Any number of nationally noted writers have penned impressions of Alaska, descriptions and reflections aimed at providing insight into what for most Americans is still viewed as an exotic land. Perhaps the best known today is John McPhee's "Coming into the Country" (1976), in which the gifted essayist portrayed a majestic but challenging environment in terms accessible to the casual reader.
There are many more reflections that have gained a national audience. In "Oomingmak: The Expedition to the Musk Ox Island in the Bering Sea" (1967), Peter Matthiessen explored Nunivak Island to watch those remarkable animals making a comeback from near extinction. Jonathan Raban took readers with him on his sail up the inland passage, "Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings" (2000). More recently, Edward Hoagland in "Alaskan Travels" (2012) examined an Alaska in which he found most of the built environment seemed temporary, with only the mountains, forests and watercourses giving the impression of solidity, permanence. That was not inconsistent with Joe McGinnis's earlier impression in "Going to Extremes" (1989) in which the author discovered in Alaska a society of opportunists betting on the main chance, ready to decamp the moment the prospects dimmed.
Alaska's own writers have perhaps provided more profound insight than these occasional sojourners. Sidney Huntington's "Shadows on the Koyukuk: An Alaska Native's Life Along the River" (1993) takes the reader deeper into the Alaska wilderness and into the Athabaskan past than any visiting observer ever could. Margaret Murie's 1957 classic "Two in the Far North" still sensitizes readers to Alaska's natural majesty while providing a woman's perception of Alaska life. Nancy Lord's carefully crafted contemplations in "Fish Camp: Life on an Alaskan Shore" (1967), "Green Alaska: Dreams of the Far Coast" (1999), and more recently "Rock, Water, Wild: An Alaskan Life" (2009) nurture an understanding of the human bond to environment impossible for the random observer to capture fully.
A century ago there weren't so many such depictions readily available, and the one that dominated was by a Bellingham writer who devoted her career to popularizing the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Ella Higginson was one of America's most celebrated writers, a favorite in McClure's and Collier's, the two most widely circulated magazines of the era, both of which frequently published serialized stories later published as books. Raised near Portland, after marriage Higginson moved to Bellingham where she lived the remainder of her life. Her first published works in regional literary journals brought her to national attention. In 1902 she published a novel, "Mariella, of Out West," which critics compared to both Jane Austen and Emile Zola. During that period she traveled to Alaska four successive summers, and in 1908 published a reflection on her travels, "Alaska: the Great Country" (Macmillan) which reached a far broader audience than any previous descriptions of Alaska.
Alaska casts a spell on any who have ventured there, she wrote. "I know not how the spell is wrought; nor have I met any who could put the miracle of its working into words. No writer has ever described Alaska; no one writer ever will; but each must do his share, according to the spell that the country casts upon him." It's easy to dismiss the romance Higginson embraces, yet when even the most prosaic of today's residents not born here is asked why they're in Alaska and why they stay, something of the same sort of paean is the inevitable response.
Like the most accomplished writers after her, in her descriptions Higginson wove accounts of encounters with numerous individuals. Always on the lookout for unusual stories, she used peoples' experiences as a way of providing insight into Alaska's character, not always entirely uplifting. At Juneau, surprised that all the businesses were open at three in the morning when her steamer docked, the cabin boy told her that everyone kept their clothes ready to jump into whenever they heard the steamer whistle, to be able to mine the tourists. At Karluk, a woman said she'd come to the far side of Kodiak Island because the husband who jilted her had gone to the far end of South America.
"Alaska: The Great Country" is available online, still worth the read.
Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
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