Thursday, July 21, 2005



IN MEMORY OF LOUIS OWENS ON THE THIRD ANNIVERSARY OF HIS PASSING (1948-2002)

Louis, if you're reading this from some place else, please forgive me for saying that you were the coolest professor of literature I ever had. Maybe it's just my dorky whiteness speaking. But it is mine, and it comes here to pay homage to you, to bear witness to what you meant to me.

I remember your quiet poise in the classroom, intense yet receptive, warm. I remember some of your white shirts and mellow, worn blue jeans. For years now, as I wandered the department stores each August looking for a new shirts and pants to start the new semester, I've always thought that maybe I'd find a white shirt like yours. With the right pair of jeans, and some brown shoes, maybe I could communicate the quiet peace that enveloped me when I was in your presence. I didn't look for the nice, thin ties and dark silk shirts of the other male professors I had; I thought of your strong arms coming through white sleeves, solid and confident, true like the bark of a tree. Although I only took one course with you, you really stayed with me. You came to symbolize the quiet strength I thought I might embody some day.

Around 2001, I began thinking about you in earnest, more consciously. I had made the "big time" as a professor at Famous U and was working on a project that would finally bring my scholarship into the stream of the Native American Studies you introduced me to. I wondered how you would react to having me reappear and ask you for advice. If all went well with our preliminary contact via email, I would come for a visit at the University of New Mexico to say hi and show you what I was doing. I wanted to show you how far I had come since you last saw me.

For these reasons, I could not believe you ended your own life. I could not fathom how such darkness could touch your life, much less control it and bring it to an end. Although I hardly knew you, and hardly had the right to stake a claim on the grief of your friends and family, I felt like you had let me down.

From time to time, I see that some students come to admire me. They construct me in their minds in ways I'll never really appreciate or understand. I feel the love and it's a great feeling that's a part of the ebb and flow of my year-to-year life as an academic. Yet, they misunderstand me as much I misunderstood you, Louis. They don't really know who I am, they only know the parts of me that shine through when I teach: the thrill of the intellectual chase, the humor, the energy. They know me as a leader, a role model, a symbol for something. And that thing may have nothing to do with me when I am at home alone, in the dark, thinking about my life and what it can do, what it wants and what it cannot do. They don't know my true dark and my true light.

In spite of this natural and universal disjunction, I wish you had found a way to channel all of the love and respect your students had for you into an affirmation of your own life-force. But through your obituaries and homages I've learned that your life was much fuller and more interesting than what I had imagined, even as I idolized you in my own frivolous way. If there was dark that I could not fathom, there were also reservoirs of light I had not imagined either.

Louis, as the anniversary of your death nears this week (How could I forget? Sadly, it's on my birthday), I want to say that I still remember you. I'm not thin enough for white shirts to look so good on me, and I haven't quite found the right shirt to be honest. But I've dumped most of the dockers for good in favor of jeans. I still believe in you and cherish the memory of your thoughtful, warm gaze. And I believe in words, like you did with so much passion, even if, for one terrible moment, you forgot to do so, and left us behind.

Rest in Peace Professor.




This post is in memory of Professor Louis Owens (1948-2002), who was one of the brightest lights in Native American Literature. Owens was also an accomplished novelist and essayist with numerous books to his name. Owens' last collection of essays is I Hear the Train: Reflections, Inventions, Refractions, and Jacquelyn Kilpatrick has just edited the book Louis Owens Literary Reflections on His Life and Work.

20 Comments:

At 2:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was very moved by this post and just had to comment. I recently finished my undergrad studies, and I certainly idolized one of my professors. Not until recently did I discover that he indeed had a whole life, an enitre world, outside of school and his enthusiasm for literature. I'm still not quite sure I believe it. But Louis Owens sounds like a wonderful person, and deserving of your kind words.

 
At 8:15 PM, Blogger academic coach said...

Thank you for this moving piece.

Any way to get it to close friends or family of Owens? I'm sure they'd appreciate it.

 
At 2:16 PM, Blogger Mel said...

What a wonderful piece. Our teachers always live on in us, even in our reimagined versions of them.

 
At 5:00 PM, Blogger Scrivener said...

This is a beautiful post.

 
At 7:02 AM, Blogger StinkyLulu said...

Thanks -- an excellent tribute to a man who was instrumental in tweaking my own expectation of how an academic vibe could work. ABQ's my hometown & I was passing through when his tragedy made the news. Now, I'm back again -- preparing to teach in his dept. Thanks for the reminder to remember...

 
At 7:26 AM, Blogger profsynecdoche said...

I never met Louis Owens, but I am an avid reader of his fiction -- have been for over 10 years. What comes through in his writing, both fiction and non-fiction, is a kind of thorough, deep decency, and it's wonderful to hear that he conveyed that in his teaching life as well.

I once heard a teaching story about Owens. Supposedly he walked into a lecture room to teach a class on Steinbeck (I think); when he realized that no one had done the reading, he turned around and left the room. The person I talked to (now a lit. professor) said everyone remembered this moment -- it wasn't just a performance or a theatrical gesture, but a statement of how much he cared about writing and reading.

I taught a class in Native American lit. the semester before Owens was on the syllabus. During the course of the class, I recommended his novels to several of his students, and they had a tranformative effect on more than one of them. Owens' fiction has that ability for a certain kind of reader, and it was a terrible thing to tell them that he took his own life.

 
At 9:32 AM, Blogger Camicao said...

I too remember how Louis handled students not doing the reading. He was intense about confronting the whole group about it without coming across as angry or self-righteous.

I hope others who knew or admired Louis will keep on dropping by.

