Author Profiles 2007:
(Clackamas, Oregon)

Photo by Brian Liddy

Nobody has explained the western half of the United States with more depth and character -- in part because he can tell you something about all its "characters" -- than Richard Etulain. About two-thirds of the way into this interview are concise accounts of Ten Valuable Books. You also get an audio sidebar, where Etulain explains the life and times of Wallace Stegner, "our Wise Man of the American West." Read this Q&A to see why "Deadwood Dick," environmental themes and urbanization are a bigger help in understanding the western states than are the Marlboro Man and rodeos. The son of a Spanish Basque immigrant and a westerner by birth and heritage, Etulain is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of New Mexico, which is why you can still reach him using baldbasq@unm.edu. But he and his wife Joyce have lived in Oregon since 2002. At the University of New Mexico, Etulain edited the New Mexico Historical Review and directed the Center for the American West. He's the author, co-author or editor of a wide array of books, including Conversations with Wallace Stegner; Re-imagining the American West: A Century of Fiction, History, and Art; Telling Western Stories: From Buffalo Bill to Larry McMurtry, and Western Lives: A Biographical History of the American West. To Etulain -- pronounced "Ed-a-Lane," with a slight emphasis on the first syllable -- the American West is "Beyond the Missouri" (which also happens to be the title of his 2006 book), but not all the way to Hawaii or Alaska. As of mid-2007, he is working on a biography of Calamity Jane and a study of Abraham Lincoln and the U.S. West; the latter project is discussed toward the end of this Q&A...

Part One: Lots of Room, Plenty of Rules

FRANK GREGORSKY: You are growing up during the 1940s? Where?

Dr. RICHARD ETULAIN: In the state of Washington. We were on the large ranch until '49; but, when I was in the seventh grade, we moved just outside of Ellensburg -- small farm, 300 acres, a livestock and hay farm. We stayed there until the move to Moses Lake in 1954.

GREGORSKY: What kind of a kid were you?

ETULAIN: An outdoors ranch kid, the youngest of three boys. We lived 22 miles from [Ritzville] on a 10,000-acre sheep and cattle ranch. My father was a hard worker and my mom did a lot to support him and the ranch. She would say to us three boys: "Here are your bikes, and if you want to pack your own lunch, I'll see you for supper." We had free rein -- 10,000 acres is quite a few miles -- and it was physical. If you read about Wallace Stegner's early life, I identified with his growing up in western Canada, during the years before he moved to town. I didn't move to town until the final year of high school.

GREGORSKY: Let's fast-forward for a bit -- the names of your two brothers and what they would go on to do.

ETULAIN: Dan is one year older. He was a hands-on "let's see how it works" type, and was always interested in audio-visual. He also has a PhD, in education, but didn't use it much. He became an owner of television stations in Alaska, and he's still there. The other brother -- a half-brother, Ken -- was about five years older than me. He was a reluctant learner [smiling]. He left home, went into the service, and came back quite disciplined. Learned science and math, became an engineer, and died a couple years ago from cancer.

GREGORSKY: What type?

ETULAIN: Lung cancer. He was a smoker all his life. Economically, he did well -- probably made as much money, as an engineer, as the two teachers combined [grinning].

GREGORSKY: Did you ever wish you had a sister?

ETULAIN: No, never thought about that. It was a very masculine world I grew up in.

GREGORSKY: What is some fact or theme that exemplifies your mother?

ETULAIN: She believed that education was the key to the future. Over and over, we boys heard: "Oh, he's got a college education. Oh, he's got a college education." She would see professionals, and what they could do. For Dad, assembling land and capital, and owning things, signified that he had arrived. I'm sure Mom enjoyed those things too, but she rarely said much about them; she said a lot about college educations.

GREGORSKY: During junior high, other than maybe civics or social studies, how did the outside world find its way to you?

ETULAIN: Even in fourth and fifth grade, I loved drawing maps of the world. I loved geography, which provided a kind of vicarious travel. Our family didn't travel any. My father believed work was salvation -- for him, and for his boys. He started working when he was nine years old, in the old country: Spain.

GREGORSKY: One of the best things about the way Beyond the Missouri conveys the past 400 years is that the reader gets a map or other helpful graphic every 20 or 25 pages.

ETULAIN: Good, good. And I was a "fact" kid. Mathematics was the subject I shined in. I liked the facts of history and I liked the facts of geography. In no way was I an "imaginative" or "philosophical" kid. So what did I read? Boys books, sports books, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Chip Hilton's sports books.

GREGORSKY: As opposed to Sherlock Holmes or other books that set the mind in complicated motion --

ETULAIN: Not till later! And, because it was a religious home, I read a lot of "if you love Jesus, you'll get along okay" -- the sort of schmaltzy, adventure and romantic kind of Christian books.

GREGORSKY: What denomination?

