It was in mid-September 1956 when legendary Beat writer Jack Kerouac came through Seattle after spending the summer manning a forest fire lookout above Ross Lake in the North Cascades. The look and feel of the blue-collar city made quite an impression on the man who also penned the classic novel “On The Road.”
Kerouac wrote lovingly and poetically about the then-dilapidated Seattle waterfront, in a short non-fiction piece called “Alone On A Mountaintop”:
“Anybody who’s been to Seattle and missed Alaskan Way, the old water front, has missed the point-here the totem pole stores, the waters of Puget Sound washing under old piers, the dark gloomy look of ancient warehouses and pier sheds, and the most antique locomotives in America switching boxcars up and down the water front, give a hint, under the pure cloud-mopped sparkling skies of the Northwest, of great country to come.”
A few years before Kerouac’s visit, reclusive writer J.D. Salinger took a whack at the people of Seattle in his iconic novel “The Catcher in the Rye,” published in 1951. Recent revelations that the book is actually a thinly veiled autobiography give anti-hero Holden Caulfield’s bitterness a bit more heft.
Kicked out of prep school and hanging out at a downmarket nightclub in New York City, Caulfield scathingly dismisses a group of women from Seattle as little more than homely hicks:
“You could hardly tell which was the stupidest of the three… Anyway, it took me about a half hour to find out where they all worked and all in Seattle. They all worked in the same insurance office. I asked them if they liked it, but do you think you could get an intelligent answer out of those three dopes? I thought the two ugly ones were sisters… They were so ignorant, and they had those sad, fancy hats on all.”
It’s easy for newcomers and even some long-time residents to think that Seattle as a known entity beyond the city limits originated in the grunge, Microsoft and Starbucks era of the late 1980s and early 1990s. But thanks to Kerouac and Salinger, we know the city’s gloomy warehouses and ugly sisters were putting us on the map more than a half-century ago.
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