Ask a group of book-loving Oregonians who their only Pulitzer Prize winner in fiction is, and what do you suppose the percentage of correct answers might be?
Easier to predict would perhaps be the most frequent incorrect answer. My money is on Ken Kesey’s Sometimes A Great Notion, although H. L. Davis’ Honey in the Horn, originally published in 1935, remains Oregon’s only Pulitzer Prize winning novel. A number of readers have heard of it, fewer have opened it.
Recently rereading the novel, I found it a good read, but occasionally showing wear. There are passages where Davis employs Clay, the protagonist, to belabor a point rather than to illustrate it, and in other spots the prejudices and snap judgments seem transparently Davis’, superimposed on the semi-omniscient third-person narrator and filtering through the characters. Still, if we agree the artist’s job is to reveal, to record, to illustrate, many of Davis’s observations are revealing and strip away the romantic artifice painstakingly constructed by settlers and their descendants. Davis’s treatment of Native Americans, Chinese immigrants, and other ethnic minorities are troublesome to the twenty-first century reader. With the possible exception of Clay’s early companion, described as “Another adoption . . . an Indian kid of about thirteen with behavior and more story to him,” Native Americans and minorities are quickly stereotyped, albeit not without a degree of empathy, sacrificed for the benefit of the bulldozer plot. Davis also stereotypes members of specific tribes, settlers of certain valleys or locales, and numerous other “types,” but overall these characters and caricatures do serve to record and illustrate the setting and prevailing attitudes of the times.
Honey in the Horn remains essential reading for anyone seriously interested in the literature of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, and my purpose here is not to cast a revisionist eye on the novel, praised by Robert Penn Warren in The Southern Review in 1936 as a book that “will probably survive.” Rather it is to consider “Open Winter,” a short story containing many of the triumphs of Honey in the Horn and few of the pitfalls.
“Open Winter” is often praised by writers, but seldom mentioned by general readers. Wallace Stegner said that he liked “Open Winter” as well as anything ever written about the West. William Kittredge posts it on the short list of great stories about the West, as did the late James Crumley. “Open Winter” is an excellent introduction to Davis’s fiction; I suspect few who read the story will not seek out his other work, including Honey in the Horn.
“The drying East wind, which always brought hard luck to Eastern Oregon at whatever season it blew, had combed down the plateau grasslands through so much of the winter that it was hard to see any sign of grass ever having grown on them.” Anyone who has spent a spring in Eastern Oregon recognizes immediately that wind that opens “Open Winter.” The language of the opening paragraph is simultaneously unadorned, direct, and precise. That East wind is “drying the ground deep, shrinking the watercourses, beating back the clouds that might have delivered rain, and grinding coarse dust against the fifty-odd head of work horses . . .” The verbs are simple, active, and accurate, meaning and clarity compounded rather than compromised by the alliteration. The inexact nature of certain descriptions contrasts with the perfectly precise landscapes and weather.
Two men are introduced: “one past sixty and the other around sixteen.” There are “fifty-odd head of work horses.” The reader is observing, and it is a small master stroke on Davis’ part not to divert our attention with exactitudes, causing us to question how we know Pop Apling is sixty-one, or Beech Cartwright is seventeen. They are described as presented, and eventually we are going to understand each character intimately, but the arc of the story is organic and straightforward. Although narration is again omniscient, it is not without quirks, but a voice shaped by the terrain and elements, as indigenous to the high desert-inland plateau setting as the “shingles flapping in the wind, a windmill running loose and sucking noisily at a well that it had already pumped empty . . .” In summarized dialogue, Apling tells Beech, “the dry wind couldn’t possibly keep up much longer, because it wasn’t in Nature.” The narrative voice responds “By the time it became clear that Nature had decided to take in a little extra territory, the hay was all fed out…” The transition is flawless and the paragraphing perfect, and this voice, authentic, distinct, yet unobtrusive, is the only voice for the story.
“Open Winter” falls clearly into the coming-of-age corral, but as with all great stories defies and expands the genre. Tell a contemporary editor or agent that you are working on a coming-of-age novel and watch their eyes glaze, but there is a reason archetypes exist and we are hard-wired to respond to certain types of stories when they are well-crafted. Eventually Beech comes to understand the beauty, terror, and complexity of the world and those peopling it. He simultaneously gains knowledge and a more informed perspective on the vast territory of humanity that will remain forever unknowable. Any great short story’s ending is an opening as much as a closing, and “Open Winter” is no exception. Apling promises Beech that “There’s a part of this trip ahead that you’ll be glad you went through…ain’t any used tryin’ to explain to you what it is. You’ll notice it when the time comes.”
Apling makes good on his promise to Beech and Davis makes good on his promise to the reader.
Note: The University of Idaho Press published Honey in the Horn and H.L. Davis: Collected Stories and Essays in handsome paperback editions in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. The edition of Honey in the Horn remains widely available. Collected Essays and Short Stories is a rare find, but well worth tracking down.