“…He met her in the line and he laid her on a board
And he played her up a tune called Sugar in the Gourd,
Sugar in the gourd, honey in the horn,
Balance to your partners, honey in the horn…”
-traditional square dancing tune
During the depths of the Great Depression the Pulitzer Prize Board at Columbia University tended to honor novels which reminded readers of harsher times in days gone by, particularly stories of struggling American pioneers. As a result, the 1930s often feels like a grueling mountain that must be summited on this pilgrimage through the Pulitzer Prize winners. Honey In The Horn, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1936, is no exception. It is a tedious, dreary read about rural Oregon homesteaders settling along the west coast during the early 20th century. Published in 1935, it was the debut novel by H.L. Davis, who remains the only novelist from Oregon to win the Pulitzer Prize.
At the outset, Mr. Davis offers a brief preface in which he claims that all the characters in this book are fictitious, none are autobiographical, and he expresses no intent of offering social criticism nor social reform. He originally intended to document a history of the State of Oregon homesteading period (1906-1908) but that idea was abandoned for the sake of brevity, and instead he transformed his notes unto a novel.
We begin with a survey of the pioneering families residing in Southern Oregon, especially Uncle Preston Shiveley, an eccentric “scholar of the community” who runs a tollbridge and an apple orchard with a couple of ne’er-do-well sons whom he once kicked off his property. His innumerable Aristotelian studies of nature amount to little more than “a mule’s heel worth of hay” (4). He busies himself writing a history of the Oregon pioneers while adopting children, especially a 16 year old orphan named Clay Calvert who works as a sheep rancher until he stumbles into trouble. He gets somewhat accidentally entangled in a scheme to release his relative, Wade Shiveley, from jail by slipping a gun into the cell. The act forces Clay to flee. The rest of the novel concerns Clay’s journey via wagon throughout the state of Oregon as he dodges capture. His travels take him from the eastern wheat fields and the Cascade mountain towns, to the Columbia River and the tree-lined coasts.
He encounters an array of characters on his journey, especially a native Tunne Indian boy and a girl named Luce with whom he falls in love –“Her name, she told him, was not Lucy, as he had thought, but Luz, which is the Mexican word for light. The Mexicans and the Vascos in the sheep country across the mountains called it Luce” (119). Sadly, all the people Clay meets are ancillary background figures in service of the author’s true purpose, offering various regional descriptions of the Oregonian landscape. The characters are all little more than wooden, hollow characters with barely superficial interactions. While striving for grand premonitions of Mark Twain’s regionalism (a characterization Mr. Davis would reject), Honey In The Horn is the epitome of a contrived novel. As in Caroline Miller’s Lamb In His Bosom, a fellow Pulitzer Prize winner from a few years prior (feel free to read my reflections on Lamb In His Bosom here), Honey In The Horn would have been much better served as an anthropological investigation rather than a novel.
At any rate, as the narrative unfolds Wade Shiveley is eventually hanged for his crimes and Clay tracks down the Tunne boy before he is killed, and finally he locates Luce after an extended period of separation. The novel ends abruptly as the Clay and Luce discuss their less-than-romantic reunion. It is clear that Honey In The Horn had every intention of being a picaresque, panoramic glimpse of various pioneering groups who settled the Oregon territory, but I have no idea how or why H.L. Mencken could have dubbed Honey In The Horn the finest debut American novel ever written. Amazingly, Mr. Davis’s novels were also praised by Robert Penn Warren and Carl Sandburg.
The following are a handful of memorable passages I encountered while reading:
“There was a run-down old tollbridge station in the Shoestring Valley of of Southern Oregon where Uncle Preston Shiveley had lived for fifty years, outlasting his wife, two sons, several plagues of grasshoppers, wheat rusts and caterpillars, a couple of 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” (1 -opening passage).
“He tied a cord firmly around the gun from the inside of the trigger-guard to the face of the hammer. He wedged the gun into the leg of Clay’s right boot and strung the cord up through a hole in the right-hand trousers pocket. Pulling lifted the pistol free of the boot. Paying out lowered it to the floor, where the folds of extra trousers leg concealed it” (69).
“He had cut himself off from society to be independent of rules and restrictions, and the only thing he could think of to do with his freedom was to get up other rules and restrictions of his own which weren’t a lick more sensible than the ones he had escaped from” (113).
“The country through which they traveled grew nothing that could be observed from the road except six weeks’ grass, a scrubby species of sagebrush, a few blue-green dwarf junipers so crooked that there wasn’t a straight piece on them long enough to clean a pistol…” (298 -an example of many scenes in the novel).
“Over the water was one single, big cottonwood tree, with initials and comments cut in its bark, most of them dating from the period of the Civil War and expressing sentiments disrespectful to the Union, the President of the United States, and every body who held a job under him. It was along this line that a part of the western Confederate armies had gone to pieces and deserted after the Union troops broke their hold on Missouri” (301 -a fascinating glimpse at the lingering remnants of the western edge of the Civil War.)
“Nobody can discuss agriculture so learnedly as a farmer who hasn’t paid the interest on his mortgage for eight years, nobody can describe a military campaign with so deep an understanding of principles controlling the art of war as the commander who got the worst of it” (316).
“Nothing counts except whats goin’ on around you” (379).
On The 1936 Pulitzer Prize Decision:
The 1936 Pulitzer Prize Novel Jury was once again composed of returning Jurors: Jefferson B. Fletcher (Chair), Robert M. Lovett, and Albert B. Paine –the trio of Jurors that dominated the 1930s. The Jury recommended Honey In The Horn for the prize, but they apparently also considered several other novels including This Body the Earth by Paul Green, Time Out of Mind by Rachel Field, Silas Crocket by Ellen Chase, Ollie Miss by George Wylie Henderson, Deep Dark River by Robert Ryles, and Blessed is the Man by Louis Zara.
Interestingly enough, H.L. Davis elected not to attend the Pulitzer Prize ceremony in New York in 1936 because he did not want to put himself on exhibit.
Who is H.L. Davis?
Harold Lenoir “H.L.” Davis (1894-1960) was born in southern Oregon’s Umpqua Valley in 1894. He grew up in Oregon working various odd-jobs before beginning his writing career as a poet, receiving the prestigious Levinson Prize at age twenty-five. Some of his poems were purchased by H.L. Mencken and with his encouragement, Davis turned to fiction publishing five novels and many short stories as well as essays during the course of his career. He lived in Seattle and Napa (settling on a ranch with a vineyard) as well as a brief period in Mexico after winning a Guggenheim Fellowship. He wrote Honey In The Horn during this stint in Mexico. Along with a Pulitzer Prize Honey In The Horn also won a Harper Prize, a now discontinued award issued by the Harper Brothers publishing house from 1922-1965.
His writings were published in many notable publications including magazines such as Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post, however none of his later novels achieved the acclaim of Honey In The Horn. His later years were met with tragedy: divorce, disputes with his publishers over royalty rights, declining readership, an artery condition which forced the amputation of his left leg, and he eventually died of a heart attack in 1960 in San Antonio, Texas.
Davis, H.L. Honey In The Horn. New York, Grosset & Dunlap Publishers of Harper & Brothers, 1935.
Once again for this novel I had the extraordinary privilege of reading a first edition copy.