Authors: H. L. Davis

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist, short-story writer, and poet

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Honey in the Horn, 1935

Harp of a Thousand Strings, 1947

Beulah Land, 1949

Winds of Morning, 1952

The Distant Music, 1957

Short Fiction:

Team Bells Woke Me, and Other Stories, 1953


Proud Riders, 1942

The Selected Poems of H. L. Davis, 1978


Status Rerum: A Manifesto upon the Present Condition of Northwestern Literature Containing Several Near Libelous Utterances upon Persons in the Public Eye, 1926


Kettle of Fire, 1959

Collected Essays and Short Stories, 1986


Although some of Harold Lenoir Davis’s writing presents locales such as North Carolina, Paris, or Natchez, most of his fiction is set in that region of the United States in which he was born and grew up–various parts of Oregon. The son of a country schoolteacher, Davis was born in the now-vanished community of Rone’s Mill on October 18, 1894. (The year 1896 has also been given, but the sources on which the latter date is based are now considered unreliable.) At that time, the American frontier and all it represented in the political, economic, and sociological patterns of American life was fast disappearing. This fact is important, for the passing of frontier life–its values, personal justice, and colorful people–forms the subject matter characteristically associated with Davis’s work.{$I[AN]9810000174}{$I[A]Davis, H. L.}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Davis, H. L.}{$I[tim]1894;Davis, H. L.}

In later life, perhaps because he believed that the public demanded adventuresome authenticity, Davis tended to exaggerate the frontier experiences of his childhood. The family did move often, however, allowing Davis a chance to observe many parts of Oregon and many types of characters. Davis spent some time as an unpaid printer’s helper at age twelve, and he herded sheep for a few weeks while living in Antelope, aspects of his experience which he later made much of. In 1908, the Davis family settled in The Dalles, Oregon, which would remain the home base of H. L. Davis until 1928. After graduating from high school in 1912, he became a deputy county assessor as well as a deputy sheriff, the latter position being largely honorary, contrary to later claims by Davis.

Davis visited Stanford University briefly and then, during 1918, served in the Army (not, however, as he later claimed, with the American cavalry along the Mexican border). In the meantime, he had become interested in literature, and he began to publish his poems in the well-known periodical Poetry. His work showed enough talent to win for him the Levinson Prize in 1919. Davis’s concern with technique, his ability to convey the mood and tone of a location, and the stylistic precision that characterizes his novels were probably formed under this early poetic discipline. Proud Riders, a book of his poems, was published in 1942.

At the suggestion of H. L. Mencken, Davis turned from poetry to prose, concentrating at first on the short story. A number of his early efforts were published by the American Mercury and other magazines. Some of these early stories were collected in Team Bells Woke Me, and Other Stories. Davis was awarded a Guggenheim stipend in 1932. He went to Mexico with the intention of writing more poetry there. Instead, he began work on his first novel, Honey in the Horn, which won for him the Harper Prize in the year of its publication and the Pulitzer Prize in 1936.

Almost twelve years elapsed before the appearance of Davis’s second novel, Harp of a Thousand Strings, a historical work which abandoned the Oregon locale for Tripoli and Napoleonic France. His later novels, Beulah Land, Winds of Morning, and The Distant Music, returned to the transitional frontier society of the Pacific Northwest. Kettle of Fire, a book of travel essays, one story, and a critical essay, appeared in 1959. For most of the last three decades of his life, Davis lived and wrote in California and Mexico. After years of ill health, he died while visiting in Texas in 1960.

Davis is perhaps best associated with two other distinguished writers whose works have grown out of the American West: Walter Van Tilburg Clark and A. B. Guthrie, Jr. Like them, he was not content to write “Westerns” in which melodrama is a substitute for character analysis or to make sentimental re-creations of defunct societies an excuse for bad writing. He was first and foremost a careful craftsman who brought into the province of art material which had previously been treated by many critics as a subliterary genre. Davis accomplished his objective largely because of his moral insight and his concern with style. As a result of this concern, he was capable of communicating both the poetic immediacy of nature and the moral depth of the characters who people it.

BibliographyArmstrong, George M. “H. L. Davis’s Beulah Land: A Revisionist’s Novel of Westering.” In The Westering Experience in American Literature: Bicentennial Essays, edited by Merrill Lewis and L. L. Lee. Bellingham: Western Washington University, 1977. Maintains that Beulah Land is Davis’s only novel to make a direct presentation of settling the West as a foolish effort to achieve impossible goals. Davis used history to challenge the conventions of fiction, as his treatment of the Civil War and Indians in Beulah Land illustrates.Armstrong, George M. “An Unworn and Edged Tool: H. L. Davis’s Last Word on the West, ‘The Kettle of Fire.’” In Northwest Perspectives: Essays on the Culture of the Pacific Northwest, edited by Edwin Bingham and Glen A. Love. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979. A study of Davis’s last published work, “Kettle of Fire,” the title story for a collection of short prose. The simple plot is analyzed as a satire of the Promethean myth. Davis’s story argues that Western fiction should aim for the complications and ambiguities of true human experience, not for simplification and surface action.Bain, Robert. H. L. Davis. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1974. A helpful biography that examines the role of the West in American literature.Bryant, Paul T. H. L. Davis. Boston: Twayne, 1978. After a biographical sketch, examines Davis’s poetry from 1918 to 1928 and looks at his short prose from 1927 through 1941, including stories developed from narrative poetry. Chapter 4 focuses on Honey in the Horn, a difficult novel to write which failed to realize fully its central character. The next four chapters analyze Davis’s next four novels, from Harp of a Thousand Strings to The Distant Music, analyzing their main themes and describing the critical reception of each. The last chapter assesses Davis’s achievement through analysis of his style, structural techniques, use of folklore and natural landscape, basic themes, and symbolism. Contains a chronology, notes and references, a selected and annotated bibliography, and an index.Bryant, Paul T. “H. L. Davis.” In A Literary History of the American West. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1987. This brief article appears in a significant book of scholarship. Davis is presented as a paradox: a fine stylist who chose to work in a genre of clichés and a narrator of Western tales who insisted that there was nothing special about the Western experience. As a result, his writing is uneven, in both the short and long fiction. Throughout, however, he wrote of life as a human comedy in which people can be foolish and cowardly, but also loving and unselfish. Contains a selected bibliography of primary and secondary sources.Kohler, Dayton. “H. L. Davis: Writer in the West.” College English 14 (December, 1952): 133-140. Sketches events in Davis’s early life in Oregon to explain his fictional world. Argues that he carefully examines the sociology of the West as a drifting society on a static frontier. Analyzes Honey in the Horn, Harp of a Thousand Strings, Beulah Land, and Winds of Morning (which is narrower in scope than its predecessors). Davis’s style sets him apart from more popular writers in the genre, and he writes with a strong sense of the interrelationship among rhythm, tone, imagery, scene, and character.
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