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Q&A: Author Richard W. Etulain captures ‘Illuminative Moments’ in Northwest regional writing

The Clackamas-based historian's new book documents the work of writers from 1800 to the present to help readers expand their understanding of the Pacific Northwest.

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Historian Richard W. Etulain says his new book has its roots in his doctoral dissertation, written 60 years ago. Photo: Brian Libby

Earlier this month, prize-winning historian and author Richard W. Etulain‘s newest work, Illuminative Moments in Pacific Northwest Prose, was released by University of Nevada Press. The book spans the region’s literary history from 1800 to the present and considers the origins, moments, and timeline shifts that influenced the literary development of Oregon, Washington, and neighboring states.

“I have two kinds of satisfactions following the publication of my newest book,” Etulain told me when I spoke to him over email. “First, I have now fully completed a long-lasting project. I began thinking about this volume several years ago and wanting to introduce readers to a concise, focused literary history of the Pacific Northwest.

“Second, I’m convinced that this topic is too often overlooked — by literary historians dealing with the American West, and by historians of the Pacific Northwest, who deal often with political, economic, and, now, the environmental history of the region but not its literary history.  So satisfactions in turning out a book that needed to be done.”

For readers fascinated with the history of the West — including the evolution of agriculture, infrastructure, water, and literature, and their effects on pop culture and the mainstream zeitgeist — Etulain has delivered a book that simply needed to be written. In a concise but thorough 185 pages, the book is written in an inviting and clear style. By narrowing his focus toward a regional literary history rather than national, Etulain presents a welcoming platform for learning more about the Pacific Northwest and its literature, helping readers expand their general understanding of the Pacific Northwest.

“All of us are involved in several circumferences of influence — our global, national, regional, and local milieus. We have much to learn about all these surrounding influences,” Etulain writes. It is also important for Oregon and Pacific Northwest residents to understand the history from which many contemporary literary voices emerged. Though it is true that Portland, in particular, has become a melting pot of out-of-towners resettling in the Northwest for a variety of reasons — 43 percent of Oregonians were born in the state versus the 57 percent that came from elsewhere, according to a 2018 analysis — the heart and culture of the Northwest is bound to penetrate the work of the creators based here. We should all, in turn, be aware of the region’s literary origins and influential movements of the past two centuries.

In a chapter on “The Rise of Regionalism,” Etulain writes that the rise of Lost Generation authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway (plus e.e. cummings, Gertrude Stein, Hart Crane, and others) was a consequence of American disillusionment following World War I. “Some, like the Lost Generation writers, reacted negatively to the U.S. experiences in [the war] and left the country for a few years, but returned. Other authors, the regionalists, seemed to turn to the close at hand (their regions and locales) to look for possible answers to the U.S.’s upheavals in the 1920s and 1930s,” he told me.

Etulain is no stranger to the American West, or the Pacific Northwest. Born in Wapato, Wash., he grew up on a sheep ranch in Eastern Washington and graduated from Northwest Nazarene College, before receiving a master’s degree and PhD in American history and literature from the University of Oregon. In 1989, he and Michael P. Malone co-authored The American West: A Twentieth-Century History, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and named a Main Selection of the History Book Club. Etulain is a Professor Emeritus of History at the University of New Mexico and has written 65 books, including his 2023 memoir, Boyhood Among the Woolies. He writes about the West and Basque culture — including as a contributor to Oregon ArtsWatch — while living in Clackamas with his wife, Joyce.

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Etulain discussed his newest book and Northwest literary history with me via email. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The first sentences of your book’s preface read: “The Pacific Northwest has been slow to develop a regional literature. Literary historians have been even slower to scrutinize and write about the region’s evolving literary history.” Can you briefly speak to why?

Etulain: It’s something of a mystery to me why the literary history of the Pacific Northwest has developed so slowly via writers and historians. Perhaps the slowness of each group has influenced the other side. Readers of this volume can be introduced to an overview of the region’s literature to see what has been produced and how literary historians have written about the subject.

What drew you to write this concise guide on the literary history of the Pacific Northwest, in particular?

My interest in this subject began nearly 60 years ago, as I began working on my doctoral dissertation on Oregon writer Ernest Haycox. I wanted to see what role Haycox played in the development of the popular Western, from Owen Wister through Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour.  But I also wished to understand what position he held in the development of the literary Northwest, so I began diligently studying the literary history of the West and Pacific Northwest many years ago.

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When did you become interested in the history of the American West and what keeps you returning to it? Do you think your upbringing in small ranching towns played a part?

I didn’t think much about the history of the American West until the final years of my undergraduate studies and the beginning of graduate school in English and history at the University of Oregon. I was too lost in my outback sheep ranch and rural life to know much about the urban or post-1900 stories of the American West. Once in the field of Western literature, I had a comfortable feeling studying the literature close at hand — in this case, writing in the Pacific Northwest. 

You feature four writers heavily in the work — Frederic Homer Balch, Mary Hallock Foote, H.G. Merriam, and H.L. Davis. How did researching them affect your view of the evolution of Pacific Northwest prose, and prose history in general?

Before I researched and wrote about these four writers, I had developed a chronological framework for writing about Western literature, dividing it into frontier, regional, and post-regional eras. Balch and Foote, as romantic and local color writers, were excellent examples of frontier Western literature. On the other hand, Merriam and Davis saw the Pacific Northwest through regional eyes. These four writers were illuminative examples of frontier and regional Western and Pacific Northwest literature. Other writers illustrated the post-regional bent—emphasizing first of all race, class, gender, and environmental themes.

What was the most challenging part of writing this book?

The largest challenge was reading or rereading a large number of novels, histories, and essays about the writers of the Pacific Northwest. I had to keep at the sprawling project for a number of years. But it was a rewarding experience in the long run.

What advice do you have for writers seeking to get into nonfiction and historical writing?

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Think of writing about your own experiences whether in fiction, history, or memoirs. See if any of your individual moments of epiphany will provide illuminative moments for other readers so that they gain larger, more valuable understandings of their personal and communal experiences.

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Amy Leona Havin is a poet, essayist, and arts journalist based in Portland, Oregon. She writes about language arts, dance, and film for Oregon ArtsWatch and is a staff writer with The Oregonian/OregonLive. Her work has been published in San Diego Poetry Annual, HereIn Arts Journal, Humana Obscura, The Chronicle, and others. She has been an artist-in-residence at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, Archipelago Gallery, and Art/Lab, and was shortlisted for the Bridport International Creative Writing Prize in poetry. Havin holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts and is the Artistic Director of Portland-based dance performance company, The Holding Project.

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