Bernard DeVoto

Historian and conservationist, 1897-1955

Author: Mark DeVoto (page 2 of 4)

to Mr. Warren

To Mr. Warren    
December 10, 1943

Dear Mr. Warren:

I’m afraid I never was much of a newspaperman, and I don’t think I can supply much color about those papers.  Probably the height of my career came the summer after I graduated from high school, which would make it 1914.  I covered the baseball games of the Union Association for the Glassman paper, which was called then either the Ogden Standard or the Ogden Evening Standard, I forget which.  I felt extremely adult and professional.  There was an honest to God press box, in front of, and in full view of, the grandstand.  It had a telephone by which I reported the score, inning by inning, to the Standard and to various local stores which posted it on their windows.  I felt that the eyes of the world were on me and developed a set of mannerisms that would have been adequate for Richard Harding Davis phoning stop-press stuff about the crash of empires.  The Standard went to press about game time and so my story didn’t appear till the next day.  I forget who represented the Examiner, the morning sheet later merged with the Standard, but somebody must have.  Or maybe Darrell Greenwell or Ralph Argubright wrote a story for it.  Greenwell was the Ogden correspondent of the Salt Lake Herald and Argubright of the Tribune — he was the league’s official scorer too.

I tremendously respect those two and looked up to them. They seemed to me the summit of sophistication, which I then conceived to be the distinguishing characteristic of newspapermen.  I listened attentively to them acquired their point of view, aped their talk, and revised my ideas of life and especially love to accord with theirs.  They kidded me a good deal but did me the decency to kid me as a member of the profession.  This gave me a sense of being an initiate, an insider, and was really a great kindness on their part and a great benefit to me — it helped me to grow up.  I was always awe-stricken when it came out that one or the other of them had read my story of the game.

I don’t remember much about those stories.  There were a number of young players in the Association who later got to be names in the big leagues — “Bullet Joe” Bush who helped win a world series for the Athletics, Swede Risberg who was one [of] the “Black Sox,” the White Sox team that threw a world series, somebody called Ducky Jones who played with Detroit, etc.  Also some ex-big leaguers who, of course, were splotes [sic] of violent color to me.  I wrote stuff about them in addition to writing the game — a sort of embryonic sports column.  But I can’t remember what sort of thing it was, except that occasionally Argubright or Greenwell would either praise me or bawl me out for something, which indicates that I was experimenting with phraseology.  I do remember that a player once hit an umpire with a bat and Frank Francis killed the paragraph I wrote about it, explaining that we didn’t editorialize in news stories.

I never followed the team farther than Salt Lake.  I’ll bet I followed it there at my own expense — if any.  I had worked for the Bamberger railroad  — Salt Lake and Ogden? —  and could always deadhead with one of my friends.

I don’t remember that Frank Francis taught me much.  There was a reporter named Lonnie West, who did teach me to write leads to my stuff and to check names, etc.  I remember that he was an orthodox Mormon, sometimes showed up at the pressbox or somewhere else where Greenwell and Argubright were, and got kidded about his orthodoxy.  He was my mentor at the Standard — though there was also a telegrapher there who liked me, who combed some of the hayseed out of my hair, and who also seemed to me the refined essence of world-weariness, disillusionment, and disenchantment.  Naturally I admired him beyond belief and incorporated his sophistication into the brand I was picking up from Greenwell and Argubright.  Years later I put him into a Saturday Evening Post story.  That, by the way, was one of a series, five or six, which used various details from my Standard days.  They were the best short stories I ever wrote.

I mostly ran errands for Lonnie West.  I covered the local Chautauqua and sometimes did hotels, or the court house, or what not when Lonnie had something else to do.  The big stuff was, of course, the police court but Lonnie usually took care to cover that himself, though I got a shot at it occasionally.  I ran round tirelessly, acting the young reporter all over the place.  I remember, as a specimen of my importance, that I once wrote two or three pages about the corpse of a horse on Washington Avenue.  Naturally, none of it got printed.

That was the longest period I worked for the Standard.  Later on I sometimes worked two or three weeks at a stretch when an extra or substitute was needed and I happened to be in town.  At such times I did the regular stint and, being older, did it a hell of a lot better.  Also, before 1914 I had occasionally written something for the Standard or the Examiner.  Newspapers fascinated me, they were romantic, and I hung around both offices a good deal.  Francis or the editor of the Examiner would ask me to cover something at the high school or something of the sort and I’d do it.  I remember I once tried to do some feature stuff for Francis — a kind of columnist at the age of sixteen — but never got anywhere with it.

