Paul Horgan Essay - Horgan, Paul

Horgan, Paul

Horgan, Paul 1903–

An American editor, playwright, historian, essayist, short story writer, and novelist, Horgan is a regionalist writer of the American Southwest. Horgan won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize in History for Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History. His works, in which his Catholicism figures prominently, are characterized by attitudes of charity, optimism, and a belief that spiritual forces are at work in life. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Though he is a Catholic writer, Horgan is more devoted to explaining human dignity achieved through experience than he is to specifically "religious" answers. Somewhat like the whiskey priest in The Power and The Glory, his characters are more than Catholic, for they embody the experiences universal to the growth of the human spirit.

In some ways "Death and the Children" is a prototype of the most significant of Horgan's writings. Its theme, even its characters and setting, are those which become important in his works, both short stories and novels. Death itself, the central fact of this story, does not become a major theme for Horgan, though it is often used. A shattering personal experience, of which death is perhaps the most powerful, is the core of many of his most important writings; and the use of childhood, and specifically of a boys' camp, is to recur again in later works. It appears that Horgan is not interested in childhood as such, just as he is not really concerned with death, but he used it as the most appropriate symbol of man's growth through experience. His children are only secondarily children; first they are the embodiment of the human soul struggling toward understanding and expression. (pp. 10-11)

In Things As They Are, Horgan writes more openly than in any other work of his concern for the cruelty and deceit that make up a part of the world of human relationships. Cruelty and deceit are recognized in his other novels, but the emphasis is on his characters' mastery of them, and not on their existence, as in this book. His use of the first person is competent, but does not display the same adeptness at characterization as some of his other stories. (p. 23)

Paul Horgan is known as a regional writer, and in fact most of his fiction has been set in the Southwest. In a broader sense, however, the major themes of his novels are not those of a regionalist, and his chief concern is with character…. His plots are often well-conceived in themselves, but invariably they are extensions of, or vehicles for, the expression of character. (p. 27)

In attempts to master new aspects of fiction, Horgan was far more ready to experiment with point of view, time span, or characterization than with literary technique. Prose, in his works, is the vehicle for carrying plot and atmosphere and is well-trained and facile, but not original. (p. 29)

James M. Day, in his Paul Horgan (copyright © 1967 by Steck-Vaughn Company), Steck-Vaughn, 1967.

[Two] motives—to transform the commonplace into the legendary, to find the beauty behind the banality—appear to me to be the generating forces of ["Whitewater"], as they are the generating forces of much art. The great Romantic and post-Romantic poets, from Wordsworth to Wallace Stevens, have in various ways sought to redeem the actual world from banality. It is no mean chore for the novelist, who runs the same risks as the poets—the chief risk being that because of insufficient heat, or light, or energy, the banal remains banal, the typical only typical, the average only average, and the sought-after legends and beauty emerge only fitfully, if at all. Mr. Horgan has bravely and not altogether successfully run this risk.

"Whitewater" is mostly the story of young [Phillipson] Durham and his yearning to escape the provincial deadliness of the small plains town…. The outline of his life, of his story, is [a simple one].

It's an artful simplicity, too. Horgan is a writer who has clearly controlled and restrained his powers of language and thought to create a classically familiar story, and he has told it with great economy, even elegance. Much of our life is accurately rendered: the achingly familiar corniness and turbulence of adolescent emotion, the hopelessly ambiguous desires of parents for their children's future, the suffocating oppressiveness of small town life. Every man who grew up in the sticks will recognize at least part of himself in Phillipson Durham.

And that, of course, is where the trouble lies. The point at which the familiar becomes the cliché, the evocation of universal experience somehow turns out to be a depressing recital of things too well known—that point is reached fairly early in Mr. Horgan's narrative, and the reader never really finds his way to the beauty and the legends he might have hoped to discover….

