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August 5, 2002

In Memoriam

Photo of Louis Owens
Louis Owens
Photo: Don Harris, UCSC Photo Services

Louis Owens

Former UCSC professor of literature Louis Owens died on July 25 in New Mexico.

Owens's focus during his time at UCSC, from 1990 to 1994, was American literature, Native American literature, and creative writing. He received the Alumni Association's Distinguished Teaching Award in 1992.

Owens was teaching at UC Davis when he died, and the following obituary was written by the UC Davis News Service.

Native American critic and novelist Louis Owens dies

UC Davis Professor Louis Owens, an internationally acclaimed novelist and a scholar of Steinbeck and Native American literature, died Thursday in Albuquerque at the age of 54.

Considered the country's leading critical interpreter of Native American literature, Owens received several top book awards for his fiction and scholarly work, had his novels translated into other languages, and most recently participated in a lengthy interview on national television about his Steinbeck scholarship during the centennial celebration of the Salinas Valley writer.

Owens was the author of five novels--one of which, Nightland, won the American Book Award in 1997, four books of literary criticism and a new collection of essays, I Hear the Train. His academic career spanned two decades and five universities. Most recently, he was a professor of English and Native American studies and headed UC Davis's Creative Writing Program.

His colleagues described him as the rare literary polymath with expertise as the leading critic of Native American literature, a major scholar in mainstream American literature through his work on Steinbeck, and as an award-winning novelist and nonfiction writer about Native Americans.

Gerald Vizenor, professor of American studies at UC Berkeley, and a national figure in Native American literature, said Owens was the "most original scholar in critical theory" for Native American literature.

"Louis Owens was an inspired, original literary artist, a masterful storier, and he was an exceptional teacher," he said.

"His writing is really important in American literature, overall," said Luci Tapahonso, a Native American poet and professor of American Indian studies and English at the University of Arizona, Tucson. "He challenged people to rethink their approaches and touched on topics that hadn't been considered before."

The fact that Owens, who received his doctorate in English from UC Davis, had returned to the northern California campus two years ago as a professor was remarkable, said UC Davis English Department colleague Jack Hicks.

"Often academic departments do not hire their own; his coming back was extraordinary, by any standard," said Hicks, pointing to Owens' many accomplishments and accolades, including an invitation from Harvard University to spend a year there in 2004 as a scholar-in-residence. Just this spring, Owens' own work was the subject of a book, Grave Concerns, Trickster Turns: The Novels of Louis Owens, by Chris LaLonde.

Born in Lompoc to migrant laborers, Owens spent his childhood moving between Mississippi and the Central Valley, picking beans and living in poverty. Owens has written of that period in an essay called "Finding Gene":
"My first memories are of Gene and jungle-like woods that grew thick between our cabin and the deep-edged brown water of the Yazzoo River. Three, 4, 5, and 6 years old, I followed him everywhere, swinging on muskedine vines and eating the acid-sweet purple fruit, climbing pecan trees that we called pee-cans, fishing in the endless, muddy current of the river, jumping in the wire-sided cotton trucks filled with white boles. The washtub where I had to bathe in gray water after him, leaning toward the wood cook-stove on cold Mississippi mornings. The log shed we’d check each morning to see what skins our father had nailed up during the night."

Of the nine brothers and sisters in the Owens family, Louis and brother Gene were the only two who completed high school and Louis was the only sibling to go to college.

His mentor and major professor for his doctorate, UC Davis Professor Emeritus James Woodress, said Owens was first drawn the work of John Steinbeck because he knew intimately the life and history of the Salinas Valley.

"Because Louis came from very poor parents who were farm laborers, novels like The Grapes of Wrath moved him a great deal," Woodress said.
Owens' first book, John Steinbeck's Re-Vision of America, was published in 1985, followed by The Grapes of Wrath: Trouble in the Promised Land in 1989. In May he was the subject of a lengthy interview on C-Span regarding John Steinbeck and his literary legacy.

Owens earned his bachelor's and master’s degrees in English from UC Santa Barbara before coming in 1978 to UC Davis for his doctorate. During graduate school, Owens and his wife spent a year in Pisa while Owens taught at the University of Pisa as a Fulbright Lecturer.

Throughout his career, Owens was known for being extraordinarily prolific. Due to the number and quality of his publications, the time between his receiving his doctorate and being promoted to full professor at UC Santa Cruz was the shortest in the history of the University of California. Even in graduate school, while not working on his Steinbeck dissertation, Owens wrote his first novel, Wolfsong, about copper strip-mining in Washington State's Glacier Peak Wilderness, where he had worked as a ranger and firefighter for the Forest Service.

It was through this first novel, published in 1991, that Owens explored his Choctaw and Cherokee roots, said Hicks, a young assistant English professor at UC Davis while Owens was attending graduate school.

"He told me he had a novel and asked if would I read it, and it was then that I found he was Native American. Quite clearly, to write a whole novel about one’s heritage indicates it is alive in your life and your imagination," Hicks said. "By the end of the first book, being Native American was something that was alive for him."

Owens, who considered himself a mixed-blood American, explored the dilemmas of being from multiple heritages through much of his writing—both in fiction and non-fiction. He won a Wordcraft Circle Writer of the Year Award in 1998 for Mixedblood Messages: Literature, Film, Family, Place.

Owens' academic reputation in Native American fiction started in 1985 with an article, "A Map of the Mind: Darcy McNickle and the American Indian Novel,"
published in Western American Literature. He wrote many articles on Native
American fiction before publishing his 1992 book, Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel," which by now has become required reading in many college literature classes. In 1993 he won the PEN-Josephine Miles Awards for Other Destinies and his novel, The Sharpest Sight (1992). He also was awarded the Julian J. Rothbaum Prize for his 1992 novel Bone Game in 1994.

In his novels, Owens said he wrote to two audiences: mainstream readers and his Choctaw and Cherokee relatives. He wove in layers of Native American metaphor and myth through his complex mystery plots, so that two stories were being told at the same time.

One of the awards he displayed proudly in his office was the 1995 Roman Noir Prize, a French award for the outstanding mystery novel published in French given to The Sharpest Sight. His novels were translated into French, German, and Japanese, and he appeared on French television more than once.

Extraordinarily generous with his time and attention to students, Owens was a dedicated teacher who mentored and encouraged his students and other writers.

"He gave an incredible amount of time to his students, time spent on reading and critiquing their work, time spent in meeting with them and working out the myriad problems that are associated with the scholastic life, and time offered in the spirit of camaraderie and friendship," said Spring Warren, a 2002 graduate of the UC Davis Creative Writing Program.

Among the many recognitions for teaching that he received were the University of New Mexico Alumni Award for Teaching Excellence, the University of California Santa Cruz Alumni Association Distinguished Teaching Award, the UCSC Student Alumni Council Favorite Professor Award, and the Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award from the International Steinbeck Society. He was a Presidential Lecturer at the University of New Mexico for two years.

From 1992 to 2000, Owens served on the faculty of UC Davis' Art of the Wild, a summer writing workshop on nature and the environment that drew nationally acclaimed writers. Owens was featured on a PBS one-hour special about the workshop.

Owens is survived by his wife of 27 years, Polly; and his daughters, Elizabeth,
19, and Alexandra, 16, all of Tijeras, N.M.; his father Hoey; his brothers Gene, Troy and Richard; and his sisters Judy, Linda, Juanita, and Brenda.
A campus memorial service at UC Davis is being planned for fall quarter.

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