ETULAIN: Church of the Nazarene -- evangelical and conservative Methodist. Which is unusual, because a "Basque Nazarene" is like Sammy Davis Jr. being Jewish [laughter] -- a cultural oxymoron! But that has a lot to do with my conviction that the stories we tell ought to be complex. Not just black and white or a contrast of two opposites. In Beyond the Missouri and other works, I try to talk about the complexities of western history.

GREGORSKY: How did you begin writing?

ETULAIN: That was a real challenge. Because English was a second language for my father, what I heard from him was "Yes. No. Get up" and "go to work." As the years went along, Mom was much more interested in seeing that we went to college. I also had a grandmother who brought all kinds of books -- whatever she could get from the five- and 10-cent bins in her used bookstore.

GREGORSKY: What was her name?

ETULAIN: Grandma Jennie Gillard.

GREGORSKY: How old was your father when he came to the U.S.?

ETULAIN: He was 19, but he didn't marry my mother until he was 34 years old. It was his first marriage, her second.

GREGORSKY: So your father was not in Spain during the Civil War?

ETULAIN: No. He left in 1920.

GREGORSKY: In the intro to Beyond the Missouri, you say he "diversified his investments to include a wheat ranch, a motel and apartments."

ETULAIN: In '49, he had traded the 10,000-acre stock ranch for a wheat ranch -- 3,000 acres. We never lived on it. We rented it out to the same man for the next three decades. Wheat sometimes did very well -- for example, in 1972 when the Russians bought so much American wheat. That wheat ranch was the major inheritance for us boys. The man living next to it eventually had six sons, and Dad sold it to him about a year before he died in 1983.

GREGORSKY: And what about the rental properties?

ETULAIN: Dad traded that Ellensburg farm for a motel, and he and Mom lived there. They had the money to do anything they wanted, but they lived in an area not much larger than this loft office -- from 1954 on. In 1963, they built a nice house. It was the only house they ever built; and -- here's my father for you -- the house had a bomb shelter.

[Mutual laughter]

Part Two: Learning to Write for the General Public

GREGORSKY: Were you glad to get out of high school?

ETULAIN: [Pause] Because I had this religious upbringing, I decided to go to our church-related school in Idaho, Northwest Nazarene College. Except for athletics -- I played baseball -- I felt out of it socially in high school. Our family didn't go to movies or dances, didn't smoke or drink. So I was happy to go to a church-related [college], because there, socially, I would be a part of what was going on.

GREGORSKY: Yep, right.

ETULAIN: My brother Dan didn't care, but I very much wanted to participate socially. And those next five years, as a college student at that church-related school, opened up vistas socially and culturally. This was in Nampa, Idaho -- right next to Boise. The population is now about 75 to 80,000.

Concentrating on American literature, Dick assumed he would be a high-school teacher. Taking at least a dozen courses from one professor, Marian Washburn, he read many of the classics. A transplanted New Englander, "she came along at the right time." Etulain was an English major, and picked up History as a second major in his fourth and firth years. Graduate school was at the University of Oregon. But he was still weak on analysis. His papers would come back: "Too much plot summary. You need to really dig in." So he learned how to "tear apart a novel, short story, or a poem."

GREGORSKY: The reluctance to interpret or analyze -- does that go back to being a "fact kid"?

ETULAIN: Primarily it was because of family, church, and community. My family made strong suggestions as to what "truth" should be, and what you should follow. In church, truth came from the ministers and the "church fathers." And our small community did not encourage me to break out and become a thinker on my own.

GREGORSKY: Why didn't you end up teaching high school?

ETULAIN: I tried it during graduate school, half-time one year, part-time the next. And I really didn't like discipline -- the pressure of trying to "keep the lid on" all the time. This was a rural high school, and these were logger kids, not much motivated.

GREGORSKY: Your mother lived to a ripe old age, it sounds like.

ETULAIN: Yes. She died in 1999 at the age of 85. I'm now getting to the age -- my daughter is 37, and when I see her name in print, and she gets saluted for things, I can see the joy from that. My mom probably felt the same when I got invited to do something or one of my books won a prize. Mom never really had much educational opportunity -- but she lived through her kids. And I was the most academic of all. "Dickie" was the book-reader.

Mom believed -- practically -- that a college education would open doors. But that's not so much "intellectual" as sort of social and cultural. I wanted my daughter to get a college education just as strongly, but it was more because I loved ideas. I wanted her to love ideas and books just like I did. So my parental push was more academic and intellectual -- although, Frank, I don't call myself a "scholar."


ETULAIN: It's because, even though I do books and so on, I am not a "public" intellectual. I don't go out and talk ideas. Instead, I make popular presentations; I write books for the general public. Don Worster, Patty Limerick, and Richard White are closer to what I would call public intellectuals. My mentor Earl Pomeroy; he was an intellectual, he was erudite -- a scholarly kind of historian.

GREGORSKY: I want to ask you about Pomeroy later. For now, how can you love ideas, and not be an intellectual?

ETULAIN: [Pause] In part, I'm not so much a peddler of ideas, as I am a story-teller about people.

GREGORSKY: That's it; that was my suspicion. Good.

