Bernard DeVoto

Historian and conservationist, 1897-1955

Category: Harper’s

The Third Floor

    The Third Floor

The Easy Chair, Harper’s, March 1952

At intervals I receive a letter which I have never tried to answer for I am not sure I could tune in on its wave length.  I think of it as the same letter for it always says the same things, though various people who do not know each other write it.  It begins as a criticism of the Easy Chair but modulates into a complaint about Harper’s and ends as a lamentation about something entirely different, something for which there is no help.

But let me describe the house I bought a year or so before the war.  It is as big as, seemingly, houses still capable of being lived in can be big only in New England and ugly as they can be only in Cambridge.  It is an Old Cambridge house; it once belonged to a distinguished and celebrated man.  His widow lived in it for years after he died and her heirs sold it to me.  I could not have afforded to buy it except that real estate was badly depressed that year, and of course in Old Cambridge such an interloper as I would never have aspired to own property on Berkeley Street.  But Old Cambridge perished a long time ago.

When I bought the house the only twentieth-century bathroom was on the third floor.  It would be thought antiquated now but there had been some effort to make it convenient and comfortable and that was incongruous, for the rest of the floor was stark and dreary.  It had been finished only in part and that part parsimoniously.  There were only four windows and they were small; they gave little ventilation and admitted little light.  There was just one electric light, the one in the bathroom.  Though the flooring elsewhere in the house was fine oak, much of it parquetry, here it was cheap pine, jagged with splinters and in some places worn through.  The heating system had not been extended to the third floor.

In houses the age of mine throughout greater Boston you can see that same floor; usually, in fact, cheaper and dingier.  It was the servants’ floor.  In the spacious time nearly a century ago Boston’s servants were the surplus virgins of Ireland.  They were fortunate girls; by coming here they raised themselves above their station and were privileged to spend their lives among gentle, cultured people and exquisite possessions.  They went to work for four dollars a month.  It had increased to four dollars a week thirty-five or forty years later when the master, being on the board of trustees, got them a snug place in the Home for the Aged.  The mistress taught them neatness, orderliness, obedience, decorum, and virtuous living.  She supervised their diversions and their reading, to make sure that they were wholesome.  They were free to go to six o’clock Mass on Sunday morning and they had the afternoon hours off one Sunday a month and two Thursdays.  They were permitted to receive friends, of the same sex, on evenings when the family did not need their services and the mistress had approved.  They received them in the kitchen; they spent their free time in the kitchen after the dishes were washed, the table in the breakfast room set, and the beds on the second floor turned down.  They could read by candlelight in their own good warm beds but not for long; the candles were counted.  They must be up betimes and too much leisure, too many candles, too much comfort would encourage slackness.  That was why the steam pipes were not carried to the third floor; besides, the coal bill would have been bigger.  But all day long they could admire the family’s furniture and china, the pictures and the books, and could take pride in the carriages that came to the door and the elegant people who got out of them.

But for the last of these maids at 8 Berkeley Street it had been necessary, at some expense, to put in a bathroom.

The latest variant of my periodic letter begins by mentioning “the beautiful dignified English” that Mr. George William Curtis wrote in the Easy Chair.  The letter usually does begin with a reference to Mr. Curtis or to Mr. William Dean Howells, who also wrote beautiful dignified English in the Easy Chair as, my correspondent points out, as I do not.  He remembers the bound volumes of Harper’s in his father’s study and the boyhood hours he spent reading them.  He learned from Mr. Curtis or Mr. Howells the value of chaste prose, prose unmarred by the neologisms, the vulgarisms, the slang, “the crudities like ‘OK’ and ‘sure’ for ‘surely,’” the bad grammar that he finds everywhere today, even in this once dignified, once chastely written magazine.  The language he is forced to read is, in fact, no longer to be called English; it is a debased dialect.  He wishes that Harper’s had been willing to act as “an English Academy, like the French, to pass judgment on any change or addition of new words to our vocabulary.”  Instead it has basely surrendered to the vulgar.  I was therefore, he says, under a greater obligation to preserve in the Easy Chair the fine English that Mr. Curtis and Mr. Howells wrote for it.  This, assuredly, I have not done; often the Easy Chair is more offensively written than the rest of Harper’s.  I write the debased dialect, I write vulgarly, I write, as the letter before the latest one put it, like a stable boy.

Yet my correspondent acknowledges that Harper’s and I are rather signs of our time than debauchers of it.  “The truth is,” he says, “there are so few cultured people left.”  I am presumably an “educated” man, nearly everyone is nowadays, nearly everyone has been “to a college of some sort” and has acquired a smattering of new ideas and inventions.  But we have no Latin and no Greek, no intellectual discipline, no history and therefore none of the wisdom that history imparts, no reverence for the true or the good, no reasoning power, no ability to perceive the falsity of vulgar errors or the speciousness of popular fallacies.  Indeed, though somehow the vulgarization of America is responsible for the disappearance of cultured people, it may also be that their disappearance, which the spread of college education explains, is responsible for the vulgarization.

Here the letter usually turns from the Easy Chair to some article elsewhere in Harper’s, an article which signalizes the downfall of Harper’s and of the United States.  In the latest variant it was an article that discussed Social Security.  This time the letter writer was a woman but her theme is the constant one, “the way we have drifted into socialism,” as Social Security shows we have done.  She cannot separate that drift from our vulgarity, and she remembers her shock on first perceiving how they were related.  That was when, shortly after Inauguration Day in 1933, she went to a reception for U. S. Senators at the Pan American Building, “of all the crude surroundings and crude people!”  She was the more shocked in that she had but recently returned from France, which, though a democracy, “gives her functions with dignity and elegance.”

Is postwar apathy responsible for our drift into socialism, she wonders, or has some subtler malady made us thoughtless and indifferent?  When she was young every county had its Poor House and Work House, “the latter for those lazy people who would not work to support themselves.”  So every county could enforce proper behavior on the poor, whereas now Washington just hands out the money without inquiring how it is spent.  “I always taught my servants to lay up part of their wages in a savings bank against a rainy day.”  But now women of the servant class scorn to be thrifty.  A waitress will not even save her tips; she regards security in the rainy days of old age as her due.

Since 1933 my correspondent has again traveled much, as she always did.  Egypt and Greece are fine places to spend the winter in, South Africa was intensely interesting, South America is always a delight, and the Orient is fascinating.  But she always feels a violent shock when she comes home: always we have sunk deeper into the morass.  The morass of vulgarity and socialism.  Social Security is, as Mr. Curtis might have put it, the payoff.  It has killed self-reliance and initiative.  It has poisoned us; the United States is “apparently so prosperous but is so rotten at the core.  The five-day week and forty-hour week will cause our downfall.  To become great we worked all day and six days, and laid by for our old age.”  But now everyone is recklessly spending money.  Everyone has an automobile.   Everyone has radio and television, which are turning us into morons.  And where, my correspondent asks, where will all this have taken us in another fifty years?  This scandalous, appalling idea that people should retire at sixty-five! — “the age should be extended to seventy years.”

I need hardly say that this depravity began when Roosevelt, of whom one does not care to speak as President Roosevelt or Mr. Roosevelt, “gave the green light to labor.”  The unions “have become so strong that they will take over the government unless someone with cold clear judgment and courage gets the Presidency or is put in a leading position.”  Those last seven words have what Mr. Howells might have called a dying fall and I have heard it before.  Not long before Inauguration Day of 1933 various trustees of servants’ savings accounts who had embezzled them to trade in the futures of gaseous equities were crying out, not coldly but perhaps courageously, to be saved by someone who might be put in a leading position.

Why, madam, in the Centennial Issue, the editor of  Harper’s and Mr. Elmer Davis and I all addressed ourselves to this matter.  All three of us were remembering those bound volumes of Harper’s.  They were in my father’s house too, though since he was a poor man the room they were kept in was not called a study.  I read Mr. Curtis and Mr. Howells when I was a boy: I cannot plead ignorance of the tradition I have betrayed.  But though I wish I could write as well as Mr. Curtis and Mr. Howells I would not care to write like them.  They were of their times and wrote for them; and, as you say, their times were not ours, which I must write for.  I like the crudities of today’s prose that strike your ears so harshly; they are from living speech.  I would hope to get some of the currency of that speech, some of its liveliness, some of its rhythm and accent, into the prose I offer to readers, who for all I know may be having Harper’s bound for their children.  I think that Mr. Curtis and Mr. Howells would not want to act as an Academy for this generation’s idiom and would not want their prose to be a mold which their successor’s must fit.  They would ask him, I think, to write workmanlike prose, which they did.  They would ask him, I am certain, to keep the Easy Chair free of vulgarity — the vulgarity not of expressions like “OK” and “sure” but of idea.  Such vulgarity as the idea that the United States is rotten at the core because A will not gladly work six twelve-hour days a week so that B can find Egypt a pleasant place to winter in.