There was one incident that has amused me a good deal.  When Homer Lea’s Valor of Ignorance was revived a couple of years ago — the book which foretells the war with Japan — I remembered that I had written a piece about it years before.  So I wrote out to Ogden and had the files of the Standard searched.  Sure enough, dated May 10, 1913, “The Reasonableness of World-Wide Conciliation.  By Bernard DeVoto, of Ogden High School.”  I was then a lieutenant in the high school cadet corps, which was run by a chap named Kneass, who had been in the Spanish-American War (or maybe the Philippines, I forget which), was captain of the local National Guard company, and later on was a major in the war.  That spring one of the world-peace foundations was conducting a big campaign.  Part of it was a nation-wide contest for essays on world peace by high school students.  There was a big to-do at Ogden High School and all the brightest boys and girls were solicited or stimulated to enter the contest.  It drove Kneass almost nuts.  I was the only writer in his cadet corps and he sought me out and asked me if I believed in world peace.  I didn’t believe anything one way or the other, but I was always agin everything, and the fact that the bright boys and girls were on one side would invariably put me on the other.  So Kneass evangelized me — we mustn’t let them get away with this, pacifism (if the word had been coined then) is the decay of civilization, we must save this nation from the bright poison, etc.  He gave me a copy of The Valor of Ignorance and bade me make some kind of noise to counteract the dangerous softness into which Ogden High School had fallen.  So I wrote the piece and the Standard published it, and the copy which I had made a couple of years back is one of my most valuable possessions.  I want to tell you, it’s a honey.  It’s the most doom-prophesying, saber-rattling, let-us-save-the-white-race, military-power-is-the-vigor-of-nations job you ever saw in your life, and the rhetoric of a sixteen-year-old evangelist is something.  Homer Lea wrote it all right, but by God I rewrote it.

I spent one year, 1914-1915, at the University of Utah and occasionally hung round the Tribune office.  I don’t remember whether I ever wrote anything for it or not.  I think I did at the time of the then celebrated faculty purge and secession at the U.  I was the young revolutionist, spouting about free speech and the horrid Mormon suppressions.  (I had also helped to organize a chapter of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, which was ordered not to meet on the campus.)  I remember writing some verses lampooning the president of the University and I must have written other stuff.

While I was at Harvard I occasionally wrote some stuff for the Boston Herald.

I think that covers my newspaper career, bearing in mind that up to 1922, when I left Utah for good, I occasionally worked for a few days at the Standard.  I remember interviewing de Valera in 1920, the president then in absentia of the Irish Free State….

Incidentally, someone taught me, sometime or other, the rudiments of interviewing.  Every once in a while I am appalled by an interviewer who comes to see me, hasn’t looked up my name or what I’ve done, doesn’t know why he’s interviewing me, and cannot conceal the fact that he never heard of me until he got the assignment and has done nothing about it on the way to my house.  I have enough residual feeling for the newspaper business to feel humiliated, not on my behalf but on behalf of his paper.  I’ve had that experience in a good many places — I had it at Indianapolis last spring when I was delivering lectures on the University’s biggest and best advertised foundation, and one of those birds showed up and I had to write his interview for him.  But I never had it worse than I did in Ogden a few years ago — 1940 — when I was in town for the first time in years and the Standard sent a youth round to see me.  I finally got so sore that I delivered a lecture on how to find out who a man is before you go to see him.  I told him about the morgue and the public library in considerable detail, and finally informed him, I trust with considerable hauteur, that I had once worked for his paper and that the newspaper business had an old and sacred tradition about former members of the local staff.

I remember the Tribune as by far the best paper in Utah in my time.  Maybe the memory of Frank Cannon contributed to that feeling, for he was not only a family friend but the Great Apostate as well, and so all but holy in my sight.  But I think it was a good paper, regardless of that.  There was another evening paper in Ogden called, I think, the Journal or the Utah Journal, or something of the sort.  It folded while I still lived there, but something of the same anti-Mormon tradition was associated with it.  Those must have been great days, the days when the Gentile papers crusaded and the Mormon papers fought back.  It was long over when I became aware of it, of course, but I heard stories and still retain something of that glamour.  I’ve always intended sometime to read my way through the files of the Tribune and maybe write something about it.

I don’t know how much I was reflecting the emotions of my father, who hated the elder Glassman all his life, but I had, in those days, a firm belief that the Standard was just the agent of what we would nowadays call rackets run by old Bill.  I guess he was something of a crook and certainly there was a vast and vivid folklore about him.  C. C. Goodwin, of course, was the great man of Utah journalism and there was a story, I don’t know how true it is but it has the superficial earmarks of truth, that C. C. was toastmaster at a banquet of newspaper editors and managers from all over the West and had the duty of introducing Bill Glassman.  He faced his duty like a man and introduced him, the story runs, in these words:  “…Bill Glassman, the kind of son of a bitch who would steal his mother’s marriage license to prove himself a bastard for five dollars.”  That checked with what I heard and firmly believed about the old man.  I also hated the guts of young Bill, who was something of a thug and a good deal of a bully and one [who(?)] beat hell out of me in a fist fight.  I liked the oldest Glassman boy, Roscoe.  I imagine that Abe was the power house.  He was shrewd, likable, and probably not too scrupulous — had something of his father’s careful discrimination among the finer shades of honesty.

