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P A U L T. B R Y A N T Colorado State University H. L. Davis: Viable Uses for the Past* I The sense of a unique past, in a special landscape, has strongly influenced western literature, not always favorably. The move­ ment of the frontier out of the eastern forests onto the western plains, mountains, and deserts was a major discontinuity in the American experience. The special landscape created special situa­ tions unlike anything encountered before. Perhaps as a result of this difference, the past in the West has typically become both romanticized and stylized. Minor historical events have been in­ flated, a pseudo-chivalric code of conduct attributed to men far more direct and pragmatic in their efforts to survive. As Thomas Hornsby Ferril has suggested, the heroic scale of western scenery sometimes leads us to people that landscape with giants.1 This tendency has produced much writing that is popular enough but completely irrelevant to either the actual history of the region or to the present. Such stylized irrelevance is one reason writing about the West is not often taken seriously by literary critics outside the region. This may be why the fiction of H. L. Davis has not received the critical attention it deserves, even though a primary theme in Davis’s work is the historical continuity of the western experience. Examining the problem in critical essays, Davis suggests that •This paper was delivered at the annual meeting of the Western Literature Association in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in October 1967. ^ ■ “Writing in the Rockies,” Rocky Mountain Reader, ed. Ray B. West, Jr. (New York, 1946), pp. 395-403. 4 Western American Literature the early, most colorful stages of western settlement were almost gone before such writers as Owen Wister realized their literary potential and provided the beginning of a tradition.2 But Davis feels that we have stayed at that initial stage in most western litera­ ture and have not followed on through the later stages of western history. “The glaring and incongruous realities from which the early writers reached back into a more colorful and manageable past have become part of the past themselves.” Both the early writers, and those who have come after them, Davis says, have missed something about that past because they have failed to establish any unity between it and the realities of the present. The past, he maintains, has something to do with the present West: “its overgrown towns and stopped-up creeks, its swarms of new faces and jangle of strange accents, are a consequence of something that has happened somewhere.” Davis urges western writers to search through the past again to find the link between it and the present, “to find out the things about the new past that the early writers ignored and the things about the older one that they over­ looked or threw away.”3 Davis himself has followed this course, relating the western past and present in human terms that give a new complexity and maturity to our picture of a major phase in the development of America. He is not a historian, nor is historical realism his central concern. His effort to present the past in its full, complex, human terms is in a literary tradition that includes Mark Twain and the anonymous folk storytellers on the frontier. Even though his best work transcends regionalism in its narrow sense, this tradition and his own experience give his writing a geography, a subject matter, and character growing out of a past that is usable for the under­ standing of a real present.4 Although critics have generally overlooked that dimension in Davis’s work, this paper proposes to examine Davis’s major novels and representative short stories in order to demonstrate how Davis makes use of the western past on a series of levels ranging from the realistic account, unstylized and unromantic, to attempts to discover archetypal patterns for all times and places. 2“A Look Around,” Kettle of Fire (New York, 1950), pp. 13-18. This essay was originally published under the title “The Elusive Trail to the Old West” in the New York Times Book Review, February 7, 1954. 8“A...


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