Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 347

Oregon in the homesteading days was colorful, raw, rollicking, and often brutal. West of the Great Plains meant west of civilization, but the frontier nevertheless profoundly influenced American culture. HONEY IN THE HORN is Harold Lenoir Davis’ Pulitzer Prize-winning attempt to render the unique and captivating quality of that experience. In his introduction, the author states that he is neither criticizing social groups nor suggesting reforms; rather, he attempts to give an accurate picture of the migrants who were always seeking new homes in better lands. The story itself is excellent, however fast-moving and interestingly told.

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The title, from a boisterous square dance lyric, introduces a tall-tale dimension popularized by local colorists such as Bret Harte and Artemus Ward. The story derives much of its power and inspiration from the poker-faced comic sketches of the rustic characters the young protagonist encounters. When Clay Calvert flees the ramshackle toll bridge station (under shady circumstances which eventually unfold and help relieve the rambling plot of its dependence on coincidence), his adventures encompass a spectrum of incidents infused with local color, including vivid scenic description and scenes involving random brutality, frontier lore, backwoods politics, human dignity and degradation, squalor, and sensibility.

Davis’ story combines authentic frontier language with huge infusions of firsthand knowledge and backwoods lore, which is occasionally fabulous but which nevertheless rings true of human situations. Davis refuses to mythologize his material but rather allows the tension between the myth and the revealed reality, between the ideal of the Old West and fact, to impel its own conclusions. While his characters tend to be one-dimensional, subtleties of frontier character and nuances of commonplace personal interaction are rendered perceptively and deftly, though without deep probing.

Although his vivid and lovingly rendered descriptions of homesteading life and landscape ranging from Oregon’s rain forest to its alkali desert occasionally threaten to overwhelm his story and characters, Davis may be considered a frontier Realist of sorts. His honest and authentic portrayal of the scene as it actually was helps to break the grip of the Romantic myth on the American imagination.

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