When I was setting up as a writer I did a piece for the Mercury on Utah.  It was tolerably painful stuff, very Mencken, not too accurate, and full of the young revolutionist line.  Still, it was also tolerably tame.  But it wasn’t received tamely.  It hit the local inferiority complex dead center and rocked the state as few things have since the Liberal Party days.  I not only got the Church’s curse in hundreds of columns, practically every paper in the state raised hell with me and went on raising hell for, literally, years.  I am still not respectable in Utah and though I long ago made amends in my writing for that piece and have, I think, written more favorably about the Mormon Church than any other Gentile who ever lived, every new book of mine is reviewed all over the state in terms of that old Mercury piece.

I don’t remember anyone in my time who turned out to be a writer.  I think that Lewellyn Jones, later literary editor of the Chicago Post and at one time something of a literary figure, worked for the Journal at some time, I don’t know when.  At any rate, when I knew him in Chicago he was full of Glassman stories.  There was a real estate man in Ogden who dated back to the Liberal Party days and retained his anti-Mormon fire.  His name was O. A. Kennedy.  He developed into something of an antiquarian, and wrote many pieces about early Ogden and Utah history.  They were incredibly badly written but they had a genuine feeling for the past and he knew enough to do research.  They are very valuable stuff indeed and I have a great respect for them.  It was a curious period — practically nobody had any interest in local history.  We owe a good deal to men like him.  Now that we are interested in western history we have such men to thank for the preservation of material, clues, leads, and records that would otherwise have disappeared entirely.

There were some eccentric literary figures.  A mining man named Don Maguire wrote thousands of pages of fiction, very bad, inconceivably bad, and other thousands of pages of reminiscences of the old West which I would give an eye to see now, since he knew a lot and found out more.  A doctor named Roche, also of Ogden, wrote a long epic in blank verse and published it at his own expense.  Also bad beyond belief; I found a copy of it some years ago in Widener Library and leafed through it, remembering how he had talked it over with my father.  Of course Wilbert Snow, the poet, taught at the University.  In fact, he was one of those who were fired in the purge mentioned above.  He was my instructor in freshman English.  I see him occasionally for he is the most revered professor at Connecticut Wesleyan now and we talk like gaffers about those brave days of revolt.

You see, I haven’t anything much to your purpose.  It’s a pious purpose, however, and I wish you success at it.  I’m damned glad that you’re doing that particular job.  It badly needs doing and we’ll all be in your debt.  If I can help in any way, don’t hesitate to call on me.  I’m in Washington mostly, these days, and will be for six months more, with possible excursions overseas, but you can always reach me here.

Sincerely yours,

to Jarvis Thurston

to Jarvis Thurston

May 24, 1943

 

Dear Mr. Thurston:

I have long intended to thank you for your understanding and uniformly generous reviews of my stuff and defense of me generally in Ogden.  I am once more in debt to you now for an excellent and unquestionably over-kind review of my new book [The Year of Decision: 1846].  But what finally pricks me out of amiable intention into action is not that review but a clipping which I take to be from Frank Francis’s column in which he quotes you.  I gather that Frank had said something about me in his column previously but, if he did, my clipping bureau missed it.  Well, you bring up the question of those two early articles of mine and I’m in a mood to make a statement about them.  I make it to you, to show you how I feel and think about them today, for your private information.  If at any time you care to quote any part, or all, of what I say, you have my full permission to do so.  But I am not interested in your doing so: I am making an explanation to a man whom I recognize as a supporter of mine in my home town.

Many years have passed since I would have attempted any justification whatever of those two articles.  They were ignorant, brash, prejudiced, malicious, and, what is worst of all, irresponsible.  They were absolutely in the Mercury mood of illegitimate and dishonest attack.  They represented the only occasions in my career when I yielded to that mood.  I have spent practically all my literary life attacking other manifestations of that mood, and I have always regarded my yielding to it on those occasions as an offense which can be neither justified nor palliated.

There was, and doubtless remains, much in the life and culture of Utah which could be legitimately criticized.  Some of the things I said in those articles made points which would have been legitimate criticism if I had said them fairly and objectively — and if the entire mood and atmosphere of the articles had not been atrociously offensive.  It was, and doubtless remains, thoroughly possible to oppose some of the tendencies and manifestations of civilization in Utah on reasonable, empirical grounds.  But that consideration is irrelevant, since my criticism and opposition were embodied in a lot of prejudice, irresponsible humor, and a general yanking out of shirttails and setting them on fire.

I cannot now remember whether I realized as much when I was writing.  Certainly I realized it soon afterward.  I believe that everything I have written about Utah and the Mormon Church ever since has been fair-minded and objective.  I go farther than that: I think that everything I have written about them since those articles has been informed by a basic sympathy.  But again, that does not matter…except that very little I have since written about them has been taken into account by the people who go on denouncing me.

