Sunday, October 22, 2017

Interview with Richard Etulain



I am fortunate enough to offer this thoughtful interview from a giant in the field, Richard Etulain. If you’re new to his name, check out this of just some of his accomplishments.

Richard W. Etulain, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of New Mexico, is the author or editor of more than 50 books. Best known among his books about the history and cultures of the American West are Conversations with Wallace Stegner (1983), Writing Western History (editor, 1991), Re-imagining the Modern American West: A Century of Fiction, History, and Art (1996), Telling Western Stories: From Buffalo Bill to Larry McMurtry (1999), Beyond the Missouri: The Story of the American West (2006), The American West: A Modern History, 1900 to the Present (with Michael P. Malone, 2d ed., 2007), and Lincoln Looks West: From the Mississippi to the Pacific (2010). He has been president of both the Western Literature and Western History associations. He has lectured abroad in several countries, most recently as a Fulbright Lecturer in Ukraine and at the Basque University in northern Spain. He serves as editor of the Oklahoma Western Biographies series for the University of Oklahoma Press and coeditor of the Concise Lincoln Library for the Southern Illinois University Press. His biography of Calamity Jane, The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane, appeared in September 2014 and became a History Book Club Selection in 2015. It was also named a Finalist for the Spur Award from the Western Writers of America. He is currently working on a two-volume study of Billy the Kid, the life and legends.

In the discussion below, we corralled the topic primarily to his newest book Ernest Haycox and the Western.

You are a noted historian of the West, a prolific author, and from your writing one can feel a true love for the source material and not rote academic dryness that one sometimes encounters in examining this exciting and interesting period of American history. May I ask was there a defining moment that drew your attention to the area?

My earliest years on a remote sheep ranch in eastern Washington were hardly an intellectual feast.  But I did fall in love with books: the Hardy Boys, sports stories, and children's religious books.  Later, at Northwest Nazarene College (now  University) in Nampa, Idaho, I majored in English and history, double majors.  I continued work in those two fields in  graduate school at the University of Oregon, a PhD in American history with a minor field in American literature. My doctoral dissertation on Ernest Haycox (the source of the new book ERNEST HAYCOX AND THE WESTERN), which was completed in 1966, was an interdisciplinary work in literary history on the career of a historical novelist who focused on the Western. As I began my research and writing career in the late 1960s, I built on my dual interests in history and literature.  Most of my 54 books deal with the American West, although I've done a bit of other work on Abraham  Lincoln and my ethnic group, the Basques.  I've kept my feet in both fields, having served as presidents of both the Western Literature and Western History associations.


Your newest book Ernest Haycox and the Western delves deeply into one of the best of Western fiction authors. Haycox was once called the Dean of Western Writers, he was published in the best periodicals and yet today, I am hard-pressed to find anyone who knows his work, let alone his name. Why do you think this lapse in memory has occurred?

The highest points of interest in the American West, in fiction and films about the region, were the 1920s and 1950s. Haycox launched his career in pulp magazines publishing on the American West.  His reputation rose rapidly in the  1930s and 1940s and apexed in the 1950s and early 1960s. When traditional Westerns changed dramatically in the  1960s and beyond--save for the spectacular popularity of Louis L'Amour--Haycox's notoriety plummeted. He remained well known to writers of Westerns, but that genre, generally, was pushed off the scene by other other popular  literary types.


Haycox’s work has depth and insight that transcends what can often be formula in a formula ridden genre [as all genres can be.] What do you think contributed to this depth and breadth of perception?

Ernest Haycox was not a brilliant intellectual. Rather, he was a disciplined, energetic, and ambitious person—in everything he did.  He began writing short story Westerns in the early 1920s because he saw that field as very open to his efforts.  By the end of the 1920s and into the 1930s, Haycox's drive and pragmatic approach came clearly into focus.  To improve, to sell better, Haycox experimented with his heroes, heroines, and historical  content.  A never-stop-experimenting author, that was Haycox.


John Ford translated Haycox’s 1937 short story “The Stage to Lordsburg” into the classic film Stagecoach. Having read much of Haycox’s work I am struck that Haycox and Ford both do the small human moments well. The formal dance at a remote cavalry outpost, the meeting of community for barn raisings, in short, the small moments of humanity in these far-flung places. Do you think Ford was influenced by Haycox in more than that single film, or was Haycox influenced by Ford’s handling of Western material? Or, perhaps were two skilled craftsmen influencing one another?

John  Ford's purchase of Haycox's short story "Stage to Lordsburg" and its subsequent use in the Ford-John Wayne blockbuster movie Stagecoach (1939) was an amazing breakthrough for Haycox's career. I do not know of any other Ford-Haycox connections.  Haycox was not an inveterate reader of western fiction, thinking he wanted to avoid the influences of other authors writing about the West, and he was not much of a movie-attender, despite spending short times in Hollywood working on film scripts.

Haycox often pits East versus West, with the West a clear preference. Was this mere literary device or are we seeing a true point of view that existed off the page?

