Although much of Paul George Vincent O’Shaughnessy Horgan’s work reflects the American Southwest and his Roman Catholic beliefs, his most important theme is the struggle of the human spirit toward enlightenment and love. He was born in Buffalo, New York, on August 1, 1903, the second of three children of Edward Daniel Horgan, an English-Irish newspaper publisher, and Rose Marie (Rohr) Horgan, whose ancestry was French-German. He absorbed the Roman Catholicism of his parents to such an extent that it became an important influence on how he thought about the world. Another important influence resulted from the family’s move to New Mexico in 1915 to alleviate Edward Horgan’s tuberculosis. When Paul arrived at Albuquerque and saw the Rio Grande, he felt like an explorer in a new land. Even though New Mexico had recently become a state, it still had the feel of frontier territory. Descendants of the Indians, Spaniards, Mexicans, and Americans who had civilized this tierra encantada (land of enchantment) made history alive for young Horgan, who also fell in love with the New Mexican landscape of mesas and mountains.
During adolescence, Horgan discovered that he had talents for music, art, acting, and writing. He attended the Albuquerque public schools, and in high school he was taught freshman English by Willa Cather’s sister. In 1920 he served briefly as a reporter and music critic for the Albuquerque Morning Journal before beginning three years of education at the New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell, where he edited the school literary journal and where his talents for drama, music, and art made him well known to both the faculty and his fellow students. His father’s death in 1922 marked an important transition in Horgan’s life, and in 1923 the family moved back East. For three years, he studied at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, but much of his time was taken up by his work on the production staff of the Eastman Theater. He was a scene painter for Rouben Mamoulian, who went on to become an influential stage and film director. Horgan also acted, sang, danced, and directed. During this period, he resolved the dilemma posed by his multiplicity of talents and decided to concentrate on writing.
In 1925 he returned to Roswell, where he became the New Mexico Military Institute’s librarian for sixteen years. He accepted the position because it meant a repatriation to his beloved New Mexico and because it would give him the opportunity to write. In the late 1920’s, he composed five novels that were rejected by publishers, but he was not discouraged. He saw this time as his apprenticeship as a writer, and he learned something from each attempt. In 1931 he wrote and illustrated a historical story intended for young readers, and this book, Men of Arms, was published by David McKay. Two years later, he won the Harper Prize Novel Contest for The Fault of Angels, a humorous fictionalization of his experiences at the Eastman Theater. His next novel, No Quarter Given, a study of a dying musician’s career, had a Southwestern setting, as did most of the other fiction he wrote in the 1930’s, including Main Line West, A Lamp on the Plains, and Far from Cibola. The novel that first brought Horgan national attention was The Habit of Empire, whose plot was based on Juan de Oñate’s colonization of New Mexico in the late 1500’s. This novel contained a dramatic depiction of Oñate’s siege of the Indian stronghold known as the rock of Acoma.
The early stage of Horgan’s career ended when the United States entered World War II. For the next twelve years, he did not publish much. During the first four years of his hiatus, he was in military service. In 1942 he left his position as librarian to become head of the Army Information Branch in the War Department. At the war’s end, he had reached the rank of lieutenant colonel, and for his work in the Information and Education Division, he received the Legion of Merit. After his discharge, he was given a Guggenheim Fellowship to do research on a history of cultures associated with the Rio Grande. In 1946 he lectured for a semester in the Graduate School of Arts and Letters at the University of Iowa before returning to Roswell to take a position as assistant to the president at the Military Institute. He also became involved in the founding of the Santa Fe Opera and in the improvement of the Roswell Museum and Art Center.
The second period of Horgan’s career began in 1954 with the publication of Great River. This two-volume work, Horgan’s magnum opus, was based on fourteen years of research in which he traveled the river’s length of 1,885 miles three times. He divided the book by the four different cultures that had, in turn, dominated the lands of the Rio Grande—Indian, Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo-American. Great River won for Horgan both the Pulitzer Prize and the Bancroft Prize of Columbia University. Another book, The Centuries of Santa Fe, grew out of Horgan’s Great River research: It was the story of Santa Fe from the time it was Spain’s northernmost New World capital to its Mexican and American periods. In the years after Great River, Horgan’s Roman Catholic sensibility dominated his work. In such books as The Saintmaker’s Christmas Eve, Give Me Possession, and Rome Eternal, he explored his deeply held Catholic beliefs. He once stated that, like Graham Greene, he was a writer who happened to be Catholic, rather than a Catholic writer. In this way, his characters, who are often Catholic, become universal, and their experiences become vehicles whereby all readers can meditate on their own spiritual development.
