- Selected Writings of Ella Higginson: Inventing Pacific Northwest Literature ed. by Laura Laffrado
The Selected Writings of Ella Higginson: Inventing Pacific Northwest Literature introduces to modern readers the fiction, nonfiction, and poetry of Ella Rhoads Higginson (–1940), who "chart[ed] the social and material conditions of white women in the Pacific Northwest" at a time when such women were scarce and their political freedoms greater than those of their sisters in the East (xxxvi). The subject of only four recent publications—a Legacy profile by Susan Goodman, two articles by Laffrado, and a republished story—Higginson negotiates regional and national sensibilities, celebrating the West while placing it within the context of national consciousness. Her success gave her an [End Page 223] enviable critical reputation among her contemporaries. After the publication of Mariella (1902), her sole novel, Thomas Wentworth Higginson (a distant relation of her husband and a correspondent of Emily Dickinson) wrote, "In dealing with the remoter region of the Northwest we find but one novelist who has made her mark. Her name is Ella Higginson" (xxxv); the San Francisco Examiner, praising the same book, claimed that Higginson and the city's favorite son, Jack London, "were putting forth more and better works of fiction than any other writers on the coast" (xxxv–xxxvi).
Famous in her own time and all but forgotten today, Higginson deserves the favorable recognition granted by her contemporaries. Her work is currently out of print and available only in unannotated online public domain editions. Laffrado complements the volume's judicious selection of texts with an excellent introduction on Higginson's life in the context of the region's history; a bibliography of archival primary sources; a list of Higginson's volumes of work; and a note on the text that provides complete bibliographic citations for the works included, some of which appeared in hard-to-find or local sources such as West Shore Magazine. Laffrado's editorial apparatus and the quality of stories in this volume should go far toward reclaiming Higginson's reputation.
The collection fittingly opens with selected poems, the work that first brought Higginson to national attention. As Laffrado's afternotes and annotations make clear, Higginson was a savvy marketer of her own work. Her most famous poem, "Four-Leaf Clover," was set to music and reprinted so widely on postcards, calendars, and other ephemera that Higginson requested a four-leaf clover emblem to be used on all her book covers, an early form of branding. So popular was Higginson that her contemporaries were convinced that her fame would last. A line from her poem "The College by the Sea" (1904) is inscribed above the entry to Edens Hall on the Western Washington University campus, but Higginson's name is not mentioned, because, as Laffrado explains, her fame was such that "it was assumed the source would always be known" (263). Conventional in form but innovative in the locations they describe, Higginson's poems celebrate the Romantic transcendence found in a much wilder terrain than Wordsworth's Lake District. Higginson grants the unfamiliar names in the poems—Willamette River, Mount Hood, Mount Baker, and the "deep blue sapphire, Puget Sound" (62)—an almost talismanic power, their landscapes familiar now but exotic to her original readers.
Higginson's strategy of wrapping unfamiliar scenes in conventional poetic forms echoes her approach in the stories, which deploy conventional tropes of women's regionalist fiction in unfamiliar surroundings. Some opening descriptions implicitly contrast the fruitful regions of the Pacific Northwest and its temperate climate with the East, as when Higginson ironically identifies [End Page 224] a "severe" winter in Oregon as a light dusting of snow and a thermometer that once registers "nearly twenty degrees above zero!" (199). Yet despite its setting, Higginson grounds her fiction firmly in the tradition of northeastern women's regionalism. In addition to surface features such as dialect and mildly comic malapropisms ("catarrh" for "guitar") common to the stories of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Sarah Orne Jewett, Rose...