By Jeremiah Horrigan
“Honey in the Horn”—and the Question of Literary Obscurity
A teacher and friend presented me with a battered hardcover book about fifteen years ago. At the time, I’d never heard of Honey in the Horn or its author, one H. L. Davis.
“Take a look,” he said. “You’ll like it.” But he didn’t—or wouldn’t—tell me why.
So I took it home. A glance told me it was written in 1935 and that it appeared to be about the hardscrabble pioneering days of Oregon at the turn of the twentieth century, a place and a subject in which I had zero interest. I started to read the book, more out of politeness than interest.
I was smitten at the first page. No. The first sentence.
There was a run-down old tollbridge station in the Shoestring Valley of Southern Oregon where Uncle Preston Shiveley had lived for fifty years, outlasting a wife, two sons, several plagues of grasshoppers, wheat-rust and caterpillars, a couple or three invasions of land-hunting settlers and real-estate speculators, and everybody else except the scattering of old pioneers who had cockleburred themselves onto the country at about the same time he did.”
Who was this guy? Why had I and the rest of the world never heard of him?
On this last count, I was wrong. The world—at least the East Coast literary world of the mid-1930s—knew H. L. Davis very well. He received the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1936 for Honey in the Horn. It was his first novel.
Today it’s mostly Oregonians who have some recollection of the man and the book. He’s their native son, after all, the only man from the Beaver State ever to have won the Pulitzer.
But even bagging the big one in 1936 didn’t then nor has it since made Harold Lenoir Davis a favorite son. He was too ornery for that.
When, for example, he was invited to New York City to accept his Pulitzer for Honey in the Horn, Davis declined the offer. Said he didn’t want to put himself on exhibit.
His refusal might be viewed as a grand example of a tough Westerner turning his buckskinned back on the effete salonistes of the East—if only Davis hadn’t already spat on the boots of Oregon’s literary society ten years before in a haughtily titled booklet called “Status Rerum, A Manifesto upon the Present Condition of Northwestern Literature: Containing Several Near-Libelous Utterances, upon Persons in the Public Eye.” (James Stevens, a more established writer at the time, was his coauthor.)
The poet Robinson Jeffers called this work a “rather grimly powerful wheel to break butterflies on.”
But Jeffers wasn’t the only literary figure who noticed Davis. He started his writing life as a poet in the ‘20s and attracted the admiration of Carl Sandburg. H. L. Mencken published several of his poems in his American Mercury and encouraged him to write prose. Evidently, Davis was not immune to good advice. He won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1932 that helped him to escape to Mexico, where he finished Honey in the Horn.
His second novel, Harp of a Thousand Strings, wasn’t published until 1941, partly the result of a royalty battle with his publisher, Harper & Brothers. He wrote many short stories and four more novels over the next decade, one of which, Winds of Morning, became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection.
Davis died in 1960 of a heart attack after years of ill health. By the few accounts that remain and can be credited, he was a cantankerous, hard-bitten man to the end.*
He was, in a phrase Davis sometimes used, a jesusly hard man to like.
But so were plenty of his literary contemporaries. Being nice has never been a requirement for being a great writer. Whatever his personality quirks, Davis has been consigned, along with his work, to that dreaded place where “regional writers” go to be forgotten.
• • •
The temptation in writing about a work that has moved so close to one’s heart is to quote great chunks of it, a temptation I fully intend to indulge in this essay. Here’s the rest of Honey in the Horn‘s opening paragraph:
The station, having been built in the stampeding days when people believed they were due for great swarms of settlement and travel around them, had a great many more rooms and a whole lot more space than there was any use for; and so had the country behind it. Outside the back fence where the dishcloths were hung to bleach and the green sheep-pelts to cure when there was sun was a ten-mile stretch of creek meadow with wild vetch and redtop and velvet-grass reaching clear to the black-green fir timber of the mountains where huckleberries grew and sheep pastured in summer and young men sometimes hid to keep from being jailed.”
Its sentences may be unfashionably long, but they trot briskly along, their saddlebags expertly packed with characters and events spanning generations. Not only is Davis a sharp-eyed observer of the land, he’s got a barbed, if tamped down, sense of humor: It’s hard to resist anyone who makes no distinction between “plagues of grasshoppers” and “real-estate speculators.”
There’s nothing generalized here—afflictions and beauties alike are named and made real, without sentiment—at every turn. I had never heard of velvet-grass until I read this passage. I still haven’t seen it, but I can envision it as easily as I can see the more familiar black-green timber of the mountains, up where the huckleberries grow and the young jailbirds seek shelter.
Honey in the Horn pegs its plot to young Clay Calvert’s search for the usual things a young man yearns for and needs to discover. He makes his way across a land teeming with other life forms, with “wild daisies, cat-ears, big patches of camas lilies as blue as the ocean with a cloud shadowing it, and big stands of wild iris and wild lilac and buttercups and St. John’s wort.”
The landscape and the weather are always conspiring to shape Clay’s search, to put it in perspective, to give him something to size himself up against, to either help make him the kind of man he needs to become or to grind him down to the levels of the men who surround him.
Davis describes the land with deep sympathy, treating it as something whose pristine beauty has been invaded by men and women who are simultaneously up to no good and doing the best they can to get by—people who want to get rich or just get free of pasts that threaten to swallow their futures.
Uncle Preston, for example, is a self-made historian, writing pamphlets and “studies” of the region’s old days. For all the success he has, he might be the prototype for today’s alone-in-the-basement blogger: “None of Uncle Preston’s studies had ever brought him in the worth of a mule’s heel full of hay.”
