Long, Priscilla (b. 1943)

  • By Bethany Reid
  • Posted 9/30/2019
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20845
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Priscilla Long is a Seattle-based writer, poet, editor, and a longtime independent teacher of writing. She writes science, poetry, history, creative nonfiction, and fiction. She is author of six books (to date), including the how-to-write manual The Writer's Portable Mentor. Her work appears in numerous literary publications, both print and online, and her science column "Science Frictions" ran for 92 weeks online at The American Scholar. She has a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from the University of Washington and serves as founding and consulting editor of HistoryLink.org, the free online encyclopedia of Washington state history. Of her writing, the novelist Laura Kalpakian (b. 1945) said, "She won't be confined by forms. This is what made her recent Fire and Stone such a protean, exciting book. Yes, it's a vivid memoir, but she also asks questions of The Past, not simply her own, but the larger anthropological past. Priscilla Long is the enemy of slack thinking, the lazy, the euphemistic. She has a Renaissance mind ..." (Kalpakian to Reid, 2019). 

Birth and Ancestry

Long was born in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, to Barbara Henry Long (1923-2003) and Winslow Long (1922-2013). Her brother Andrew Long (1942-2018) was 10 months older. She has an identical twin sister, Pamela O. Long (b. 1943), and two younger sisters, Susanne Long (1946-1986) and Elizabeth ("Liz") Long (b. 1951).

Long's maternal grandparents, Olive Erisman Henry (1895-1987) and Robert B. Henry (1892-1968), were Pennsylvania Dutch. Her maternal grandfather sold Traveler's Insurance to a Pennsylvania Dutch-speaking clientele. Her maternal great grandfather, Abraham Lincoln Erisman (1862-1896), was a circuit preacher in the Evangelical Church. The most remote maternal ancestor known by name was Christoph Tanger, an innkeeper and horse thief who was hanged for same in 1749 in Gemersheim, a town on the Rhine River in what is now southern Germany. His wife and child migrated to Pennsylvania and their German became Pennsylvania German.

Her paternal grandparents were the Scottish-born Nan McIlwrick Sproul Humphrey Long (1885-1978) and Walter Long (1883-1966), a Philadelphia journalist. She is descended on her paternal side from the Winslows, English farmers who migrated to New England in the eighteenth century. Her great-great grandfather Stephen Noyes Winslow (1826-1907) was known as "the grand old man of Philadelphia journalism" (Philadelphia Inquirer, February 24, 1907).

Early Years

After a year of college, Long's parents married in 1941 at the ages of 18 and 19. Her father, Winslow, began working on a farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Due to his essential occupation (as a farmer) he was not drafted into the ongoing World War II. Five years later, the family, now with four children, moved twice as Winslow took farm jobs and by 1950 arrived at Comegys Bight farm, located on Quaker Neck near Chestertown, Maryland, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Winslow Long was hired as the dairyman and in the ensuing 30 years worked on and essentially managed the farm.

The Longs had little money and more or less lived outside of a cash economy, growing the year's vegetables in a large garden, with the canning and freezing operation occurring in August, and obtaining meat each year from a steer and a hog that constituted part of Winslow's salary. Long and her twin sister had many farm chores, worked in the garden, and also had housework to do. Her father's boss paid the older children 25 cents an hour to do farm work such as feeding the calves, helping with the milking, shoveling manure, and forming part of the crew that brought in the hay every August.

The farmhouse was replete with old books and despite the workload of the farm, both mother and father read to the children every day. They began, in the early years, with the King James version of the bible. Long's mother taught her children to read before they entered first grade. All the children become great readers and two (Priscilla and her twin sister, Pamela) became writers.

When Long was 11 the parents announced to their children that their mother, then age 32 and with five children under the age of 12, would be returning to college. Barbara H. Long did so, and graduated summa cum laude from Washington College. Her picture appeared in The Baltimore Sun standing next to a tractor on which sat her husband. She then attended graduate school, meanwhile obtaining scholarships to private schools for each of her children. Long attended Moravian Seminary for Girls and then Antioch College. The year Priscilla graduated from college near the bottom of her class (1967) her mother received a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Delaware at the top of her class. Dr. Barbara H. Long went on to become a professor of research psychology at Goucher College.

Asked by an interviewer how she got started writing, Long said:

"I decided I wanted to be a writer when I grew up when I was 16. That’s when I began my journal. That was in 1958! I can actually read the following statement in one of my first journals, a Mead composition book, wide-ruled: 'Nature is so beautiful I just can’t describe it!' Period. I don’t even try. So I had a long way to go. And there were detours. I never ever stopped writing, but in my 20s became a printer. I operated an offset printing press for 12 years, another way to get next to words. During those years, in my non-day-job hours, I was researching and writing a book on the history of coal mining and writing poetry and writing memories of my childhood growing up as an identical twin on a dairy farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland" (Lisa Reuter interview with Priscilla Long).

