Paul Horgan and the fate of great writers
In his lifetime, Paul Horgan was lionized as “a world-class writer” and “the Southwest’s first literary craftsman.”
The New York Times Review of Books said of him, in 1989: “With the exception of Wallace Stegner, no living American has so distinguished himself in both fiction and history.”
Horgan is perhaps best remembered today as the only New Mexico author ever to win two Pulitzer Prizes, the first for his epic “Great River, The Rio Grande in North American History” (1954) and the second for a biography, “Lamy of Santa Fe” (1975).
Horgan’s climb to stardom in the literary world makes interesting reading in itself. At age 12, in 1903, Paul moved from his birthplace in Buffalo, N.Y., to Albuquerque where his father sought “the cure” from tuberculosis.
After graduation from Albuquerque High School, the young Horgan attended New Mexico Military Institute at Roswell. There, he and fellow cadet Peter Hurd, a future artist of distinction, became lifelong friends.
By 1921, Horgan was employed on the Albuquerque Morning Journal as a cub reporter, whose editor there was Clinton P. Anderson, later a history-making U.S. senator from New Mexico.
Journalism failed to claim Horgan and, in 1926, he returned to Roswell as head of the NMMI library. One day the school would rename that library in his honor.
Upon receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship to research and write a history of the Rio Grande, Paul Horgan resigned his library post but continued to reside and write in Roswell.
As evidence of his keen interest in the arts, he became a founding member of the Santa Fe Opera and served 10 years as its chairman of the board.
The Opera’s general manager, John Crosby, declared: “Much of what is now known as the tradition of the Santa Fe Opera is the consequence of the inspired counsel of Mr. Horgan.”
With the success of “Great River,” Horgan began writing full time. Wesleyan University of Middletown, Conn., granted him a one-year fellowship in 1960.
The same year Horgan’s publisher released his hefty historical novel, “A Distant Trumpet,” set during the Apache wars in the Southwest. The Boston Globe rated in “an American classic.”
Shortly afterward, Hollywood began filming the novel amid the Red Rocks east of Gallup. By luck as an extra, I landed the role of trumpeter in the battle scenes. That proved to be my only personal connection to Paul Horgan, as I never met the man.
Horgan returned to Wesleyan and became a professor of English and a permanent author in residence, thereafter spending only his summers in New Mexico. Not bad for someone who had never gotten a college degree. His two Pulitzers must have made up for that deficiency.
In all, before his death in 1995 at age 91, Paul Horgan would publish 40 books, many of them dealing with New Mexico. Ultimately, he received 19 honorary degrees from universities around the country.
Notwithstanding, Horgan in retirement was pinched for funds. He sold his papers and books to a collector of his work in California, Sally Zaiser. She agreed that if she ever needed to sell them, the lot would be offered first to Yale University Library, where Horgan had really wanted it to go.
A few years later, when her circumstances had changed, Zaiser approached Yale, but the school showed absolutely no interest in the collection. Horgan was crestfallen. It eventually went to Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
The public, particularly the non-reading public,mistakenly believes that writers as celebrity figures automatically receive big sums for each book published. Not true.
Witness a New Mexican story last year, reporting that a Santa Fe judge had agreed to end the Paul Horgan Trust since its assets, mainly declining book royalties, could no longer support the cost of administration.
Local attorney Thomas Catron was quoted: “Despite (Horgan’s) greatness as an author, there’s nothing that’s selling.” These days, literary fame long-term is everywhere fleeting!