Ordinary life and ordinary people aren't that ordinary, predictable, finished, and Mr. Horgan presumably knows it. At one point, Victoria says to Durham, "And if you only think about it, life is bigger than art, and we have a lot of life in our town." What went wrong? Somehow Mr. Horgan's considerable art doesn't measure up to Victoria's fine and truthful words.

One knows that even the most commonplace lives are more unpredictable, more mysterious, less finished than Mr. Horgan's art allows. Only rarely does he animate Victoria's description of the town, most strikingly perhaps in the description of a fishing trip on Whitewater Lake. Phillipson and Billy hear voices floating across from the next island, they swim toward the island to investigate, are shot at and swim back without ever finding out who the voices belonged to or what they were saying. This episode stays with Phillipson into his adult life, and he never ceases to wonder what it was he could not hear that night.

I imagine it is something like those voices we ourselves want to hear in a novel like "Whitewater." But we come away all too certain that we've heard more than enough.

James Boatwright, "Flawed Quest for the Beauty Beyond Banality," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 27, 1970, p. 5.

Paul Horgan's Whitewater has so much going for it that I am surprised it has not gone farther….

It is hard to fault Mr. Horgan for doing everything right. When he mentions Belvedere he tells us that it has a population of 5,453, and I approve of facts. In the opening scene he describes "Fourth Island in Whitewater Lake, which backed up Whitewater Dam, on the Whitewater Draw, forty-nine miles from the town of Belvedere, in Orpha County, in West Central Texas." If we praise that kind of thing in Defoe, we must praise it in Mr. Horgan, it comes from good motives. But it does not ring true. After a while, these details in Whitewater begin to sound like abstractions, arithmetic drifts off into metaphysics. I think the reason is that Mr. Horgan's sense of life is generic rather than individual, he takes an interest in people only because they constitute Man; or so the fiction suggests….

[In Whitewater] Mr. Horgan tries to … tell a commonplace story in such a way that it becomes legendary, and the colloquial style becomes sublime. But the trouble is that legends cannot be forced, they come or they do not. Mr. Horgan coaxes the commonplace to transfigure itself…. There is a feeling, toward the end of the book, that Mr. Horgan is putting in the significance which the story itself failed to give; details are underlined, glossed, pondered, lest they die as details.

Henry James, considering the novel as a picture of life, said that it is not expected of a picture that it shall make itself humble in order to be forgiven. But Mr. Horgan's picture makes itself grand in order to be noticed. Judging from the style, I conclude that Mr. Horgan has misgivings about his fiction. He worries that perhaps it will not mean enough or mean it abundantly. He has good will, good nature, powers of reflection, and he cares about the quality of life; what his writing lacks in Whitewater is nonchalance, the ease which succeeds difficulty. He writes as if there were nothing, no release, beyond difficulty. (p. 23)

Denis Donoghue, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1970 NYREV, Inc.), November 5, 1970.

History-as-nightmare may be something from which none of us will ever awaken, but in books like Paul Horgan's Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History we get a rousing good shake and a fighting chance to open our eyes. Not that Horgan's vision is as glibly rosy as that of many another chronicler of the Southwest. On the contrary, throughout the epic sweep of Great River (from prehistory to the 20th century) one is fully aware that greed, cruelty and madness have been the acolytes of every change and movement, every rise to power and fall from grace. But what sets Great River apart and is its finest virtue is Horgan's ability to inspirit human events with the flavor and feeling of the land that spawned them. The stage he sets is broad, permanent. In the background one feels the steady pulse of the land and its river; they endure. At least until the coming of the railroads and the automobile, the land invariably conquered its conquerors. (p. 31)

The scope of the work is shaped by neither political nor cultural boundaries. Its territory is defined only by the river that snakes 1900 miles from the snowcapped mountains of southern Colorado through desert, canyon and plain to the swampy margins of the Gulf of Mexico, and on this continent is exceeded in length only by the Mississippi-Missouri system. The river and the dry wilderness at its sides provide the thread to unite the centuries of human experience there; culture, armies and law do not. (pp. 31-2)

