Creating a Space for Living: Taking Bearings (The Library) by Adam M. Sowards - Issue #12
A 1944 novel imagines social transformation through dams
A few prefatory words
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This week we return to The Library. And I'm making my first issue on a novel. Read on!
Envisioning Social Transformation in Fiction
Space for Living (1944)
An earlier issue focused on the Columbia Basin Project and described some of the plans for that enterprise—a vast project that promised to reclaim nature and the family farm and empower communities and industries.
It’s easy to think such projects originate in insular government offices or in the heads of reform-minded engineers. That’s a mistake. Broad cultural currents were at work, as is evidenced by this week’s newsletter focus, Margaret Thompson’s 1944 book, Space for Living: A Novel of Grand Coulee and the Columbia Basin.
Space for Living won no Pulitzer Prize (for good reason) and did not become a feature film (although it might have worked on the big screen!). Despite it being forgotten, I’m not sure I’ve encountered anything in the historical record that conveys so powerfully the hopes Northwesterners held about how transforming a river might reorganize society and the broader landscape. I find it a fascinating artifact.
The Author: Margaret Thompson
Space for Living was not the author’s first book. Thompson had published High Trails of Glacier National Park in 1936. Later, she co-edited The Conservation of Northwest Resources, a volume published in 1950 by the Northwest Conservation League, an organization that she served as executive secretary into the mid-1960s. She also wrote a biography of Marcus Whitman for young readers. When she published Space for Living, Thompson worked for Washington State Parks. Later, Thompson was the Benton County school superintendent for more than a decade beginning in 1950. She retired in 1963 and died six years later in Kennewick, Washington.
Space for Living’s plot is straightforward. It opens with Verne on a train returning to his hometown of Ashton in eastern Washington after fighting in World War I. The war made his time at the University of Washington before the war seem like kids’ stuff, but in Seattle his heart had been partly captured by Evelyn, a sophisticated student and working journalist. However, before leaving for the Great War, he led his high school sweetheart, Clara, to believe they were engaged. The love triangle is a key plot device throughout the book, as he marries Clara (of course) but carries on affairs with Evelyn (of course). The two women represent the split in Washington State—the “cow counties” in the eastern past rooted in the past and the urban, industrial west side looking toward the future.
If Space for Living simply told of young man’s confused heart, I would spare you my commentary. However, on Verne’s initial trip back home, he hears the plans to develop the Columbia River and bring water to farms in the Columbia Basin. The idea captivates him. As does the main debate at the time: Should a big dam be built at Grand Coulee by the federal government and sell public power, or should a system of smaller dams and canals be drawn out of lakes and rivers with power sold by private companies? (As mundane as this question sounds, it drove regional politics significantly.)
That’s basically the novel. Verne goes back and forth from Ashton to Seattle, from Clara to Evelyn, trying to make a living and make a difference, following his heart and mind. He’s a long-tortured man, the campaign for public power and irrigation lasting for decades.
Planning the Basin
For Verne—and Pacific Northwesterners in the interwar period—the questions around river development were the hinges on which destiny swung.
Conditions were dire. Drought and wind threatened livelihoods on the dry farms spotting the basin. “Won’t be nothin’ left to plant wheat in,” one old-time farmer says. Resolving that animated Verne.
On a trip to survey Grand Coulee, Verne got dreamy and saw the entire cosmos mingling with the Columbia:
Looking out over that panorama of dramatic natural processes, his own life seemed to reflect the cosmos, his own impulses to merge with all creation. There before his eyes was the pageant of life ever emerging triumphant out of death, an eternal rhythm of birth and death. The mountain periphery delineated pages of patient evolution and catastrophic revolution, upbuilding and tearing down, accretion and metamorphosis. The great river—sinuous, shining, sinister artery of life in a dull dead plain—was literally a path of human history. And instrument of future progress. Its swift-flowing stream swirled the sands and soils and ashes of past life, together with the mists and clouds, the rains and snows that would sculpture a new earth and bring forth new life; swirled the power to drive machines and turn darkness into light, to serve man in forging his dreams into reality.
This would be his work, and the longer he sat with it, the more expansive the vision became.
Eventually, he joined the local Lions Club and was asked to speak. Extemporaneously, he regaled the audience by describing all the space for living that would be incorporated within the project:
This majestic region of the Pacific Northwest, he declared, forms a natural landscape design waiting to be recognized by the land-planner—the dramatic skyland gardens calling for the protection of national parks, space for factories utilizing the tremendous power resources of the Columbia, space for farms and homes in the land of blue skies awaiting the magic of water and electricity.