Marriage With Complications

In her penultimate year at Antioch College Long met Peter Irons (b. 1940) and they quickly became a couple. Peter had earlier refused the draft on account of his opposition to American involvement in Vietnam, and on December 31, 1966, began serving a three-year sentence, beginning at the Federal Correctional Institution in Milan, Michigan, not far from Ann Arbor.

After college Long had begun working with children, at first "disturbed" children at Clear Water Ranch in Philo, California. Following this she moved to Ann Arbor in order to be able to visit Peter at the prison, and worked at a large daycare center, the Perry Nursery School. She participated in "Vietnam Summer," in which antiwar activists went from door to door to discuss American involvement in the war. She participated in the 1967 antiwar march on the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. A short time later Irons was denied parole for the first of three times.

At the medium-security prison, Irons served as assistant to the Protestant chaplain, Reverend Stanley Vivens (1926?-1973), who became a friend and supporter. Irons soon became involved in a protest by Jehovah's Witness inmates (who had also declined the draft). Prison authorities immediately attempted to transfer him, but Reverend Vivens blocked each attempt, until in the middle of one Saturday night they chained Irons to other inmates, put the men on a bus, and drove them to the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. Reverend Vivens appeared on Priscilla's porch the following morning to report: "They got him." Peter was ultimately transferred to the federal correctional institution in Danbury, Connecticut.

A few months after Irons was transferred, Priscilla moved to Boston, where most of the Irons family lived. From Boston she could easily travel to Danbury, Connecticut, for the permitted two-hours-per-month visit. She began working as a copyeditor, proofreader, and editor at Porter Sargent Publisher and while there edited the anthology The New Left: A Collection of Essays.

Peter Irons was released from prison on February 20, 1969, and, with the help of the historian and political activist Howard Zinn (1922-2010), entered the Ph.D. program in political science at Boston University. Peter and Priscilla were married on March 8, 1969. (They remained married for 21 years and amicably divorced on March 8, 1990.)

Long continued to be active in the antiwar movement and, beginning in 1969, in the women's movement via the Boston socialist-feminist organization Bread and Roses. During the early 1970s, at the University of Rhode Island Extension, Long taught one of the country's first courses in women's history.

Peter went on to get a law degree at Harvard University. A federal judge ultimately reversed his conviction on the ground of prosecutorial misconduct. Later, President Gerald Ford (1913-2006) pardoned Irons for refusing induction. He became a legal scholar, authored many books, and was involved in pro-bono cases, most notably, in the 1980s, the successful reopening of the Japanese American World War II Internment cases involving Fred Korematsu (1919-2005), Minoru "Min" Yasui (1916-1986), and Gordon Hirabayashi (1918-2012).

Boston Years

Meanwhile Long continued to be politically active (advocating for peace and justice in the Middle East) and also got up each morning before work to write. After leaving Porter Sargent Publisher, she worked as a cleaning lady, artist model, and record packer and seller (at music festivals in the South) for Rounder Records, the traditional American music record company. She ultimately became a printer. She became one of the prime movers in the founding and development of Boston's Red Sun Press, and worked there as a press operator and a lithographic camera operator from 1974 to 1984.

During these years she began to research and write her history of coal mining in the United States. She also composed poems and other writings, and before leaving Boston, took three 10-week courses in poetry from the poet Harold Bond (1939-2000) at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. In "Becoming a Poet" Long wrote:

"What happiness to be required to do what you most want to do. Bond asked us to write a poem every week. 'Write a poem expressing love, which does not use the word love.' 'Write a poem using no adjectives and no adverbs.' 'Write a poem that pertains to a photograph or a painting (an ekphrastic poem).' First lesson learned: you can write a poem (or anything, really) on assignment" (Long, "Becoming a Poet").

In Boston she began publishing her first pieces, including an essay on women in the coalfields, another on the labor organizer "Mother" Mary Harris Jones (1837-1930), and a booklet titled What Is Offset Printing: A Guide to the Preparation of Material for Printing, whose instructions, she pointed out, "are at this point entirely obsolete" (Reid Interview).

San Diego Years

In 1984 Long departed Red Sun Press to join her husband, who had taken a job in the Political Science Department of the University of California, San Diego. For the first time in many years, "I was able to work on my writing during the day, and the evening was free. A miraculous feeling" (Reid interview).

While living in San Diego Long became active in CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador), which opposed the U.S.-backed death-squad government of El Salvador. During the summer of 1986 she received a history fellowship at the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College to work on her history of coal mining. She also began to see the first publications of her poetry and fiction, and received her first literary award, the Mary Roberts Rinehart Fund grant for work in poetry.