Ernest Haycox was a clear-cut chauvinistic westerner.  Born in Oregon, gone for a short military stint during World War I and in New York for publishing connections, Haycox married an Oregonian, and together with their two children, they lived in the Portland, Oregon, area until his death in 1950.  The Western generally depicted the western region as free and masculine, as much superior to an effete, over-civilized East. Without saying so explicitly, Haycox personally identified with these popular ideas. For example, in Haycox's first novel, Free Grass (1929), leading male characters  must return to or move west to find their positive, refreshed identities.

He wrote weather very well. By that I mean, man versus the elements. I call to mind the blizzard scene in his classic Custer novel Bugles in the Afternoon or even the short-story “Deep Winter.” I could also point to the story “Grasshopper Dance,” one can practically feel the heat baking the flesh and parching the skin. Do you have insight on personal experiences he may have drawn upon for this accuracy?

Haycox traveled widely in Oregon, studying the climates, terrains, and families of the Oregon subregions. Later, he also visited the Southwest and other places to see first hand those sites he would describe. Anyone raised in the state of Oregon, with its mild, very rainy climate, would be clearly aware of the shaping impact of climate.

Haycox was able to pull off a rarity, to my mind, in that he does the interiors of men and women rather well. His women don’t feel like mere pawns, they possess their own motivations and even when they are flawed they are not stick-figure “bad women.” I call to mind the women he draws in The Adventurers as being occupied by these full-bodied female characters. Do you know if he took pride in this ability, or to what he attributed this even-handed insight?

Haycox's career was a journey toward improvement and achievement.  Early on in his pulp stories and serials, he had trouble showing the personalities of his characters, too often telling readers what those figures believed or were.  At first, his men were stylized heroes of Westerns, patterned after the types that Zane Grey depicted or John Wayne played. His first women in pulp fiction were minor, wooden types.  In the 1930s in his Collier's short stories and later in his serials, he experimented with what was termed his "Hamlet heroes," meaning more reflective rather than entirely active men. Concurrently, Haycox began to employ two types of heroines: dark, brunette, and alluring women and virginal, blonde women. In his final historical novels, Haycox moved well beyond the earlier, more stereotyped men and women, and peopled these fictional works with full-bodied and more believable central characters.  Especially was this the case in The Earthbreakers (1952) and The Adventurers (1954). 

The author also does horses well. Not simply the namechecking of breeds, I refer to how it feels to ride, how it feels to be jarred by a bucking, stiff-legged, arch-backed animal. Did the author have a great deal of experience with animals or is this yet another example of talent drawing well?

Haycox knew farms much better than ranches.  As a boy, he lived on farms, and in his teenage years planned to be a farmer. Even after he built a huge 30-room mansion in Portland's elite Council Crest area, he followed his farming interests with a large garden, many trees, and other plants and bushes. So, Haycox had to learn about horses through his research.  True enough, he became a skilled delineator of horses and riders, an achievement the came via his reading rather than through his personal experiences.

You being the expert, do you have personal favorites among Haycox’s work?

I have three different favorites among Haycox's writings: (1) my favorite traditional historical Western: Bugles in the Afternoon (1944); (2) my favorite historical novel, The Earthbreakers (1952); and (3) among his short stories, the so-called Mercy family stories that appeared in Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post in the late 1940s. 



You have also provided insightful commentary on authors such H.L. Davis, Jack London, Wallace Stegner and others. What other authors besides Haycox would you guide Western enthusiasts towards. By all means, assume ignorance of the genre and be as obvious or as obscure as you desire, just who moves you and repays re-reading?

You have mentioned important western writers in H. L. Davis, Jack London, and Wallace Stegner.  I have a high regard for the writings of these authors.  I would add to that list the writings of Willa Cather, John Steinbeck, Ivan Doig, and Larry McMurtry.  All are superb novelists dealing with the American West.

You have written a staggering amount of Western history and other non-fiction on the subject. I know our focus here is fiction, but if you had to provide a single title of your non-fiction to introduce readers to this aspect of your work what would it be?

I suppose my most important book--at least for general readers--is Beyond the Missouri: The Story of the American West (2006). It is an overview of western history from earliest human settlement up to the twenty-first century.  My book that has attracted the most attention among specialists in western literature and history is Re-imagining the Modern American West: A Century of Fiction, History, and Art (1996).  It won the book-of-the-year award from the Western History Association.  Besides the Haycox book, which appeared in September 2017, I have a coauthored another book, with leading western historian Glenda Riley, Presidents Who Shaped the American West, forthcoming in February 2018.  I am currently at work on a two-volume biography of and reader's guide to the famous western outlaw  Billy the Kid.  I hope to complete that project in early fall 2018.


Sincere thanks to Mr. Etulain for taking the time to offer such considered answers. I heartily urge all interested in Western fiction and/or Western history to plunge into his work, the time spent is enjoyable and repays greatly.

And by all means, if you’re not already an Ernest Haycox admirer, I envy you in reading him for the first time.

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