Honey in the Horn By H.L. Davis (1935)
THERE IS only one automobile in all of H.L. Davis' Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Honey in the Horn, a vehicle rumored to be carrying the legendary railroad builder E.H. Harriman.
According to the word spread over the trails and rude roads of Davis' fictional Eastern Oregon, Harriman had come into the country scouting a route for a new railroad, maybe even two, and surely prosperity would follow. Everyone is waiting -- the settlers, the sheepherders, the ranchers and the wheat farmers. "Well," an optimistic oldtimer says to his detractors, including Davis' hero, the young and wandering Clay Calvert, "what would he be doing out in this shirttail end of nothing unless it was to build a railroad?"
But Harriman's railroad is still a few years away, for this was Oregon between 1906 and 1908: a time of homesteading characterized by covered wagons, steamboats and stage coaches moving through a very late frontier. It was also an appropriate time for Davis' fiction, for much of Oregon was out on a "shirttail," and his pioneers were some of the last the country would see. There were some automobiles and trains about, in Portland and the Willamette Valley maybe, but the state was on a cusp, waiting, if only momentarily, for the future. If you wanted to see how things had been for the last 100 years or so, you had better look quick.
All this may not seem important now, but in 1935, when Davis wrote the novel (the Pulitzer came the following year), there were still many myths about the heroes who trekked across the plains, tussled with the red man and settled what we used to sing about in school as "The Land of the Empire Builders." These people were giants, we were told, and the myth is epitomized in the huge gilt statue of "The Pioneer" atop the Oregon Capitol in Salem.
Davis, however, born in 1896 near Yoncolla, in the then boondocks of Douglas County, knew better than all that. With his family, descendents of early pioneers, he moved around Oregon, working as a printer's devil, sheepherder, cowboy, packer, deputy sheriff, surveyor, soldier and God knows what else until he settled down as a writer. From his varied and peripatetic past, Davis learned firsthand that many oldtimers, men and women alike, were downright ornery, whiskey guzzling scoundrels, colorful and funny sometimes, but just as often not. The country was hard, and you had to be damned hard to get it to settle down.
Also, Davis was well aware that the West had more than its share of literary snake-oil salesmen: men and women carrying the legacy of the dime novel, cranking out romantic tripe and dusty saddles' doggerel.
IN 1928 he got things off his chest, declaring his freedom from the romantic and stylized western story in a scathing treatise titled "Status Rerum -- Allegro Ma Non Troppo," in which he wrote, "The Northwest is not short of writers. What it lacks is literature." Seven years later he proved to be the exception with Honey in the Horn, a novel far ahead of its time. The protagonist, Clay Calvert, is a remarkably resourceful teen-ager with the combined attributes of Candide and Holden Caufield, who experiences the West as Davis thought it should be.
Clay (think of dirt, of Adam), is an orphan raised and worked hard by a literate old curmudgeon named Uncle Preston Shiveley, who "had lived for fifty years (in the Shoestring Valley of Southwestern Oregon), outlasting a wife, two sons, several plagues of grasshoppers, wheat-rust and caterpillars, a couple or three invasions of land-hunting settlers and . . ." So forth and so on, Davis using a wonderfully homespun intellect as his omniscient narrator from page one.
The plot is set when Shiveley decides to do away with his no-good son, Wade. Clay breaks Wade out of jail, and the remainder of the novel is a kind of allegorical, chase-travelogue, Davis intending to present every kind of occupation extant in Oregon at the time.
He almost succeeds, and the reader enjoys a rich cast of colorful characters representing hoboes, hop pickers, cowboys, teamsters, sheepherders, steamboatmen, prostitutes, wheat and cattle ranchers, drifters, not to mention the Indians, whom Davis represents with great sympathy.
Clay, thinking both the law and Shively are after him, merges into this anonymous migration. He picks hops in the valley, lights out for the coast -- then a wild, isolated place -- and moves east into the high desert country (Oregon's late frontier was east not west), all the while finding work, love, death and his own manhood.
His love is Luce (light), the daughter of a shiftless and gambling horsetrader. From her he learns not only love, but the price of murder and the ways of survival. From him the reader experiences a time that will never come again, a time Davis recalled when the West was free, still empty of roads and cities.
As a native Oregonian, I read this book first as a young man, after I had worked on the river and in the fields and spent time in the woods and on the coast. One of my grandfathers worked in the woods, another was a poacher and cowboy in Davis' time, and my stories and theirs -- and his -- are true.
Now, with the beauty of Oregon diminishing every day, I read Davis for more, finding in him the same honesty and concern, the same insights into nature; the same deep understanding and love for the land I find in our current Northwest writers, Ken Kesey, Ivan Doig, Don Berry and, more recently, Craig Lesley.
Davis took a lot of heat from the critics of the day, one of whom wrote in The Oregonian that he was "totally disrespectful of the Oregon pioneer tradition."
Yet beyond doubt Davis knew Oregon and her people. He also knew mankind, in song and story and in the several languages he picked up in his life. He played guitar, and it was said of him that he knew the words to 1,500 folk songs. At the time of his death, however -- of a heart attack, one leg gone, in San Antonio -- his work was represented in only a handful of volumes. There are the novels Harp of a Thousand Strings, Beulah Land and Winds of the Morning, and his fiction is backed by a modest gathering of poetry and essays.
Most recently, Davis has been profiled by Robert Bain in the excellent Western Writers Series published by Boise State University, while H.L. Davis: Collected Essays and Short Stories has been published in paperback by the University of Idaho Press. Honey in the Horn is quite active in public libraries, at least in Oregon, and it is still in print as a Bard paperback, published by Avon.
Paul Pintarich is the book editor of The Portland Oregonian.