1936: Honey in the Horn, by H. L. Davis

Literary Style:

Well, I survived this book, although by the end it was out of determination more than anything like pleasure.  Davis isn’t the worst writer I’ve read on this quest, and this book isn’t the worst novel I’ve read, but he and the book are so far below what I “signed up for” when I started the Pulitzer journey that I’m finding it hard to sort out exactly what kind things I can say about what I’ve just read.  Davis is the most plodding and single-minded of plotters—the novel cares about only one thing, and that is contriving events so that the main character, Clay, meets one example of every kind of person living in Oregon in 1906-1908, and sees one example of every kind of occupation and natural environment to be found within the borders of the state in those years.  A side effort involves contriving that, at literally every juncture, he finds himself “coincidentally” bumping into one or more of the characters he left behind the last time he pulled up tent stakes and took to the road.  Imagine if literally every stop on the Mississippi for Huck and Jim involved meeting one of the characters from St. Petersburg—not just an occasional “oh my goodness, that’s Pap”, but Tom Sawyer turns out to be visiting his long-lost cousins the Grangerfords, and Joanna, Mary Jane, and Susan turn out to be the Widow Douglas’s nieces and she’s visiting them, and Judge Thatcher’s left his profession to work as a hired hand for the Shepherdsons, etc., etc.  Sadly, these recurring characters are thoroughly one-dimensional—they show up again as plot devices only, not so that Davis can deepen his depiction of them or draw out any meaningful conversation.  He’s so terrible about dialogue that it almost never lasts more than one or two exchanges.  To extend the conversation would be to waste valuable time that can be spent telling me exactly how sack-sewers made their money in 1907, or how the kindly old farmer lost his suspenders one afternoon when a cow ate them, or whatever homespun cornball yarn Davis has lined up to add to the manuscript next.  I swear, The Andy Griffith Show depicted a more realistic and psychologically complex society.

Davis clearly does think he’s Twain—my choice of Huck Finn as an analogy isn’t an accident.  But it takes wit to be witty, and Davis is deficient in that department (as in so many others).  His satire is thin and rarely well-targeted, his humor would be feeble by the standards of 7-year-olds’ knock-knock jokes, and ultimately the book is a self-indulgent ramble.  The story is too cluttered with details about Oregon and Oregonians to be interesting as fiction, but too hackneyed and far-fetched to be plausible as a genuine account of the time and place.  I’m sure a lot of the statements are truthful, but so many more are obvious farmers’ tall tales—the cows freezing standing up in a “tough winter”, etc.—that I can’t really treat what I’m reading as non-fiction.  And, to return to a complaint I’ve probably already voiced too much, the tales aren’t even all that tall!  I was going to add more examples to those frozen cows, but all the stories take too long to tell and have absolutely no pay-off: it’s like listening to someone narrate a long and tedious encounter with their pharmacist, in which you’re pretty sure there’s no way the pharmacist spoke like that to a customer (or that the mix-up in question could really have been as confused as your friend makes it sound), but you can’t work out how to get them to move the story along.  Davis doesn’t know how to pace things, doesn’t know how to bring the threads together, and finishes the book by using the same stupid devices he’d over-used before the half-way point of the novel.  Enough about him.

Historical Insight:

Creek and old-growth forest on Larch Mountain ...

Old-growth forest in Oregon: the fact that Davis occasionally helped me imagine scenes like this is among the novel’s few highlights. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve already alluded to this above—it’s the book’s only strong point, but Davis undercuts it by trying to be a comic novelist (and failing).  I grant you, if you like old settlers and are interested in the history of the settlement of the Northwest, there’s a certain charm to the book in stretches.  Ignoring the main characters and the wholly implausible plot frees up a lot of brainwaves that can, at times, be usefully set to taking in some nice descriptions of the natural environment, or the difficult working conditions faced by many workers in the fields.  But Davis doesn’t have anything in particular to say about America at the turn of the century other than “hey, these people were here!”  We can give him a bit of credit for noticing the working classes, I suppose, but he doesn’t understand them or offer them any genuine and authentic opportunities to speak through the novel.  He outpaces some of the books I’ve read so far in being interested in a real historical moment in America, and that’s about all that made this bearable.  But I could name you three or four books just off the top of my head that do a better job with rural life in the Pacific Northwest in the early 20th century: where Davis is good, he’s not particularly original, and so there’s not much to recommend him or the book.


