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...
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