Why did I write them, and write them as I did?  Well, for one thing I was a young buck, intoxicated with the newly achieved privilege of publication, full of wild and yeasty irreverence, and obviously gifted at burlesque and extravaganza.  (That last, I may say parenthetically, is an embarrassing, occasionally dangerous gift.  It has recurrently thrown me throughout my career and even now sometimes prods me into writing passages which react against the serious intention of my work.  We have been told that a sense of humor is fatal to a career in politics.  It is a handicap to any career in literature and an extremely serious handicap to a career in social criticism.  It has joined with a habit of using concrete words to keep my stature in contemporary letters considerably smaller than it would have been if I had expressed myself solemnly and abstractly.  In beautiful letters, the light touch is dangerous.)  For another thing, I was, if a cocky young fool, also an over-sensitive young fool — and I had, or thought I had, been widely snooted and derided in Utah for presuming to desire a career as a writer.  Ogden, Utah generally, is a far more sophisticated, far more cultivated society now than it was when I was growing up there.  In my adolescence I was certainly the only person in the state, male or female, who aspired to such a career.  The fact that such an ambition is now fairly common there and is treated as a matter of course is a sign, not that I was wrong and the attitude toward me right, but that the local culture has progressed in thirty-odd years.  At any rate, I was widely treated as a fool on the one hand, for it must be foolish of me to suppose that I could ever be a writer, and as a kind of pansy on the other hand, for obviously only the epicene would aspire to a career so obviously trivial and even sissy as that of writer.  I was, I repeat, widely snooted and derided on just those grounds.  Now unquestionably I exaggerated this, but unquestionably also it existed.  The attitude was not, at that time, confined to Utah; it was characteristic of provincial America everywhere although I think it was more evident in Utah than in most places, for Utah was nearer than most places to the pioneer society in which literary activity has always been considered foolish and sissy.  I resented it violently — much more than I should have resented it if I had been older, wiser, more cultivated myself, or more sophisticated.  So I reacted against it when I came to write those articles.  In some degree they were acts of self-vindication, in some degree acts of revenge.

Later on, I deeply regretted having written them.  I do not regret them now.  I conceive that the damage they did to Utah was nil — was wholly non-existent.  (In all those years of the Mercury‘s slam-bang, indiscriminate derision of American life, was any attack on any community written that is now remembered in the community attacked, save only mine?  I doubt it.  An antiquarian, a historian of that period, I am familiar with most of those attacks and as I go about the country I inquire about them.  I never find anyone except antiquarians and historians who remembers them.  And most of those people do not remember them at first hand but have encountered them in research.)  They did Utah no harm and they did me much good.  For one thing they succeeded in rousing a historian’s conscience in me, so that I have never again written anything without knowing what I was talking about.  But what is much more important, they have enabled me to understand that period, the youth and young manhood of my own generation, as I should never have been able to understand it if I had not both written and repented them.  They were absolutely and altogether of my literary generation.  The revolt against the home town and the dishonest attack on it are type-specimens, absolute stigmata, of the period.  My own career in letters has been in absolute opposition to the main literary current of my time.  From my second novel on to my present book and the one now in manuscript, I have set myself to oppose the ideas, concepts, theories, sentiments, and superstitions of the official literature of the United States between the two wars.  If I have any significance as a writer, it derives entirely from that fact.  And that fact in turn rests, intellectually, on two realizations: my realization of what I had done in writing those articles and my realization of what Van Wyck Brooks had done in evolving and elaborating his system of thinking about American culture.  I could not have understood my literary generation, and certainly could not have taken a stand in opposition to it, without either experience.

So much for my part.  Let me add what I believe to be true about the reception of those articles in Utah and their subsequent reputation there.

We cannot imagine those articles being written today: the world has changed too much.  Mutatis mutandis, granting the idioms and sentiments of this later time, if the equivalent of those articles were to be published today, they would, I think, cause considerably less stir and offense in Utah.  The state has grown more sophisticated, it has come to understand more what intellectual and literary discussion are, it has become at least a little more tolerant.  More people are accustomed to the play and interchange and expression of ideas.  Ideas are more likely to be received as ideas, not epithets, not insults, not imputations of dishonor.  The booster state of mind, which in the West of the 1920s was the equivalent of the vigilante state of mind in earlier days, has lapsed considerably.  If I or someone else were to say the same things today, in today’s idioms, there would be a lot less fuss.

And yet it is true, I think, that Utah, and especially the Mormon culture, is extremely sensitive and intolerant to criticism and even to difference of opinion in which there is no criticism whatever.  That is probably true of the West in general, as distinguished from other sections, even the South, but it is more true of Utah and the Mormons than of the rest of the West.  I have been, not surprised, but exceedingly interested to see the old patterns repeated in the comments I get, in correspondence mostly, about my current book.  There can be no question whatever that that book contains the most sympathetic treatment of the Mormons ever published by a Gentile.  Any dispassionate mind need only compare it with, say, Linn or Werner.  It is packed full of the most flagrant and even fulsome praise of the Mormons, condemnation of their oppressors, admiration of their achievements, sympathy with their suffering, patient exposition of their point of view.  Yet I receive a steady stream of vilification on the old, familiar grounds (you’re a liar, you’re a mobocrat, you’re a homosexual, you’re a publicity seeker, you’re a cheap sensationalist, you’re a defiler of the prophet and an author of filthy pornography, etc.), the Deseret Book Company holds up its order until it determines whether the book is sanitary or should be burnt by the public hangman (and how it made up its mind I haven’t bothered to investigate), and somebody to me unknown sends my publisher a copy of a radio script which discusses the book purely in terms of those two old articles, as if there were nothing else in it.  Except for you, nobody in the state reviews the book.  Except for three or four people, and they friends of mine mostly, everyone who writes to me damns me for having blasphemed the religion of which, it is repeatedly pointed out, my mother was a communicant.