ETULAIN: And I would say to you, Frank, it was probably in the past 10 or 15 years that I had realized I had written primarily for my fellow academics. I wanted to get their stroking. In the decade before retiring, I would admit to seminar students: "We prepare you for these graduate seminars, in your master's and doctoral work, to write a dissertation. It's to be for us. It's to be a thorough monograph. But it gets you tenure. It gets you your union card." Although the Lincoln scholar Frank Williams has a different way of associating all this, my good friend Frank Szasz, I think, would say: "I want to write for the general public. I want the butcher down there to be comfortable with one of my books." And now I want that same possibility.

Both Frank Williams, Rhode Island's chief justice, and Ferenc "Frank" Szasz, still teaching at the University of New Mexico, are also part of the Exacting Editor author-profile series. Here are those links:

www.ExactingEditor.com/FrankWilliams.html            www.ExactingEditor.com/SzaszNewMexico.html

GREGORSKY: The writing style of this book of yours from 1996, Re-imagining the American West, versus this one, Beyond the Missouri, 2006 -- they sound almost like two different authors.

ETULAIN: Yeah, yeah. I began to think: How do I appeal to that butcher down there, who likes to read about the American West? I can't push myself all the way to Louis L'Amour, and I can't write as well as Wallace Stegner -- but what kind of techniques or narrative tricks will draw more people into the story?

Part Three: From Brigham Young to Louis L'Amour

GREGORSKY: I'm going to name an array of persons -- not all of whom are real -- and ask you to give your take on them. Basically, we are offering sketches [and will later insert a few links]; and if you need an audience [for this exercise], think of a history-minded person who is 40 or younger. First one -- Brigham Young, appointed by President Fillmore to be Governor of Utah when it was just a territory (something I never knew until reading Beyond the Missouri).

ETULAIN: I'm sometimes accused of being an apologist for the Mormons. Well, they are truly an interesting group, especially when it comes to settling the west. You don't have to say whether you agree or disagree with their approach to religion and worship, but we can't understand the Mormons without mentioning Brigham Young and Joseph Smith.

I get in trouble with my evangelical friends for putting it this way, but -- Joseph Smith is a Jesus Christ kind of figure. He is about ideas -- "come and follow me." But he's not much of an organizer. Consider Saint Paul, who was the organizer for early Christians -- an organizer as well as a missionary. He was a different kind of person from Jesus Christ. "Brother Brigham" is likewise different from "Brother Joseph." Brother Joseph is a stimulator and a beginner of a new religion; but if a Brigham Young had not come behind Joseph Smith, the Mormons would have faced very difficult times. They might not have been able to make that move from the Midwest to the Rockies and beyond. From 1845 to his death in 1877, Brother Brigham kept them organized. But they still would've had to deal with that question of polygamy, which just about broke up the church.

Here's a prediction: By 2050 or 2075, judging from what's happening right now, the Mormons will be so large they will be a major world religion.

GREGORSKY: How are they doing in Africa?

ETULAIN: Very well. And they're doing especially well in the Pacific islands and in South America. They're even doing fairly well in Europe.

GREGORSKY: Amazing. If that's the case, our mainstream press is ignorant in its coverage of Mitt Romney, for example.

ETULAIN: The Mormons reached 11 million by 2000, with five million of those being in the United States. And I like to ask analytic questions: Well, why? In percentage terms, the three fastest-growing groups in the United States are -- first, Jehovah's Witness; then the Mormons; and then the Pentecostals.

GREGORSKY: Next two figures from the American West -- Deadwood Dick and Calamity Jane.

ETULAIN: Deadwood Dick is a dime-novel figure. Dime novelists sometimes wrote "without fear or research" [laughter]. Calamity Jane was dragged into that series of novels to be the heroine -- which made her into a national figure.

GREGORSKY: She isn't a real person either -- or was she?

ETULAIN: Oh yes, very much a real person. She was in Deadwood [South Dakota] in 1876, a book came out that spoke about her in 1877, and some stories appeared in a New York magazine. But most of what Calamity Jane is -- in that dime novel from 1877 -- is imagined.

GREGORSKY: What can we say about her "transformation"?

ETULAIN: A dime novelist from New York -- Edward L. Wheeler -- was writing novels about the west. He started with [the character] Deadwood Dick, a good man fighting the bad guys. They have done him in on the east coast, so he ends up in Deadwood, South Dakota. He is disguised. But the bad guys come after him, as a way to get at his family. By the end of that first novel, Calamity Jane is introduced -- again, this is about 1877.  Wheeler evidently saw some of those stories about her in the New York magazine.

GREGORSKY: Was she dead by then?

ETULAIN: No no, she died in 1903; born in 1856. So she was 21 when that dime novel appeared. Dime novels had been appearing for nearly 30 years, and by this time popular fiction had to have heroines as well as heroes. The guy who is the authority on Calamity Jane is Jim McLaird of Dakota Wesleyan University in South Dakota; his book is superb and very thorough. I maybe know the second most about her.

