Aggressive Regionalism: Commentary

2. H. L. Davis, 1894–1960, "The Rain Crow"

The time when a writer’s no longer content to write for self or home and aims further afield happens quickly enough. The writer needs other persons to see how the art’s developing, other persons to publish and read what one has done alone. The writer is naturally eager to reach as large an audience as possible and writers outside literary centers can naturally feel out of touch and ill-defined. For better or worse, editors may conclude that one’s writing reflects the style and class and brains of the writer’s people. Any writing from Oregon says something about Oregon, especially to a reader who doesn’t go to Oregon except via book or magazine. This often puts the writer in the uncomfortable position of  being called regional. While the region gives the writer a niche, an identity, it can also pigeon-hole the work. Writers like Oregon’s H. L. Davis itched about this.  Their places created them, and like children with their parents, the writers loved them, railed at them, left them, as Willa Cather and Wright Morris and even F. Scott Fitzgerald did, to write about them from somewhere else. Though Davis, like the others, is significantly defined by his roots, this defining did not always please him. For him, the problem with regional writing was that its practitioners seldom acknowledged their debts to other writers and other places.  No art was done in isolation, no regional writing was capable of shearing itself away from other places. 

For Davis, the received ideas of regional nobility didn’t actually coincide with anyone’s moral significance. The explorers and trappers, the Whitmans, the Indian-fighting Army, the town fathers and mothers were just people. All their motives came from the human condition. Pioneers and natives were simply part of all human history, and their stories should be told, not as exceptional stories set in an exotic western region, but as part of the whole human, uninterruptible fabric.

Away from his region, Harold Lenoir Davis succeeded as a writer. He won a Pulitzer for his 1935 novel Honey in the Horn; his poems won the Levinson prize from Poetry magazine. It’s not hard to see why he succeeded. His voice on the page is crisp and assured; he sounds like H.L. Mencken much of the time, a master at mixing pedantic Latin with America’s grunt and grip—its short linguistic evolutions from the blunt and colorful Anglo Saxon. Davis applied a Menckenian torch to the dry Oregon country.

Davis’s poems first were published in April 1919 by Harriet Monroe in Poetry. His first nationally published stories showed up in Mencken’s American Mercury in 1929. Davis credits Mencken for his shift from poetry to stories. Davis had sent poems to the American Mercury and Mencken’s follow-up letter asked him to consider prose.  Davis, who was working at a Seattle radio station, sent in three completed stories and one story in outline, and Mencken took them all, and goaded Davis to complete the outlined story “A Town In Eastern Oregon.” The finished story criticized the preoccupations of a small-town’s culture, its ordinances against youths playing pool, its historic attempts to turn the local Indians into Methodists. After the story’s publication, Davis heard about it for a long time and his reflection on his fellow citizens’ reactions seems worth citing. “People still write me about it . . . suggesting a sort of sequel to bring its historical background up to date. . . .[But] Nothing new would be proved by it. . . . [W]hat is needed is not more material but a more deeply studied thesis. . . . Maybe it can’t be reached; learning to write is largely a process of finding out how many things there are that writing is incapable of handling. . . . Still, the truth is always worth trying for.” (Davis 1986:197-98).

Late in his life, as Davis considered his work from where he lived in Jalisco, Mexico, he made an analogy between his Oregon writing and a pile of handmade tools he’d found collected in an old barn when he was a boy. He and friends had decided to turn an old pitchfork handle into a bow for hunting ducks. The tool’s maker, the ingenious farmer, caught them and told the boys, “I made those wooden hay-tools myself, and it was hard work, and I learned a lot from it. . . . If I don’t have ‘em around where I can look at ‘em sometimes I might not remember it. Go put it back” (Davis 1986:199). Davis put it back, concluding that it “would have been a pity to lose it . . . and it would still pitch hay.” Davis argued that his stories could “still pitch hay,” too, and perhaps it’s unfortunate that the material he’s best remembered for pitching isn’t hay, but hay’s end-product—the manure from the Northwest’s Augean stables which he tried to muck out with his co-laborer James Stevens in Status Rerum, their well-known, but impulsive one-night writing. The tract did its necessary job—it gave offense and brought shame. But Davis, author of Honey in the Horn and Harp of a Thousand Strings (1947), Beulah Land (1949), Winds of Morning (1952), and Distant Music (1957), had set his heart on views above the barnyard’s floor, and his larger contribution to the nation’s literature is still worth reading. It is acute work. Davis’s reader gets all the senses filled with the sagebrush, the dust, the pared language, the cold and heat and grit of eastern Oregon.

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