Now in the first place I think it is true, as you say in Frank Francis’s column, that most of these people who are so sore at me have not read the articles.  They know my name as that of a son of a bitch who once wrote a lot of damned lies about Utah, and that relieves them of any obligation to know either what those damned lies were or what the present book is.  But in the second place, it is lugubriously true that the orthodox Mormon mind cannot tolerate any objective treatment of Mormon history whatever.  All treatment of the Mormons must completely accept the Mormon doctrinal, metaphysical, and supernatural assumptions.  If it does not accept them, then it is ipso facto prejudiced, unjust, and libelous.  All Mormon actions have always been pure and sanitary; all criticism of them has always been evil and mendacious.  Who is not for them is against them.  That is why the fact that I have presented the Mormons to the readers of American history more sympathetically and with a more careful exposition of their relationships to their time than anyone had done before me goes without recognition in the abuse heaped on me.  It is enough that I do not accept the Mormon assumptions.  This is what I have sometimes called the Mormon inferiority complex.  Something of the sort is, of course, part of all religious orthodoxy.  Yet it is perfectly possible for any writer to handle any other religion in America objectively and to be answered objectively in turn.  It is not possible of the Mormons, and that is further evidence of their cultural lag.

All this makes no difference to me.  I have no desire for Mormon praise and no need of Mormon approval.  Neither do I desire the people of my home town to pay me any respect whatever.  It certainly matters nothing to them that I have become a writer and, as one, have frequently written about the West.  I should rather have them friendly toward me than otherwise, but I have become so thoroughly a part of a different society that I am fundamentally indifferent.  I dislike it when I get a letter of fulsome praise from some Ogdenite who has seen my name in the papers and is impressed by the publicity without giving a damn for the work and, most likely, without having read it.  To the same degree, I dislike it when I get a letter full of equally ignorant abuse.  I should like to know that there are a few people in Utah who like me, without reference to my work, and a few who like my work, without reference to me.  And I should like those who dislike my work to dislike it with reference to the work itself, not with reference to idiocies I committed long ago, which they may know, besides, only by hearsay.

When one is young and idiotic there may be some ambition to be known as a final authority, an important writer, a man of distinction and publicity or even fame.  It doesn’t last: one matures.  One comes to understand that what counts is the honesty and thoroughness of the work.  I should find it hard to state exactly what my ambition as a mature man is.  It would run something like this: to do good work, to do work in which I may take some satisfaction and my friends some pleasure; at the utmost, as Frost once said of Robinson, to put something on the record that will not easily be dislodged.

All this doubtless sounds vague and inconclusive.  Some weeks ago I came down with a streptococcus infection, the most serious illness I can remember having had, and my mind has lacked teeth ever since.  I began with some notion of expressing my thanks to you and my feeling that you read me with much more understanding and sympathy than most writers get from most readers, and that in a very warming way you are a friend of mine.

Sincerely yours,

[The remarks in the second paragraph to “those two articles” refer to “Ogden: The Underwriters of Salvation” and “Utah,” published in 1925 and 1926 respectively.]

to Rose Wilder Lane

to Rose Wilder Lane

June 12th, 1942

Dear Mrs. Lane:

I was going to argue with you a month ago, but now that I clear my desk and get down to it,  I don’t see what the argument is about. I have no love for the English, and feel first, that peace can bring us no greater boon than the privilege of resuming our mutual dislike and second, that that dislike has proved itself an excellent basis for international relationships.

On the other hand, I cannot at your solicitation amend my feeling that on the whole the British have been far gentler than the Germans or the Dutch or the Spanish or the Portuguese or anyone else who ever went into the empire business, and that on the whole the power of the British empire was the great stabilizing force that made possible the very industrial revolution that you praise.  I have no quarrel with you about that revolution or about our function in it.  Nevertheless, as a veteran of one war who hopes to be a veteran of this one also, and as a veteran intellectual and something of a historian, I hope to God that we are not going to face the world again with the innocent idealism which we innocently found was so horribly raped after the last one.

We are not going to dominate the world with tractors, automobiles or cigarettes.  We are going to dominate it, if at all, in a highly realistic partnership with those who help us win.  Russia has still a large part, and China has all of the 19th Century to go through — not necessarily a guarantee of perfect accord to come.

I am sorry, but I continue to find not only our hope, but what we are calling the hope of mankind best guaranteed by an intelligent American adaptation of the principles which the British Empire contrived to put into effect for nearly a century.

