Bernard DeVoto

Historian and conservationist, 1897-1955

Category: Uncategorized (page 2 of 2)

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,


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 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 Raleigh Blake

to Raleigh Blake


I wish you had written to me at greater length telling me more about your likes and dislikes, your ambitions, your expectations, and your natural abilities and disabilities.  I can’t hope to do much more than suggest to you a few generations that apply to most people who are beginning college.

About Northwestern first.  When one has watched the colleges as long as I have, one realizes that the best education, and indeed the only education possible, is self-education.  That is possible at almost any college, certainly at Northwestern, and one might look at certain handicaps that North W puts in the way of the students as so many benefits, as stimulants to the attainment of education.  Still, I hope that you will not decide on NW if you find it decently possible to go elsewhere.  This for a number of reasons.  To begin with, there are neighboring colleges that are distinctly better from nearly every point of view, Wis., Ill., Minn., Mich., Chi.  But what is more important, if you were at NW you would be too near home.  I don’t like that for anyone.  In the first place, a young man of college age should be without the supervision of his parents.  He must accustom himself to making his own decisions, directing his own actions, and choosing his own goals, and directing his efforts toward them — and to accepting the consequences.  In any given choice, he must be at once free and willing to make up his mind without reference to anyone but himself, and he must be far enough from home to escape the natural wish of his parents to share the choice, and his own natural with to share the responsibility.  Again, he must be able to enter completely into the life of his college and his companions; he must not be subject to either his duties or his affections at home.  And again, the farther he is from home, the more strange and various people he will meet, and the more widely he will be able to enter, imaginatively, the life around.

Those are generalizations.  I suggest that, since you aren’t going to college this fall, you defer for a while the choice of your college.  Your point of view will change considerably during the next year, and many things may happen that will conceivably be of importance to your decision.

Let me now take up more personal questions.  You say that you have not been a good student in New Trier.  Well, that isn’t of much importance.  What is of importance is your cause of failure to be a good student.  You want to be one when you go to college — else why go there? — and if you can understand yourself and the problems of education sufficiently well to avoid making the same mistake hereafter that will be a great gain for you.  I cannot, of course, at this distant short acquaintance pretend to be accurate about you.  But perhaps I can give you something to think about.  I’m going to begin with your attitude toward your teachers.

First, let us assume that your attitude toward them is wrong.  We’ll take the other point of view in  minute — but you must understand that the first step in education is the willingness to be corrected if one is wrong, in fact not mere willingness, but passionate eagerness.  What is a scientist?  A man who exercises every possible effort to prove himself wrong in every step he takes and rejoices if, at the end of a lifetime’s work, he can prove that everything he did in that time was erroneous.  You say that you have sat in classes and acted bored, that the teachers seemed to be dummies, that the material was cut and dried and formal.  You are afraid that the atmosphere in college will be similarly irksome, that the teachers will be cut and dried old fogies, incapable of original thought.

My dear boy, the world is under no obligation to entrance you.  There was no thought of pleasing you when it was created.  The difference between any two of us is so slight that ten feet of darkness annihilate it, so immaterial that the notion there is any at all may well be an illusion.  From the distance of half a mile, or fifty years, what is the difference between Raleigh Blake and Bernard DeVoto, or between either of them and a Chicago gangster, or between either of them and an Australian Bushman who has no more than forty words at his command, and has never learned to make a fire?  Very little.  Very very little if there is any at all.  I mean to suggest merely that the world looks with equal indifference on us all.  It presents itself to you and whether you find it a magical drama or whether you find it an intolerably dull tale is equally indifferent to the world, which goes about its cycle without reference to your pleasure or ennui.  There is nothing interesting or dull in any subject you have studied or will ever study.  The interest and dullness inhere in you, and in studies as in most other things, you will get out of them what you bring, and no more.  Bring to Mathematics no more interest , curiosity and will to explore than, in my time, I have brought to it, and you will never be able to balance a check book with more self-assurance than I have at the job.  Bring to Mathematics the fierce curiosity and will of a Newton or Einstein and you will very considerably alter the appearance of the world with them.

