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