A very interesting Oregon book appeared in my mail box the other day — Davis Country: H. L. Davis's Northwest
, edited by Brian Booth and Glen A. Love. As many Oregon bibliophiles know, H. L. Davis is the only Oregon writer ever awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, in his case, his novel Honey in the Horn
, published in 1935.
Released by Oregon State University Press last November, this 320-page book offers an excellent overview of Davis's work by collecting the best of his fiction, essays, and poetry. It also includes an excerpt from an unfinished novel (more on this later).
It almost pains me to admit it, but I've never been a big of fan of Davis's work. Nevertheless, if you consider yourself versed in Oregon literature, it's obligatory to read Honey in the Horn. I did, years ago, and it never seized me with its raw Pacific Northwest 'sense of place' the way Don Berry's or Ken Kesey's novels did. To me, Honey in the Horn reads like a garden variety frontier (corny) narrative that never anticipates anything coming in Oregon, the way, say, William Faulkner's novels do about the coming social revolution in the South. His occasional treatment of Native Americans also feels close to cartoonish.
Frankly, the novel doesn't hold up, and neither do some of Davis's insights served up in his essays. Take, for example, this riff in "Oregon" from Kettle of Fire, a collection of his essays published in 1959.
North to the Columbia River at Celilo.... The salmon festival appeared to be all over with.... The river seemed muddy, possibly because of blasting downstream for the foundations of a new hydroelectric dam at The Dalles. When finished, it will back up the river so there will no longer be any rapids, or any salmon fishing either. Probably it is as well. It can't be good for human beings to live as anachronisms, and a salmon festival that has to restrict itself to merely serving salmon is too meaningless to keep on with.
Has any Oregon writer ever got anything more wrong than H. L. Davis did regarding the drowning of Celilo Falls and the end to a 10,000-year-old cultural tradition? If so, I can't think of the example. In the essay "Oregon," he revisits places he'd seen 20 years earlier and comes across as lonely, bitter, and utterly estranged from his state.
I sure hope I don't go out that way. It's not a good thing for anyone, but seems especially sad for a writer who wrote about his state.
In 1960, Davis died at the age of 66 from complications from major heart surgery he had performed in a Mexico City hospital. He left behind an unfinished manuscript called Exit, Pursued by a Bear, the name taken from the famously odd stage direction in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. One of the novel's beginnings commences with the narrator's first person, pain-killer-induced hallucination from the Mexico City hospital bed and then travels back to Oregon for an examination of the narrator's bleak life.
Mexico City? Pain killers? Hallucinations? Back to Oregon? Nineteen sixty? Existential dread? H. L. Davis? What?!
Finally, Davis becomes interesting to me! Let me put it this way: the man quite possibly began the first psychedelic novel in Oregon history, two years before Kesey's acid-tinged One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was published in 1962.
If only Davis had lived to complete Exit, Pursued by a Bear. Who knows where such a book would have taken Davis's reputation and Oregon literary history.
I would have never known any of this unless the Davis Country editors included some fragments from the manuscript. To me, it's by far the most interesting part of the book and Glen A. Love's brilliant dissection of it and Davis's discussions with himself about the various problems with the novel are incredibly absorbing and good instruction for any aspiring novelist. They also taught me something important about H. L. Davis at the end of his Oregon life: just as he was about to enter a modern Oregon literary sensibility, he died.