Your job is not to go into a class room and dare the teacher to make his subject as dramatic as the last reel of a movie.  Neither he nor the subject is under any obligation to be vivid to you.  The subject’s obligation is merely to display before you a set of facts or theories or observations that the experience of many men has made available and that you have decided may have some bearing on your life, either as preparation for something else or as data in themselves.  The teacher’s obligation is merely to help you understand and master them.  Now, if the subject is merely a means to an end, a preparation for something else, you are being very foolish if you stop to consider whether or not it is interesting, if you let the notion of “being interesting” enter your mind at all.  It is a step toward an end, an end that you have foreseen and chosen — either of your own thought or because you have been willing to trust the wider experience of others.  If you are taking the subject as an end in itself, to familiarize yourself with its material and to put its data to the use of immediate knowledge, then how foolish it is to complain that it has not been made interesting for you.  Do you see?

Let me give you an example from my own education — which I assure you is continuing from day to day, though I am six months past my 32nd birthday. . . . For five years I have been studying the life and work and times of Mark Twain.  The end of this study is to achieve as complete an understanding of Mark Twain as is possible, so that I may write a book about him.  That has immediately necessitated a comprehensive study of life in the primitive Missouri where he was born.  Do you think that latter study was interesting? Well, try sometime reading say a hundred thousand pages of county histories, intolerably dull accounts of lumber rafter down the Mississippi, the number of tons of hay produced in Clay County in 1841, the destruction in the flood of 1857, the amount of malaria in Arkansas in years that cannot possibly be of importance to anyone any more, tons of statistics, oceans of births and deaths, millions of lies.  Well, I have had to spend months at this sort of thing, and months more at much duller stuff, till my mind was sodden, and my whole impulse was to quit the job and take up bookkeeping as an employment full of thrills and excitement.  That sort of thing is tolerable when one gets usable material from it.  But what of it when day after day produces only this fact: there is nothing here?  Dull?  It is the abysmal nadir of ennui.  But, don’t you see?  It is essential to the larger purpose, the understanding of Mark Twain, which I assure you, is breathlessly fascinating.  Was it my business to complain that the material was dull, cut and dried, unoriginal?  Such a complaint would be as irrelevant as to object to a sheet of music because it wasn’t printed in green ink on pink paper.  My job was to do that work, to go through the material and report the results.  And the result “there is nothing here” is just as important as if every line of print carried an important fact hitherto unknown about Mark Twain.  Before, neither I nor anyone else could say what that material was worth.  Afterward, I knew.  Do you see the fable?

Now as to teachers.  Is it not presumptuous for you to judge them and find them wanting?  A high school teacher is a very humble person, scholastically, compared to such a scholar as Professor Michelson or Professor Kittredge.  But, with young people, he does a job they could never do.  And whatever his training and his personal defects, he knows more about the subject he is teaching than the students in his class.  I don’t think it is very mature to say “Lo, here is a very dull fellow, a thick-witted zany indeed; go to, I will not learn in his class — I’ll show the beggar he can’t get dull with me.”  That’s a childish response — a boy of eight quitting a game of follow-the-leader because he isn’t satisfied with the way the leader jumps the fences or crawls thru drainage pipes.  A much more intelligent response would be: Lord what a dull fellow.  (If you’re sure he is dull.) —  Well, I’ll learn what I can from him, and then get out of his way.