For more, see http://www.cowgirls.com/dream/cowgals/calamity.htm

GREGORSKY: Next name for your quick take -- Frederick Jackson Turner.

ETULAIN: I think he's the most important historian we've ever had in the United States -- even though most historians are not Turnerians. Including myself! He's the person who defines what he thinks it is to be an American -- and what has caused an American. The West is our moving frontier. Turner is a product of that nationalism of the late 19th century, so he's speaking out of his culture. What he was really saying in his famous 1893 lecture and elsewhere is: "We've done enough looking back at Europe, and that perspective is important. But if you really want to understand why we are different from those people who came from Germany or England, you need to understand the American frontier."

GREGORSKY: In one of your books, you describe Turner as an academic who overpromised and could rarely get his books and articles done on time, or at all. So, if he had this powerful of an insight in the early 1890s, isn't it a tragedy that he didn't produce more output?

ETULAIN: Well, yes and no.

GREGORSKY: Or -- he "did what he had to do." Nailing down that one big theme?

ETULAIN: [Pause]. At least for Western history, he had a second important idea. During the 1920s -- and this is a paraphrase -- he said it was time to talk about the next generation. The first generation was the movement onto the frontier. Stay long enough, and you get some new experiences, over time and subsequent generations. In the 1920s, he said we ought also to study "sections," which meant the same thing as we mean by regions.

GREGORSKY: People weren't doing regional studies by the 1920s?

ETULAIN: [Pause] Some people were doing it. But, in historical circles, Turner is pretty much the first person to say that. Probably no ideas about history, in the United States, were more popular and widespread than Turner's -- from about 1900 into the 1930s. And some people say that, as late as the 1950s, if you were asked what's the most important shaping influence, the typical answer was the frontier.

GREGORSKY: Next name, the person you say is "the best-selling western writer of all time" -- Louis L'Amour.

ETULAIN: Yeah. When I would talk to my seminar students, and they were pooh-poohing Louis L'Amour -- as if he were the lowest rung of Dante's Hell [smiling] -- I'd say: "All right, for every monograph you read in here, and you're a ‘historian reader' of that monograph, probably 10,000 people out there are reading one of Louis L'Amour's novels. If you're a student of the American west, you need to know what Louis L'Amour says, in his novels -- and maybe try to discern why people are reading them."

GREGORSKY: So what is the answer?

ETULAIN: His value system includes the strong idea of the lone individual -- the key figure in American history. L'Amour saw himself as replicating that. He left home at age 16 and wandered, becoming a self-made man. He used the characters in his novels -- the Sacketts, Talons, and the others -- to illustrate those values.

His admirers have argued: "Well, he knows his geography." Yes, he has gone to specific places to get the details down. I don't take up that argument, but I will say [as a shift in the evaluation]: "Do those fellows in the novels ever lose? And is that true of the world you live in?" In other words, truth must not be tied to a particular novelist putting every pimple and wart in Durango, Colorado, into the story. That's a very limited kind of truth.

GREGORSKY: It's "accuracy" without being reality?

ETULAIN: Well, it could be factual reality. But what happens to the characters who come onto that landscape? The winners and losers, the characters who are good guys versus those that wear the black hats, are so stereotypical that it doesn't allow for the full spectrum of people that Frank Gregorsky and Dick Etulain live with. As a historian, I've been arguing for 30 years that we ought not to see the western past that way -- or any historical past.

Part Four: César Chávez, Patty Limerick, Marilynne Robinson

GREGORSKY: All right, now here's someone you are not "shades of grey" about. You are highly laudatory and call him a hero: César Chávez.

ETULAIN: Yes. I like reformers. I also like people who work really hard, and rise above their circumstances. César Chávez is both -- although some people want to start him "too low." His folks did own property. Toward the end of the ‘30s, they lost out -- and then Chávez did have to do migrant labor.

He was born in the United States. He went into the service, married well -- Helen was a strong supporter of his -- and they had a large family (eight kids). A quiet guy, he was a bulldog once you set him on something. He proved how good he was at organizing in the California Bay Area. Then he tried to get the community organizers he worked for to set up something -- a union -- for the Mexican workers. They wouldn't do it. So he left -- but he had no income.

GREGORSKY: And a large family.

ETULAIN: And a large family. So the Teamsters offered him a really good job to organize workers, along with money for organizational costs. He said: "If I do that, you will call the shots." He turned them down. He almost took the oath of poverty -- and his family did too; they supported him. What's interesting is that I haven't seen any negative reports from any of his eight grown kids. Among the eight, there surely must have been a critic or two! But -- no reports take the route that "Dad did us short." So he seemed to have been a really good father too. He gave his life for a cause, for the betterment of people, and never (so far as I can tell) raked in a dollar.

GREGORSKY: Um-hmmm [approvingly].

ETULAIN: Now, here's a major ambivalence. César Chávez was never, ever a supporter of undocumented immigrants coming across the line illegally. His argument was -- and I can see this -- "for every illegal immigrant that comes over, it means a lesser salary for the people I'm trying to organize."

