H. L. Davis Essay - Critical Essays


The novels of H. L. Davis are unified by common themes and a common structure: In each novel except for his last, movement from one place to another provides the various backgrounds for the conflicts and growth of the characters. The themes of flight and pursuit dominate all of Davis’s novels, even The Distant Music, which structurally is an inverted reflection of its predecessors. In it, Davis focuses on what happens to people who are tied to one place and contrasts them to those who are free.

Honey in the Horn

Honey in the Horn relates the adventures of Clay Calvert, Wade Shively, Uncle Preston Shively, Luce, and Luce’s father, a horse trader. Typical of Davis’s novels, it is populated by many minor characters in addition to the main characters on whom the action focuses. The book is the creation of a mature author who had been writing for most of his adult life; thus its themes are those that concerned Davis most, and its style is consistent and representative of the author’s work. Davis was more interested in characters than in plots, more interested in universal human realities than in local customs. In Honey in the Horn, the principal characters act out their drama in a plot that twists and turns almost as if at random; the plot relies heavily on coincidences and is held together primarily by Clay Calvert’s travels. The novel faithfully depicts the Oregonian settings and the social customs of the time, but broad Christian symbolism sometimes dominates the novel’s imagery. Through symbolism, Davis tries to point out the universal significance of his characters.

Honey in the Horn is set in Oregon in the early part of the twentieth century. The principal events are the murder of a gambler, the development of a relationship between Luce and Clay, Clay’s accidental killing of a man, the hanging of Wade Shively, and the discovery that Luce had killed the gambler. These often violent events are set against a background of rural areas and wilderness and mark the growth to maturity of Clay and Luce. They are surrounded by violence and the threat of violence; even the meeting with an old tyrannical owner of a lumber mill about the use of land for camping overnight is fraught with overtones of menace and threats of physical harm. Clay, who initially flees violence, is trapped in it; Luce, too, cannot evade the violence in her nature. As the couple learn to accept each other, they also learn to accept the dark aspects of their own natures; neither wholly good nor wholly evil, they are fully human. Focusing on the relationship of Clay and Luce, the novel emphasizes spiritual trial and growth and presents a sad, slightly world-weary view of humanity that is typical of Davis’s novels.

The appearance of symbolism in Honey in the Horn is sporadic; it almost totally commands some events and disappears afterward. The most striking example of Christian symbolism is the killing of Wade Shively. Although he is an evil man, he plays the role of Christ in his death: He is captured at night, hanged under false pretenses, and buried in a manner suggesting the burial of Christ. The irony of such symbolism serves Davis’s purposes well: Human beings are mixtures of good and evil, satanic at one moment and Christlike the next.

Harp of a Thousand Strings

Davis’s use of characters to represent ideas is even more pronounced in the presentation of Melancthon Crawford, Commodore Robinette, Apeyahola (Indian Jory), Jean-Lambert Tallien, and Thérèse de Fontenay in Harp of a Thousand Strings. These characters are used to illustrate the theme of the title: Each life is part of a vast instrument, the tones of which reverberate from the past, through the present, and into the future. The broad theme of the interrelationships of human lives dominates the novel to the extent that some of Davis’s literary strengths are blunted. The satiric humor that enlivens many of his works is almost nonexistent in Harp of a Thousand Strings; the characters sometimes move awkwardly as they fulfill their assigned roles and thus lose some of the natural humanity found in characters in Davis’s other novels.

Harp of a Thousand Strings is an ambitious work that portrays the broad sweep of history from the French Revolution to Tripoli in 1805, to the American prairie in the mid-nineteenth century. In flashbacks, the story details how Tallien and Fontenay lived through the French Revolution; how they came to Tripoli and saved Crawford, Robinette, and Apeyahola; and how the three saved men eventually built a town on the American prairie and named it after Fontenay.

The novel begins with Crawford being declared mentally incompetent and then being shipped from the town he helped to found back to his grasping relatives in Pennsylvania. Dismayed by the mistreatment of Crawford, Robinette and Apeyahola discuss their collective fates and recall the events that led them to the prairie. They had met during the attack by American forces on Tripoli—after they had escaped from the Barbary forces, which had held them prisoner. They are met by Tallien, the French consul, and Fontenay. Tallien tells his life story to the three men and notes how it illustrates that the pursuit of love, revenge, and ambition leads to failure: He wins as his wife a woman who does not love him; he finds that avenging personal injustices is silly because of the changes in those he hated; and he finds that power, once gained, controls him rather than his controlling it. In their lives, Apeyahola, Crawford, and Robinette represent the desires for love, revenge, and ambition, and their lives illustrate the futility of their efforts to reach their goals. Apeyahola wants to return to his wife; he ends up murdering her because of her infidelity. Crawford at first suffers failures in his quest to become rich and return to his hometown as an important man; he ultimately returns as a wealthy man in name only because his greedy relatives have made him their ward. Robinette’s ambitious military career ends in ignominy: the killing of unarmed Mexican soldiers in Texas.

Beulah Land

Harp of a Thousand Strings shows Davis’s interest in the large issues that confront human...

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