Sincerely yours,

Biographical

In an active career Bernard DeVoto (1897-1955) was a journalist, essayist, novelist, literary critic, historian, conservationist, college teacher, and all-around professional writer who once said in a letter, “I am a literary department store.”  During his lifetime he published 20 books and about 800 miscellaneous pieces in magazines and other public fora, including essays, reviews, polemics, commentaries, addresses, and editorials; in private he wrote letters numbering in the thousands.  For twenty years he presided over a monthly column, “The Easy Chair,” in Harper’s Magazine and contributed dozens of other articles to that magazine as well as to many others.  In 1932 he published a book-length study of Mark Twain, the first of five such analyses or collections; the last of these, Letters From the Earth, was published in 1962, seven years after DeVoto’s death.  From 1936 to 1938 DeVoto worked in New York City as editor of  The Saturday Review of Literature, to which he had already been a regular contributor.  In 1943 he published the first volume in a trilogy about the history of the American West, The Year of Decision: 1846; this was followed by Across the Wide Missouri (Pulitzer Prize, 1948) and The Course of Empire (National Book Award, 1953); all three of these books are still in print today, as is his popular edition of The Journals of Lewis and Clark (1953).

Bernard DeVoto was born and raised in Ogden, Utah.  Following a year at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, he transferred to Harvard College, and majored in philosophy.  He graduated cum laude in 1920 after 16 months of service in the Army during the Great War.   He taught public school for a year, and then moved to Illinois to teach in the English Department at Northwestern University from 1922 to 1927.  In 1923 he married Avis MacVicar, who had been a student in his expository writing class, and in 1924 published his first novel, The Crooked Mile.  In 1927 he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in 1929 began seven years of teaching at Harvard University.  He published three more novels before leaving Harvard for his editorial position in New York; except for occasional short visits, he never went back to college teaching, though he did earn four honorary degrees.

Back in Cambridge from 1938, DeVoto earned a living mostly as a freelance writer, working on his histories and supporting his family in part by writing potboiler novels under the pseudonym of John August, and in 1947 his last work of serious fiction, Mountain Time, was published under his own name.  Other books that he published include two volumes of literary analysis, The Literary Fallacy (1944) and The World of Fiction (1950); a lighthearted tribute to American whiskey and the dry martini, The Hour (1951); and three collections of essays, the last of which, The Easy Chair, appeared two weeks before his premature death in 1955.    He left an important examination of the history and ecology of the American West about two-thirds finished in draft; this was edited by Patricia Nelson Limerick and Douglas Brinkley and published as The Western Paradox in 2001 (Yale University Press), summarizing a decade of DeVoto’s thought and research about conservation and politics of the American public lands.  A related collection, DeVoto’s West: History, Conservation, and the Public Good, edited by Edward Muller (Swallow Press of Ohio University Press) and including a number of DeVoto’s other writings, was published in 2005.

A biography of Bernard DeVoto, The Uneasy Chair,  by his close friend Wallace Stegner, was published in 1974; a collection of DeVoto’s letters, also edited by Stegner, appeared the following year.  In 2012 the University of Utah Press published The Selected Letters of Bernard DeVoto and Katharine Sterne, containing about 150 letters and memoirs chosen from some 800 items of an eleven-year correspondence.   Bernard DeVoto wrote about his own family history in two letters, to Robert Forsythe in 1927 and to Kate Sterne in 1936.

to Mr. Williams

to Mr. Williams

May 2, 1945

 

Dear Mr. Williams:

As a historian, I have considerable respect for the type of Missourian you sketch. Granted all you say about their clan loyalties, their stubborn conservatism, and their complete willingness to admire the feats of thugs and outlaws, they nevertheless have a very valuable courage, sense of justice, realism, and unwillingness to be stampeded, which when directed into socially useful channels can be very valuable indeed. In Mr. Truman’s public life at least, I do not say that they have had anything but a beneficial effect. I am not in the least appalled by his connection with the Pendergast machine. Since Washington, exceedingly few presidents have reached their office without the support of machines just as bad or worse. Just under fifty percent of all the corruptionists in the United States supported Lincoln, with Lincoln’s acquiescence, and the percentage that supported Franklin Roosevelt was just as great, and I should not care to lose the Administrations of either from our history.

The Truman Committee did a very courageous job. As a matter of fact, it seems to me that Mr. Truman is the only member of either House of Congress who grew in stature during the war years. When you consider how many more than one there were in the Civil War and First World War Congresses, that fact alone seems to me very reassuring. In fact, I think that Mr. Truman comes very close to that hypothetical creature, the mean of the American mind and character. If he does, we have a ready test of that mind and character, and whatever their variations I believe in them. I think he is likely to be a good President. At any rate, nothing on the record suggests that he is a Johnson, and only Republican campaign oratory has suggested that he is a Coolidge.

I have been trying to get to St. Louis for some scholarly research for nearly a year, but so far have not succeeded in making it. I will have to get there eventually. I hope that you and I can meet when I do and talk it out over a stein of Michelob, which is not available in these uncivilized parts.