By my unscientific ranking system, Honey in the Horn gets a “don’t bother”.  It’s not as morally objectionable as the worst of the Pulitzers—there is racism but it’s less prevalent than I’ve seen, and it is occasionally balanced by semi-positive accounts of Native Americans[the more I think about it, the more this seems too kind: it’s at least plausibly accurate on occasion, but enough time is spent depicting native men as lazy fools and native women as empty-headed whores that I really shouldn’t cut him any slack]—and I think there were a few authors whose prose was worse.  If the novel was half as long, and funnier, it might be worth a very conditional “hey, maybe in the right mood for the right person” rating, but it’s not, and it isn’t, and Heaven knows what kind of mood/person combination would make this a delightful read.  I’m sure it works for some people—probably people with much more patience than I have, for a start—and good for them.  If you want my advice, steer well clear.

Last Word:

The one advantage of Davis’s approach is that there’s very little to “give away”, and the book is full of one-paragraph long stories that relate to absolutely nothing else, so that it’s very easy to choose from an abundance of potential excerpts for a last piece here.  I’ve decided to snag something from about the 3/4 point of the novel, where I think Davis’s little story is about as close to really perceptive satire as he gets.  If reading this makes you want 400 more pages of it (and you recognize many of those pages won’t be either as funny or as witty), disregard my rating and go get yourself a copy: you and Davis will be good friends.  I’d give you context for the paragraph, but there really isn’t any, other than to say that the plot has allowed Davis to mention a bridge, and there you go:

“The man who owned it was in Congress and therefore under such heavy expenses that he couldn’t afford repairs.  The reason he was in Congress was that the county kept threatening to build a competitive public bridge and let people cross free, and he had to keep hold of a good deal of political influence to prevent them doing it.  His system for holding his constituency together was sweeping and simple.  He owned all of the wool warehouses around the upper country, and when anybody started to electioneer against him, all his superintendents got orders not to handle the sonofagun’s wool any more.  If he hired a freighter to haul it to the railroad for him, orders went out to the warehouses that the freighter was to do no more hauling for them.  Under such management, things stayed pretty well in line, and the bridge, in slack times when there were a good many people on the road, took in on an average of four hundred dollars a week, counting sheep at a nickel a head and cattle at a dime.  A man with brains enough to keep up a business like that was a good man to have in Congress.  His ability to take care of his own interests proved that he was qualified to look out for other people’s.  The public issues which he had dedicated himself to were to acquaint the provincial East with the ravishing beauties of Western scenery and climate, and to levy an import tariff of two or three hundred percent on foreign wool.  He also believed that the United States had done perfectly right to separate from Great Britain,  and he wasn’t afraid to come right out and say so.  He was a smart man and a profound statesman.”

Kind of clever, right?  You can envision the Congressman, anyway, and there’s something both humorous and sharp about the portrayal.  The character is never heard from again.  Classic Davis.  I know, I know, the authors are supposed to get the last word, but I endured too many of Davis’s words, and couldn’t help taking one last shot on behalf of my beleaguered brain. On to Gone With The Wind!

13 comments on “1936: Honey in the Horn, by H. L. Davis

  1. […] I feel that it’s obviously here, and there’s no need for it.  Even Honey in the Horn ascribes more agency to women than this novel does; despite all its faults, Lamb in His Bosom […]

  2. Maria says:

    I too am working my way through the Pulitzers (http://thepulitzersurprizes.blogspot.com/) and this book almost killed me. I cannot believe all the 4+ star ratings on Good Reads. Every page was excruciating. I almost quit reading it on a dozen different occasions, but I’m stubborn so I slogged through it. Hands down the worst of the Pulitzers I’ve read so far. (We’re going in chronological order, too.) Blech.

  3. Tony Greiner says:

    I thought it was funny, and put a cold but essentially good-natured and forgiving eye on all the humanity that appears in the book.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Humor is so subjective, isn’t it, Tony? I’m glad you enjoyed it—certainly if I could have laughed more often with Davis, I’d have been glad, and the parts I did like about the book were definitely his light-hearted manner and his essential humanity. I really appreciate your sharing your perspective. 🙂

  4. Chris says:

    Really liked your review and your blog. Keep it up.

  5. Bruce Brakeman says:

    I guess we can’t expect a lot from a guy who has trouble with simple punctuation (in America, commas go
    *inside* quotation marks), but your simplistic dismissal of this book is a sad commentary on those charged
    with teaching literature to high school students.