And now I’m going to tell you something about the way our minds work, especially when we’re at the age you now have.  We are born with a furious necessity of dominating others, of being first in everything, of showing our superiority to everyone else.  Psychologists call this the ego urge.  Our ego frantically requires us to be always asserting and proving this superiority to everyone else.  The urge reaches its greatest intensity about your present age.  After that the world has tamed us so that we begin to be satisfied with superiority in one thing, then with leadership in it, then with competence in it, and finally with mere normal functioning at it.  This declaration is called growing up, or attaining wisdom, or what you will.  But pending that final stage, the mind plays tricks on us.  Daily experience proves to us that there are hundreds of things that we do less well than others do them, that can never be superiorities of ours.  Now, the mind won’t accept that idea, finding it intolerable that we, WE, should be in anything inferior to anyone.  So the mind begins to discover unsuspected causes that bore on that only apparently disastrous result.  WE could have won that race if only we hadn’t pulled that tendon last week; we could have scores that touchdown if only we hadn’t developed a headache.  We could have beaten out Joe in the rivalry to take Mary to the dance, if only we hadn’t been convinced that we didn’t really want to take her.  WE could have been first in the Ancient History test instead of a dumb little dimwit like John Smith if only the teacher hadn’t been so dull that we lost interest in the whole subject.  The mind has a really terrifying power.  Have you ever seen athletes pale with headache or actually vomiting from acute nausea before a contest?  They were going into the contest resolved to do their very utmost. . . . so much that the idea of defeat, of failure, was actually intolerable.  But deep down in their minds, suppressed or never even consciously felt, is either the knowledge that someone else is better than they, or the fear that someone may be.  Out of that fear springs the headache or the nausea.  They could not live at peace with themselves after defeat if the reluctant mind had to acknowledge that it had crossed swords with an actual superior.  The thought is intolerable.  So sickness came upon them  Then if they were defeated, there was a perfect explanation for the eyes of the world, and much much more for the eyes of the mind.  I don’t expect you to see now that a great part of the dullness of your teachers has been the unconscious fear in the back of your mind that you wouldn’t be distinguished in their classes.  But very certainly a great part has been.

This has all been in my experience, and I have had to work through to a realization that honesty with oneself is the best thing in life, that to know the truth about oneself is infinitely finer than to luxuriate in the false consolations of the ego-urge.  I think that every intelligent person works through the same experiences to the same conclusion.

Let me now turn to the other assumption that you are right in calling your teachers dull.  I can at once partially confirm it by my observations in the classroom at NW.  There is no question, if my experience is valid, that the students that came to us from New Trier were, as a group, more inadequately prepared than those from other high schools in the Chicago area.  So that my prepossession is that you were in part right about the teachers, and I add to that, knowing your mother, and having your letter to judge by, the further assurance that you are an intelligent chap and likely to be right about them.

Well, what if they were dull?  What if the teachers you will have in college prove dull, old fogey-ish, cut and dried?  Are you going to sulk like a small boy and refuse to use them?  The world is full of dull people —  there are many to whom you will be dull to the verge of intolerability —  and you’ll have to live with them as best you can.  And these particular people, the teachers, are the material offered to you with which to get an education.  They are the tools you must use in order to master the larger tools that comprise an education.  And education, remember, is not something you can buy like an automobile, or earn like a merit badge in the Boy Scouts.  It is merely a certain expertness in the use of certain tools, the languages, mathematics, the historical method, the scientific method, and so on.  If you are to lead an intelligent life, do intelligent work, enjoy intelligent society, then you must get that expertness, that skill.  Well, the teachers are tools.  Some of them are good tools, some of them bad tools, more merely indifferent.  The wise man of course wants, for any given job, the best tools he can get.  But he doesn’t throw up a job and quit when he only has a two dollar saw to cut planks with while there are forty dollar saws on the market.  If getting from one place to another is the whole desideratum, then a 1911 is fully as good as a 1928 Rolls.  Some day I hope you will read the life of Pasteur.  No man who ever lived did more to revolutionize the outer world and the world of the intellect — he was a very great genius and he actually changed the conditions of life and our understanding of it.  When you read his biography, observe the materials that comprised his laboratory.  A little room in a barn.  A few cans to hold solutions, a simply microscope so faulty that the veterinarian who takes care of my dog would throw it away, a handful of candles and an oil lamp, some glasses such as my mother used for jellies (which by the way she was able to preserve because of what Pasteur discovered).  Not much, is it?  The dark room I have brought into the woods so that I can develop pictures is complicated and expensive compared to it.  You probably have a more complicated outfit to take care of the family radio.  But simple as the tools were, they sufficed him for his experiments with ferments — and those led to what one might soundly consider the greatest discovery of all time.  Later, Pasteur had one of the finest laboratories ever made up until then, and in it he made magnificent discoveries; but he never again equalled the first one, which was made with tools we could buy today in Woolworth’s.  Or read about the family physician, Koch, who in his own kitchen, in hours when he wasn’t spraying tonsils, revolutionized the science of bacteriology.  Or Count Rumford, who laid the foundation of modern physics with this equipment: a team of horses, a barrel of water, and an auger.