If I have betrayed their tradition it is not by writing the vernacular of my time but, conceivably, by failing to wade as deep into the morass as, if they had found themselves in that time, they might have done.  My correspondent has forgotten their biographies.  Mr. Howells championed uncultivated people, quite poor people in fact, and defended anarchists.  He was a professing socialist.  Though he had lived in Cambridge (just off Berkeley Street) when it was Old Cambridge, he wrote the Easy Chair in the service of the very drift that has acquainted my correspondent with despair.  No one ever respected culture more than he did but in an age when cultured people were much more numerous than they are now he saw some tendencies which, he said with the most violent emphasis, must be reversed.  By whatever means.

Mr. Curtis was reared a communist and once solemnly forswore allegiance to the United States on the ground that, though apparently so prosperous, it was rotten at the core.  Part of the rot was the educational system: it was turning out morons, especially economic and social morons.  Its philosophy was a puritanism very favorable to the cultured class: it taught some people that to labor from the rising up to the going down of the sun was virtuous, and it taught some that to possess the fruit of other people’s labor was righteous.  The United States of his time, he said, killed self-reliance and initiative, making the poor submissive while those who exploited their submission sold them for a pair of shoes.  Looking about him, he found vulgarity on all sides.  Uncultured people were vulgar in their willingness to accept so small a fraction of the wealth their labor created.  Cultured people were vulgar in exhorting sixty-five-year-old workers to stick it out another five years so that the tax for the Poor House and the Work House would not inconvenience their betters.  I do not know what he would have said about the idea that it is reckless to spend money you have earned but admirable to spend money someone else has earned, that a gentlewoman may properly tour the Orient on an inherited income but a waitress is bringing about our downfall if she buys a radio.  I do know that year by year in the Easy Chair he told the waitress that her birthright included a radio and much more.  Of the system that had her laying by money for someone else’s sunny days, he said that it must be changed.  By whatever means.

My radical predecessors meant just what they said: by whatever means.  If my correspondent will look again at her files of Harper’s, she will find reported and advocated there the process by which, happily, it was kept from being by whatever means.  In her girlhood the magazine was not speaking for the culture she laments as vanished but for another native culture that had self-reliance and initiative of a different kind.  For a hundred and two years it has spoken for those who thought American society able and obliged to achieve a very considerable portion of what Mr. Curtis and Mr. Howells desired, thought it could be achieved by implicit means, and foresaw no downfall.  That belief was natural to the people whom, like my predecessors, I have called the natural readers of Harper’s.

They believed that it was no more wrong of the waitress than of the gentlewoman to want a becoming coiffure and a good-looking dress.  They believed that leisure and the satisfactions of life were no less good, no less comely, for the unlettered than for the cultured.  The seventy-two-hour week, they believed, made leisure impossible and stunted one’s capacity to enjoy the satisfactions of life.  They believed that a shorter work week would increase the satisfactions open to people and their capacity to enjoy them, and that it would also increase the wealth which the hours of work produced.  If it did, they believed, not only crude persons but the gentle as well would be better off.  Would live in a better country, a United States less likely to rot at the core.  They believed that the rich natural endowment of the United States could be so managed that it would produce a more widespread affluence — and, yes, even a more widespread freedom to spend money.  If some people spent money for radios and automobiles, they would not think the expenditure sinful.  Perhaps others would take a trip to South America.

They did not profess to foresee how much of this vision could be achieved.  They were sure, however, that any part of it would be an improvement on the village Poor House and Work House.  If it meant that they must themselves throw in with the vulgar, OK.  If it meant disturbing the serenity of the cultured, sure.  If it meant the fading out of elegance, too bad but so be it.  They believed that what they knew was possible was more desirable than elegance.  So they committed themselves, and the United States, to their belief.  There was no need to tear the house down, they said, but remodeling was called for and we had better get about it.

It happened just about as they said it would and, madam, if you will look back through Harper’s you can see it happening.  Mr. Curtis was writing the Easy Chair when it began to happen, and his successor tells you that that beginning, which cannot perhaps be precisely dated but which has had much less celebration than it deserves, was one of the decisive turning points in the history of the world.  That a very great deal of it had happened by the time Mr. Howells took over the Easy Chair is attested by 8 Berkeley Street, where at just about that time a bathroom was installed for the servants.  Mr. Howells’ successor tells you that we now have the advantage of hindsight: looking back, we can see as they could not that it was certain to happen.  There was bound to come a time when a candle, a tin washbasin, and a chamberpot would not suffice for the third floor.

New England: There She Stands

    New England: There She Stands
 Harper’s, March 1932

In August 1927 I resigned my assistant professorship and undertook to support myself by what Ring Lardner has probably called the pen.  Implicit in the change was a desire to live in some more agreeable community than the suburb of Chicago that had been my residence for five years.  Since I carried my pen with me, I might live in any place on earth that pleased me.  I might have gone to Montparnasse or Bloomsbury, Florence or the Riviera or Cornwall.  I might, with respectable precedent, have chosen New Orleans or San Francisco.  I might have selected one of the Westchester or Long Island towns in which writers are commoner than respectable men.  I didn’t.  To the consternation of my friends, I came to Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The choice at once expelled me from a guild to which for eight or nine years I had impeccably belonged, that of the intellectuals who have right ideas about American life.  For, of course, according to those right ideas, New England was a decadent civilization.  It was no longer preëminent in America.  Its economic leadership had failed so long ago that hardly a legend of it remained.  Its intellectual leadership had expired not quite so early perhaps but, nevertheless, long, long ago.  Its spiritual energy, never lovely but once formidable, had been degraded into sheer poison, leaving New England a province of repression, tyranny, and cowardice.  At the very moment of my arrival Mr. Heywood Broun announced that all New England could not muster a half-dozen first-class minds.  Mr. Waldo Frank had explained that nothing was left this people except the slag of Puritanism — gloom, envy, fear, frustration.  He had explored the wasteland and discovered that practically all New England women suffered from neuroses (grounded in the Denial of Life) and contemplated suicide.  Mr. Eugene O’Neill had dramatized a number of Mr. Frank’s discoveries and had added incest to the Yankee heritage.  In short, the guild had constructed another one of those logically invulnerable unities to the production of which it devotes its time.  New England was a rubbish heap of burnt-out energies, suppressed or frustrated instincts, bankrupt culture, social decay, and individual despair.

In the month of my arrival there was a vivid confirmation of those right ideas.  At Charlestown two humble Italians were executed because the ruling class did not like their political beliefs.  The Sacco-Vanzetti case completed the damnation of New England: the right ideas were vindicated.  Well, it helped to focus my ideas about the society to which I was returning.  Six years earlier I had served on a committee which solicited funds for their defense.  I believed them innocent of the crimes for which they were executed, and I held that any pretense of fairness in their trials was absurd.  But several inabilities cut me off from my fraternal deplorers of this judicial murder.  For one thing, I was unable to feel surprise at the miscarriage of justice —  unable to recall any system of society that had prevented it or to imagine any that would prevent it.  I was unable to believe that any commonwealth was or could be much better constituted than New England for the amelioration of a class struggle.  I was unable to believe that any order of society would alter anything but the terms in which social injustice expressed itself.

These inabilities added considerable force to my immediate, private reasons for desiring to live in New England.  The private reasons were very simple: I wanted to use the Harvard College Library.  I liked the way New Englanders leave you alone.  I had lived in the West, the Middle West, the South, and New York, and knew that the precarious income of a writer would assure me more comfort, quiet, and decent dignity in New England than anywhere else in America.  But these personal motives were buttressed by generalization.  As the great case had shown, I profoundly disbelieved in the perfectibility of Society.  Societies, I believed, would not become perfect and could not be made perfect.  The most to be hoped for was that, as a resolution of imponderable forces, as an incidental by-product of temperaments and interests and accidents, a way of living in society might arise that was somewhat better than certain other ways.  And, because I had lived in New England before, I knew that accidental by-products of the Yankee nature had given New England an attractive kind of civilization.  I did not believe in the perfect state but, like Don Marquis, I knew something about the almost-perfect state.  It had somehow begun to be approximated in New England.

Two simple facts had conditioned it.  For one thing, as my former union announced, leadership had departed from New England forever.  That meant, among many other things, that the province was delivered from a great deal of noise and stench and common obscenity which are inseparable from leadership in America.  It meant that the province was withdrawn from competition; and this implied a vast amount of relief, decency, and ease.  But there was something more.  In that fall of 1927 Mr. Ford Madox Ford was writing a book whose title expressed the hopefulness of hundreds of thousands of Kansans, Texans, and Californians: New York Is Not America.  Maybe it isn’t; as an apprentice Yankee I am not interested.  What has been important in the development of the almost-perfect state is that New England is not America.  The road it chose to follow, from the beginning, diverged from the highway of American progress.  By voluntary act the Yankee, whose ancestral religion was based on the depravity of human nature, refrained from a good deal that has become indispensable and coercive in America.  Thus delivered and refraining, there was space for New England to develop the equilibrium whose accidents had produced a species of almost-perfect state.