Sincerely yours,

to Van Wyck Brooks

to Van Wyck Brooks

August 2, 1943

Dear Mr. Brooks:

I appreciate your invitation and have thought about it carefully, but I end by deciding that I had better not accept it.  I expect to be in Washington on September 9, half-way through a special job.  I could let it go at that and spare you some annoyance and myself some embarrassment.  But I want to answer your letter with the same seriousness that prompted it and so I go on, I hope not offensively.

In the first place, I think I should not contribute anything to the small group you are calling together.  I could argue with you amiably, I believe, though God seems to have put me together according to a formula which keeps me in opposition to your ideas, and others whom you name would similarly have my respect.  Thus, though I have vigorously attacked various stands and books of Cowley’s, I have always respected his ideas, I have always respected his ideas while rejecting them and have liked him personally.  But still others you name are, if I understand their writing, so remote from the ways of thinking I trust that it would be idle for me to sit down and try to talk things over with them.  I should be estopped in advance from taking them seriously, I should add nothing to a discussion in which they took part, and I should be wasting not only their time and yours and mine but that of the group as a body trying to reach sensible conclusions.

That, however, is unimportant: it is the larger purpose that runs head on into my disbelief.  The truth is, I am constrained to doubt the utility not only of your smaller meeting but of such projects as the Conference itself.  The list of those who have convoked it is studded with names I respect, some of them friends of mine, many others my allies or at least supporters of the general ideas I hold.  But I believe profoundly that their meeting together cannot accomplish anything toward the end in view.  I will enhance their feeling of unity and it will produce much intelligent and enjoyable talk; it may clarify their ideas and, perhaps, enable them to write more pertinently and effectively.  But it seems to me that the “intellectual and spiritual bases of enduring peace” are not to be sought in or furthered by meetings of writers and intellectuals.  It seems to me that writers and intellectuals who hope to do something about those bases, if they attend any meetings at all, ought to attend meetings of people who are concerned with them effectively; meetings, say, of political parties, labor unions, business men, war veterans and others through whom the energies of peace, whether intellectual or spiritual, will find expression.  I believe that writers and intellectuals isolate and insulate themselves too much from the reservoirs of energy, and convocations of writers and intellectuals have always seemed to me ineffective, and not only ineffective but unrealistic, and not only unrealistic but irresponsibly frivolous.  I hope that I say this without arrogance —  in an effort to show you why I should not be able to take part in such discussions with belief.

Finally, I should feel some constraint in your presence.  I have recently sent to the printer the manuscript of some lectures I delivered last spring, and in the course of them I again attack your books.  The attack is certainly sincere and, I believe, thoroughly respectful.  It is conducted, I think, solely as part of the warfare of ideas.  But I am a weak vessel and before this have abandoned stands which I ought to have maintained because I found that so-and-so was a good fellow and it seemed a shame to contend with him.  I resisted impulses of Hans Zinsser’s —  he had much the same role in my life, I believe, that he had in yours — to bring us together so that we might iron out our differences, because it seemed to me important that the edge of difference ought not to be dulled by any discovery that it was pleasant to spend an evening talking and drinking together.  So now.  There are issues between us.  They seem to me fundamental in the cause for which the Conference is called.  They have to be argued out.  Unquestionably it is weak-willed of me, but I am essentially a genial soul with little backbone and I am afraid that a familiar consequence would follow once more: that I  should begin to find persuasive reasons why I ought to suppress or at least modify what amounts to a statement of belief — oh, Brooks is a nice chap, he’s had as hard a life as the rest of us, in the larger sense we’re all working toward the same end, and why make such a fuss?  In my own efforts to define the intellectual and spiritual basis for an enduring peace — not an important effort but all I have — that would amount to a catastrophe.

Sincerely yours,

to Philip Graham

to Philip Graham  (publisher of the Washington Post)

December 22, 1952

Dear Phil:

I’m sorry but I don’t think any of your points are valid.  Put it at its simplest: what happens if I write to you and say I believe like hell in the value of stirring up interest in books and since the Post is known for its service to culture it ought to stir up interest in books by giving my new one a quarter of a page of display space without charge to me?

All right, you show a deficit on the luncheon.  What of it?  The whole thing is promotional institutional advertising for the Post.  Nobody can talk about it without talking about the Post, you advertise it in your own columns and you’re advertising the Post some more.  Well, if you want the services of an advertising agency, a billboard, a copy writer, or a press agent, you expect to pay for them.  You don’t ask them to contribute their services for the love of either culture or the Post.  Why ask a writer to?

All right, you don’t solicit ads from the publishers, but the booksellers think these occasions are just wonderful and you do solicit ads from the booksellers.  Furthermore, if you can build the Post‘s book page up sufficiently, and these luncheons are maybe a promising way to do so, you will solicit ads from the publishers.

I can tell you a better way.  Pay enough for reviews so that you can get good reviewers and devote enough space to the enterprise for them to discuss books at decent length.

I also believe that it does people some good to have some association with books.  But my proper activity in regard to that belief is writing books for them to associate with.  Nobody is associating with books when he, or rather she, comes to look at and listen to me.  More likely, it works out the other way.  Have you read DeVoto’s new book?  No, but I heard him at the Post‘s luncheon the other day.