But cross this frustrated writer and be ready for a fight:
He had been known, while trying to write up a pamphlet on his pioneer memories, to sit watching a coyote chase three valuable lambs right up to the barnyard fence without lifting pen from paper until the women disturbed him by yelling for someone to do something quick. Then he got up and killed the coyote with a shotgun; and, to make it strictly fair all the way round, he also killed the three lambs for having got themselves where a coyote could bushwhack them, and for bringing their troubles in to bother him.”
It’s Uncle Preston who sets young Clay on his journey of discovery. He wants the kid to find and set a fatal trap for his notorious hell-raising son Wade, on grounds that aren’t much removed from the ones Uncle Preston used against those lambs.
Clay—was ever an impressionable searcher given a more accurate moniker?—lights out in search of his future, bedeviled by a troubled conscience and a variety of even more troubling characters, most of them eager to get what they can from the kid before he knows he’s been fleeced.
• • •
All I ever wish for a person who hasn’t read Honey in the Horn is that he or she does so. Then we’ll revel in the pleasures enjoyed by sharers of forgotten treasures—characters such as rollicking old Orlando Geary, who could only have been played by Slim Pickens in the movie adaptation that never was and never will be made.
We’ll talk about the tart and tasty language, words and expressions you haven’t heard poop nor twitter about since the day Davis put them to paper.
We’ll search out favorite passages that reflect the wisdom that permeates these pages, like the episode about old Joel Hardcastle, who so isolates himself from life that his first experience of death—his “first bereavement”—makes him “wilder and less reasonable than a child”:
The upshot of that system was that little losses nicked him about as deep as big ones would have done, and he mourned in the middle of the country road because Clay had refused to tell how old he was.”
And we’ll wonder why such wondrous writing hasn’t survived the years.
Most every writer—certainly those of Davis’s day—place their stories in a distinct where. Steinbeck had his central California, Hemingway his northern Michigan, Faulkner his Mississippi. It seems to me that a writer is consigned to the regional corral by a mysterious blend of luck, timing, fashion, and his or her willingness to submit to what we now call the marketing machine.
Mark Twain was an early master of this last, touring the world and presenting himself—legitimately—as the authentic American writer.
It also doesn’t hurt if you have a champion: Fitzgerald had Edmund Wilson, Wolfe had Maxwell Perkins, Twain had everyone from William Dean Howells to William Howard Taft.
Although he had early champions, Davis didn’t cultivate them very well. I doubt anyone can pinpoint why he failed to make a mark, but we can speculate based on his actions: not going to pick up the Pulitzer, a long-running battle about royalties with his publisher. Self-promotion was clearly not one of his talents. He was a man who appeared to enjoy pissing on whatever authority figures he could find. If his aim was true, as he certainly believed it to be, his appreciation for wind direction and velocity was far less acute.
While I don’t want to blame him for his own obscurity, I can imagine how a book from out of nowhere, penned by a recluse, would come to be thought of in literary circles East and West as “that Oregon book.” And once an author becomes identified with the where of his or her books, they’re on their way to oblivion.
I don’t think H. L. Davis was cut out for popular success. He was no romantic. In his work, there’s no evidence that he ever believed in the sort of happy-ending “justice” that readers like me wish for him. If he were he alive today and I were sent to interview him, I’d be sure to know which way the wind was blowing that day.
Yet working as every serious American novelist does in Huck’s vast shadow, Davis comes close to achieving what essayist and humorist George Saunders describes as Twain’s great accomplishment: “[H]e threw open the door on an America previously unrepresented in our literature: its lower classes, its hustlers and religious con men, possessed of equal parts Spirit and Lust.”**
They’re all there in Honey in the Horn, characters seen freshly and rendered in language that’s as authentically American sounding as Red Barber calling out a Brooklyn Dodger home run or a single “yup” from the lips of a young Gary Cooper.
I began this essay by quoting what I called the book’s opening paragraph. But I lied. Davis included a “Note” on a separate page just before that first paragraph, and if he thought it was a good way to introduce his work to the world, I’m just as happy to use it as a summary of the man’s style and his aim. Let his epigraph serve as an epitaph for a great, unappreciated American writer:
I had originally hoped to include in the book a representative of every calling that existed in the State of Oregon during the homesteading period—1906-1908. I had to give up that idea, owing to lack of space, lack of time, and consideration for readers. Within the limits set me, I have done my best.”
* For more about H.L. Davis, see the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission website.
** George Saunders is quoted from “The United States of Huck,” which is part of his essay collection The Braindead Megaphone (Riverhead Books, 2007).
Honey in the Horn by H. L. Davis was originally published in 1935 by Harper & Brothers. It was last reissued by University of Idaho Press in 1992. Although it’s available from Amazon and other distributors, UIP shut down several years ago. Its license from HarperCollins to publish Honey in the Horn has since expired, and HarperCollins no longer retains the rights either—all of which speaks volumes about the impact of regionalism.
From Oregon to Idaho to Oblivion.
Since his earliest days as scribe for Troop 335, St. Martin’s Parish, South Buffalo, New York, Jeremiah Horrigan has been a writer. And since the early ‘70s, he’s tried to make what might reasonably be called a living at it. That’s meant newspapering, his father’s profession, with forays over the lean years into magazines, PR, and advertising.
He currently works at an upstate New York daily. Nights find him in his basement cave, polishing proposals for his yet-unpublished book Get Me Outta Here: A (Wise)Guy’s Guide to Surviving HospitalWorld, writing posts at Open Salon, and staying, mostly, out of trouble.
Guiding principle: Writing is re-writing.
Favorite defense (via A. J. Liebling): I can write better than anyone who’s faster and faster than anyone who’s better.