It isn’t the tools that count: it’s the skill you develop with them.  Not the teachers, but the use you make of them.  You want the best you can get of course, and therefore you want to go to the best college open to you.  But what happens once you get there depends entirely on you.  Any teacher on earth will bore you, and any subject, if you are willing to be bored, if you inwardly challenge him to interest you.  But if you are wise, if you really want to get out of life the pleasures and compensations that an education can afford you, you will disregard the teacher except as a tool.  Find out what larger tools you want.  Take the courses that will make them available to you.  And then use the minor tool, the teacher, to the full extent of your ability.  I assure you that you won’t anywhere find many college teachers who are actually unfit for their jobs.  You may of course, but if you think you have, be at first suspicious of your own judgment — always a desirable habit of mind to cultivate —  and consider that experts that know rather more about it than you have passed on his fitness.  If you become finally convinced that he is unfit, then drop him cold, without reproaching him or felling superior, and move your efforts elsewhere, to some place where they can be made fruitful.  Don’t for God’s sake pride yourself on having exposed a bore —  that is perhaps the easiest accomplishment in the world, and nothing to be proud of.

It might be illuminating now and then to frame to yourself the picture of you in the teacher’s mind.  Teaching, you know, is hard work.  I’ve held a variety of jobs, many of them calling for great physical labor.  But none ever took such energy out of me, not a fourteen hour day in a hay field, not sixteen hours in a saddle roping nervous steers or marching all day with sixty pounds of field equipment and fourteen of rifle, as three class sessions of one hour each.  A teacher is always at the limit of his strength — and he isn’t particularly inspired to do his best for a student when he realizes, as he always does, that that student who knows less than nothing about the subject being taught, is sitting inert before him gently warmed by a specious feeling of superiority, and damning him because he isn’t being brilliant.

. . . . The conclusion of all this is that you’re probably wrong, most of the time, about teachers and subjects being dull, and that, even if you’re right, the fact of their dullness has nothing to do with the question of education.  No pleasure in the world has quite the adventurousness of learning.  But if you are to enjoy it, you must have first the desire to learn.  After that, you must have the courage to learn, and that includes the willingness to be rigorously stern with yourself.  You must be prepared to sacrifice all of your self-esteem and all of the protective devices with which the mind ministers to its own comfort.  You must learn to be humble, which means to count the proved fact, the real thing, the entity that is, as worth far more than any bearing it may have on yourself or your ideas or your prejudices or your emotions or your affections.  And you must be prepared to sacrifice, in order to attain the fact whatever it may cost.  The truth, we have been told, maketh alive.  I think it does make alive those who are daring enough, and hardy enough to seek it out.  But I know that it kills the less fit who purposely or accidentally get in its way —  which is why most people should never set out for it.  The pursuit of truth — or the similitude that in an illusory world seems to be the truth — is the most splendid adventure open to us.  But in order to undertake it one must first be a man.

There are doubtless many things that I should discuss specifically.  I will, if you will suggest which ones you would like me to.  Don’t hesitate to.  You are not likely to say anything that will seem ridiculous.  And don’t consider my time.  I have always plenty of time for such discussions as these.

As for athletics — I should advise you either to do no more than will suffice to keep you in good health and can be made enjoyable, or, if you want to adopt the pseudo-professional career of college athlete, to go to a small college such as Wabash.  In the Big Ten you would probably not be a success anyway — that time has passed when the genuine amateur can be an athlete in the universities, which employ professionals, trained in the rolling mills, frankly as publicity-gatherers.  And the mere effort of trying to keep up with the competition of Slovak professionals would strain you unbearably, rob athletics of all pleasure, and certainly frustrate your efforts to get, incidentally, an education.  The small colleges remain on an amateur basis; you could be in one of them, at one time an athlete, a student, and a gentleman.  In the Big Ten that is quite impossible.

But of course I ought to tell you my own opinion.  I attribute no value to it beyond my own point of view.  It is this: college athletics are the diversions of boys, the intellectually immature, the retarded.  And college students should be men.

