- Davis Country: H. L. Davis's Northwest
If you do not already know who H. L. Davis is, you can easily correct that oversight by reading Davis Country, the wonderful new collection of his work edited by Brian Booth and Glen A. Love. I grew up in Oregon, where most of Davis's writing is set, and even though I majored in English and later completed a graduate degree at Oregon universities, I still didn't know who he was. It is possible that his relative obscurity is the result of his prickly personality; after all, he refused to go to New York to receive the Pulitzer Prize in 1936, and there is a story that he wouldn't open the door for a New York editor who tracked him to his home in the Napa Valley. What most delighted me was discovering just how good Davis is—how fully he merits Booth and Love's assertion that "he may be the greatest Northwest writer" (9). Had I done my homework, I wouldn't have been so surprised: he was awarded Poetry magazine's Levinson Prize in 1919, at age twenty-five, and the Pulitzer for his 1935 first novel, Honey in the Horn.
Some evidence indicates that he was not more popular in his day because he had a penchant for honest depiction that did not sit well with the westerners who saw themselves all too clearly reflected in his works. His admirer and fellow Northwest writer Howard M. Corning posed the question that may have been on many minds: "Why couldn't he find a few favorable and halfway honorable characters in the whole cosmology of man shaping the Oregon reality?" (27). Booth and Love convincingly argue that Davis provoked this reaction through deliberate disregard for what at the time served as the prevailing Oregon literary tradition, one that "suffered from a smothering moral earnestness, a yearning after refinement that effectively cut it off from revivifying earthiness" (13). Fortunately for us, Davis abounds with the very earthiness that may have proven so hard for his contemporaries to swallow, making for just the kind of reading almost everybody interested in the West is looking for today. His fiction integrates the best elements of memoir, his dialogue pulls no punches, his characters breathe, and his landscapes shimmer. Booth and Love quote Robinson Jeffers's praise of Davis's poetry in language that includes a hint of the misanthropic that may have resonated with Jeffers's own predilections and put off early readers: "it gives one the feeling of the grass being permanent and humanity only a poignant episode" (236). In one of his late poems, [End Page 207] "Counting Back," Davis lends credence to Jeffers's words when his auto-biographically informed speaker reflects on his life: "Counting back, / I think I preferred animals and birds. Their indifference / Pleased me, and pleases me to remember" (254).
But it would be wrong to think of Davis as excessively misanthropic; he was also very funny, and Booth and Love are right to point out the parallels with Mark Twain, who managed to win the affection of the very people whose foibles he so affably exposed. One gets a sense of the Twain connection in the first paragraph of Honey in the Horn where Davis interweaves the human and non-human landscape of Southern Oregon: "Outside the back fence where the dishcloths were hung to bleach and the green sheep-pelts to cure when there was sun was a ten-mile stretch of creek-meadow with wild vetch and redtop and velvet-grass reaching clear to the black-green fir timber of the mountains where huckleberries grew and sheep pastured in the summer and young men sometimes hid to keep from being jailed" (29).
Davis Country provides readers a comprehensive overview of Davis's multifaceted writing life, including poems, essays, short stories, excerpts from novels, letters, and even the working draft of his unfinished sixth novel. Davis's laconic, often ironic voice is everywhere...