So Mr. Mencken’s laboriously assembled statistics have recently made clear various superficial ways in which the burnt-out, frustrated, and neurotic province must be called the foremost civilization in These States.  And as I write, Mr. Allen Tate has just explained a difference, not quite clear to me, between regionalism and sectionalism.  I do not quite understand the difference, but I do make out that it’s now orthodox and even virtuous to be sectional….I am encouraged to apply for a union card.  The Yankees and I seem to be in good standing again.


In New England the mills idled and passed their dividends.  The four-per-cents decayed.  The trust funds melted.  Outside, the American empire was conceived, was born, and attained its adolescence.  Its goods and capital overspread the earth.  Detroit was a holy city.  The abolition of poverty drew near, and the empire’s twilight flared in murky scarlet.  Then it was October, 1929, and midnight….Novel paragraphs worked their way into a press that had long ignored the section it now reported.  Business was sick, but New England business, we heard, wasn’t quite so sick.  Panic possessed America, but New England wasn’t quite so scared.  The depression wasn’t quite so bad in New England, despair wasn’t quite so black, the nightmare wasn’t quite so ghastly.  What the press missed was its chance for a pretty study in comparatives.  How, indeed, should hard times terrify New England?  It had had hard times for sixty years –  in one way or another for three hundred years.  It had had to find a way to endure a perpetual depression, and had found it.  It began to look as though the bankrupt nation might learn something from New England.

Some time ago I drove over December roads to the village in northern Vermont where I spend my summers.  Naturally, I called on Jason, who is my neighbor there.  Evergreen boughs were piled as high as the windows outside his house; the first snow was on them, and its successors would make them an insulation that would be expensive in the city.  Piles of maple and birch logs had grown up in back of the shed; they would increase through early January, for they are the fuel that Jason burns all year round.  Under the floor of another shed was a pit that held potatoes, cabbages, and beets.  Emma, who is Jason’s wife, had filled her pantry with jars of home-grown corn, string beans, carrots, and a little fruit.  She was making bread and doughnuts when I arrived.  We had them for dinner, with cabbage, some of the string beans, and a rabbit stew.  Jason had shot a couple of rabbits, and Emma explained how welcome they were.  They didn’t get much meat, she said; the deer Jason killed a few weeks before had been a life-saver.

I stayed the night at Jason’s, slept on a feather bed, ate a breakfast which included doughnuts and pumpkin pie, and came away with a dazed realization that I had visited a household which was wholly secure.  There was no strain here; no one felt apprehensive of the future.  Jason lives far below “the American standard,” yet he lives in comfort and security.  He is so little of an economic entity that he can hardly be classed as what the liberal journals call a “peasant”; yet more than anyone else I know, he lives what those same periodicals call “the good life.”  He has lived here for fifty years and his forebears for sixty more, coming from more southerly portions of Vermont where the breed had already spent a century.  During that time the same liberty, tenacity, and success have formed a continuity of some importance.

Jason owns about seventy acres of hillside, sloping down to an exquisite lake.  He considers that, in view of this improvements, he would have to get two thousand dollars for the place if he were to sell it.  Part of it is pasture for his horse and cow.  Part of it is garden; enormous labor forces the thin soil to produce the vegetables that Emma cans.  The rest is wood lot, for fuel, and sugar bush for Jason’s one marketable crop.  The maples produce, in syrup and sugar, an annual yield of from one hundred and fifty to two hundred dollars — about one half of all the cash that Jason handles in a year.  A few days of labor on the roads bring in a little more, and during the summer he does odd jobs for such aliens as I.  His earnings and his one crop bring him perhaps four hundred dollars a year, seldom or never more, but frequently less.  On such an income, less than a fifth of what Mr. Hoover’s Department of Commerce estimated to be the minimum capable of supporting an American family, Jason has brought up his children in health, comfort, and contentment.

There are thousands like Jason on the hillside farms of Vermont, New Hampshire, and western Massachusetts, and there have been for three centuries.  They have never thrown themselves upon the charity of the nation.  They have never assaulted Congress, demanding a place at the national trough.  Wave after wave of clamor, prayer, and desperation has crossed the farmsteads of the midland, where the thinnest soil is forty feet deep and the climate will grow anything; but from this frigid north, this six-inch soil sifted among boulders, has come no screaming for relief.  The breed has clung to its uplands, and solvency has been its righteousness and independence has been its pride.  The uplands have kept their walls plumb, their barns painted, their farms unmortgaged.  Somehow, out of nothing at all, they have taxed themselves for the invisible State.  The district nurse makes her rounds.  The town roads are hard.  The white schoolhouse sends its products to the crossroads high school and on to the university.  The inspector calls and tests the family cow; State bulletins reach the mailbox at the corner.  The crippled and the superannuated are secure.

One of Mr. Mencken’s incidental revelations provides a succinct, if vulgar, summary of the statistics that verify it; if you want to be listed in Who’s Who in America your first step should be to get yourself born in Vermont, and three of the next five best birthplaces are New England States.  More briefly still: here are people who have mastered the conditions of their life.  With natural resources the poorest in the Union, with an economic system incapable of exploitation, in q geography and climate that make necessary for survival the very extreme of effort, they have erected their State and made it lovely.  They have forfeited the wealth and advertisement and clamorous turmoil of other sections, but they have preserved freedom and security.  The basis is men who must make their way as individuals, but the communism of the poor exist also.  If Jason falls ill he will be cared for; if his one crop fails his neighbors will find food for his family; if he dies his widow (who will never be a pauper) will find the town putting at her disposal a means of making her way….I cannot imagine a change in the social order that would much alter this way of life.  I cannot imagined a perfected state that could improve upon it.

These were hard times, I said to Jason.  He agreed, ramming cheap tobacco into his corncob pipe.  Yes, hard times.  Nothing to do, though, but pull in your belt and hang on.  Some folks thought it might be good to move ten or fifteen miles north, over the line into Canady.  But on the whole, no — not for Jason.  He and his pa had made a living from this place for seventy years.  He couldn’t remember any times that hadn’t been hard.  He went into a discussion of Congress, so much more intelligent, so much less deluded by wishfulness than those I listen to in literary speak-easies in New York.  This lapsed, and he began to talk at his ease, with the undeluded humor of his breed.  It is the oldest humor in America, a realism born of the granite hills, a rock-bottom wisdom.  He was an un-American anomaly as 1931 drifted to its close in panic and despair — a free man, self-reliant, sure of his world, unfrightened by the future.

He has what America, in our time and most of its past, has tragically lacked — he has the sense of reality.  The buffalo coat he wore when we looked at his sugar bush is in its third generation in his family, having had I do not know how many owners before it strangely reached New England from the plains.  I do not know how long it is since Emma bought a union suit, but I am sure that need dictated its purchase, not fashion or advertising.  Here are rag rugs she has made from garments whose usefulness was ended; here are carpets that were nailed long years on her grandmother’s floor.  The pans above her sink date from no ascertainable period; she and her daughters will use them a long time yet, and no salesman will ever bring color into her kitchen.  Jason has patched and varnished this rocker, and Emma has renewed its cushions innumerable times.  The trademark on Jason’s wagon is that of a factory which has not existed for forty years.  Jason does not know how many shafts he has made for it; he has patched the bed, bent iron for the running gear, set new tires on the wheels perhaps ten times.  Now he contemplates putting the bed and shafts on the frame of an old Ford and will move his loads on rubber tires.

A squalid picture, a summary of penny-pinching poverty that degrades the human spirit?  Not unless you have been victimized by what has never deluded Jason and Vermont.  To this breed, goods, wares, chattels, the products of the industrial age, have been instrumentalities of living, not life itself.  Goods are something which are to be used; they are not the measure of happiness and success.  While America has roared through a prosperity based on a conception of goods as wealth-begetting waste, while it has pricked itself to an accelerating consumption that has progressively lowered quality, while its solvency has depended on a geometrical progression of these evils, the granite uplands have enforced a different standard on their inhabitants.  Debts, these farmers know, must eventually be settled.  It would be pleasant to wear silk stockings, but it is better to pay your taxes.  It would be nice to substitute a new car for the 1922 model that came here at third hand, but it is better to be free of chattel mortgages.  It would be nice to have steak for supper and go to Lyndonville for the movie.  But at four hundred a year and with the granite knowledge that one must not live beyond one’s means –  well, rabbits are good food, and from this cannily sited kitchen window sunset over the lake is good to look at.

Neatness, my guild assures us, proceeds from a most repulsive subliminal guilt.  Maybe; but these white farmhouses with their scrubbed and polished interiors are very lovely.  Also the peasants are the enemies of beauty in our day, but somehow their houses invariably stand where the hills pull together in natural composition and a vista carries the eye onward past the lake.  Their ancestral religion wold them that the world is a battleground whereon mankind is sentences to defeat — an idea not inappropriate to the granite against which they must make their way.  By the granite they have lived on for three centuries, tightening their belts and hanging on, by the sense of what is real.  They are the base of the Yankee commonwealth, and America, staring apprehensively through fog that may not lift in this generation, may find their knowledge of hard things more than a little useful.