[apparently unsigned]

to Robert S. Forsythe

to Robert S. Forsythe  

October 6, 1927

[This letter is apparently incomplete.  Forsythe was planning to write a biographical pamphlet about BDeV in connection with the publication of The House of Sun-Goes-Down, BDeV’s third novel.]

Dear Prof:

A headache, one of the sequelae of that accursed coryza, having made my projected evening on the Comstock Lode impossible, I try to make at least some gain for God by addressing my biographer, though the movement of my mind, barely discernible from that of a mud-dab, will probably bore you so that you cry aloud.

What do you mean, data?  I guess you’d better send me a questionnaire.  You tell me what you want to know and I’ll see that you learn it, though I may asterisk the more actionable portions.  The subject of this sketch was born at Ogden, Utah, January 11, 1897.  I don’t know what else happened in history on that solemn day.  Ancestry mayhap?  Well, my Pa’s Pa came to this country, I think from Milan, though there are also Genoa and Florence connections — it ain’t important — some time before the Civil War, I don’t know when.  The yarn is — I do not vouch for it — that his wife, who was a DeRosa of the ancient house, was the daughter of a count or something of the sort and that the marriage with my Grampa, who came from a military family (what was a military family in Italy, at that time?) was sanctioned only on the condition that the pair would remove themselves permanently from the fatherland which she was disgracing by mingling her seed with that of a commoner.  So runs my aunt’s account, but if God ever made a fool, she’s it — though she was several years older than my Dad, and so knew more of their parents.  Anyway, the old man seems to have had plenty of money, and he made more here —  running commission houses along the Mississippi and Ohio.  He lived at various times at St. Louis, Cairo, and Cincinnati.  He seems to have been (1) a royal old soak, and (2) a realist.  In support of the second, I offer this anecdote, about the only one my dad ever told me about him.  When a rebel raid got to Covington (I’ve never investigated which one — weren’t there two?) and the burghers of Cincinnati were subjected to an impromptu draft to dig fortifications and man them, the old man decided that he didn’t care for glory.  He hid out on them.  But there were rumors running about that he was a rebel sympathizer (and, I suspect, that he had been making a penny or two selling supplies down the river) and they sent out a provost guard to apprehend him.  After some days, or nights, he crept in for food and they nabbed him in the clothes closet clad in one of his wife’s dresses.

Anyway he and his wife died when my dad was very young — I’d say 1867 or thereabout — and my dad and his sister were confided to the church, he being sent to Notre Dame, which ran an infants’ department in those days, and she to St. Mary’s nearby.  There was a considerable estate.  My dad lost it all in a Boom in the West.  He first went west with my aunt and the Mother Superior of the order of Holy Cross nuns, when she went to Utah to establish St. Mary’s Academy in Salt Lake City.  Some day I’ll write a dissertation on the attitude of the Mormons and the Catholics to each other — very interesting.  He never got away again.  My aunt did well for herself, marrying V. H. Coffman, Sheridan’s surgeon-in-chief in Texas after the war and practically that during the war, who went to Omaha, made a vast reputation for himself as a doctor and several millions out of advancing real estate values.