Horgan’s career took a different direction in the late 1950’s. After nearly forty years of living and working in New Mexico, he decided to return to the East. He kept his connection with New Mexico by helping to found the Santa Fe Opera, serving as chairman of its board of directors for thirteen years, and collaborating with composer Igor Stravinsky in the production of six of his works. Despite this work in the Southwest, he would become deeply rooted in New England for the last thirty-six years of his life. Under a second Guggenheim grant in 1959, he became a Fellow of the Center for Advanced Studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. In 1962 he became the center’s director, a position he held for five years, during which time he was able to attract to the campus such illustrious thinkers as Lewis Mumford, Herbert Read, Edmund Wilson, René Dubos, Luigi Barzini, and Moses Hadas. In 1967 he was appointed adjunct professor of English, even though his only degrees were honorary ones (this writer without a formal university degree would eventually accumulate nearly fifty honorary ones). In 1971, he became professor emeritus and author-in-residence, a post that required him to conduct a seminar in advanced fiction writing. During his Wesleyan period, he lived a productive bachelor life on campus in a Victorian carriage house filled with six thousand books and a large collection of paintings and drawings. During the 1960’s and 1970’s his novels used both the East and the West as settings. A Distant Trumpet was set on an Arizona army post during the Apache wars of the 1880’s; it was made into a film directed by Raoul Walsh. The first two of the “Richard” novels—Things As They Are and Everything to Live For—were located in the East, whereas the third, The Thin Mountain Air, was set in the West. These novels, which contain many autobiographical elements, trace the life of Richard, the chief running character, from childhod to manhood.
Horgan was sixty-six years old, with four decades of solid literary accomplishment behind him, when he met with material success. In 1969 he accepted the job as selection judge for the Book-of-the-Month Club at the request of Harry Scherman, the club’s founder; the position paid more than thirty thousand dollars a year. In 1970 his novel Whitewater, even before its publication, assured him a quarter of a million dollars in royalties from three book clubs and paperback rights. This lyrical story of three adolescents, two boys and a girl, growing up in a small Texas town in the late 1940’s charmed many critics. Whitewater became the only work of Horgan to achieve best-seller status, probably because it offered Americans, who had just gone through the troubled 1960’s, a nostalgic view of an America filled with hope and firm moral values. In 1975 Horgan published what many scholars see as his crowning achievement: a biography of Jean Baptiste Lamy, the first bishop of Santa Fe and the prelate who inspired Willa Cather’s novel Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). Horgan actually began working on Lamy’s life twenty-five years before, in the course of his research for Great River. In the years that followed, he retraced the journeys of the peripatetic bishop all over the Southwest. He also studied the letters to Lamy in the Notre Dame archives and the letters from him in the Vatican archives. When completed, Lamy of Santa Fé became Horgan’s most honored book, earning for him a Pulitzer Prize, the Christopher Book Award, and the Western Writers of America Award.
In his later years Horgan continued to write and take students. Tracings: A Book of Partial Portraits originated in a request for a biographical vignette of the opera-singer Mary Garden for Yale Review’s “Encounters” series. So successful was this that he wrote a number of memoirs for Yale Review and other publications in which he revisited his past through his encounters with such interesting people as Vachel Lindsay, Frieda Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Somerset Maugham, T. S. Eliot, Thornton Wilder, and Edmund Wilson. He was proud that he was able to get a book of these memoirs to his publisher before his ninetieth birthday. Even in his nineties, he wrote for two hours every morning, but his lecturing was hampered by his ill health. Suffering from two kinds of arthritis and other ailments, he was confined to a wheelchair and cared for by his godson Donald Berke. After a heart attack, he died in 1995 in Middlesex Hospital in Middletown, Connecticut. He was ninety-one years old.
Through his work in several literary genres, Horgan probed the American experience from a personal perspective formed by his life in the Northeast and Southwest and from his experiences as a writer, artist, musician, actor, scholar, teacher, and critic. His Roman Catholicism provided his work with a spiritual dimension in which two worlds, the material and the moral, are dialectically intertwined. Most critics have remarked on the material aspects of this vision, and it is true that many of Horgan’s histories and fictions focused on the land. He illustrated several of his books with his own watercolors, and his capacity to evoke a scene with a few well-chosen words has been compared to his ability to create a landscape with a few deft washes of color. His prose style looks to the past in its classical emphasis on simplicity, symmetry, and intelligence. Yet more important than his technique and his emphasis on the land is Horgan’s moral vision. He stated that his work has a spiritual purpose, and his books are certainly characterized by attitudes of compassion, optimism, and a belief that spiritual forces are at work beneath the surface of everyday life. In this sense, he is much more than a regional writer, since his major themes are revelations about life rather than about a region. Horgan was concerned with the land as a symbol and source of human action and reflection, but it is in the mind and heart that he believed the real clues to humanity are to be found.