August 5, 2002
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
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.
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
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
Owens earned his bachelor's and masters 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 ones 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 writingboth
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
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
"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,