An important life event occurred that summer when Long's sister, Susanne Long, who had become mentally ill with paranoid schizophrenia, disappeared from a mental health facility on July 21, 1986. A nationwide search ensued. On November 7, 1986, hunters found Susanne's skeletal remains in a nearby woods, a probable suicide.

Seattle Years

After taking fiction courses in San Diego, in 1988 Long moved to Seattle in order to matriculate in the creative writing MFA (Master of Fine Arts) program at the University of Washington. Long's concentration was in fiction, though she took a poetry workshop with Professor Colleen McElroy (b. 1935), and her interest in crossing genres was already apparent. While in the program, her first book appeared (Where the Sun Never Shines: A History of America's Bloody Coal Industry). She received the MFA in 1990. "It was a fabulous two years," she said of the program. "For one thing, it was an opportunity to re-do school. And, I began to teach writing there [as a Teaching Assistant, Long taught freshman composition]. It was a time of friendship and intense learning. A happy time" (Reid interview). Since then she has been writing, coaching, editing, and teaching writing to adult pre-professional and professional writers.

For nine years (2008-2016) she was on the faculty of the Taos Summer Writer's Conference, teaching prose style. She has taught at Seattle's Richard Hugo House, the Chuckanut Writer's Conference, Writers on the Sound (Edmonds), the Port Townsend Writer's Conference, and elsewhere. In 2019 she was the featured author at the Bluegrass Writer's Studio, the MFA program of Eastern Kentucky University.

Laura Kalpakian calls Long "a recognized authority on the writing process," and Long's book The Writer's Portable Mentor, "a unique mix of erudition and the nitty-gritty" (Kalpakian email to Reid). Longtime friend, the writer Alice Lowe (b. 1943), said that, for her, Long combined writing advice with encouragement and "a belief in my potential; her own writing and her disciplined approach make her not only a mentor but a model" (Lowe email to Reid). While teaching, Long writes alongside her students, completing every assignment. The writer Stacy Lawson commented:

"Priscilla Long is smart, humble, kind, quirky, original, organized, compassionate, practical, direct, disciplined, wise, determined, and conscientious. In over sixteen years of studying writing with her, I know her to be an eager student, a brilliant writer, and a master teacher. In her always-full writing classes, she mostly speaks in the first-person plural -- We are now working on creating superb metaphors. We practice every day. It takes time to get it right. She offers up examples from master writers, lest we set our bar too low. Good metaphors delight her, bad ones irritate her. She expects all work to be turned in on time and to represent our best effort.  She turns in all of her completed assignments to the class. Full attendance is required and punctuality a given. Some of Priscilla’s students have been with her for more than 20 years. It is an honor to be in her writing world" (Lawson email to Reid). 

During the 1990s Long wrote, among numerous other pieces, a series of review essays for the Women's Review of Books. Most were on poets such as Anne Carson (b. 1950), Eavan Boland (b. 1944), and May Swenson (1913-1989). In 1992 she received a month-long residency as the DeSimone Fellow at the Millay Colony for the Arts in Austerlitz, New York.

In 1991 she joined the group of performing poets, The Seattle Five Plus One. The poets workshopped and performed together for the better part of a decade. In 1995 a selection of their work (The Seattle Five Plus One: Poems) was published in an anthology by Ohio's Pig Iron Press. (As of 2019 the group, including visual artists as well as writers, continued to share and critique work.) Of Long, fellow poet M. Anne Sweet (b. 1951) wrote: 

"Priscilla writes and researches and reads every day. She understands the craft, music, and rhythm of writing and she brings that to her work. She explores science and mechanics. She digs into history and literature ... I once walked with her along the Duwamish River. She had challenged her students to find and list 100 plants that are local to the environment they were writing about. As is her way, she too was working on the same assignment ... In this case, she was writing about the Duwamish. As we walked, she documented, photographed, and made notes and drawings of each plant we encountered so she could identify it later, if it was a plant she did not already know. So too, and through this means, she does not “tell” her readers, so much as engage them in the images she creates ..." (Sweet email to Reid).

In 1998 Long began work as the founding editor of HistoryLink.org, the free online encyclopedia of Washington State history, and in the subsequent 15 years edited more than 6,000 essays on the history of the state, as well as writing a few of them. She wrote essays about Washington state bridges, among others, and these led to some of the poems that would appear in her first book of poetry, Crossing Over.

In an interview with Egress Studio in Bellingham she wrote:

"In the Pacific Northwest I have found my true home. I love the gray skies, the bridges and maritime effects, the ferries, the growing concern for the environment, the crows, the Steller’s jays, the bushtits and golden-capped kinglets, the tall western red cedars and western hemlocks. I love the many readers in our region, the incredible tradition of art and poetry and music. I love the wheat fields of the Palouse, the high mountains of the Cascades, the strong tribal presence. I love wild salmon. I have lived here for 25 years and I have also edited 6,000 essays about Washington state history (for HistoryLink.org), which has helped me to set down deep roots. My work strongly engages with our region. A recent piece, soon to appear in Smithsonian magazine, is on the Skagit River" (Egress interview with Long, January 2014).

