1936: Honey in the Horn by H. L. Davis

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Plot Summary:

Set in Oregon in the early years of the twentieth century, H. L. Davis’s Honey in the Horn chronicles the struggles faced by homesteaders as they attempted to settle down and eke out subsistence from a still-wild land. With sly humor and keenly observed detail, Davis pays homage to the indomitable character of Oregon’s restless people and dramatic landscapes without romanticizing or burnishing the myths.
Originally published in 1935, Honey in the Horn reveals as much about the prevailing attitudes and beliefs of H. L. Davis’ lifetime as it does about the earlier era in which it is set. It transcends the limitations of its time through the sheer power and beauty of Davis’ prose. Full of humor and humanity, Davis’s first novel displays a vast knowledge of Pacific Northwest history, lore, and landscape.

My Thoughts:

In a note at the start of the novel, H. L. Davis writes, “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 a consideration for readers. Within the limits set me, I have done my best.” This note, a sort of thesis to the novel, works well to prepare the reader. You should not expect to find a story driven by the plot, but by the characters. So much so that they plot often becomes secondary to the characters, going out of its way to create situations for the protagonist to meet new and different types of people around Oregon. It is a sort of role call of the Oregonian people at the start of the Twentieth Century, with a vaguely disguised plot attached.

The story ostensibly follows Clay Calvert, a shepherd at the start of the story, as he accidentally helps his uncle escape jail and must go on the run, moving across Oregon with various migrant workers and homesteaders, in the meanwhile running into just about every other sort of person imaginable who has set down roots in the state. He meets farmers, killers, mechanics, steamboat captains, and people hoping to get rich in any way imaginable. As soon as the reader starts to become familiar with one group of people Clay is interacting with, he up and joins another. And at several points within the novel, Davis goes out of his way to list the cast of characters (each with a small paragraph of backstory and description) that Clay will be interacting with over the next few chapters. As soon as you’ve just about forgotten a character from earlier in the book, however, Clay manages to run into them again hundreds of miles and in a different direction than they left each other. However, many of these characters, whose stories are only told in a few sentences here and there, provide more interesting stories than Clay Calvert’s story. Clay’s story is more of a vehicle to tell everyone else’s story. Continue reading

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The 1936 Novel Decision

With the new wording for the prize criteria calling, not for “the best novel” but “a distinguished novel,” the same jury from the year before deliberated, and recommended Honey in the Horn by H. L. Davis for the prize, stating, “There is lively and varied action and exceedingly graphic description of a little known section of the country,” and comparing the “style and humor” of the novel to Mark Twain’s writing. The jury listed as lesser suggestions, 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.

The Advisory Board went ahead with the jury suggestion and awarded the prize to Davis for Honey in the Horn, although John Hohenberg notes that they “fully realized that criticism of the fiction award would continue. And it did. Changing the formula (prize criteria), as always, really changed nothing.”

Hohenberg writes of one further development that Hohenberg writes about in the aftermath of the award. He mentions that Sinclair Lewis was described by the New York Times as “a judge of the prize contest” and described the book as “full of raciness, of adventure, of color,” and said that Honey in the Horn is “one of those uncommon books that really express a land and an age and, by expressing them, really create them.” Hohenberg points out that Lewis was not included in any records as being part of the novel jury for the Pulitzer Prize, and mentions a correspondence he had with Lewis’ biographer, Mark Schorer, in which he calls Lewis’ “claim of jury membership ‘improbable’” and “a kind of joke.” Continue reading

1935: Now in November by Josephine Johnson

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From the Back Cover:

Originally published in 1934, Josephine Johnson’s first novel, about a middle-class family driven into poverty by the Great Depression, won the Pulitzer Prize and drew clamorous praise. Certainly, more than 50 years later, its characterizations ring remarkably true: a family of three daughters, struggling to exist as dirt-poor farmers, the father unable to respond to the fiercely devoted eldest girl who longs to be his “son.” The brief and intense narrative movingly evokes the torment of people isolated, and driven by strong–yet often unexpressed–feelings of love and hatred, and paints and indelible portrait of the Depression and Dust Bowl years.

My Thoughts:

I read Now in November around the same time as I saw Christopher Nolen’s film, Interstellar. I won’t comment on the rest of the movie, but the opening scenes are filled with actual interviews, conducted by Ken Burns, of Dust Bowl survivors. I did not know they were real interviews when I went into the movie, but recognized immediately that it was not scripted, that those people were speaking from a raw and intimate knowledge of something apocalyptic. The land itself rose up against them and was terrible in its destruction. Josephine Johnson captures those feelings and emotions in the pages of Now in November. Johnson also captures the brokenness of humans, the struggles of despair and depression and mania, and the melancholy resignation that comes on as disaster leaves no choice but to be accepted, even as you’re attempting to fight against it.

The novel is narrated by Marget, and focuses mainly on her tenant farming family as they struggle through the drought leading up to the Dust Bowl. Marget’s sister Kerrin has psychological issues–possibly some sort of manic depression–that slowly becomes more evident as the drought continues and the farm totters on the brink of disaster. Marget’s mother has an unwavering faith that carries her through the drought, but it’s a faith that her daughters question and do not understand. Her father is stoic, but has the incessant need to always be right and in control of the situation, which leaves him adrift when he faces something that he can do nothing at all to control. And Marget sees herself as homely and unloved, a constant victim of her circumstances, who so often wishes for more, but cannot build up the courage to do anything because of a fear of rejection and failure. In fact, the drought is little more than the impetus to discover how different people fall apart and persevere in the face of adversity. It is a tool for Johnson to use to explore humanity, and so the novel is at its heart about the struggle to survive and reconcile personal convictions in the face of an impersonal, impartial cataclysm. It explores the different ways that people break when they are strained past their limit, and whether or not they are able to pick the pieces up and put any of them back together again after the fact. Continue reading

The 1935 Novel Decision

The 1935 Novel Jury, apparently in some disagreement, and unimpressed with the year’s offerings in fiction, issued a harsh report at the end of their deliberations, stating, “It seems impossible for your jury on the Pulitzer prize for the best American novel to agree this year on anything but that there is, in their opinion, no outstanding novel.” The jury went on to list eight possible selections: Slim by W. W. Haines, The Folks by Ruth Suckow, Now in November by Josephine Johnson, Goodbye to the Past by W. R. Burnett, The Foundry by Albert Halper, Land of Plenty, by Robert Cantwell, The American by Louis Dodge, and So Red the Rose by Stark Young.

As a reminder that there were, perhaps, more polite sentiments at the time, the jury writes about Slim, “There is an episode of sex, but treated with high seriousness.” They describe The American as, “A little melodramatic, but full of interesting characters and ‘local color’.” The report also states that Land of Plenty is a similar story to The Foundry, “but thought by one member of the jury to be more brilliant than that.” Continue reading