[Critics] were by no means unanimous in their praise of the book. Some found it arty and accused it of being too "pretty" for history. One critic at the New Yorker summarized many of his fellows' misgivings. "An odd thing happens to writers who live in the high country," he wrote, ignoring the fact that the Rio Grande, like any major river, must flow through the lowest land in its region. "They see the mountains, the sand, the stars, the cactus, the wrinkled Indians and they begin to babble about 'time' and 'space.'" He may as well have said that history is at all times obliged to be sere and sober and that there is no place in it for poetry or enchantment, even such as the people who are its subject may have felt in their own lives. Happily, that is not Horgan's point of view. As the river is animate and mysterious in the mind of the Pueblo and of many who followed him to its banks, so it is evoked in Horgan's graceful prose….

Four "books" make up the whole of Great River…. One book is devoted to each of the four peoples who successively dominated the history of the Rio Grande: Pueblos, Spanish, Mexicans and Anglo-Americans. Horgan … lends his considerable imaginative power to the task of recreating the quotidian reality of each of those peoples….

In Books III and IV the tempo of the work rapidly accelerates….

The mad pace of events is matched by the extraordinarily high level of excitement sustained by the writing. But there are also interludes of quiet where the rhythm mellows and Horgan continues the practice established in Book I and II of devoting long chapters to the social history of the river's people…. The result is as good a digest of the American frontier experience as one may hope to find.

There is one problem. As a tool for further research on the Southwest, Great River is not much help. Although the bibliography is marvelously complete …, specific sources for material in the text have been omitted in the interest of not "diverting the attention of the reader." Hence frustration. One wishes he had left more tracks (as he did so well in Lamy of Santa Fe, in a separate section of "Notes"), yet compared to the immensity of his achievement, that is a niggling complaint….

Great River concludes with some rather awkward commentary on the changes that the present century has brought to the Southwest, but it is not as though Horgan simply runs out of steam….

Horgan ends his history with a kind of mystical optimism and gestures vaguely toward the future. He does not quite seem to know what to make of a civilization that builds Los Alamos and the bomb and that no longer finds itself bound to the life-giving power of the Great River. In that, he is certainly not alone. (p. 32)

William deBuys, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), February 7, 1976.

Horgan is an excellent craftsman and a skilled delineator of character, large and small; he commands an elegant yet unobtrusive prose in which the events of ["The Thin Mountain Air"] seem embedded, unfolding before the reader almost as if he were watching the action in a makimono, a Japanese scroll. If the story, finally, seems to add up to little more than itself (and the pleasure it gives on the way), for Horgan's many admirers this will once more be enough. (p. 36)

Ivan Gold, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 11, 1977.

Paul Horgan … once complained that contemporary novelists inhabit "the age of the case history," in which style is reduced to fashionable psychological "jargon." Horgan himself prefers unfashionable jargon. In one scene of The Thin Mountain Air, he has Richard, the aggressively lyrical adolescent narrator, describe his mother with a reference to "that ageless and formless foreboding which women harbor for those they love."

This is the third "Richard" novel in a series … that explores what Horgan has called "the pervasive U.S. fictional theme: leaving boyhood." As in the earlier novels, Richard is burdened with guilt, nostalgia …, and an overload of epiphanies….

Ironically, [the novel's] promiscuous "moments" are less compelling than the physical surroundings in which they are set. Horgan's sense of place is as palpable and magical as ever: New Mexico's "immense sweep of light, heat, water, and vision" has considerably more life than its ranch hands, who, as Richard admits, speak "the professional cant of cowboy fiction." Horgan wants us to believe in the "rude lyrical humanity" of these people, but what we do believe in is the majestic inhumanity of his mountains, deserts, and skies. (p. 40)

Jack Sullivan, in Saturday Review (© 1977 by Saturday Review Magazine Corp.; reprinted with permission), September 17, 1977.