    Your main complaints seem to be that the book is dull and relies too much on coincidence. This must mean
    that a writer like, say, Dickens is really a chump for being very guilty of both. And your review completely
    ignores the rather charming love story and the not-too-hard-to-figure-out (except, apparently, for you)
    mystery that are interwoven into the plot you obviously didn’t understand.

    This is a really good and near great novel, and it amuses me that people who should know better can so
    blithely trash something from the past that they are unable to comprehend. They don’t give out Pulitzer
    Prizes for junk, and it is unworthy of you to say “…it takes wit to be witty, and Davis is deficient in that
    department (as in so many others). His satire is thin and rarely well-targeted, his humor would be feeble by
    the standards of 7-year-olds’ knock-knock jokes, and ultimately the book is a self-indulgent ramble.” If you
    didn’t understand or like the book, okay, but this sort of Facebook ranting is something one expects from
    high school students, not high school teachers.

    One final thought: let us remember that Mr. Davis lived in Oregon during the times he wrote about, so if
    anyone is entitled to write about it, he would be the man. If your standards of local color are gleaned from
    “The Andy Griffith Show” (a revealing remark), I can’t help you, but at least think about the possibility that
    Mr. Davis’s use of tall(ish) tales and country hyperbole were an intentional effort to give modern people a
    glimpse into the way people thought only (in his day) forty or fifty years ago.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Bruce, you’re talking to me like a jerk. And I pondered not approving these jerky comments. But I figured hey, in life, we’re all jerks sometimes. Maybe you could read my reply and come back and be more productive. If you can, great. If not, this is my living room and you’ll be gone.

      This is a review blog. What seems to escape you (and the other people who, from time to time, leave nasty comments here) is that of necessity it involves me expressing opinions: I have always acknowledged that these opinions are arguable, and I’ve had good conversation over the years with people who are not jerks, and who have interesting counterarguments to offer.

      You are not one of those people. Or at least you’re not giving much evidence yet that you are. But I’ll point out where I think productive dialogue could happen if you decide to come back here and be substantially less of a jerk. I believe in your potential, Bruce, to do that. But only you can prove whether or not that’s possible.

      I read the book, Bruce. It’s dull. It’s heavily reliant on coincidence. If you disagree with the first part, I’d much rather hear about chapters where you think I missed something exciting than have you be mean to me. You being mean isn’t useful to anybody. You may not like how mean I was to a book you liked, but at least I was explaining why I felt that way. The coincidence thing….I don’t know, man, arguing this book doesn’t rely on coincidence to me would be like arguing that Huckleberry Finn isn’t a book about race. You could try but it’ll be hard for me to believe it.

      I understand fiction just fine, Bruce. I’m a college professor and I teach literature courses. I just didn’t like this one, and I didn’t see much evidence of skill here. Now, do I find sometimes that I did miss something about a book? Absolutely! But the way I’ve discovered that is from people who passionately love that book showing me what I’ve missed, rather than them abusing me for missing it. You’ve missed plenty in books you’ve read over your lifetime. I hope on occasion someone’s come along to help you catch what you missed, and that they spoke to you much more kindly than you spoke to me.

      Are these reviews rants? They are when I think the book is lousy. The Pulitzers have a terrible reputation with literary critics–this book in particular has been savaged more aggressively by people with better credentials than I have (and than you, I suspect). So winning the award doesn’t give it some kind of holy status. And if we are to refrain from criticizing authors whenever they write about their surroundings, I guess you spend all day either giving five star reviews on Amazon or shouting at people who don’t. The notion that the dude being from Oregon means we cannot criticize his fiction set in Oregon is beyond baffling to me.

      Now, did I go too far over the top on this one? Maybe. But the book offended me both morally and aesthetically, and when that happens, I tend to let loose. I can be made to feel sheepish about that, Bruce, but not when someone’s a jerk. When someone’s a jerk, I just think “oh look, that lousy book’s fans are jerks: clearly it’s not worth my time”. It doesn’t gain you anything, other than the satisfaction you derive from telling someone you do not know that they are wrong on the Internet. I approved your comment so you can soak up all the good feelings that can give you. But if you’re rude again, you and all your comments can go find someone else’s place to shout in.

      Oh, and putting punctuation inside or outside the quotation marks? You’re right that American English has a convention about that. You might know, too, that Canadian and British English (not to mention English written in other countries around the world) have their own conventions. You don’t know whether the person you’re writing to was born, raised, or academically trained in a country outside the U.S. — you don’t even necessarily know where I am when I’m writing it. So your sneer about punctuation just makes you seem like a rude pedant, Bruce — and a pedant with a limited grasp of grammatical conventions in English as it is written around the world. I’d encourage you not to say those things. They make you look small.

