“The devil in the desert” short story by Paul Horgan (1903-1995) was written in the year 1950. It is a story that features the adventure of an elderly priest who leaves a missionary centre to go preaching to a tribe of Indians that lives in a desert land.
At the start of the story, Louis, the elderly priest prepares to leave the missionary centre in the town of Brownsville in the Gulf of Mexico to go to the desert lands to take the good news to the people inhabiting there. This story happens a hundred years into the past. According to further reading of the story this is a journey that the priest had taken many times before. For he had served in the place many years and had grown attached to the act of going to preach to the people of the desert at least for three weeks once a year. The old priest’s ideology on life is that the one with many material possessions without God had nothing while those who had nothing but God had all things. This is the viewpoint that drives him to the wilderness as he intends to use the occasion to convert the desert inhabitants.
Fr. Louis braves a harsh environment, the hot sun and the harshness of the people he meets in the desert. In the household, he is hosted they make a mention of his age and he gets offended and, unable to control his anger reproves his hosts. After this incidence, the father repents his action and from then resolves to refrain from deeds of anger.
As he goes from the host family to reach other families in the desert he pauses somewhere in the middle of the desert to regain strength. This rest after, which he intends to go on to evangelize, becomes his last rest on the earth. In the course of his sleep comes a rattle snake that bites him in the back and he starts dying slowly. He holds a conversation with the snake which is reminiscent of the conversation recorded in the bible in which the devil tempted Jesus Christ.
The snake is a symbol of the devil just like in the biblical account. In the conversation they hold, Louis accuses the snake of trying to kill him and puts it to the devils understanding that he had a spirit that could never die (McVeigh 89).
Some of the literary devices used in the short story are irony and allusion. Literary devices are the tools that the writer uses to put the message across.
The irony is seen in that the elderly priest goes to the desert lands to propagate the message of life but he ends up losing his own life in the venture. Fr. Louis goes against all odds to preach in the desert. He has overcome the challenge of age and the challenge of harsh environment. He witnesses the death harshness of the desert and thinks of its harshness to the inhabitants, but in the end he gets to suffer death because of the same, for the snake had come to shelter under his shoulder for lack of good shelter in the surrounding.
The allusion is seen in the episode in which Fr. Louis has a conversation with the snake. At the hour of his death after he is bitten a conversation between the snake and the man occurs. The snake exalts in its power as the man prides in that he will have another spiritual life after death of the physical body. In this conversation, the snake is seemingly innocent of its deed, but Louis reveals its evil intentions. This meeting is similar to the one of Christ and the devil in the wilderness. The devil in both cases is a discreet operator in that it comes to the men unseen and tries to exercise its power over them. Through sweet words it puts across its schemes to them in order to win them. Again the snake symbol represents the snake in paradise that tempted Eve though here the snake is defeated hence making the allusion to Jesus’ account more relevant.
The story is set a hundred years in the past so it is a story that is historical in making. That was the era of the entrance of the western missionaries into the interior Native American lands. Modern science had not yet set in to intervene in taming the environment. The old priest suffers a tiring journey on the back of Pancho, his horse.
Paul Horgan was born in buffalo, New York but he moved to New Mexico in 1915. He studied at New Mexico military institute and later worked as a librarian for several years. He went on to become a great American author of non fiction and fiction. Most of his works were set in southwestern United States ( Gish 98).
Paul won the Pulitzer Prize twice for history with groundbreaking classical texts on Mexican history in which he accurately described the historical entrance of the Anglo Americans into the territory of New Mexico and Texas. “The devil in the desert” is set at such a time when the Anglo Americans were coming into the lands of the native Mexicans. The missionaries did beat the way for the imperialists and the capitalists in the region.
He was once a president of American Catholic Historical Association, a position that shows his authority in the church circles. He however overcame the position and wrote objectively. The theme he tackles in “the devil in the desert” is temptation. This is a universal theme because temptations happen to every human being. The literary devices i.e. allusion and irony are the building blocks of the theme of temptation. First, it is ironic that the priest takes the act of aggression of the rattlesnake in a calm, collected manner. The priest had had an irritable nature. His change of heart here enables the character to overcome the temptation.
Horgan’s religious beliefs are oriented in the catholic faith. He believed in spiritual intuition as the one that people see life through. He believed in life as a cosmic drama, a placer of temptation and fortitude, in which God were the producer, and also the protagonist. According to Horgan, Catholicism is realism and it is not sentimental, just like God is not sentimental. Through Catholicism Gods cleansing and all-powerful love is manifested. He saw catholic realism as that which peoples of old referred to as the flesh, the world, and the devil. He believed that the catholic realism confronts the three with the confidence that, because Christ conquered, then by the grace of God those of the Christ’s body shall also conquer.