Since we do not believe in perfect states or in the beautiful simplicities, composed by right ideas, it would be silly to expect the Yankee to be a complete realist.  He has ideas about himself which are almost as romantic as those the intellectuals have developed about him.  He considers himself a cool, reticent person, dwelling in iron restraint, sparse of speech, intensely self-controlled; whereas he has no reserve whatever, indulges his emotions as flagrantly as a movie queen, and at every level, from the upland farms to the Beacon Street clubs, talks endlessly, shrilly, with a springflood garrulity that amazes and appalls this apprentice, who was born to the thrift of Rocky Mountain talk.  He thinks that his wealthy burghers are an aristocracy, and the burghers, who share that illusion, consider their mulishness a reasoned, enlightened conservatism of great philosophical value to the State.  He thinks that his bourgeoisie possesses a tradition of intelligence and a praiseworthy thirst for culture; whereas it has only a habit of joining societies and a masochistic pleasure in tormenting itself with bad music which it does not understand and worse books which it cannot approve.  He thinks that he is set apart in lonely pride to guard the last pure blood in America: whereas he has absorbed and assimilated threescore immigrations in three centuries.  Recognizing his social provinciality, he thinks that he is, nevertheless, an internationalist of the intellect; whereas his mind has an indurated parochialism that makes a Kansan’s or a Virginian’s seem cosmopolitan.  That is what is important about his mind.

Nevertheless he is fundamentally a realist, and these illusions are harmonious in the Yankee nature.  Accidental byproducts of that nature, of these qualities as well as more substantial ones, have produced the Yankee commonwealth, the almost-perfect state.

Let us begin with Cambridge’s dead end streets, which Mr. Lewis Mumford was recently commending.  Mr. Mumford, who agitates for the perfected municipalities of the future, had been looking at Brattle Street, Concord Avenue, and the little streets that wander off them but end without joining them together.  He believes that cities must be planned so that quiet, safety, and seclusion will be assured their inhabitants.  In the automobile age, highways must be constructed for through traffic, while the streets on which people live must receive only the necessary traffic of their own cars and those which make deliveries to their houses.  Our little dead end streets accomplish that purpose perfectly.  They are safe and quiet and they seem to Mr. Mumford a praiseworthy anticipation of the machine age.  They aren’t that, of course.  Their landscaped crookedness represents the wanderings of Cambridge cows and the strife of Yankee heirs when estates were settled.  They come to dead ends not because a prophet foresaw Henry Ford, but because some primordial Cambridge individualist put up a spite fence or fought a victorious court action against the condemnation of his property.  Similarly, though modern highways allow locust-swarms of cars to approach Boston, its downtown streets will never experience Fifth Avenue’s paralysis.  Yankee mechanics, going homeward across marshes, laid them down; a convulsion of nature could not straighten or widen them, and accident anticipated Mr. Stuart Chase’s omnipotent engineer who would plan the almost-perfect city.

I cannot praise some aspects of the Yankee city.  Such ulcerous growths of industrial New England as Lowell, Lawrence, Lynn, Pawtucket, Woonsocket, and Chelsea seem the products of nightmare.  To spend a day in Fall River is to realize how limited were the imaginations of poets who have described hell.  It is only when one remembers Newark, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, West Philadelphia, Gary, Hammond, Akron, and South Bend that this leprosy seems tolerable.  The refuse of industrialism knows no sectional boundaries and is common to all America.  It could be soundly argued that the New England debris is not so awful as that elsewhere –  not so hideous as upper New Jersey or so terrifying as the New South.  It could be shown that the feeble efforts of society to cope with this disease are not so feeble here as elsewhere.  But realism has a sounder knowledge: industrial leadership has passed form New England, and its disease will wane.  Lowell will slide into the Merrimac, and the salt marsh will once more cover Lynn — or nearly so.  They will recede; the unpolluted sea air will blow over them, and the Yankee nature will reclaim its own.

Consider one civic flowering of the Yankee nature on a lowly level.  The Yankee has always done his major sinning in distant places.  A century ago waterside dives across the world welcomed the roistering of Salem fo’c’sle hands, who in due time came back and married Prudence or Priscilla and took up a hillside farm, argued conservatively in town meeting, and joined the church.  The righteous-enough have called this hypocrisy.  Still, it made the hillside farms peaceful, and if we must go to New York for our conspicuous sinning to-day, Boston is thereby preserved from speak-easy life.  Do not misunderstand me: the thirsty wayfarer need not suffer, and I shall be happy to supply addresses to visitors.  But there is no place where you can entertain a New Yorker as he entertains you when you visit his home town.  No ritual of introduction and recognition, no transformed brownstone fronts with bars and murals and ten-dollar Clos Ste. Odile and fifteen-dollar Berncasteler Riesling, no stratified social order following the geography of streets and the mechanization of amour.  Boston throws its parties at home.  The loss is perceptible but the gain is tremendous.  Drinking retains the decency, the personality of private hospitality, which is something; and the social implications of the speak-easy do not exist, which is far more.  A city in which there are practically no speak-easies.  A city in which one does not eat and drink or meet one’s friends or conduct one’s love affairs at Jody’s place or Number 47.  A community life conducted without reference to the obligations of speak-easy entertainment….Problems of noise and expense, of stridency and nerve-fag and disintegration, of extravagance and display and impersonality, have been solved by a Yankee trait that avoided creating them.

But take the Yankee nature at a higher level — the sense of the community.  I know a Middle Westerner who, graduating from medical school with distinction, came to Boston to study under a great surgeon.  He has finished his work now and is going to begin practicing.  He considered Chicago but has finally determined upon New York.  The rewards of distinction are highest there.  Not Boston –  oh, not by any means.  Boston fees are ridiculously small, and Boston specialists neglect to capitalize their skill.  They waste time in free clinics, in research laboratories, on commissions for the investigation of poliomyelitis or rheumatic fever or cancer or glaucoma –  all highly commendable for the undistinguished, the rank and file, but very foolish for the truly great, since they may treat millionaires.  My friend will be, when his chief dies, America’s leading surgeon in his specialty.  So he goes to New York –  and, I think, something about the Yankee commonwealth is implicit in that decision….In Chicago a member of my family required the services of a specialist.  The doctor grumbled about treating the family of a college teacher, whose trade proclaimed his income, but there was something about ethics and the Hippocratic oath and so he took the case.  He did his work hastily, botched the job and, after inquiring the exact figures of my income, charged me one fourth of a year’s salary and said he would write off the rest  to charity.  So in due time a Boston specialist had to do the job over again and spend more than a year in treatments which, because his predecessor had bungled, required close individual attention and the long, costly technique of the laboratory.  His fee, though my income had quadrupled, was one fifth of the Chicago man’s and, because the case was a problem rather than a potential fee, he performed the cure.  He had the obstinacy of Boston doctors, the conservative notion that medicine is a profession of healing and not an investment trust.

The Yankee doctors are citizens of an invisible state.  The drug list of the Massachusetts General Hospital is about one fourth as long as that of the Presbyterian Hospital in New York; medicine has its fads as often as architecture, and the Yankee mulishness avoids fads,  But the researches go on, and students come from all over the world, and somehow these obstinate physicians fail to lose their preëminence though they lag mightily behind in the possession of Rolls-Royces.  Citizenship shows up in them, and New England witnesses what America has not seen for a long time — the wrath of doctors, spoken in public places, against abuses.  Yankee foresight carries them into the slums, where they lose money but forestall plague and, incidentally, relieve suffering.  Yankee geniality makes them friends of their patients, and we of the little bourgeoisie find that the terror of disease is allayed for us so far as may be….I smoke a cigarette with the pediatrician who, st five dollars instead of twenty-five, pays a monthly visit to my infant son.  I mention group medicine, now much discussed, and he explodes.  “Hell!  If I find a tumor in your gut [the Yankee tang] shall I send you to Smith because he’s the best gut-opener in Boston, or shall I send you to Jones because he’s in my office?”  A problem in sociology receives its Yankee dismissal, and the pediatrician departs for the East End, where he manages a foundation that promotes the respectable adoption of foundlings.  It keeps him from the golf course, and his waistline thicken; but he must maintain his citizenship in the Yankee commonwealth.  Or my furnace man develops a queer pain, and I send him to the head physician of a great hospital.  He is kept in an observation ward, where for some weeks all the resources of the laboratory are applied.  Finally an operation is performed, and he goes to a camp in Maine to recuperate.  No medical man receives a cent, and the hospital fees are paid from a fund created in 1842 to care for the moral welfare of canal-boat men.  He will continue to tend furnaces for a long time yet.  But what, I wonder, would be done for him in a perfect state — Mr. Swope’s or Mr. Hoover’s or Comrade Stalin’s — that the almost-perfect state has failed to do?