GREGORSKY: And he was born an American, so he never had to go through that.

ETULAIN: Yes, yes. So, an awful lot of Chicanos -- including several of my academic colleagues (who are Americans, born here) -- who are very sympathetic to farm-worker unionization, are not nearly as high on César Chávez as I am. They say he was too negative, and he really should have helped out "the people." But I would have agreed with him. If you want to raise the salaries, and the living, of the people who are already here -- the legal workers here who used to live in Mexico -- you don't do it by allowing a large number of new people to come in.

GREGORSKY: Right. You are simply importing poverty.

ETULAIN: The Texas ranchers are gonna hire them at $2 less an hour.

GREGORSKY: That's right.

ETULAIN: So, I like people who give away their lives. And César Chávez is a hero in that way. Not very many people, Frank, would I celebrate like that.

GREGORSKY: Understood. Okay, we talked about her movement yesterday, but start fresh, and tell us about Patricia Limerick, who now goes by "Patty."

ETULAIN: She reflects the "changing of the guard" not only in western historiography, but in American historiography generally. Race, class and gender become issues -- [back in the late 1960s] we called it the New Social History. It comes later in western history -- maybe 10 years later. Takes a long time to get out west [laughter].

Patty is reflective of the California emphases -- the urban and race-class-gender themes. She graduated from the experimental University of California in Santa Cruz, went to Yale, for American Studies, and became very interested in seeing the west through new eyes. In the ‘70s, people were starting to challenge the Turnerian interpretation, not so much frontally, but saying Turner left out some segments. For example, he didn't do enough with the Indians. By the end of the ‘70s, they were talking about environmental history.

Well, all of those ideas came together in Limerick -- except that she never did very much with gender, and a lot of people who specialize in women's experience in the west are still critical of her for that omission. Well, she turned her dissertation into a book. It dealt with environmental history, but nobody would have said "this will be a startling new person."

GREGORSKY: And the landmark book is --

ETULAIN: The Legacy of Conquest. In 1987, it arrived like a bomb. Within a year, she was right toward the top of western historians -- with a new view. She and other like-minded historians became known as the "New Western Historians." I immediately assigned her book in class. And she loved to perform: With a drop of the hat, she could get up and talk. But she could also speak on the level of the local Rotarian Club. She loved going out into the community. She also became a part-time stringer for the New York Times and got a Nieman Fellowship.

GREGORSKY: She had all the bases covered! This late ‘80s surge -- was it too much too fast?

ETULAIN: I'm not gonna say that. The positive thing is: It brought western history right to the forefront. The way in which the New Western Historians did "western history" was quite different from the way I have done it. They brought about a pendulum swing -- away from the more traditional Turnerian (which I was never was, either). Despite the critics, the New Western history was very popular until the mid-1990s. Then the academic field of western history was kind of fragmented for a few years. By the end of the ‘90s, the bad feelings were pretty much gone. We have had almost a decade now with no "shootout at the OK Corral."

GREGORSKY: Where is Patty Limerick now?

ETULAIN: At the Center for the American West at Boulder. She really is the power behind the throne of that Center. They try to do a lot of public-policy issues (land, water). It's part of the University of Colorado. And she was also able to get some corporation money from Denver.

Later I looked at her web display -- it jives with my own (Boom) generation's tendency to mix diary-style observations with public analysis. To survey the "public intellectual" output Etulain references, start here -- www.centerwest.org/about/patty/articles/index.php

GREGORSKY: Final name, and the most current one on this roster: Marilynne Robinson.

ETULAIN: Yes. I'm attracted to Robinson because she comes from a northern Idaho background. Like a Henry David Thoreau coming from Concord, Robinson comes from a small town but can see the world in larger terms. She's a very talented writer and thinker -- and eventually wrote superb novels. Her first novel -- Housekeeping, in 1981 -- is set in north Idaho, her second book is in Iowa. She's a wonderful stylist -- kind of experimental.

GREGORSKY: Her themes are?

ETULAIN: Housekeeping is "feminist" in that it's about women's experiences. The second novel -- Gilead, in 2004 -- is primarily about men's experiences. She wrote nonfiction too, but those are her two novels. And I would say that any book that's written about a minister, and can win the Pulitzer Prize -- as Gilead did -- has to be a book that plumbs the depths, and is not a preachment, not a moralistic story.


ETULAIN: The book illustrates an author who is "thoughtful about her thoughts." She has obviously been a churchgoer for a long time -- or else, theology in some way or another intrigues her. Because Gilead shows this minister reflecting on many leading religious thinkers of all time. Now, my traditional western friends -- the people who like Louis L'Amour novels -- they don't like Gilead very well; they say nothing happens in the first 50 pages. That's true! Because Robinson is establishing the character of her major figure -- this is a book about character. Something has happened -- and these events take place in Iowa and Kansas -- but the setting is not as important as the characters, and their ideas.

As a literary achievement, Gilead is superb.