      Is this comment of mine jerky in response? It kind of is, Bruce, and that sucks. I’ve gone back through this comment a couple of times to try and curb the harshest things I wrote initially. But what can I say? I’ve tried to restrain the jerkiest things I wanted to say to you — words stronger than “jerk” for a start — and I hope you can recognize that this is my best attempt to both push you to replace the not very substantive criticisms you made here with some more helpful thoughts about what’s good in this novel and where people can find it, and my best attempt to ask you to talk a little more politely. If you can do that, great! If not, then have fun going around leaving jerk comments on the blogs of Pulitzer readers like me. But not this one. Cheers.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      P.S. Want an example of how this can work? Look at Tony’s comment above! He clearly likes Davis and said so, and I responded quite genuinely that I was pleased at what he said — and I noted some things I liked about Davis. Conversation of that kind would be very welcome — and I expect it wouldn’t take much of it before I volunteered that my phrasing about Davis was too harsh, even if I still didn’t care for the book. Mull that one over for next time.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      I’ll give you this, though, Bruce — after your catty remark about my choice of the Andy Griffith Show as an analogy (I’m just being honest, man: Davis’s attempts to depict this society genuinely felt like feeble sitcom fare), you do raise a good point about Davis’s purpose. I don’t know that I buy it. The narrator never gets any distance from these stories, to me, to demonstrate an awareness of their utter implausibility — it struck me as credulous writing, or else as writing convinced it is funnier than it is, and not irony. But it might be irony! I’ll need more from you than a quip, though, to see it.

  6. Bruce Brakeman says:

    Here is the bottom line. Your review exhibits a superior and condescending tone that is distressingly common in the 21st Cent.–e.g., comparing the author’s humor to knock-knock jokes and dismissing the whole book as a “self-indulgent ramble.” Yes, if Mr. Davis had only had the advantage of your advice, he might actually have written something good. This is an attitude not consistent with a serious review of a novel which, as much as you dislike it, did win the Pulitzer, and it is just the wrong way to approach things.

    Re-read “Lord Jim,” also a first novel. This is a very difficult and mostly pretty dull book (though, yes, we have to give Conrad a break in that he could barely speak English when he wrote it) that still manages to be great. Now, I am in no way comparing a giant like Conrad to H. L. Davis but only saying that one sometimes needs to look beyond the desire for a “good read” to something deeper, more meaningful, and, in the end, more satisfying.

    (And, yes, you’re right–I lament your superior and condescending attitude and then show off one that is worse. What can I say? Being a snarky jerk just becomes part of the woodwork when you’ve worked at a desk job for forty years.)

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Bruce, hey, I think we can talk about this! Thanks for responding well to my replies — I’m willing to talk about tone, etc., and maybe we can understand each other.

      I guess it comes down to what we think of as “appropriate tone and phrasing”, and we might not agree about that. This is not at all intended to be an academic exercise — I write formally for academic publication (and when I do I put commas in the “right” places as designated by the publisher’s guidelines, etc.) but this is not that kind of thing for me, and never will be. Truthfully, this started as a project with two purposes — I wanted to read Pulitzer winning novels and I wanted to learn how to use a blogging platform like WordPress, and I figured if I blogged about the novels I was reading, it would give me content to work with. It never occurred to me that the blog would (as has since become true) become a place anyone but me or a friend of mine would look for information. Some of the reviews, especially the earlier ones, are a lot harsher than I would ever have written if I thought someone who didn’t know me was reading them. Maybe I should go back and change them, but that’s a lot of work to go to, and I’m not sure how much benefit there would be in that. Sounds like you’d advise me to.

      I will say this — I genuinely disliked this novel. Not only that, but I thought it was badly written — sometimes I dislike a book but I get why it’s widely admired. I don’t feel that way about Davis’s book. What’s more, the critics largely agree with me — truthfully, if you’ve never read a literary critic assess the Pulitzers, they are incredibly condescending (and always have been — the example that sticks out for me is a critical work I read that was published in the 1960s). That doesn’t make me right. But it does mean that I’ve got some company. I’ll acknowledge that the slam about knock-knock jokes is me going for some pretty broad and at least a little cruel humor — but on the other hand, I’ve laughed at some knock-knock jokes, over the years, and I didn’t laugh once at this book. Maybe you did, and if so, I’m not trying to spoil your fun. But I didn’t. And I’m not going to apologize at all, I’m afraid, for “self-indulgent ramble”. It absolutely is. So is my blog, I’ll note! But I’d never try to publish this, and if someone tried to give it a major award I would respectfully decline. The fact that this novel of Davis’s is listed next to some of the great American writing of the 20th Century is at least a little offensive to me as someone who values good art. You can obviously disagree! There’s no disputing matters of taste. I know a classical musician who hates Beethoven, calls him worse names than anything I said about Davis. That’s lunacy to me. But this is the way it goes.