My dad has the finest mind I’ve ever known.  Hanging around Notre Dame so long, he naturally acquired everything in the way of a degree they issued — M.A., M.S., B.A., B.S., Ll.B.  It was before the Ph.D. reached the Middle West, and I never understood why or how he was able to acquire so many seemingly self-cancelling degrees, but he did for I’ve got the diplomas, and though I don’t read much of the Latin I do know that they are real sheepskin — and I’ll be damned forever if mine is.  Dad is, really, a genius, about the only one I’ve ever known.  He had a strong artistic strain, painted well, and when a French artist (I’ve a slight hunch it was Puvis de Chavannes, but have never investigated) came to paint murals in the chapel at N.D., Dad became his protégé and helped on them.  He wanted to be a painter but my aunt and the Mother Superior promptly killed that — for, I blush to confess it, there are Catholic puritans, and my aunt had a gentility complex.  Then he wanted to go to Columbia and study law, but the two of them killed that.  He was, and is, a mathematical wizard, sorcerer, necromancer.  He taught math at N.D. for a year or so, and I’ve thought that that was the life he should have kept to, failing the others, for he would have enjoyed the quiet and the intellectual surroundings and would have made a great, though captious, teacher.  I have a letter from the chief of the Bureau of Standards, saying that he (Dad) taught him all the math he knows.  For years engineers came to him from all over the West to have their insoluble problems solved for them.  I’ve seen him clear up, in less than an hour, a maze of miscalculations that had stalled the whole engineering force of a transcontinental railroad for thirty days.  He must have earned a million dollars in expert’s fees in his time — and never charged a cent of it.  He’s that way.  He threw away one-third of the Silver King mine (Sunrise Queen) because he thought there should be honor in national politics, the damned idiot.  He located one of the richest Portland cement deposits in the country (for he is also a mineralogist and assayer) but he never went to the trouble of doing anything about it, and he has cursed the men who did for thieves, all his life — for he is very bitter and a complete misanthrope, and he believes that it is dishonorable for one to make money where he has scorned to do so.  All the other abstractors in Utah are corrupt, you understand, because he is still charging the fees he set in 1900.  He charges the Sugar Trust precisely the same fee he charges some meek little widow who wants a deed drawn up, with the difference that he will end the Trust a bill, five or six years after the statute of limitations has operated on the account.

Well, when he had blown the family pile in boom lands, he went to work for the UP.  I never knew just what he did.  He was a train dispatcher, I think.  He acquired, during the strikes of the early Nineties, a conception of laborers and labor unions that accords with his conceptions of all other people.  After a while he became an abstractor of title and has remained one ever since — a tragic waste of such gifts as his, but inevitable when you consider the defeatist philosophy he breathes out at every pore.  It is impossible for me to tell you how good a land-expert he is.  Well, you are a learned man and you can imagine how learned a man can get to be, such a man as my dad, in the insanely complex land-titles of the West, with their Spanish grants, a dozen different kinds of U.S. patents, squatters’ rights belatedly recognized by the courts, and above all the mining law in its half-Spanish, half-Vigilante intricacy.  He has had, from the first, magnificent offers from land companies, banks, etc., all over the West and especially in California, but he has been almost psychopathically resolved to stay on the scene of his failure, surrounded by people he hates, no equal of his ever appearing there.  He could have been Land Commissioner of every state in the West, or, if he did not have a compulsion to insult everyone he talks to, of the national government.  No big bank on the coast, including the Federal Farm Loan bank, will accept any abstract to any land in Weber County unless it has been passed on by him — in fact, none in the state that involves anything but straight-from-patent stuff.  Knowledge of this fiendishly intricate and exact science, I’m sure, has been the one solace of his years.

If you can imagine a combination of Heyst, in Conrad’s Victory, and the Swift who wrote about the Yahoos, you’ve got the secret philosophy of my dad.  I mean, his life has been a terrible tragedy, with my mother the one good thing in it, and he is the bitterest man I’ve ever known.  All men are fools, liars, and knaves, infinitely petty, infinitely noisome, and nothing in life is worth a damn.  His experience has been just that, in ways it would take me too long to describe here.  He himself has the finest honor I’ve ever known, and he has kept it clean at the expense of all the friendships he never formed….And yet he is also the kindest man that ever lived.  He has been poor all his life not because he didn’t make a lot of money (though not one one-thousandth of what he might) but because he has kept alive literally scores of people, broken-down whores, old desert rats that are quite mad, my mother’s enormous family, beggars, poor people, God knows whom.  He would give his shirt to anyone, and has many times, and many people have exploited his benevolence.  In another way, he is a gentleman of the old school, ferociously upright, reactionary, a lover of the classics (which he reads in the original to this day), an unreconstructed states rights Democrat who hated Bryan but voted for him, who despised Roosevelt and who belongs exactly and completely in that simpler day when there were men and principles in politics.  He played a considerable part in the early Democracy in Utah, and especially in the Liberal Party that freed Ogden from the Mormons (see DeVoto, Bernard, “Ogden: The Underwriters of Salvation,” in Aikman, Duncan, The Taming of the Frontier).