Horgan was made great by his writings in that they contained widely ranging pieces of literature. Though his writings are characterized by a certain catholic sensibility they also deal with ordinary things of the world that he saw as means for attaining Gods grace. He practiced Christian maturity in his writings, for he wrote for people to see things as they were. This indicates his humane nature as a writer (George 102).
This doesn’t imply that he was totally innocent of religious interest in his writing. It is only that he writes about catholic maters with such disinterest that his readers feel a streak of liberality in them. For instance in “the devil in the desert” he propounds the religious ethic of defeating temptation. This is the kind of a story that the reader comes out with a moral learned.
Horgan’s achievement of the Pulitzer Prize of literature and other national awards for literature affirms his universality as a writer. Though his works are set in the East, he passes for a western writer among the readers of western American literature. He cannot be defined as a catholic writer, a regionalist, a realist, or a writer of either the East or the West. Instead as the short story under study here shows he is a blender of all the views of his contemporaries. The universal appeal of the short story comes into play since he uses universally appealing characters, tackles universal theme i.e. temptation, and his descriptions of characters and events and the settings are more comparative rather than prescriptive.
Paul Horgan is an advocate of high culture through his writings. He at the same time avoids writing for the advocacy of popular culture. He is more interested in looking at the universal human in his writings rather than stressing regional differences that have been popularized and ha little contribution to the interests of universalism. (Gish 89)
However, the region of the southwest is somehow covered in the writer’s works. This is the region that is dealt with in “the devil in the desert”. Its coverage though, is through the frame of reference of the western perspective of the missionary. Concerning the environment of the desert, for instance, Fr. Louis paints a picture of how the people of the region lived. He contrasts the dry harshness in the place to the wet climate of Europe.
When he moved from Europe to America at the age of twelve he met new cultural expressions. Those modes of expressions he had learned in Germany were otherised by the Mexican American and Native American cultures. The new environment he faced was microcosmic in nature and provided him with the microcosmic model that he used in his writings. His roots in Germany first incepted him into art. His family there was one of artists, writers and musicians.
He sees the world through a painter’s eye so he is not caught in any individual temporal setting. He wrote once of himself.
‘I got my education through cultural expressions of the East and West Europe. Hence, I have been concerned with people without reference to typical characterization of the East or the West as many writers do’ (George 45).
The short story is set in the Mexico but the underlying concepts in the story are foreign in nature. For instance the concept of evangelization is of western origin. The story hence espouses some degree of cultural duality as the culture of the natives and the culture of the incoming missionaries co-exist. The reality that some of the people in the desert have converted is fulfillment of his views on a universal society. Instead of presenting the lifestyle of the desert people that opposed the masters of evangelization he presents us with the ones that conformed and existed in a cross cultural level.
As a mark of his refinement as a writer, though writing from a catholic background, he doesn’t get apologetic of the faith. Instead he puts across a leveled narrative of the experiences of an aged catholic priest in the New Mexico of the nineteenth century. He doesn’t write to indoctrinate his readers with catholic ideas but rather to narrate the great experiences of the missionaries. In the resolution of the story we see the bones of the dead priest being taken to the mission centre after eight years of lying in the desert. Together with the bones are the relics that the priest had taken with him on the journey to the desert. This relics outlive their owner in this earth and portend that their owner was still alive be it in spiritual form. He relics serve as a source of inspiration to the young priest in the mission centre ho is about to assume the post of a bishop in his own country, Germany.
He argues that his universalistic insight for humanity is congruous with Catholicism.
He did not however use Catholicism as the basis of his works, but the works he did are heavily permeated by catholic sensibility. His works though have a way of putting things across as they are. He uses this approach of seeing things as they are as this will make people get sight of extraordinary things. He resorts to the investigation of the human and the mundane in his work. This congruity is the reason that he uses the episode in “the devil in the desert” to advance spiritual goals, as well as secular goals. Hence the short story comes across as well thought and well written as it is able to communicate appropriately to the reader.
George Weigel. “Introduction to Paul Horgan’s Things As They Are.” The Catholic Difference, Chicago press, 2006.
Gish, Franklin, A literary History of The American West, Indiana press, 1994.
McVeigh, Daniel & Schnapp, Patricia, “The devil in the desert”,” The Best American Catholic Short Stories: Contributor Paul Horgan, Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.