It is this Yankee citizenship that has created, upon the granite base, the Yankee commonwealth.  Our governments are corrupt — not uniquely in America or history — but somehow they govern.  Racketeers exist but somehow that do not take over our municipalities.  Fortunes are made from city contracts, but somehow our garbage is collected and our streets are swept.  Sojourn in Philadelphia or New York and then come back to Boston — see order in place of anarchy, clean brick and stone in place of grime, washed asphalt in place of offal.  Babies starve in Yankee slums ad rachitic children play around the statues of our great, but not so many nor so hopelessly.  The citizens have no hope of perfection, and Mr. Hoover’s abolition of poverty found few adherents among them; but as Mr. Mencken’s figures show, they have made a start.  Something toward a solution of the problem of how to,you’ve in decent cities has been here worked out….Another friend of mine, a lawyer, possesses a divided self that beautifully exhibits the Yankee commonwealth.  Professionally he creates trusts for the protection of his clients’ heirs, and conscientiously forbids the trustees to invest in the securities of Massachusetts corporations.  State socialism, he is sure, has fatally encroached on their profits.  Then, the business day over, he enthusiastically pursues his lifelong avocation — agitating for labor and pension laws that will more drastically cut down those profits.  Clearly, this is not Utopia, but it is a citizenship, and it glances toward the almost-perfect state.


Drive southeastward from the Vermont uplands toward Boston, through a countryside where the white steeples rise across the not accidental vistas of village greens.  It is here that, while the empire roared away elsewhere, the Yankee learned the equilibrium of his estate.  Here is the New England town, the creation of the Yankee nature, which exists as something the empire has forever passed by.  There are no booms here.  The huntsmen are up in Chicago, and they are already past to-day’s high-pressure drive in Kansas City, but in New England who can ever share an expectation of bonanza again?

Here are the little mills that squatted beside a waterfall and for some generations sent out their trickles of stockings and percales.  Manchester and New Bedford, Lowell and Lawrence absorbed them in the end, and now these places go down in turn before the New South.  So the little mills close up; shreds of belting hang from their pulleys, and bats emerge from windows that will never again be glazed.  Dover is only a pleasant place which had an Indian attack once and has a handful of beautiful houses now.  Orford ships no products southward, but the loveliest mall in America drowses under its elms, undisturbed when the wind brings across the Connecticut the whistles of the railroad it would not suffer to cross its borders.  The last tall masts have slipped out of Salem Harbor, and Hawthorne’s ghost is more peaceful in the Custom House than ever those living ghosts were among whose dusty papers he found n initial bound with tarnished gold.  Here are fifty inlets once resonant with hammers pounding good white oak, once uproarious when new vessels slipped down the ways.  They are marshes now, and the high streets of Portsmouth and Newburyport remember a life once rich in the grain and wholly free of the repressions Puritans are supposed to have obeyed.  And down their high streets will never come a procession of real estate men, promoters, financiers, and fly-by-nights.

America is rachitic with the disease of Bigness, but New England has built up immunity against the plague.  It is impossible to imagine Concord tattooing its lowlands with white stakes, calling itself “Villa Superba: The Sunlight City of Happy Kiddies and Cheap Labor,” and loosing a thousand rabid salesmen to barter lots on a Vista Paul Revere or a Boulevard de Ye Olde Inne to its own inhabitants or suckers making the grand tour.  There have been factories, of a kind, as Easthampton and Deerfield for a hundred years, but their Chambers of Commerce will never defile their approaches with billboards inviting the manufacturer of dinguses to “locate here and grow up with the livest community in God’s country.”  Pomfret or Tiverton or Pittsfield will never set itself a booster’s ideal, “One Hundred Thousand by 1940.”  Bigness, growth, expansion, the doubling of last year’s quota, the subdivision of this year’s swamps, the running round in circles and yelling about Progress and the Future of Zenith — from these and from their catastrophic end, New England is delivered for all time.

Here, if you have a Buick income, you do not buy a Cadillac to keep your self-respect.  You buy a Chevrolet and, uniquely in America, keep it year after year without hearing that thrift is a vice, a seditious, probably Soviet-inspired assault on the national honor.  The superannuation of straight-eights and the shift from transparent velvet to suède lace are not imperatives.  You paint the Bulfinch front; you do not tear it down.  You have your shoes pegged while the uppers remain good.  You patch the highway; you do not rip it out….The town abides.  No Traveler’s Rest with an arcade of self-service hot dogs and powder puffs will ever be reared on the Common.  The white steeples rise at the far end, and the white houses of the little streets that lead into it are buried in syringa and forsythia, hollyhocks, Dorothy Perkinses, and the blooms of rock gardens.  Soap, paint, and Yankee fanaticism have made an orderly loveliness not to be found elsewhere in America.  The town is beautiful, and something more.  Boys toss baseballs on the Common, infants tan themselves in safety, dogs conduct their tunneling and exploration.  The Common and its tributary streets are quiet.  Beneath the exterior, an efficient organization deals with the problems of the community; the townsman contributes his share but mainly he lives here, uncrowded.  There is time; there is room; there is even, of a kind, peace.  A society is here founded on granite.  No one supposes it is perfect.  It is not an experiment; it was not planned by enthusiasts or engineers or prophets of any kind.  But out of the Yankee nature and the procession of blind force somehow dignity and community decency were here evolved.

The New England town, that is, has adjusted itself to the conditions of its life.  It is a finished place.  Concord was Concord when Newark was a pup, the song almost says; and Shirley will be Shirley when Great Neck is swallowed up.  The butcher sells meat to his townsmen; he does not attempt exports to the Argentine.  The turning-mill makes cupboards and cabinets for local demand; it does not expand into the gadget business, and so throws no families on the town when next year’s fashion demands gadgets of aluminum.  Mr. Stuart Chase went to Mexico to find a community whose trades supported one another in something like security.  He found it, but recorded his hope that some day the Mexicans would have dentists and bathtubs.  In our imperfect way, we could have shown Mr. Chase his desire.  The butcher’s boy grows up to be a butcher, not a merchant prince; and meanwhile his teeth are taken care of and he bathes in porcelain, though while the white tub continues to hold water he will not bathe in something mauve or green that reproduces motifs from a Medici tomb.  He has no hope of unearned increment when a hundred thousand shall have come to Shirley in 1940, but he has sunlight and clean air, quiet, a kind of safety, and leisure for his friends.  You will not find him in Los Angeles  — and the perfect state could offer him nothing that is denied him in Shirley.

New England is a finished place.  Its destiny is that of Florence, or Venice, not Milan, while the American empire careens onward toward its unpredicted end.  The Yankee capitalist will continue to invest in that empire, while he can, so that the future will have its echoes from the past, and an occasional Union Stockyards, Burlington, or United Fruit will demonstrate that his qualities are his own.  But he, who once banked for the nation, will never bank for it again.  The Yankee manufacturer will compete less and less with the empire.  He will continue those specialties for which his skills and geography best fit him, but mainly he will be a part of his section’s symbiosis.  To find his market in his province, to sustain what sustains him, to desire little more, to expect even less — that is his necessity, but it implies the security of being able to look with indifference on the mirage that lures the empire on.  The section becomes an economic system, a unity; it adjusts itself in terms of its own needs and powers.

The desire of growth and domination is removed from it — and with the desire is removed also their damnation.  It will tranquilly, if aloofly, observe whatever America in the future does and becomes, but it is withdrawn from competition in that future.  Almost alone in America, it has tradition, continuity.  Not a tradition that everyone can admire, not a continuity of perfection, but something fixed and permanent in the flux of change and drift.  It is the first American section to be finished, to achieve stability in the conditions of its life.  It is the first old civilization, the first permanent civilization in America.

It will remain, of course, the place where America is educated, for the preëminence of its schools and colleges must increase with stability, and the place which America visits for recreation and for intangible values of finished things.  It will be the elder glory of America, free of smoke and clamor, to which the tourist comes to restore his spirit by experiencing quiet, ease, white steeples, and the release that withdrawal from an empire brings.  It will be the marble pillars rising above the nation’s port.

Or if not, if the world indeed faces into darkness, New England has the resources of the Yankee nature.  They are not only the will to tighten one’s belt and hang on.  They contain the wisdom of three centuries whose teaching was, finally, defeat.  They contain the dynamics of a religion which verified experience by proclaiming that man is depraved, that his ways are evil, and that his end must be eternal loss.  Religion develops into the cynicism of proved things, and the Yankee has experienced nothing but what he was taught to expect.  Out of this wisdom, in his frigid climate, against the resistance of his granite fields, he built his commonwealth.  It was a superb equipment for his past; it may not be a futile one for our future.

Due Notice to the FBI

    Due Notice to the FBI

(The Easy Chair, Harper’s, October 1949)

The quietly dressed man at your door shows you credentials that identify him as Mr. Charles Craig of the Bureau of Internal Revenue.  He says he would like to ask you a few questions about one of your neighbors.  The Harry S. Deweys are friends of yours, aren’t they?  Yes, you tell him.  How long have you known them?  Ever since they moved to Garden Acres eight or nine years ago — or was it seven? no, thirteen.  Mr. Craig says the Deweys moved into their house June 1, 1935, which makes it fourteen years.  By the way, have they got a mortgage on it?  Sure, you say, we all have.  Harry didn’t buy till about eight years ago.  He is paying it off on a monthly basis; must be down to a couple of thousand by now.

