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A land of milk and honey

May 14, 2015

 

Some books must be read more than once. Some books appeal to multiple generations. And some books fit into both categories. Historian Richard W. Etulain joins us today to discuss the powerful prose of one of Oregon’s greatest literary legacies.

 

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Ask an Oregonian to identify the only novelist from the state to win a Pulitzer Prize. The frequent—and wrong—answers are Ken Kesey, Ursula LeGuin, or, for the younger set, Chuck Palahniuk.

 

The correct response: H. L. Davis’s Honey in the Horn (1935), which snagged a coveted Pulitzer in 1936.  It also won the Harper Prize for 1935.

 HoneyintheHorn

I learned of Davis and his nationally recognized novel when I was in graduate school at the University of Oregon in the early 1960s.  Davis had died in 1960, but among Oregon’s literary cognoscenti he was still remembered.

 

Harold Lenoir Davis broke free from the numbing traditions of previous writers in the Pacific Northwest.  He avoided the romance genre Frederic Homer Balch utilized in his long-popular Bridge of the Gods (1890) and kept his distance from the formula-ridden Westerns of Zane Grey and Max Brand.

 

Instead, as I came to realize, Davis had, by diligent work, become a superb regional writer.  He did for the Pacific Northwest what William Faulkner did for the South, John Steinbeck for California. Most of all, regional writers like Davis showed how regions or places shaped diverse characters.

 

While in Eugene I encountered Status Rerum (1927), the scandalous pamphlet Davis and James Stevens concocted attacking Pacific Northwest creative writing teachers and their students.  These misguided mentors were, Davis and Stevens chuckled, nothing but “posers, parasites, and pismires” turning out an “interminable avalanche of tripe.”   They didn’t even know how to “castrate calves.”

 

Status Rerum prepared the way for Honey in the Horn.  Davis would then go his own stubborn way, avoiding the romance and the Western and turning out fiction rich in regional settings, local speech patterns, and individualistic character types.

 

When I dipped into Honey in the Horn, Davis’s first novel, I was immediately drawn to the familiar “growing up” theme at the center of his novel.  Two youthful wanderers without strong, experienced moorings, Clay and Luce, drift through Davis’s marvelously described landscapes—from the Oregon Coast, to the Willamette Valley, and on to the High Deserts.

 

Some readers exult over Davis’s vivid landscapes.  They should. But I am even more intrigued by his wry, pungent characterizations of a whole gamut of regional character types.  His character vignettes depict a spectrum of pioneer figures that Oregon’s previous—and many later—writers have overlooked.  More than a few of Davis’s characters seem like vagabonds searching, often unsuccessfully, for Oregon places in which to root themselves.

 

Understandably, Davis’s unvarnished treatment of Oregon and its early settlers alienated the state’s cultural chauvinists.  Unbowed, Davis moved on to write a clutch of strong novels, short stories, and essays about the Oregon Country.  All overflowed with a redolent regionalism, demonstrating how a talented author could exhibit the molding power of physical and cultural environments on a collage of colorful characters.

 

The Oregon State University Press does a meritorious service in reprinting Davis’s path-breaking novel.  The reappearance of Honey in the Horn will introduce a new generation to an Oregon literary classic, the first novel in the Pacific Northwest to gain national prominence.  Davis’s premier work of fiction richly merits a fresh wave of appreciative attention.

 

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Originally published in 1935, Honey in the Horn once more hits the press this June to reach a new generation of readers. Lauded even in Davis’s lifetime, the book captures Oregon spirit and history in a nearly tangible way that hasn’t been seen since.  Commemorate Davis and his legacy Wednesday, June 10, at a celebration sponsored by the Umpqua Valley Arts Association and While Away Books. Including readings from authors like Robert Heilman and Karen Tolley, the event will begin at 7:00 p.m. at the Umpqua Valley Arts Association Art Center in Roseburg.

 

Discover the raw beauty of Honey in the Horn for yourself here, updated with an introduction by Richard W. Etulain.

 

H. L. Davis (1894 – 1960) was an Oregon novelist and poet whose work emphasized the beauty of place and landscape. Davis created gritty, realistic characters whose lives were far from perfect, overturning the popularized romanticism of the West. His 1935 novel, Honey in the Horn, earned him a Pulitzer Prize, making him the only Oregonian to have ever earned the honor.

 

Richard W. Etulain is the author or editor of more than fifty books, including Conversations with Wallace Stegner on Western History and Literature, Beyond the Missouri: The Story of the American West, and Lincoln and Oregon Country Politics in the Civil War Era. A Professor Emeritus of History at the University of New Mexico, he lives in Clackamas, Oregon.

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