Davis is the only Oregon-born writer to receive a Pulitzer Prize. He has been called the Northwest's Mark Twain. Davis' father was a teacher and moved around the state frequently. After he graduated from high school, Davis worked at several jobs, including as a typesetter, cowboy, surveyor, and at a local bank.
Davis' first poems were published when he was 24 years old. A group of 11 was published in Poetry magazine under the title Primapara. The work attracted the praise of Carl Sandburg and won the young writer a $200 prize. Davis wrote more for the magazine and also for H.L. Mencken's The American Mercury. Mencken's praise may have encouraged him to write prose as well.
His first prose appeared in The American Mercury in 1929. By then, Davis had married and moved to Seattle. It was probably a good thing since one of his pieces was a less than complimentary article on his wife's hometown in Oregon, which caused a local stir. Davis captured the magic of the Northwest landscape and wrote honestly of the region's frontier days, eschewing the heroic western stereotypes. He won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1932, moved to Mexico and completed the novel Honey in the Horn.
The book won the $7,500 Harper Prize for best novel in 1935 and the Pulitzer the next year. With his winnings, Davis and his wife bought a small ranch near Napa, California, where Davis wrote magazine articles and more novels, though none of them ever achieved the success of his first one.
Among his books are Harp of a Thousand Strings (1941), Proud Riders and Other Poems (1942), Beulah Land (1949), Winds of Morning (1952), Team Bells Woke Me and Other Stories (1953), The Distant Music (1957), Kettle of Fire (1957), and The Selected Poems of H.L. Davis (1978).