Ten Valuable Books on the American West

For those who are bibliophiles, but not keen on Author Profiles per se, here's a very big sidebar. One of Dick Etulain's talks is on "25 Major Books about the West." Since roughly half of his list is fiction, and ExactingEditor.com stresses non-fiction, I asked him instead to give us 10 non-fiction titles, and say what makes each one worthwhile or unique. He made the list chronological, and to emphasize its historical progression I took the further step of putting the years before each title. So this section mixes journalism and executive summary -- his quotes, knitted together with my paraphrasing and an occasional interpretation. Afterwards, we rejoin the Q&A format...

1921 -- The Frontier in American History by Frederick Jackson Turner

Earlier in this document, you saw a link to the landmark Turner essay of 1893. "Probably 10 years after that essay," Etulain explains, "he had climbed to the top of the historians." He was still near the top in 1921, when "This book collected the major essays Turner published between 1890 and 1920. He made several notable points but one was more important than the others: Historians must stop looking to Europe for America's cultural roots and instead study the American frontier to understand what made us tick."

One of the major professional insights Etulain offered in my nine hours of talk with him is that Frederick Jackson Turner had a problem completing projects, although "he did better finishing essays than he did with books." A teaching salary wasn't enough to keep Turner and his wife economically aloft. "He liked nice things, she liked nice things, and quite often he would sign those contracts and get advances" -- but the manuscript deadlines languished. "He was a procrastinator." Even with those weaknesses is self-management, Professor Turner enjoyed a spectacular run.

And surprisingly, this entire 1921 collection of essays can be accessed for free -- http://xroads.virginia.edu/~Hyper/TURNER/

1931 -- The Great Plains by Walter Prescott Webb

At the start of the 1930s, Turner's "frontier" framework was past due for replacement. Along came Webb. "This straightforwardly written book," explains Etulain, "taught us to think about the American West as a region, or at least as a group of subregions." The author is a nationalistic Texan, and occasionally implies "the Great Plains are no larger than Texas." Webb is also "a 1931 person" in that he treats Indians as a bridge between animal life and the white settlers, starting with the Spaniards -- "but really he wants to celebrate the Anglos." In other words, no reader should pick up this book expecting a cosmopolitan perspective.

"What he really did, and did well," notes Etulain, "is to look at the human response to landscape. Here's his argument: The southern Plains area was not necessarily good for farming. Therefore the people who came had to learn how to bring technology to this arid area and to make a living." Webb boiled their strategy down to three methods: Irrigation, barbed wire, and the six-gun.

The next to last chapter of The Great Plains is about literature, which delights Etulain: "If you want to understand the region that has grown up, look at the kind of writing they have done. What are the themes? What are the characters? What are the ideas?" Bottom line: "What Webb did -- given his prejudices -- was provide a model for studying a place, and how the culture evolves over time."

1950 -- Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth by Henry Nash Smith

Because this book by Smith had such a profound impact on Etulain, I read some two-thirds of it between our two days of meetings in Oregon. Start with this declaration from his 1996 book Re-imagining the American West: "Smith's book remains the most provocative work ever written on the mythic West... Indeed, two generations after its publication, specialists place it at the top of the list of books that have shaped their thinking and writing." Smith showed historians that beliefs (he used the word "myths" and "symbols") about the West, whether factual or not, were often as important as facts in understanding why people and forces played out as they did.

"Virgin Land was published in 1950. I was in graduate school from 1960 to '66 -- and not once did I hear that book mentioned in English departments. But in History departments? They were reading it." But why should it have been mentioned in English departments? Because Henry Nash Smith "was from a Department of English. He dealt more with literature than he did with any other subject. Although, in an English department, you wouldn't have studied the dime novel. That's ‘sub-literature,' just like comic books. And you wouldn't treat a written account by explorers as literature -- that would be for the history people. He thought all of these sources were important because they helped to formulate myths." Remember, Etulain is using the word myth in "the way the cultural anthropologists use it -- an idea, which may or may not be true, but has the power to move us: Individually, and as a culture."

1952 -- The Course of Empire by Bernard DeVoto

Part of a trilogy, this "engagingly written book" is about the period from first white entry into the West through Lewis and Clark. Like Henry Nash Smith, author DeVoto used "myth" in a non-pejorative way to connote "a story about a place that motivated us," whether the story was factual or not. Myths and stories could also alienate -- for example, maps circa 1840 showed Arkansas and Texas to be "the great American Desert." Not true, and it didn't matter. Restless new Americans went to Nebraska and Kansas instead.

Etulain calls DeVoto "a classic narrative historian of the American West." I learned that "narrative" history differs from "interpretive" as well as "analytical" accounts. "The importance of these books" -- this one and the other two that comprise DeVoto's trilogy -- "is their wonderful narrative drive. If you're not an interpretive historian or an analytical historian, then the narrative ought to be strong enough that it carries people, which means having points of view." Not shy about his opinions, DeVoto aimed "to write history with verve" and became "a master story-telling historian."

