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Q&A: Author Richard W. Etulain captures ‘Illuminative Moments’ in Northwest regional writing (en OR Arts Watch)


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.

Enlace: Oregon Arts Watch

Amy Leona Havin. 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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