After the turn of the century Long began writing science in addition to her other subject matters. She composed a creative nonfiction that combined memoir with the science of the Human Genome Project titled "Genome Tome," which appeared in The American Scholar in 2005 and in 2006 received the National Magazine Award for feature writing. Her other awards include The Journal’s Wm. Allen Award (creative nonfiction for "Archeology of Childhood"), three commissions from the Seattle Arts Commission, and a Richard Hugo House Founder's Award (a teaching award). In 2009 she was a Jack Straw Writer's Program Fellow. In 2011 she was a Hedgebrook Writer in Residence.

From 2011 until 2013, for 92 weeks, Long wrote an online weekly science column for The American Scholar titled "Science Frictions." She has continued to publish her work in numerous journals such as The Southern Review, Smithsonian, Tampa Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Raven Chronicles, The Antioch Review, Fourth Genre, Punctuate, and Cold Mountain Review.

At an age when many are considering retirement, Long in 2019 remained in high gear as a writer and teacher. Her companion, the psychological counselor Dr. Jay Schlechter (b. 1941), praises her inspirational qualities and her invariable kindness. "She not only tries to inspire other writers, she succeeds" (Schlechter phone interview with Reid). Her new work includes a book on creativity and aging, a book on spaces and colors, a collection of short stories, and a book of poems. "I cannot imagine," Long said, "a time when I will not be learning, reading, teaching, and writing" (Reid interview with Long). 

Long's Books

 (editor) The New Left: A Collection of Essays (Boston: Porter Sargent Publisher, 1969).

 Where the Sun Never Shines: A History of America's Bloody Coal Industry (New York: Paragon House, 1989).

 The Writer's Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life (Seattle: Wallingford Press, 2010).

 Crossing Over: Poems (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2015).

 Minding the Muse: A Handbook for Painters, Composers, Writers, and Other Creators (Seattle: Coffeetown Press, 2016).

 Fire and Stone: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016). 

The Writer's Portable Mentor, Second Edition (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2018).

Holy Magic (Tillamook, Oregon: MoonPath Press, 2020).

Dancing with the Muse in Old Age (Kenmore, Washington: Ecpicenter/Coffeetown, 2022).


Bethany Reid interview with Priscilla Long, August 15, 2019, notes in possession of Bethany Reid, Edmonds, Washington; Laura Kalpakian, email to Bethany Reid, August 23, 2019, in possession of Reid; Alice Lowe email to Bethany Reid, August 26, 2019, in possession of  Reid; Stacy Lawson email to Bethany Reid, August 31, 2019, in possession of Reid; M. Anne Sweet email to Bethany Reid, August 31, 2019, in possession of Reid; Bethany Reid phone interview with Dr. Jay Schlechter, August 26, 2019; Priscilla Long website (www.priscillalong.com); Priscilla Long Papers (Accession No. 4306-001-0018), Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle; "Col. Winslow's Funeral," Philadelphia Inquirer, February 24, 1907, clipping in possession of Priscilla Long, Seattle; James A. Flood, "At 34, with 5 Children, She Gets Degree," The Baltimore Sun, 1957, clipping in possession of Priscilla Long, Seattle; Priscilla Long, Mother Jones: Woman Organizer (Boston: South End Press, 1976); Long, "The Women of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Strike, 1913-1914," in Women, Work & Protest ed. by Ruth Milkman (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985); Long, What Is Offset Printing: A Guide to the Preparation of Material for Printing (Boston: Red Sun Press, 1984); Long, "Becoming a Poet," The American Scholar, August 29, 2016 (https://theamericanscholar.org/becoming-a-poet/#.XLSpri3MyYU); Long, "What Killed My Sister?" The American Scholar, March 11, 2014 (https://theamericanscholar.org/what-killed-my-sister/#.XVVV0C2ZOuU); Long, "Poet's-Eye View," The Women's Review of Books, Vo. 12, No. 4 (January 1995), 8-9;  Long, "Post-Colonial Poet," The Women's Review of Books Vol. 16, No. 7 (April 1999), 17-18; Long, "Literate Obsessions," The Women's Review of Books, Vol. 19, No. 1 (October 2001), 14-15; Long, The complete Science Frictions, The American Scholar (https://theamericanscholar.org/the-complete-science-frictions/); Lisa Reuters interview with Priscilla Long, Rainbow Romance Writers Pot of Gold, No. 12 (Second Quarter 2012), 25; Jim Bertolino and Anita Boyle, Egress Studio interview with Priscilla Long, January 2014 Egress Studio website (http://www.egressstudio.wordpress.com/2014/01/).

Note: This essay was updated on June 24, 2022.

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