A Jew in the Northwest

I came to see what else I might become, and like every traveler, what I’ve really discovered is who I am. William Deresiewicz

William Deresiewicz is a widely published, often controversial literary critic and author of the much talked about A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter. Before leaving the academic world he was professor of English at Yale.

Not long ago he spent a sabbatical in Portland, Oregon, “just for the hell of it, and by the time it was over, I never wanted to leave.” He says he fell in love with the place. “Everyone was so nice! They looked you in the eye! They smiled at you. They asked you how your day was going, and they really wanted to know.”

These are the first of many stereotypical characterizations of Portland and those who live there in his American Scholar (Winter 2012) essay, “A Jew in the Northwest.” He describes a typical 40ish Portlander as one with a full beard, big sweater and innocent face. I think of most of the others who bear no relationship to this person. He says the people are like the climate: mild and lacking in extremes, often with a positively bovine imperturbability. I suppose he doesn’t pay much attention to the local news or the daily weather report.

And so it goes. But his essay is fun and, as a Jew who has lived in the Northwest for all too many years, I was intrigued to read what living here means to him. It is nothing like I have ever experienced, perhaps because I arrived from entirely different world. And I trust by now that Deresiewicz has learned that there are a great many Jewish groups and individuals in the Northwest, often artists, writers and film-makers, not much different than those he knows in the East.

He begins with a discussion of Bernard Malamud and Leslie Fiedler, Jews who came to the Northwest as academic exiles. Malamud taught at what is now Oregon State University, a land grant college in Corvallis, a sleepy, rural town in the middle of farmland that Deresiewicz says must have seemed like the other side of the moon to Malamud. It still seems that way to me. A student described him as “a very unhappy man…a lonely man.” And yet he wrote three highly regarded novels while he was there.

Fiedler landed at the University of Montana in Missoula that Deresiewicz says was no Corvallis. “Montana was cowboys: wild, raunchy, libertarian.” But he felt trapped there, as his “Jewish identity remained acute, not to say aggrieved, his sense of being a misfit also.”

Deresiewicz feels he came as an immigrant. He found irresistible “the nature, and the alternative spirit, and the youthful optimism, and yes, damn it, the food…I wanted to chain myself to a parking meter, so they couldn’t take me away.”

I remember my first visit to Portland one summer when I was a graduate student. It was clear to me then and even clearer now that Portland isn’t a place where I want to live. Yet I have lived in Portland for almost 45 years and am more than ready to have them take me away.

Deresiewicz says what he misses in Portland isn’t culture--the New York museums, theater, a decent cannoli or pastrami sandwich. “It’s edge. It’s energy. It’s irony. It’s curiosity. It’s everything ethnicity and eastern speed impose on you.” I miss the sun, the blue sky, the warm days. I dread the months of rain, gray skies, the gloom that hangs over this city a fair amount of each year.

Tuesday 1/17/12: “Windy...cloudy with rain and snow. Temps nearly steady in the mid to upper 30s. Winds SSW at 20 to 30 mph.”

But Deresiewicz came to Portland to “discover a new America.” He says while New York is the city of his past, Portland—“green, self-limiting, communitarian—is the city of our future.” And yet, like Andre Aciman often says in his recent volume Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere, Deresiewicz notes that while he left New York for the promise of a new life in Portland, once there, he began to miss the place he left.

Deresiewicz has lived in Portland for a fraction of the time I have. I am wondering if he too will grow tired of the endless days of rain and cloudy skies, if he will come to see that not everyone in Portland is bovine in spirit or wears thick sweaters, and that it isn’t the planner’s dream that everyone seems to think it is.

He concludes: “I understand why people used to go back to be buried in Calabria or County Cork. Put it this way: I want to live here, but I don’t want to die here.”