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.
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...
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