to start well before Muir, and also account for the cultural influences of his elders, preachers like Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. It would be interesting to read Raban going deeper on indigenous attitudes about Nature, where the sacred and practical are well-married.

The religious language Muir sometimes used was calculated to appeal to an American population that got much of its news and inspiration from the pulpit. Muir was often translating experience and ideas in a way people could hear. It is unfair to paint Muir as mainly a cult-founder, because he was also a man of science, who made major contributions (in glaciology for example). He also was engaged in the politics of his times in very practical ways, often as a kind of propagandist for things (nature, mountains, ecosystems) that were themselves voiceless. It was a response to the dominant religion of Progress at any cost — a destructive and futile industrial faith that created a world in which the giant sequoia groves of California were, literally, turned into matchsticks. Muir, who worked in a sawmill, had been a part of the ravaging he deplored.

Raban wants to remove from environmental debates "the outworn, undemocratic assumptions that covertly underpin our long, unthinking, sentimental attachment to the sublime." But this has already been largely accomplished, not always to the good. Yes, religious arguments won't win the day, nor have they. Even our National Parks are pragmatic playpens run for tourists and wildlife researchers. Other public lands are dedicated to timber cutting, drilling, grazing, mining and other "wise uses."

If environmentalism today is a religion, it is the one that embraces science on global warming, habitat recovery, species protection, pollution standards, the examination of cause-and-effect. That the belief in sublime Nature is the problem misreads the times: The fundamentalism of the free market and the anti-science bias of the Bible-beaters pose the biggest threat not just to nature but to the people who make their livelihoods from it. It wasn't greens who wiped out the economies of the timber towns. Don't blame a few pagan tree-sitters.

If Muir was guilty of elitism, what about the current crop of Republican candidates who pose as commoners, yet would turn the nation's stewardship of radioactive waste over to competing states and private companies that can't think beyond the next quarterly profit statement let alone the next 30,000 years? What about the undemocratic assumptions of those who believe public lands are for private gain? Muir has faded to become an invisible spirit, but greens today are about growing bigger cities (anathema to Muir), building mass transit, making land swaps, buying preservation rights and setting up private land trusts, promoting local foods, farming, and fishing. While many keep the sublime in their hearts, they do very pragmatic work in the world.

Funnily enough, Raban and Muir are a bit alike: travelers, explorers, loners, writers who draw on personal impressions and experience. If Raban is sailing the Salish Sea, Muir is riding a tree in a storm or hopping crevasses in Alaska. Both are from Britain, an Englishman and a Scotsman. Both are deeply attached to their adopted homes in the West, both have a broader perspective from travel and deep thought. No wonder they disagree.

Driving Home isn't just a good read, it's a bunch of good reads. It's a book of important, smart work from a terrific writer who will both blow you away, and make you want to argue with him. Well done, stranger.

Disclosure: I know Jonathan Raban, I have run his stories (when I edited Seattle Weekly), and he kindly blurbed my book Pugetopolis.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.