This exemplified the type of regional planning I described in my earlier newsletter.
Theory of Social Telesis
One way of facilitating this vision, according to Thompson, was a philosophy called social telesis. The idea of telesis was planned progress in public affairs. It grew out of sociology and found its greatest adherents among architects and planners. (Verne's training came in architecture.) Telesis posited that societies could identify its goals and then plan the necessary steps toward achieving them. Telesis basically was about identifying the ends (telos is Greek for the ultimate end or goal or purpose) and fashioning the means to get there.
Telesis never became a popular movement. However, it captivated Thompson who included it not only in Space for Living but also in an essay published in 1950 called “Social Engineering for the Atomic Age.” She saw conservation fitting perfectly within this framework. In her novel, Verne helped organize the Columbia Valley Telesis Association, the by-laws of which stated,
Social progress is brought about by a conscious and intelligent devotion to a desirable end. The United States is justly proud of its industrial progress and of the managers, technicians, and workers who have brought it about. Surely as a people we have now reached the point of national maturity which will no longer tolerate avoidable waste of the technical skills and instruments we have worked so hard to master. The time has come to plan a better way. This association, therefore, is devoted to the study and promotion of plans for better living in the region drained by the Columbia River and its tributaries.
For Thompson, telesis represented a fascinating ideal, a disposition toward reason and purpose. That philosophy, and the novel that expresses it through Evelyn and Verne, captures a moment from the mid-20th century when conservationists imagined the capacity to manage and control resources and people was within reach. That optimism and confidence, untroubled by social conflict or intractable ecological problems, represents this era in important ways.
Does it represent ours?
That seems like a question worth asking. The Pacific Northwest today has an ambivalent relationship to the dams that Verne imbued with such unabashed and uncomplicated hope with their social and economic potential. Hydropower spews far less carbon into the atmosphere fossil fuels and makes navigating the interior easier. Yet the region’s salmon are threatened by the abundant dams in the region and their decline limits treaty obligations owed to the region’s longest inhabitants. These latter concerns fuel anxiety and anger across the region, so today, it is easy to forget that dams were once seen as agents of equitable and sustainable transformation.
[For a recent news story capturing some of this, see below:]
Plaintiffs in Long Fight Over Endangered Salmon Hope a Resolution Is Near - The New York Times — www.nytimes.com The Biden administration is in talks with tribes, environmental groups and others fighting for dams to be removed from the lower Snake River in the Pacific Northwest.
Meanwhile, some of the richest people amass large plots of land. Bill Gates owns more than a quarter of a billion acres! In the closing pages of Space for Living, Verne is working on anti-speculation legislative measures and says,
I’ve always contended that land ought to be planned as space for living, not as a proposition to enrich the bankers and real estate fraternity.
What space for living meant in 1944 differs from what we might mean today given the current circumstances in which we find ourselves—such as biodiversity crises and climate disruption. “Living” doesn’t have to mean irrigated family farms, for instance, which we saw quickly failed.
But, in the spirit of Thompson, it assuredly doesn’t mean mainly acquiring speculative value, but as a means for improving lives.
For the most part, I relied on Thompson's own writing and the materials I used in the issue on the Columbia Basin Project. Paul Hirt's book on Northwest power, The Wired Northwest: The History of Electric Power, 1870s-1970s, informs my treatment here. There is a Find-a-Grave entry on Thompson that includes some family details.
The idea that we can engineer and plan our rivers for great outcomes did not stop with Grand Coulee Dam. Moving into the early 1960s, the United States and Canada collaborated on an international Columbia River Treaty. I detailed some of those dynamics here, tracking a somewhat parallel story:
Renegotiating the Columbia River Treaty, six decades later (The Columbia River Treaty, six decades later) — High Country News – Know the West — www.hcn.org How will bolstered support for tribal sovereignty and the environment change the U.S.-Canada agreement?
I'm hoping to see some subscribers at my book event next week. Details below:
Adam M. Sowards presents 'Making America's Public Lands' and 'An Open Pit Visible from the Moon' | Third Place Books What makes wilderness wild? What does America have to do with it?
Taking Bearings Next Week
We turn to The Wild Card next week, and in it, I report on a brief trip to my alma mater with a tribute to some of what I learned there.
As always, thank you for reading and please share.