Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 885
Harold Lenoir Davis was born in Nonpareil, Oregon, on October 18, 1894, or possibly 1896. Many of the details of Davis’s early years are confused by events that he fabricated in later accounts of his life. For example, he turned a few weeks of herding sheep when a youngster into a tale of a job as a cowpuncher; and he turned a short tenure as a military clerk into an adventure with the cavalry in pursuit of Pancho Villa. One can read psychological import into Davis’s romanticizing of his youth—perhaps he did so to compensate for his feelings of inadequacy among the elite writers of his day—but he might simply have been following the frontier tradition of duping outsiders with outlandish anecdotes and contradictory details of his life. Davis’s work is full of tall tales; his telling such tales about his life should not be surprising.
His parents were James Alexander Davis and Ruth Bridges Davis. Although James Davis had only one leg (the other having been lost in an accident in a sawmill when he was six years old), he was a vigorous man. He was a schoolteacher who taught in one-room schools and took on other jobs when he could in order to support a family that began with Harold and included three other boys. The Davis family moved from town to town in Oregon while James Davis moved from job to job, finally settling in The Dalles, where, in 1908, James was made principal of the high school.
James Davis had a taste for literature and wrote poetry. Even though H. L. Davis does not seem to have liked his father, James Davis inculcated in his son an interest in literature. Writing was initially a secondary interest for Davis. After working and saving money for college, he went, in 1917, to Stanford University with the hope of training to be an engineer. The school was too expensive, however, and he returned to The Dalles.
In 1918, Davis was drafted into the army and sent to Fort McDowell in California. He served as a clerk from September to December, 1918, at which time he was discharged. During 1918, he submitted poems to Poetry; they were published in 1919 and won for Davis a moderate recognition among other poets. He worked at various jobs until he began earning money by collaborating on stories with James Stevens.
In 1926, Davis and Stevens alienated much of the Northwest’s small literary establishment by writing Status Rerum: A Manifesto upon the Present Condition of Northwestern Literature Containing Several Near Libelous Utterances upon Persons in the Public Eye. The pamphlet assaulted the members of the literary community of Washington and Oregon for low standards and nepotism, and earned for Davis the long-lasting enmity of many northwestern writers and scholars. He had happier collaborations with Stevens on short stories. Davis needed money, and Stevens was a well-known writer who commanded a higher rate of pay than Davis could expect. (Paul T. Bryant has suggested that two stories written entirely by Davis were published under Stevens’s name.) Encouraged by H. L. Mencken and others, faced with difficulty earning money, and newly married in 1928 to Marion Lay, Davis committed himself to writing professionally and began publishing stories under his own name.
Davis and his wife moved to Washington, then to Arizona, back to Washington, and then to Mexico, where they lived on a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation that enabled Davis to concentrate on a major work. The result was his first novel, Honey in the Horn, which appeared in 1935 and won both the Harper Novel Prize and the Pulitzer Prize. In his forties, Davis received recognition as a writer with a promising future, and his next novel was highly anticipated. This second novel, however, was delayed for eleven years by a quarrel with Harper & Brothers, publishers of Honey in the Horn, and the breakup of Davis’s marriage.
Always a private man, Davis refused an offer from Harper & Brothers of an all-expenses-paid trip to New York City to accept the Pulitzer Prize. This initiated a strain on his relationship with the publishing house that developed into a dispute over royalty payments and the right to publish his next book. The dispute, combined with Marion’s suit for divorce in 1942 and Davis’s recurring ill health, made the period from 1936 to 1947 unproductive for Davis, save for some short stories published before 1941—although he may have had the manuscript for Beulah Land ready in the late 1930’s. Davis earned money during this period by writing screenplays.
With the publication of Harp of a Thousand Strings by William Morrow in 1947, Davis’s career and life took a turn for the better. The publication of Beulah Land in 1949 secured his place in American letters. His subsequent novels generally enhanced his reputation and gave him financial security. In 1953, he married Elizabeth Tonkin Martin del Campo, and their relationship was a happy one.
While the 1950’s brought Davis hard-earned success and happiness, they also saw the worsening of his health. Doctors amputated his left leg in 1956 because of arteriosclerosis. Almost incessant pain did not prevent him from writing essays, finishing his last novel, The Distant Music, and pursuing his interest in literature. In October, 1960, he suffered two heart attacks while visiting San Antonio, Texas; he died on October 31.