My maternal grandfather was, as a young man, converted to Mormonism in, I think, Liverpool, though it may have been London.  He was a laborer in a linseed-oil mill.  He and his newly acquired wife came to this country in one of the Emigration Companies organized by the colonization dept. of the church.  He landed in Boston where he went to work as foreman of a linseed mill in Charlestown.  Later, he went to Brooklyn in the same capacity and there my mother was born, the second child and oldest girl of a family of seven children.  Five other daughters followed her.  Soon there was talk of drafting soldiers instead of getting them as volunteers and if my granddad had been more bellicose than he was he wouldn’t have found any encouragement among the Mormons, who frankly sympathized with the South but weren’t going to shed any of their blood for either side.  His journal merely says that there was no sense in staying east any longer, especially when he could make sure of not being drafted by going West.  (The church encouraged its converts, you understand, to stay east a while and pick up a stake before going to Zion.)  Well, my mother was born in 1861 and was something over a year old when her oldest sister was born in Wyoming in the bed of an emigrant wagon.  Sam — his name was Samuel G. Dye, but he didn’t have anything in common with Sam Bingham — knew nothing about farming, and I may say that damn few Mormon converts of that day ever did, but after letting him drive a freight wagon for some months, the Church directed him to go to Uintah, in Weber Valley, eight miles south of Ogden, and buy a farm from one of the brothers there.  He did so and there he stayed till a year or so before he died in 1925.  He obeyed the church in all things but one and believed in it till his dying day.  He was a perfect peasant, submissive, unimaginative, stolid, industrious, faithful, thorough.  His wife was far finer stuff — the true frontier woman, a type I haven’t tried my hand on yet, though I’ve approached it in some ways with Mrs. Yancey.  All that I’m proud of in my maternal inheritance, and I’m really proud of that whereas I merely accept the paternal (and larger) inheritance, was due to her.  The one disobedience in granddad’s life came when the Bishop of the Uintah ward, seeing that the old man was now sufficiently prosperous to provide each child with a covering though not with underwear or shoes, told him to take a second wife.  The old man got out the horse pistol and drove the bishop off the place, and the subject was not brought up again.  But that’s the real lowdown on polygamy, Prof, on this gilded Oriental luxury and vice we read about.  Oriental luxury, hell, it was damned poverty.

The poverty of those days simply cannot be imagined today.  The kids never had shoes.  The only plaything I ever heard them tell about was an old scoop in which they used to coast down the hills in wintertime.  There was no school — my mother was the only one who got any schooling and she did it by working out in Ogden — there was not the slightest comfort in the house, not even bare necessities for years.  Everyone worked his head off, kids and all.  The railroad buzzed through in ‘69 and improved matters somewhat by hiring the old man as a teamster.  I don’t go into that life here, though it’s tremendously fascinating.  Don’t identify the Dyes with the Binghams, for at least four of the Dyes had real stuff in them.  Some day I’m going to make a novel about them.

Nor need I dwell on the long and important story of my mother’s ill health, though that too makes a novel.  She was a widow with one child when Dad married her in Ogden, 1895 I believe.  She was keeping a rooming-house and supporting two or three of her sisters, who were trying to be dressmakers etc.  Their married life was really noble, which is a word that sits strangely on my lips, and the only happy thing in the life of either one.  She lived to be very proud of me, for, of course, a boy in Harvard who was also a lieutenant in the Army symbolized dizzy grandeurs to her.  She always thought that the poverty in which my dad supported her was the wildest kind of affluence.  It was, to her.  She died in 1919, after a long siege of the sequelae of influenza, and what her death did to me, though interesting to a psychiatrist, does not interest a biographer.

None of my progenitors appears in any of my books, as such.  Whether they have colored them or not, you can judge better than I.  The farm at Blaine in the early CM, though not in the later book, is an idealized version of my grandfather’s farm as I remembered it from my childhood.  The situation is literal to the last syllable.

[The letter breaks off here without signature.  “Sam Bingham” is a character in The House of Sun-Goes-Down.  “Mrs. Yancey” appears in several of BDeV’s short stories; “CM” is his first published novel, The Crooked Mile, 1924.]

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