1965 -- The Pacific Slope: A History of California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah and Alaska by Earl Pomeroy

Etulain describes The Pacific Slope as "a scholar's book." Flipping through the book, his students back in New Mexico might scratch their heads. So Etulain had them dwell on its opening sentence: "The Pacific Slope is both the most western and, after the east itself, the most eastern part of America. No other part is more like the Atlantic Seaboard and Western Europe. No part is more different. And no part has wished more to be both." Etulain recalls fellow academic followers of Pomeroy marveling at how "he could get more into a sentence or paragraph than anybody else." Former Yale President Howard Lamar called Pomeroy "the most erudite western historian of his generation." As a mentor to Dick Etulain, Pomeroy was "reclusive" -- but "he always taught us to the see the complexity of the western past." "He had a flair with language, although he wrote primarily for intellectuals; he was, in all ways, a professional academic historian."

Worth mentioning: Pomeroy's final book, on which he worked nearly 40 years -- and on which Etulain is doing the final editing -- is on its way from Yale University Press: The Far West in the 20th Century. Etulain calls it "a superbly researched book on the post-1900 West that provides fresh insights into the economic, political, and social history of the region."

1984 -- The Indian Frontier of the American West, 1846-1890 -- by Robert M. Utley

In Dick Etulain's view, "No living historian has done a better job of writing superb narrative history about the West for the general public." And this "is a fairly traditional book." It's not the study of an ethnic group or race, nor is it "from the Indian perspective." It's written mainly "from the white perspective -- but very well-written, and the best book we have, on this time period, in dealing with white experiences with the Indians." Author Utley has just finished a two-volume history of the Texas Rangers. Interestingly, he was the chief historian for the National Park Service, and Etulain figures "he learned early on how to write for the general public."

1987 -- The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West by Patricia Nelson Limerick

Earlier in this web profile, Limerick was cited for bringing modern advocacies to western history, which Boomer authors did in various fields. Limerick, a teenager during the tumultuous late ‘60s, was 36 when The Legacy of Conquest hit the shelves. It was the first big offering of the New Western History movement. Etulain and Limerick have been friends for nearly 20 years. But when he'd describe her themes as negative, "she would counter, no, just realistic." The book's themes are: "(1) Mistreatment of minority groups, from the beginning right up to now; (2) the cupidity and selfishness of settlers; (3) mistreatment of the natural environment."

Sounds like she filled a historical and to some extent ideological gap? "She did," Etulain told me. "No one had made all these arguments in one book, and it's well-written." The reaction was either an "instant embrace" or, among the traditional western historians, recoil and disdain. Limerick and allied colleagues triggered academic polarities that lasted into the mid-1990s. "Yes," Etulain adds, western American history reveals "a lot of clash, conflict and conquest -- but there was also community and combination." So, benefit from Limerick's perspective, but throw in "some more Cs" -- which is what Etulain achieves in his most recent book, Beyond the Missouri (University of New Mexico Press, 2006, 465 pages).

1991 -- "It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own": A New History of the American West by Richard White

Covering from first white contact to our own era, this book by Richard White "provided an analytical, evaluative overview of the West. No one before White had done this. It's a very thoughtful and interpretive book that has appealed more to scholars than to general readers." But what a strange title! Etulain explains: "White once told me he had a hard time getting the University of Oklahoma Press to keep that title. It comes from a famous cowboy story, and it was loaded with implications."

Why did White insist on that title? "Like Patty Limerick, White contended that those settlers took little responsibility for anything that went wrong." Instead, the cause was nature, or God trying to make a point, or some troublesome set of Indians. "So Richard writes this 600-page book with no mention of the word frontier or Frederick Jackson Turner," Etulain says good-naturedly. Those omissions are "marvelous," and White "is a wonderfully thoughtful guy," perhaps even "an Earl Pomeroy 20 years later."

1998 -- The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado by Elliott West

Elliott West deals with the varied groups of people who settled the central Plains West, from the first Native Americans to the late 19th century. The Contested Plains is quite critical of white settlers -- "but it's also critical of Native Americans. He's studying human relationships with the landscape. West concludes there were too many Indians and horses on the landscape of those Plains -- even before the whites arrived, that area was already in trouble environmentally. It got even worse when the gold-rushers came across; they mistreated the land even more."

Yes, Elliott West opted to take on a modern misconception -- the premise "that Indians always treated the environment well." In touch with their roots, the New Age spin, etc. West is having none of that. Environmentally, he is consistent; as an advocate, he is restrained. And how's his writing? "His father was a newspaperman, Elliott worked as a journalist, and he's a superb writer." And appreciate this: "West has gained support from the whole spectrum of western history -- from the traditionalists to the New Western Historians. You can see it by the endorsements on his book."

1999 -- Into the West: The Story of its People by Walter Nugent

Walter Nugent is "a social historian. His first book was on the Populists. He has done a lot on immigration, and migration history. And this [1999 book] studies the people who came into the American West, starting with the Indian migrations, and going right up to around 1995." For example, by using Census and other statistical information, Nugent shows us "what was the typical migrant coming into California in the 1920s." He builds his chronology on demographic trends -- "when there's a big up, or a big down, or a shift one way or another."