      I haven’t read Lord Jim, truthfully, so I’ll take your word for it. Conrad is a genius — I think even people who don’t like his work have to acknowledge the talent in a piece like Heart of Darkness. I enjoy a good many books, truthfully, that nobody would call a “good read” — things that are dense and challenging. Umberto Eco’s stuff. And Italo Calvino. And Melville at his most sprawling. I don’t see many of those qualities in Davis, but you do? I’d be interested to hear where they show up for you. Just in use of language and ideas, I’d say he didn’t remind me at ALL of Conrad, but again, you’ve read more of Conrad than I have. I compared him to Twain as the nearest analogue (while acknowledging I think Twain the far superior author), but I’m sure there are better analogies. I’d be interested in them, if you have them.

      Haha, well, you and I both clearly have the ability to get ourselves worked up. I think that’s a good quality at times, though! Literature should inspire us like that, and it often does. I don’t have forty years of desk work to draw from, but life in academia brings out a lot of sides of me, some of them things I wish weren’t there. Thanks again for your response, and I’d be open to anything you have to say about this. You’re making me think, and I like that.

  7. Bruce Brakeman says:

    You just don’t get it, my young friend, and it is clear that you’re not to be convinced, but I send this one last missive just to give it one more go.

    But, first, I did not mean to compare Davis to Conrad in any way other than to suggest that being dull doesn’t necessarily make a book bad.

    And, second, you seem to think that “Honey in the Horn” is some attempt to emulate, say, “Roughing It” by Mark Twain. It is not.

    Okay, here are a few reasons why HintheH is a really good book.

    1) I haven’t read the book for some while, but I remember a scene in which our hero (“Clay”?) and another man must, for some reason I can’t recall (is it because Clay is running away from the authorities?) get from point A to point B as quickly as possible, and it’s dark and it’s raining and one of the horses pulling their wagon is crazy and the whole idea seems to be a perilous mess. The take on a young Indian boy as a guide/factotum, and, as the ride progresses, it becomes obvious that he is a genius at coaxing unwilling animals to do what needs to be done. He exhibits a wealth of knowledge and skill of the kind now totally gone from the collective human brain (including, at one point, shooting off part of the bad horse’s ear to quiet him down–PETA would love that one), and I think that this little episode is intended by Davis as a paean to something wonderful and–in its way–noble that is now just gone. (And doesn’t it highlight, too, that the white men in the book who often regard the Native Americans as, let’s be frank, lazy bums, are misguided and that perhaps our hero learns something about not being too proud of oneself?)

    2) The moral center of the book, is, I believe, the hanging of the bad guy, whose name I don’t remember. Clay knows that he did not commit the crime for which he is being executed, but, damn it, the s.o.b does deserves hanging…or does he? I think the reader, as least the 21st Cent. reader, expects our hero to pipe up at the last minute and stop the proceedings, but he does not. He does not. What does this mean? Not sure, but a sticky scene.

    3) The sometimes mawkish love story is still a study, if perhaps a simplistic one, of how young people in love can, we hope, finally put aside all of their prejudices and hurt feelings and ego and get together. Okay, sort of trite, but you have to admit that the girl (“Luz”? “Luce”?) is a pretty hot and complex number, and I love the allegorical scene where she tries to hit the hovering hawk with her whip. Take heed, Clay, m’ friend, and be careful.

    Well, I am writing this between phone calls and while I could go on, I won’t. Maybe I am too enthusiastic about this book for reasons that you don’t understand, and perhaps you will understand them when you read the thing again in ten years. Yes, as you seem to say, the book is a panoply of Oregonian life at the turn of the last century, but, perhaps not entirely successfully, it is also a panoply of human life and interaction as a whole. To say that Clay goes on an odyssey only to come back to his Penelope may be going a little (or a lot) overboard, but, still, isn’t this what we all do in one form or another?

    (And, damn it, get going on “Lord Jim”–this is a must read.)

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