H.L. Davis is the only Oregon novelist to win the literary world’s highly coveted honor, and he came from Douglas County.
Story by Robert Leo Heilman
Oregon’s only Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist was born in Douglas County in 1894.
Harold Lenoir Davis, writing as H.L. Davis, debuted as a novelist in 1935 with Honey in the Horn and won the coveted award for fiction the next year.
Davis was born in a place called Rone’s Mill, a logging and milling caamp where his father, James A. Davis, was an itinerant schoolteacher. Today, the place is a grassy meadow east of Sutherlin toward Nonpareil, one of several such once-lively corners in the Umpqua country.
Many schoolteachers in those days, like the woodsmen whose children they educated, moved on when work dried up or new opportunities became available. By age 12, Harold, his two brothers and their mother had followed James Davis to short residencies in Lookingglass, Tenmile, Drain, Yoncalla, Roseburg and Oakland.
In 1906, the family moved east to Antelope in Wasco County and two years later settled in The Dalles, where James became a high school principal. The time of this last move forms the backdrop of the novel, which appears to begin in fall 1906 and end in spring 1908.
Honey in the Horn is told in a narrative that moves around horse-and-buggy Oregon at a time just before the coming of modern transportation and paved roads. Clay Calvert, “a drip-nosed youth of about sixteen” lives with his uncle. He runs afoul of the law and flees his home in western Oregon, moving from rain forest to the high desert east of the Cascades.
The story includes two murders, a lynching and a romance. But it is the richly detailed landscape and Davis’ insightful portrayals that carry the tale. The author gave his own take on the novel in Denver’s The Rocky Mountain Herald newspaper in 1951:
“Honey in the Horn is ostensibly a story of a pioneer backwash of the final years of settlement, tinctured with picaresqueness and a lightly colored love story. Underneath that, it is also a guidebook to Oregon: Not only its climate, scenery, topography, flora and fauna; but also its range of emotions, perceptions, traditions and behavior patterns,” he wrote.
The route that young Clay Calvert travels begins in a fictional version of Douglas County where the story opens in “Shoestring Valley.” It is easy to imagine the route as heading into the Cascades up the North Umpqua, then crossing over into the South Umpqua, heading downstream to the Myrtle Creek area and on from there to Reston and over the Coos Bay Wagon Road to the coast.
The journey puts Calvert in contact with a variety of early 20th century Oregonians. Some of his descriptions of the fictional residents of “Shoestring Valley” were apparently too readily identifiable as former neighbors, which led to some hard feelings toward Davis around Sutherlin and Oakland when the book was published.
What struck the critics (and presumably the Pulitzer committee) about Honey in the Horn was how distinct Davis’ presentation of settings and characters was from what they were used to reading. In many ways, he was a major figure in giving literary voice to the Pacific Northwest.
Along with fellow Northwest author James Stevens and longtime Oregonian reporter Stewart Holbrook, Davis came along at a time when American literature was diversifying through the development of regional voices.
Southern writers such as William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty were working around the same time and with the same goal of using local people, places and idioms as the material for their stories.
Davis began writing poetry while he was still living in The Dalles, working as a Wasco County clerk. He gained national attention in 1919, when he won Poetry magazine’s coveted Levinson Prize at age 25.
In the mid-1920s while still living in The Dalles, Davis met Stevens, a kindred spirit who had already sold pieces to The American Mercury, America’s pre-eminent literary journal of the period — due primarily to the notoriety of its acerbic editor, journalism icon H.L. Mencken.
SOME OF DAVIS' DESCRIPTIONS OF THE FICTIONAL RESIDENTS OF "SHOESTRING VALLEY" WERE APPARENTLY TOO READILY IDENTIFIABLE AS FORMER NEIGHBORS, WHICH LED TO SOME HARD FEELINGS AROUND SUTHERLIN AND OAKLAND.
Mencken began buying poems from Davis and urged him to turn his considerable talents to writing short fiction. Davis left The Dalles for Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound in 1928 and never resided in Oregon again.
In Seattle, Davis partnered with Stevens on a local weekly radio show. Davis played guitar and sang folk songs during the broadcasts. He was also selling short fiction to The American Mercury, Collier's and other top national literary magazines.
In 1931, Davis received a Guggenheim Fellowship and moved to Mexico, where he wrote Honey in the Horn. The Pulitzer followed. Davis did not attend the award ceremony, reportedly saying he did not wish to be "exhibited."
In the years following, Davis published four more novels, a notable collection of poetry and two compilations of essays and short stories. He also continued to write for magazines and, for a time, worked in Hollywood as a consultant for Westerns.
Davis was brilliant but testy and withdrawn at times. When he fell into royalties' disputes with his publisher, it hindered his production. And despite his role in the early development of Northwest literature, Davis' works faded from view in the years after his death from heart disease in 1960 at age 66.
In 2009, Oregon State University Press issued an anthology of his poems, letters and fiction, including short critical appreciations and historical assessments.
Davis Country, H.L. Davis' Northwest, by Brian Booth and Glen A. Love, has helped revive interest in Davis and his work. In 2015, OSU Press re-issued Honey in the Horn for its Northwest Reprints series. Also that year, Winds of Morning (1952), Davis' fourth novel, was republished.
Proud Riders and Other Poems (1942)
STORY AND ESSAY COLLECTIONS:
Team Bells Woke Me and Other Stories (1953)
Kettle of Fire (1959)
Honey in the Horn (1935)
Harp of a Thousand Strings (1947)
Beulah Land (1949)
Winds of Morning (1952)
The Distant Music (1957)