Mr. Dewey’s son graduated from Yale this spring? Mr. Craig asks.  Yes, you say.  The daughter — she’s at Vassar?  Yes, she’s a sophomore.  And the other boy? — Exeter?  Yes, first form.  Mr. Dewey bought a new car last year, a Buick?  Yes, he’d driven that Chevrolet for nine years.  Who is his tailor?  Gummidge?  Pretty high-priced firm.  Does Mrs. Dewey spend a lot on clothes?  The trash barrels were on the curb when Mr. Craig came by and he noticed several empty Black and White bottles — do the Deweys drink a lot?  Didn’t they have Zimmerman, the caterer, for that big party last April? — Zimmerman comes high.  Have you noticed their garbage — pretty rich stuff?  What labels have you seen?  Bellows & Co., maybe, or Charles & Co., Inc?  Do you happen to know what Mr. Dewey’s income is?

By this time you are, I hope, plenty mad.  You say, for God’s sake, it’s none of my business.  Mr. Craig explains.  Investigation by the Bureau of Internal Revenue does not necessarily mean that the person being investigated is under suspicion.  These checks are routine in certain kinds of cases.  Orders to make them come from above; the local echelons do not initiate inquiries, they simply find out what they can.  Then back in Washington the information thus gathers is evaluated.  No improper use is made of anything and of course the evaluators know that most of the stuff sent in is mixed, idle, or untrue — they simply go through the vast chaff in order to find an occasional grain of wheat.  The Bureau, Mr. Craig points out, is part of the United States government.  It conducts its inquiries with entire legality and under rigid safeguards.  The duty of a citizen is to assist his government when he is asked to.

So you say, look, Harry is district manager of the Interstate Gas Furnace Corporation and everybody knows that IGF pays district managers fifteen thousand a year.  Yes, Mr. Craig says, IGF pays him fifteen thousand but one wonders whether he hasn’t got other sources of income.  How can he send three children to prep school and college, buy a house and a new Buick, and patronize Gummidge and Zimmerman on fifteen thousand?  And he belongs to the City Club and the Garden Acres Country Club.  He took Mrs. Dewey to Bermuda last winter.  He has heavy insurance premiums to pay.  He had a new roof put on the house last fall and this spring Mrs. Dewey had the whole second floor repainted and repapered.  How come?  Does it make sense?  Where’s he getting it from?

Does Harry S. Dewey belong to the Wine and Food Society?  The Friends of Escoffier?  Has he ever attended a meeting of either group?  Does he associate with members of either?  Has he even been present at a meeting of any kind, or at a party, at which a member of either was also present?  Has he ever read Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste?  Does he associate with people who have read it?  Has he ever been present at a meeting or a party at which anyone who has read it was also present?  Does he subscribe to or read the Daily Racing Form?  Has he ever made a bet on a horse race?  A dog race?  A football game?  Does he play poker or shoot craps?  Has he ever been present at a meeting or a party at which anyone who makes bets or plays poker was also present?  Does he play the market?  do you know whether Harry puts any cash into diamonds?  Does he associate with people who own diamonds?  Does he know any millionaires, or people who own cabin cruisers, or people who have accounts in more than one bank?  Has he ever attended meetings of such persons?  Has he ever been present at a meeting or a party at which such persons were also present?  Does he read the Wall Street Journal?  Has he ever been present at a cocktail party at which anyone who does read it was present?  Is it true that Harry gave his secretary half a dozen pairs of nylon stockings for Christmas?  Could she be fronting or dummying for business deals that are really his?  What kind of girl is she?  Does she always leave the office at five o’clock?  Whom does she associate with?

Where does Harry stand on the Bureau of Internal Revenue and the income tax laws?  Have you ever heard him say that the income tax laws ought to be changed or the Bureau reorganized or abolished?  Have you heard him damn the income tax?  Does he associate with people who damn it?  Has he ever been present at a meeting or a party where people who want to abolish the Bureau or revise the tax laws were also present?

Let us assume that you remember nothing which indicates that Harry S. Dewey is a tax dodger or a crook.  But Mr. Craig goes a few doors down the street and interviews Frances Perkins Green, who is a prohibitionist and has suffered from nervous indigestion for many years.  She has seen truffles and artichokes and caviar in the Dewey garbage.  The Deweys’ maid has told Mrs. Green that they have porterhouses much oftener than frankforts, that they always have cocktails and frequently have wine, that sometimes cherries and peaches come all the way from Oregon by mail.  Mrs. Green has seen many suspicious-looking characters come to the Dewey house.  She doesn’t know who they are but it’s striking that mostly they don’t come till after dark, seven o’clock or later.  Some of them, she says, are staggering when they leave at midnight.  So Mr. Craig tries the next house and finds Henry Cabot White at home.  Cabot is doing all right now but he had tough going for a couple of years after Harry Dewey fired him.  Everyone in Garden Acres is familiar with the neighborhood feud and would tend to discount Cabot’s revelation to Mr. Craig that Harry’s secretary used to work as a cashier at a race track.  He confirms the nylons but says there were a dozen pairs.  Sure Harry is sleeping with her — Cabot has seen them lunching together a dozen times.  Matter of fact Harry only took Mrs. Dewey to Bermuda because she blew up about the girl.  Yes, and do you know who was on that boat?  Gooks McGonigle — you remember, he runs the numbers racket and they almost got him for wire-tapping.  Cabot wouldn’t like to say anything either way, but Harry took the same boat and Harry manages to lay his hands on money when he needs it.

I have hung this fantasy on the Bureau of Internal Revenue precisely because it does NOT operate in this way.  When it suspects that someone is making false tax returns its investigators go to the suspect’s books, his bank, the regular channels of his business, and similar focal points where factual evidence can be uncovered and made good.  If Harry S. Dewey reads Brillat-Savarin or serves Stilton with the cocktails, the Bureau is not interested.  It does not ask his friends or enemies to report on his wife’s visits to the hairdresser as a patriotic duty.

But if it did, would you be surprised?  In fact, would you be surprised if any government bureau sent round its Mr. Craig to ask you if Harry Dewey reads the New Republic or has ever gone swimming in the nude at Bay View?  I think you wouldn’t be surprised.  What is worse, I think that for a moment Mr. Craig and his questions would seem quite natural to you.  And this feeling that interrogation of private citizens about other citizens is natural and justified is something new to American life.  As little as ten years ago we would have considered it about on a par with prohibition snooping, night-riding, and blackmail.  A single decade has come close to making us a nation of common informers.

It began with the war.  Candidates for commission in the services or for jobs in non-military agencies had to be investigated.  If enormous asininities resulted, if enormous injustice was done, they were inevitable, part of the cost of the war.  They are not inevitable now.  But several branches of the government are acting as if they were.  Several branches of the government and far too many of us private citizens are acting as if they didn’t matter.

True, we have occasional qualms.  The Committee on Un-American Activities blasts several score reputations by releasing a new batch of gossip.  Or a senator emits some hearsay and officially unaccused persons lose their jobs without recourse.  Or another senator blackens the name of a dead man and then rejoices in his good deed, though the people he claimed to be quoting announce that they didn’t say what he said they did.  Or some atrocious indignity inflicted on a government employee by a loyalty board comes to light.  Or we find out that the FBI has put at the disposal of this or that body a hash of gossip, rumor, slander, backbiting, malice, and drunken invention which, when it makes the headlines, shatters the reputations of innocent and harmless people and of people who our laws say are innocent until someone proves them guilty in court.  We are shocked.  Sometimes we are scared.  Sometimes we are sickened.  We know that the thing stinks to heaven, that it is an avalanching danger to our society.  But we don’t do anything about it.

Do you think the questions I have put in Mr. Craig’s mouth are absurd?  They are exactly like the questions that are asked of every government employees about whom a casual derogatory remark has been unearthed, even if that remark was made twenty years ago, even if a fool or an aspirant to the employee’s job made it.  They are exactly like the questions asked of anyone who is presumed to know anything about him, whether casual acquaintance, grudgeholder, or habitual enemy.  They are exactly like the questions asked about anyone outside the government of whom anyone else has reported that he has radical sympathies.  Have you (has he) ever studied Karl Marx?  Have you (has he) ever been present at a meeting or a party where anyone sympathetic to Communism was also present?  Did you (did he) belong to the Liberal Club in college?  Did you (did he) escort to a dance a girl who has read Lenin or is interested in abstract painting?  Have you (has he) recommended the Progressive to a friend?  Those questions and scores like them or worse, have been asked of and about millions of American citizens.