I don’t run a gas station or a shoe store that goes on making money for me when I’m out of town.  I’m a professional writer and any time I take off from the job is a dead loss.  I lose at the very least two days if I go to Washington to do the stunt, and the habits and reflexes of writing are such that I’m lucky if it doesn’t amount in the end to four days.  If I happen to be writing a piece for Woman’s Day, which represents the median of the fees paid me, two days means four hundred bucks.

Why don’t you set up a book luncheon at which three teachers of English in the Washington grade schools talk about books?  By and large they’ll talk about them just as well as three writers will.  You don’t because my name has got publicity value.  Sure, that’s why I’m in Colston Leigh’s stable.  Apply to Colston Leigh and he’ll say, for a one-shot job, whether it’s ten minutes or an hour long, I get five hundred bucks for DeVoto.

Look, I used to be a newspaperman and I’m still a reporter.  I know about all these benevolent public services — fresh air funds, hundred neediest families, gold gloves tournaments, and whatnot.  They’re public spirited as all hell but the idea is to sell papers.  Any names that can be got to commend them, appear at them, or do some work for them will be just fine.  But the staff you assign to run them get paid their regular salaries and if any union labor is involved it gets union scale.  Tell a carpenter, a stage hand, or one of your own staff that he ought to contribute his service gratis just because people ought to have some association with books, and see what he says.

What do you think about the radio programs that ask me to appear on them free of charge?

I’m willing to put it on a barter basis.  Send me a schedule of your advertising rates.  Then the next time you set up one of these luncheons I’ll figure out the cost to me in time and expenses and I’ll trade you even up and write the copy for my ad.  Sure, I have no love of culture.  I can’t afford to have any.  I know damned well that the Post can’t afford to, either.

Yours,

to Mr. Chambers

to Mr. Chambers

May 22, 1950

Dear Mr. Chambers:

You find me in a captious mood.  Maybe I ought to address George Stevens, who wouldn’t give a damn.

In the first place, I feel that a publisher who sends a book to a writer uninvited has to take his chances.  There is yet no statute that compels a writer to read it unless he feels like it or say what he thinks about it unless he wants to.

In the second place, there is something screwy about a publisher’s requiring a writer to comment on a book which has not been sent to him.  So far as I am aware no copy of Guests of Don Lorenzo has appeared at this house and no copy of any other book by Mr. Robert Pick.

It is possible, of course, that you sent me galleys.  If you did I certainly threw them away without looking at them, and I will add that in the third place, a publisher who asks anybody to read galleys has forfeited the ordinary immunities of citizenship and would not be entitled to kick if the grizzly bit him, I hope to God.

Sincerely yours,

to Mr. Oberholtzer

to Mr. Oberholtzer  

April 3, 1950

Dear Mr. Oberholtzer:

Occasionally I have blown off steam in Harper’s about primary and secondary school and college students who call on me and others like me to do their work for them.  Your letter is the first time that a person at the head of a school system has ever made what seems to me a thoroughly unwarranted and illegitimate request.  If your Association is drawing up a program, it certainly has people qualified to make a bibliography.  There is no reason why I should interrupt my work to do the Association’s.  Delegate and pay one of your committee to do the research required.  If you lack confidence in the results when it has been done that is the time to ask for the critical judgment of someone else.  If that time comes, I suggest to you that there are plenty of experts in conservation in Denver, at Denver University, and elsewhere.

I am also moved to wonder how good your Yearbook is going to be unless some of those who write it have first-hand knowledge of the subject.

Sincerely yours,

to Mr. Foraker

to Mr. Foraker

July 5, 1949

Dear Mr. Foraker:

To begin with, western cattlemen did not lose anywhere near as much stock last winter as for propaganda and subsidy purposes they claim they did.  Furthermore, most of those they lost would have been saved if the western cattle business in general were conducted on any level above imbecility and with any system more modern than that of Abel.  The overall trouble with the livestock business out west is that it is antiquated in method and almost inconceivably stupid in conduct.

There is no need for a strain of beef cattle more resistant to winter.  The answer to the absurd western system has already been worked out in Texas and other places where a minimum of brains is used.  This is home ranching, home feeding, and breeding for increased production of beef per unit.  Such western cattlemen as can read and sign their names are coming to see this.  The rest will eventually be forced out of business if we begin to cut down their subsidies.  When beef are raised and fed on the home ranch there is no problem.

There is no problem about grass either except to keep cattle off it long enough for it to come back.  Scores of grasses perfectly capable of restoring the range and holding the soil down have been developed and are now in use.  Cattle owners will not submit to regulation that will enable them to get a foothold, however, and Congress will not provide funds for the extensive and expensive reseeding that must be done.  The native bunch grasses were good enough for buffalo and would be good enough for beef cattle if their owners did not insist on feeding ten where nature has supplied grass for only one.

I don’t think there is any future for the musk ox in the United States.  It would be simpler, less expensive, and more hopeful to shoot cattlemen.

Sincerely yours,

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