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H.L. Davis: Oregon’s only Pulitzer winner for fiction deserves to be better known

“Honey in the Horn,” a coming-of-age tale that shows how environmental settings mold human ideas and actions, won the literary distinction, but detractors said it was too critical of Oregon and its people.


Author H.L. Davis was born in Douglas County and lived more than 30 years in Oregon, where much of his work is set. In his understanding of the power of setting on characters, Davis was at the center of the Western literary regionalist movement of the 1930s and 1940s.

Test the knowledge of Oregon readers — and librarians — with a straightforward question: Who is the only Oregon novelist to win a coveted Pulitzer Prize for fiction?  Most responders guess Ken Kesey, Ursula Le Guin, or perhaps Molly Gloss.  Almost none will correctly guess H.L. Davis, who won the Pulitzer in 1936 for his first novel, Honey in the Horn (1935).

Harold Lenoir Davis was born in Oregon, lived in the state for more than 30 years, then left and never returned to reside here.  Much of his early poetry and later fiction is set in Oregon, but throughout his later years, Davis lived in Mexico and California.

Davis was born in Nonpareil, near Sutherlin, in 1894 (although he often fibbed and gave his birth date as 1896).  Both of his parents were from east Tennessee, and they and their families moved to Oregon in the second half of the 19th century. Davis’ father was a one-legged, assertive schoolteacher who moved his family through a series of homes from near the Oregon Coast into the Willamette Valley, to the outback town of Antelope, and finally to The Dalles.  Davis grew up an unenthusiastic student but a never-stop reader.  After high school graduation, he worked in The Dalles area, served briefly in the military, and began to write poetry. Davis’ poetry, like much of his fiction and nonfiction, was set in Oregon.  Rides through rich landscapes dominate his verse.


In 1927, Davis and author James Stevens produced a brief pamphlet, Status Rerum, that exploded on the Pacific Northwest literary scene.  The duo attacked earlier romantic Northwest writers as “mental weaklings, numskulls, and other victims of mental and moral affliction,” men not knowing enough to “castrate calves.” In less bombastic words, Davis and Stevens were attacking Northwest writers for being far too attached to Eastern and romantic notions about the American West.


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Newly married to librarian Marion Lay, Davis and his wife moved briefly to northern Washington and then to Mexico.  Gaining strong support from Poetry magazine editor Harriet Monroe and leading American cultural critic H.L. Mencken, Davis landed a Guggenheim award to write an epic poem about the American West.  Once in Mexico, Davis could not get going on the poem and turned instead to writing his first novel, Honey in the Horn.  After two or three years of wincing uncertainty, Davis completed his manuscript and submitted it for publication.  He was astounded, as were others, at the immediate reactions.  The novel won the Harper prize in 1935 and then the top-of-the-literary mountain, the Pulitzer, a year later.

Honey in the Horn is a classic “coming of age” narrative, in the Huckleberry Finn tradition. Cast in the form of a journey toward self-understanding, the novel draws on Davis’ personal experiences in his early pilgrimages. The novel’s two major characters, Clay and Luce, are thrown together on a taxing journey of self-discovery. Romance blooms, but fallouts quickly follow. As they and others eventually make their way through several divergent Oregon settings — mimicking what the Davis family had done — they encounter landscapes and people who shape their attitudes and actions. As ecocritic Glen Love points out, Honey in the Horn displays Davis’ “ecological consciousness,” showing how varied environmental settings mold human ideas and actions. In his understanding of the shaping power of settings on characters, Davis was at the center of the Western literary regionalist movement of the 1930s and 1940s.

In Honey in the Horn, Davis depicts more than a few Oregon rural pioneers and small-town men and women as less than ideal residents.  These people are too isolated, too bent on self-gratulation, and rather lazy; their limitations led to a weak and inadequate society in Oregon. Davis’ somber depictions of Oregon and its residents led, not surprisingly, to harsh criticisms from patriotic Oregonians. Over time, more than a few Oregon commentators dismissed Davis’ literary efforts, because they saw him as much too critical of the state and its people.

Despite Davis’ successes with Honey in the Horn — it sold well, gained favorable reviews, and won major prizes — his literary career and personal life crumbled in the next decade. He fell out with his publisher; his next book, Harp of a Thousand Strings, did not appear until 1947; and his troubled marriage ended. The next novel, Beulah Land (1949), did not attract much attention. But Winds of Morning (1952) dramatically resurrected Davis’ literary career. In fact, more than a few commentators see it as Davis’ best novel — even superior to Honey in the Horn.

Winds of Morning provides an enhanced view of Davis’ superb story-telling and literary talents. The novel also illustrates the major themes and literary approaches in his best fiction. In a long jaunt moving horses to a new site, youthful Amos Clarke and old Pop Hendricks at first disagree on a daily basis.  But over time, both realize each has a lesson or two for the other.  Journeying and learning — here again are Davis’ recognizable plot and his preeminent theme.  Plus, the two men perceive these new truths as they travel through diverse landscapes. Davis’ link to literary regionalism is showcased in this superb novel as he demonstrates how settings mold ideas and character.


All Classical Radio James Depreist

Like Honey in the Horn, Winds of Morning enjoyed strong sales and very positive reactions from reviewers.  In the final years of his life, Davis produced another novel, The Distant Music (1957), and a collection of stories, Kettle of Fire (1959).  But his health rapidly declined, and he died in 1960. 

Oregonians ought to know more about H.L. Davis.  He produced some of the strongest novels of any Oregon author, and he remains an illuminative example of top-notch Western regional literature.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Richard W. Etulain, a specialist in the history and literature of the American West, is the author or editor of 60 books. He is professor emeritus of history and former director of the Center for the American West at the University of New Mexico.  He also served as editor of the New Mexico Historical Review. Among his best-known books are Stegner: Conversations on History and Literature(1983, 1996) and Re-imagining the Modern American West: A Century of Literature, History, and Art(1996). Etulain holds a PhD from the University of Oregon (1966) and taught at Idaho State University (1970-79) and the University of New Mexico (1979-2001).  He served as president of both the Western Literature and Western History associations.  He now lives in the Portland area with his wife, Joyce, a retired children's librarian.


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