The FBI — to name only one agency that asks such questions — tells us that everything is properly safeguarded.  The investigators gather up what they can and send it in, but trained specialists evaluate it, and whatever is idle, untrue, false, malicious, or vicious is winnowed out.  So the FBI says.  But we are never told who does the evaluating and we have seen little evidence that anyone does it.  Along comes the Coplon case, for instance, and we find out that a sack has simply been emptied on the table.  The contents are obviously in great part idle and false, in great part gossip and rumor, in great part unverifiable — and unverified.  Investigator K-7 reports that Witness S-17 (for we have to cover up for our agents and our spies) said that Harry S. Dewey is a member of the Party, or wants to make the revolution, or knows some fellow travelers, or once advised someone to read Marx, or spent a weekend at a summer resort where there were members of an organization on the Attorney General’s list.  If K-7 is only two degrees better than half-witted, if S-17 is a psychopath or a pathological liar or Harry’s divorced wife, no matter.  And also, no one can be held accountable.  if the same sack has previously been emptied for the loyalty board of any government department nobody can be held responsible for that act, either, and Harry Dewey has no recourse.  He will never know and neither will you and I.  We will never learn who K-7 or S-17 is, in what circumstance the information was given, whether or not it is true or deliberate falsehood, how far it has been spread or by whom.

In the Coplon trial the government did its utmost to keep from the public view certain information which it was using and which had been gathered by the FBI.  That was a sagacious effort.  For when the judge ruled that it must be made public some of it turned out to be as irresponsible as the chatter of somewhat retarded children: it would have been farcical if it had not been vicious.  For instance, some S-17 had given some K-7 a list of people whom he considered communists or communist sympathizers.  One of them was the president of a large university.  In all candor, he is not continentally celebrated for his intelligence but his economical and political ideas are a hundred miles to the right of Chester A. Arthur.  He is a man of unquestionable patriotism, loyalty, integrity, and probity, incapable of any kind of behavior with which the FBI is authorized to concert itself.  But it was the privilege of someone — perhaps a fool, a personal enemy, a boy who had flunked out, a maniac — to lodge in the FBI’s files a declaration that he is a red.

Well, the university president will not suffer in public esteem.  But his university may be damaged in many ways, now, next week, ten years hence.  And Senator Mundt or Congressman Dondero or any public official with the gleam of a headline in his eyes can denounce the university, its students, and all who have acquired their guilt by contagion — on the basis of a remark which may have been made by an imbecile and for which no one can be held to account.  And that remark remains permanently indexed in the FBI files.  And what about humbler names on that list?  How many people have been fired?  How many are having their reading, their recreation, and their personal associations secretly investigated?  Against how many of them are neighbors with grudges or senile dementia testifying to some Mr. Craig, hereafter and alias K-7?  What redress have they got?  What redress has anyone got whom anyone at all has named to the FBI or any other corps of investigators as a communist, a communist sympathizer, a fellow traveler, a bemused dupe, or just a person who happened to be in the bar at the New Willard when a subscriber to the Nation was buying a drink?

I say it has gone too far.  We are dividing into the hunted and the hunters.  There is loose in the United States the same evil that once split Salem Village between the bewitched and the accused and stole men’s reason quite away.  We are informers to the secret police.  Honest men are spying on their neighbors for patriotism’s sake.  We may be sure that for every honest man two dishonest ones are spying for personal advancement today and ten will be spying for pay next year.

None of us can know how much of this inquiry into the private lives of American citizens and government employees is necessary.  Some of it is necessary — but we have no way of knowing which, when, or where.  We have seen enough to know for sure that a great deal of it is altogether irresponsible.  Well, there is a way of making all responsible, of fixing responsibility.  As one citizen of the United States, I intend to take that way, myself, from now on.

Representatives of the FBI and of other official investigating bodies have questioned me, in the past, about a number of people and I have answered their questions.  That’s over.  From now on any representative of the government, properly identified, can count on a drink and perhaps informed talk about the Red (but non-communist) Sox at my house.  But if he wants information from me about anyone whomsoever, no soap.  If it is my duty as a citizen to tell what I know about someone, I will perform that duty under subpoena, in open court, before that person and his attorney.  This notice is posted in the courthouse square: I will not discuss anyone in private with any government investigator.

I like a country where it’s nobody’s damn business what magazines anyone reads, what he thinks, whom he has cocktails with.  I like a country where we do not have to stuff the chimney against listening ears and where what we say does not go into the FBI files along with a note from S-17 that I may have another wife in California.  I like a country where no college-trained flatfeet collect memoranda about us and ask judicial protection for them a country where when someone makes statements about us to officials he can be held to account.  We had that kind of country only a little while ago and I’m for getting it back.  It was a lot less scared than the one we’ve got now.  It slept sound no matter how many people joined communist reading circles and it put common scolds to the ducking stool.  Let’s rip off the gingerbread and restore the original paneling.


Author’s note to 1955 reprinting:   Obviously the FBI is an effective organization and obviously Mr. J. Edgar Hoover directs it effectively.  He also has a genius for publicity; the government’s gain was a memorable loss for the advertising agencies.  Two kinds of occasion show his genius at its best, the annual return of appropriations hearings on Capitol Hill, and the publication of any article that criticizes the FBI.  He has more pipes and louder swells than any pipe organ ever built, more fan clubs than Hollywood, and unlimited newspaper space, gratis.  All anyone need do to set them off is to suggest that any employee of the FBI falls an inch short of Superman, that one of them may have momentarily forgotten the Golden Rule which is sewed into the hatbands of them all, or that the archepiscopal robes which Mr. Hoover keeps in his coat closet are showing signs of wear.  Criticism of the FBI may not be treason at first glance but it is best to take no chances; the intellectuals whom he accuses of having betrayed us have no loudspeaker in a class with his.

When this article appeared, Mr. Hoover wrote to Harper’s, saying that he would not “dignify Mr. DeVoto’s half-truths, inaccuracies, distortions, and misstatements with a denial or an explanation.”  That is his habit; he maintains silence by the stickful on every front page.  When he wrote to the magazine, he had already not dignified my “half-truths, inaccuracies, distortions, and misstatements” by denouncing me formally in an archepiscopal curse that was carried by every wire service and printed in every daily newspaper in the country.  (Cost to me, nine cents a clipping.)  He had not dignified them, as he always does, by neglecting to stipulate what, if anything, was erroneous in them.  Not dignifying makes a neater game than answering criticism.  It is also a form of loud-mouthed personal abuse, which has other names as well, by a man of great power and high public office.

Mr. Hoover’s letter in no way answered my article and said nothing relevant about any part of it.  It did, however, contain a laboratory specimen of what, not caring to dignify it as a misconception, I must call pure gall.  He suggested that a person who is questioned by the FBI about his acquaintances is on the same basis as a witness who is testifying before a grand jury,  He knows better.  So do we.

Continuing to not dignify me by denials, Mr. Hoover said in another letter to Harper’s, “Certainly questions of the nature alleged by Mr. DeVoto are not asked.”  I was writing about the Coplon case; the testimony shows that they were asked there.  Does anyone care to score this as a fielder’s choice?

My Career as a Lawbreaker

My Career as a Lawbreaker

(The Easy Chair, Harper’s, January 1954)

To a writer the word “euphoria” tends to mean the brief period when the last hundred pages of a book are writing themselves. In the summer of 1931 it had that meaning for me and another one as well. A friend of mine had lent me his summer place in northern Vermont. It was too big for my family needs and luxurious above our station, but we soon found that we needed all its facilities. For it had an additional feature which brought my Cambridge friends up in numbers that kept the several guest houses full and sometimes had an overflow sleeping in the woodlot: it was just twenty minutes from the Canadian border.

Regularly at four o’clock every afternoon I put the manuscript of Mark Twain’s America aside and got into my car. At 4:20 1 reached Derby Line, a Vermont village whose main street, in fact its only one, straightway crossed a brook that was the international boundary and became the main street of Rock Island, Province of Quebec.

Parking just inside the United States, I walked across the bridge and at 4:22 entered the village tavern and ordered a bottle of the Canadian ale that still seems to my nostalgic palate the best brew made on this continent.

The tavern was in the basement of a small hotel.  It hummed with geniality in two languages but its principal fascination was a breed of loungers of wildly unconvincing appearance but great narrative skill. Some day the scholars of the American Folklore Society will get round to the Prohibition story.  They will find all the sagas, cycles, variants, and modulations that they keep turning up in other sectors of popular belief, the same culture heroes, the same Sinbads and Paul Bunyans.  I heard all the stories at the tavern, where for the price of another bottle of beer, which I remember as thirty cents for a twenty-ounce pint, I could take my pick of flight, chase, cunning, bribery, the Inspector Outwitted, the Fox Confuted, in fact anything except murder.  For the folk artist was a borderer after all, a Vermonter or a Canadian, and on the border rum-running was a good deal more genteel than it was on Cape Cod.


I assume now that everything I heard was art, not history, but during Prohibition, our national fantasy, it was both pious and patriotic to believe anything you were told about rum-running.  And of course great quantities of liquor were run across the border, by automobile on woods roads and by boat up Lake Champlain.  Long before 1931 an originally competitive business had been organized and most of the traffic was monopolized by two groups.  They did sometimes feud with each other but in a fraternal way and the casualties seldom amounted to more than a black eye or a ducking in the lake.  Nor did the revenuers of the saga, the Border Patrol, offer more than a formal dissent. The honorable tradition of smuggling in these parts is older than the United States. Not only its skills but its loyalties have been developing for two centuries.  No one wants to get a neighbor into trouble, still less to shoot at him.

