H. L. Davis Analysis

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

H. L. Davis first gained public and critical notice as a poet. His earliest poems were published in Poetry magazine and were much admired by such writers as Carl Sandburg and James Stevens. Most of Davis’s work in fiction before 1947 was in the short-story form. At first he collaborated with Stevens, but in the late 1920’s he began publishing on his own, establishing a reputation as a writer of Westerns. Both his poetry and his short fiction focus on western American themes. Davis’s poetry is sensitive to the experiences of the people who lived on the western frontier; among his short stories are a number that retain considerable literary merit. These are notable for the universality of their themes and sensitivity to human character.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

H. L. Davis won the Pulitzer Prize in 1936 for his first novel, Honey in the Horn. His subsequent novels enhanced his reputation, yet he has received little serious scholarly attention. Western genre fiction has long been regarded as inferior: Westerns are often formulaic, poorly written, and insubstantial. Many critics have inappropriately associated Davis’s complex novels with the typical products of the genre; at his best, Davis imbues the Western with a universality achieved by few other writers of Westerns.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Armstrong, 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.


(The entire section is 541 words.)