 
At 10:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I took several classes with Louis Owens beginning in 1980, and often took my poetry to him. He was warm and kind and always seemed to find something good to say. He was one of the best teachers I have ever had, and one of his main themes seemed to be about "connecting to others". Living overseas, I only learned many months after the fact that he had died, which came as a great shock to me. I was comforted to see this post and to see that people continue to remember him and his teachings, for they had a profound effect on me.

Lisa

 
At 12:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this. I found it after a search on Louis, something I do from time to time when I miss him.

He was my friend. I was his friend. He deserves to be remembered. I'm glad people do. He'll really like that.

 
At 10:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for taking this cyberspace plunge for an amazing man and his continuing presence.

Louis' example and help literally kept me IN graduate school. I was all ready to jump ship and get back to pumping seasonal gas for the Lummi gillnet fleet. As it was, it was a close call and, but for him, I probably would have failed my PhD oral qualifying exam. With my own blessing.

He had a way, you'll all remember, of staying committed to the books and the ideas while winking at the egos and the machinations.

During the first 90 mins. of my exam that day, I simply flailed at the profundity of many of the questions I was asked on texts I was less confident about. It didn't look good. As it happened, Louis was last up for questions, and scheduled to be first out the door, because he had to go pick up his daughters after school.

His turn came up, and he fired off several quick questions he knew I'd prepared, because we'd discussed them the week before. On Bellow, on Steinbeck, on T. S. Eliot.

He read the situation and me, and threw these big fat questions right over the plate. And so I hit them out. It was him, not me, who turned it all around.

You know that silly old tradition, where you have to wait outside and wait while the committee confers? Well, I was out there for not more than ten minutes, and Louis came out, in a hurry, shook my hand and told me I'd passed.

He then gave a long glance back at the room where the committee was still conferring, smiled, and said, "I think they want to talk with you some more. Congratulations. I've got to go get my daughters."

That was it. And, with one exception, the last time I ever saw him.

And props, too, to the folks who still surf out here, all over the world, hoping to bump into memories of Louis. That's how I bumped into you.

I really miss him.

 
At 8:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

is there anyway to get in touch with camicao?

 
At 9:46 AM, Blogger Camicao said...

I will be leaving contact information here and on the front of the blog shortly (by 1st or 2nd of october). My previous camicao address has lapsed.

 
At 9:49 AM, Blogger Camicao said...

My new email is:

camicaotea@yahoo.com

 
At 4:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I haven't done a search on Louis' name in months, and then randomly this evening I landed on your blog. I'm glad to see people are still talking about him.

For those who didn't know Louis outside of the classroom, these fond memories will persist. He was very good at what he did, a gifted interpreter of literature on several fronts, teaching and writing. He encouraged me to return to school and inspired me with the momentum to finish.

But I haven't been able to read any of his works since he died. Books about him have come out, and to even handle them I have to remove the dust jackets because they have photos. I knew Louis for 30 years, and I don't know if or when I'll get past this.

If you liked his shirts, your wardrobe should include several long-sleeved blue workshirts. In his Forest Service days Penney's used to sell them for a few dollars. Last time I spoke to Louis about workshirts he complained that he had to get them at Eddie Bauer for nearly $40.

 
At 4:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am an 11th grade studet of northeastern highschool, NC. I was instructed by my own lit. teacher that a four page paper was due on an author I knew nothing about. The name Louis Owens appered randomly in my seaches for an author that might be interesting.
He has touched my life,
He has moved my soul.
I can feel him though the writings of others, a warm self assured man with a deep questioning of life that he could not find in this world. A man to large for people. He was not a person, he was Human. There is no question who I will attempt to honor (and hopfully do justice)with my work.
Heres to you Mr. Owens.

 
At 6:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was just searching on the web for info about Louis and came across this powerful tribute to someone who changed my life, also. I have struggled to deal with his death--like so many, and I have come to believe that the best way each of us can honor his memory is three-fold: 1) be our best--if we are teachers, we can also make important, if not pivotal, contributions to the lives of others, as he did for us, 2) remember those who are less fortunate--Louis often did, and 3) be careful of placing people on pedestals, because I think this isolates them more than we realize.

Thank you all for your comments--it helps me heal. -C

 
At 12:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for the post on Louis.

I, too, had the great good fortune to take several classes from him during graduate school, as well as work with him on my dissertation.

Louis had many gifts -- and certainly some undeniable faults -- but his honesty is what I most remember.

Rather than telling students what he thought they wanted to hear, he would tell them what he believed to be the truth.

While the truth could sometimes be hard to handle, I will always appreciate his candor with me.

Tough, but fair, Louis embodied the characteristics of our best teachers.

I will always miss him.

 
At 2:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for such a moving piece, and all the thoughts about Louis.
I saw some of his work as a teacher, and am deeply touched by the effects he had, on his students. What a blessing to have had him.
To those who wonder about his death, I suggest that at such times, we can only trust that the person was in some darkness that he could not otherwise escape. That he did the only thing he knew to do, at that moment, and is deserving of our trust, and understanding.
If in our lives, we can apply the positive lessons he taught, than he lives on, in wonderful ways.

 
At 7:07 AM, Blogger Lily said...

nice blog

 
At 11:03 AM, Anonymous Mary Sojourner said...

Just finished Bone Games and recognized a brother - not because I am Native American, but because he wrote so powerfully of the grip of alcohol and drugs on some of us. If alcohol was part of the depression that drove him to suicide, he seems to have been writing warnings throughout BG.
It is a gift to read the comments here. I write, teach and fight despair. No longer drinking, but inherited the blues from my mom. Reading your comments I will keep writing and teaching - and fighting despair.

 

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