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Paul Horgan

By Joseph Reed

Paul Horgan, American biographer, novelist, and historian of the Western United States, died in March 1995 of congestive heart failure; he was 91.

He was a man of letters—history and biography (Great River and Lamy of Santa Fe were each awarded a Pulitzer Prize), fiction (more than twenty volumes published), and verse (Songs after Lincoln). Because he has so many fond readers and avid collectors every bookshop worth its salt in the American West has a Paul Horgan shelf.

He ran a distinguished Center for Advanced Studies at Wesleyan University, bringing to a small New England college in only five years the authors of more than 500 books. He sat on the Book-of-the-Month Club board of judges and was a member of the National Council for the Humanities, which was to become the National Endowment for the Humanities.

He accomplished all this because he was an organized workaholic: nothing was more important than the work and he was certain nothing might come out worse than something he had worked on too long at a stretch. So in the afternoons he changed his task—reading, drawing, writing letters, correcting proof. His discipline was legendary.

Tracings, a volume of short memoirs of encounters published in his 91st year, tells of meetings with Boris Chaliapin, Mary Garden, T. S. Eliot, Edmund Wilson, D. H. and Frieda Lawrence. In another book he told of his long friendship with Igor Stravinsky, and in another of his lifelong obsession with an author he never knew—Maurice Baring. Horgan’s life was to be a series of such “encounters” with powerful personalities. He cited his friendships as “encounters”—in part out of modesty, as if he was leery of suggesting these people had been his friends—Rouben Mamoulian, N.C. and Andrew Wyeth, Peter and Henriette Wyeth Hurd, Sir Herbert and Lady Read, Frank Capra, Theodor Seuss Geisel (Doctor Seuss), Kay Boyle, Jean Stafford, Anne Freemantle, Pat and Liz Moynihan, Walter Ong and Martin D’Arcy (both S. J.), Richard Goodwin, Rene Dubos, Sir Stephen Spender, Sir Frank Kermode, Dick and Charles Wilbur, Robert Giroux, David McCullough, Goddard and Brigitta Lieberson, The Warburgs, The Roger Strauses. He revered his friends with a loyalty that never wavered, even friends who later proved less charitable to him. His books were part of a building career;  his friends were blocks for another kind of building—first an education, second of a charmed circle. To hear him talk all his friends were in the next room or across the hall: but he might be talking of people now dead or people he last saw in Taos or Beverly Hills or Rochester or London in 1920 or 1945—by his talk they would return for they had never left his thoughts.

By means of them Horgan made himself a thorough education—he never went to formal university, but rather found his education where he was, apparently everywhere he went. He was intensely private about how he learned, but public in his generous dispersal of what he learned. Most of all, he found out things as he wrote, and he wrote all the time.

An exhibition of preparatory drawings for his histories and biographies toured four major American institutions and was published as a Writer’s Eye. He pooh-poohed the festivities surrounding the drawing exhibition, but not too much. He was serious about his drawings, as they were, like his books, serious. As he said Josiah Gregg had in his writings, Horgan’s drawings “sought the truth.”

In the Padraic Colum lecture, given at the Wesleyan Writers Workshop in 1981, Horgan ranged over the notes of literary travelers of many times and places. In the coda he said,

It is always edifying for mortals to look at a god…and if it so happens that we now and then measure ourselves by living, however briefly, with our betters, we are consoled for our shortcomings by awareness of the grand variety of the visions expressed through the art of writing, and by the saving fact that if, in the end, we manage to express truth, it will be ours, and ours alone.

Because he was here, we saw one of our betters. He taught us to seek to express the truth. And he was optimistic: if we did, he said, it would be ours, and ours alone. His death was a shock because we thought him immortal. In a way, he is.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 9, 2002.

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