"That kind of research makes for a book that tells you what kind of people -- over time, and especially during the 19th and 20th centuries -- came to the American West. Nobody had done that before," Etulain declares admiringly, "and I don't think it'll need to be done again for a while. Like Elliott West, Nugent deals with these topics in a very balanced way. No one would accuse him of swinging left or right in his interpretations. I think he and West illustrate what I call a ‘more complex western history' that has emerged since the mid-1990s." And, as a bonus, "Nugent is a superb writer."

Conclusion: "Lincoln and the West" (underway)

GREGORSKY: Abraham Lincoln is a hero to me, as he apparently is to you. What can you say about your Lincoln project?

ETULAIN: While we were teaching together at the University of New Mexico for more than 20 years, Frank Szasz and I would often talk about Lincoln projects. We'd make popular presentations. He went around the state of New Mexico doing Lincoln things, and I usually did them in class, or for local non-academic groups. Finally I thought: Why not do a book that brings together my lay interests and my academic specialty? The idea of Abraham Lincoln and the American West began to percolate. I looked to see what was out there about this large subject. Virtually nothing.

GREGORSKY: Not even pieces in scholarly journals?

ETULAIN: Oh yes. Look at it this way: Jesus Christ has had the most books written about him, maybe Napoleon comes next, or perhaps Abe Lincoln. More than 1,400 books have appeared on Lincoln. There were even books or essays that dealt with Lincoln and parts of the west, or partially on western topics. But it was going to take a long time to research and write a full-length study of Lincoln and the American West. Early in 2006, I got an e-mail from Sylvia Rodrigue, an editor at the Southern Illinois University Press. "One of my colleagues at the University of New Mexico Press says you're thinking about doing a book on Lincoln and the west. If you're interested enough, send me an outline."

I proposed two projects. One book would bring together 10 to 12 essays --  on such topics as Lincoln on slavery, Lincoln on the Mexican-American War, Lincoln and the statehood of Nevada, or Lincoln and western patronage politics -- out of the 100 or so books and essays listed in my bibliography of items on Lincoln and the American West. I'd write an introduction of probably 40 pages that would talk about him in the 1840s to the mid-1860s, when Illinois was seen as part of the west, and he's seen as a westerner. Then I'll have a conclusion -- bibliographical essay -- dealing with what people have said about Lincoln and the west.

The editor replied: "We're interested in that, especially if you can get it in by 2008, before the bicentennial in 2009."

ETULAIN: That collection of previously published essays will be an introductory volume to this large subject. But I explained to Sylvia that I'd want to use that introduction in the second book -- an overview of "Abraham Lincoln and the American west." She wrote back approving the first book, the one I just outlined. She was also interested in the second one, but I couldn't make that commitment. Depends on how the first one works out.

And I'll be about 70 years of age when I'm starting the second one -- a big book, probably taking four or five years to write. Well, who knows what your health is gonna be at age 70?

GREGORSKY: What's the time-line for the one you outlined?

ETULAIN: Even though I've done a lot of preliminary reading and research, I'm supposed to start writing in September of 2007, and finish in September of 2008. I have about 75 Lincoln books that deal in part with Lincoln and the West, about 40 or 50 of which were bought in the past two years.

GREGORSKY: Any comments on the various Lincoln museums and displays?

ETULAIN: If you haven't had an opportunity yet, sneak into Springfield and go to the new Lincoln museum there.

GREGORSKY: I interviewed Julie Cellini, who chairs the board of trustees at the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. She organized much of the fundraising. They have interactive devices?

ETULAIN: Yes, if you go into the museum, you sit down, and the seats rumble with Civil War sounds and battles, and a virtual-reality figure comes walking into a library scene behind the plate glass. You think there's surely a man standing behind that plate glass, talking to you [laughter].

GREGORSKY: Cellini said they have been zinged by some historians and classicists for taking a "theme park" tack. But she says it has done more to bring Lincoln to life for young people than anything else in decades.

ETULAIN: As a practicing historian, I can tell you it's the best museum experience I've ever had.

GREGORSKY: Lincoln is also a hero to "Frank" Szasz and Judge Frank Williams. What does he mean to you?

ETULAIN: This is a man I have almost total admiration for. Sure, he's a human being, and I wish some things he had done differently -- because you'd like even the person who's closest to perfection to be perfect. Some of his statements about blacks -- I wish he hadn't said that. But that's who he was in the mid-19th century!

Most teachers of academic history have trouble being very patriotic, and I am among them. In fact, we are too much "the other way." When I was teaching, I wanted someone from American history that I really felt positive about. Almost always I would open my Lincoln lecture by saying: "I want to tell you how much I look forward to giving this lecture every year in my U.S. history courses. You've got to like Lincoln -- you can't pass this course without liking him" [chuckling]. That's about as un-objective as I ever got.

More Q&A in the audio sidebar