A visit to the tavern was the first item on the program of entertainment which I devised for people whose affection for me was so warm that they would drive the nearly three hundred miles from Cambridge prepared to stay indefinitely.  There were some good effects too, as on the afternoon of July 4, when the place filled with thirsty men in uniforms more splendid than any you would see at the Governor-General’s ball in Ottawa. They were the American Legion of Newport, Vermont, ten miles away at the head of Lake Memphremagog. They had spent several hot hours parading to celebrate the birth of freedom, and now they had crossed over for a glass of beer.

The second item on my program was a picnic.  The. nearest Quebec Liquor Commission store was at Sherbrooke and we would arrive there just before noon. We bought French bread a few minutes out of the oven, butter, the cheese called Oka that is made by Quebec Trappists,  and an appropriate amount of wine, justly estimated at one bottle per person and one for the pot. Well, one extra per automobile. Then we repaired to the shore, of some neighboring lake, where for some hours the afternoon had more blue and gold in it than could be seen on  the Vermont side.

But a compulsion which Prohibition had produced showed itself when an American entered  store where he could legally buy whisky — and could be sure that the whisky he bought was what the label said it was. Such a novelty could be intoxicating in itself.  Going in search of a poet or a professor of English who seemed to have dropped out of our party, I was likely to find him sitting on the curb, brandishing a bottle of Haig & Haig which he had not yet bothered to open, and singing loudly, to the scandal of Sherbrooke and the shame of his fellow-slaves.

No one wanted to drink whisky on such an occasion but no one intended to leave it in Quebec, either. Besides, it was judicious to build up a reserve in Vermont, lest illness or the weather keep us home some day. Finally, a citizen must do what he could to end our national disgrace. So we joined the company of patriots who in all countries and all ages have fought despotisms by smuggling.  Whenever I went to Sherbrooke I brought back a couple of bottles of whisky.   It would have been perfectly feasible to put them in the glove compartment or for that matter to leave them unwrapped on the rear seat. The Derby Line customs officials never searched my car; to do so would have marred the friendship that had sprung up between us on my daily visits to the tavern.

But everyone was an actor in the Prohibition drama, the make-believe forced on us by the mores of the time. Coming back from a picnic, we would stop a mile short of Rock Island and spend up to an hour putting into effect whatever expedients had been worked out at a staff conference the evening before. Once the inspiration ran to jacking up a car, half-removing the splash-pan, and laying fifteen dollars’ worth of Scotch on it before bolting it back, a job that would have cost fifteen dollars at a garage. When I was alone, I used a complicated harness of twine which would hoist a couple of bottles behind the cushion of’ the rear seat, where no inspector would find them unless he ran his hand over  the cushion or stooped to look up.

The customs officials, of course, knew by heart every device a tourist could invent to outwit  them. It was always pleasant to spend half an hour watching them work, with several pints of ale making me tolerant at the end of an afternoon. Usually they waved cars on after a glance at the first suitcase but occasionally they gave one the works. The embarrassment of freeborn and defiant Americans caught striking a blow for  freedom was intense out of all proportion to either the offense or the penalty, which amounted  merely to confiscation of the liquor. One day a  U. S. Senator who was a bellowing Dry came through. The whole force forsook everyone else and let cars line up bumper to bumper for  fifteen minutes while they all but took the upholstery off his Cadillac. They were practicing caste discrimination, for I am sure that at least two of them saw the Senator’s chauffeur hand me a bottle for safekeeping when he got out of the car.


Thus the mantel and sideboard of my borrowed summer estate soon carried a display of fine liquors. This richness led to the establishment of an importing firm that was to become the admiration of Cambridge, or at any rate of my rapidly expanding circle there. One evening a friend whose identity I am not concealing when I call him Emery and whose patriotism had been warmed by the best Scotch he had drunk in years — Emery and I fell to lamenting that we could not assure ourselves for the coming winter such comfort as we were experiencing at. the moment.

I remind you that such talk was extraordinary realism: it recognized a truth which one was duty-bound to deny. The fantasy of Prohibition required everyone to believe that he was one man who knew how to get honest, uncut liquor. His bootlegger employed Pullman porters to bring Real Old McCoy down from Canada, or personally supervised its transportation from the Cape Cod beach where it was landed, or had an in with enforcement agents and so got his pick from confiscated stock. The pretense did not extend to gin, which we were not obliged to regard as anything but what it was. One Dedham bootlegger was widely approved for using a printed label on which his name appeared above the legend “High Grade Bathtub Gin.”

Emery and I laid our problem before a farmer who lived down the road a piece. He had a name so typical of Vermont that it could serve as the title of a Walter Hard poem: call him Eli.  Having kept an eye on our activity, Eli had an answer already worked out. He converted a canvas hunting coat into a vest with fourteen pockets, each capable of holding an imperial (forty-ounce) quart.  His wife drove him to Sherbrooke in the family Model T. He bought the fourteen quarts that he reckoned be his optimum load, and she drove him back to a curve in the road about three miles north of the border. Here he entered the only vestige of the Great North Woods remaining in the area and his wife went on to wait for him at a rendezvous about four miles below the border on the Vermont side.


It is time to look at the price 1ist issued by the Quebec Liquor Commission, whose Sherbrooke store was at 186 rue King Ouest.  I have preserved a September 1932 issue, a 32-page pamphlet which makes stimulating reading.  Quebec being devoted to frugality as well as wine-drinking, there are a great many wines at forty and fifty cents a bottle, but for picnics we were interested in lordlier stuff.

I developed an affection for an Alsatian wine that I cannot find in Boston nowadays, Clos Ste. Odile; it is listed at a dollar a bottle.  Chateau Latour 1922 cost $2; Haut Brion and Margaux of the same year, $2.50; Lafite Rothschild 1925, $1.75; excellent lesser clarets, $1.50 and on down to $1.  First-rate Burgundies  ran about $1.50 but I suspect there is a touch of sophistication in the listing of 1919 Clos Vougeot, $1.75, and Hospice de Beaune, $2.50.  I can certify, however, that the Montrachet of the same year at $2 was just what it claimed to be and I would rejoice to get a Bernkasteler now as good as the one listed at $1.75. For $3.25 or $3.50 a vintage Heidsieck, Lanson, Roederer; or Moët & Chandon would assuage your memory of the fortified and carbonated cider that we called champagne in the United States.

The list covers the spirits of the entire civilized world, including Chinese liquors called Ngkapy and Mukweilu at $3 a bottle. The most expensive are old brandies but, considering the habits Prohibition had forced on us, who wanted them?  At the top of the list is “Bisquit Dubouché Napoléon 1811,” $16.40 and certainly a phony.  Apart from such esoterica, the highest price is that of two twenty-five-year-old Scotches, $7.25 an imperial quart, which is fourteen and a half ounces more than an American fifth.  (For comparison, one of them is currently offered in Boston at $18 a fifth.) Standard Scotches such as Hudson’s Bay, Teacher’s Highland Cream, White Horse, Johnnie Walker, and  Dewar’s range from $3.15 to $6.25.  Considering quality, probably the  best buy on the list is the youngest  of three cognacs under the Quebec Liquor Commission’s own label. Six years old and just such a cognac as you would expect to find at an inn in the region where it is made, it is listed at $4 an imperial quart.


For toting fourteen forty-ounce quarts through seven miles of forest, Eli set a fee of one dollar per  bottle.  (On one trip he fell and  broke a bottle; since an honest man must guarantee delivery, he refused the fee for that one.)  When Emery went home — he lives in Andover — he took with him a selection of QLC spirits. At the end of the summer I took to Cambridge all that my car   would hold. At intervals thereafter, and they tended to grow shorter, Emery and I sent Eli a check covering three or tour trips across the border, forty-two or fifty-six imperial quarts, and a list of what we wanted,   A week or so later we received a postcard saying that there had lately been a lot of rain in Vermont or that Eli’s setter had had pups. Thereupon we drove to Rock Island and spent an evening in the tavern, or went on to Sherbrooke for a better dinner and some wine. The next day we returned to Vermont, stopped at Eli’s house for our cargo, and drove home.

The whole QLC list was ours to choose from but, though we were glad to drink well beyond our means, there were limits.  So we stuck mostly to $3.50 or $4 Scotches and the $4 cognac. Nowadays, repentance would swiftly come upon me if I were to drink brandy and soda very often but I was twenty-two years younger then — and, besides, any genuine spirits were more emollient than the liquors we had been hardened to.  We never brought in gin; it would have been pointless without vermouth and the importation of low-proof goods would have been an economic waste.  We did buy a few collectors’ items, simply for swank and vainglory.  A bottle of Greek brandy or eau-de-vie de Marc, even one of Benedictine, suggested to the Cambridge hedonists that any whim could be gratified at my house.  An expensive Scotch, say Grant’s Best Procurable, made a fine gift, being reverenced far beyond its cost.

Eli, however, refused to transport mere frivolities.  Arriving at his place on one occasion, I found that he had not brought a bottle of champagne which I had ordered for a friend’s birthday.  He said that he would not help me spend my way to the town poor farm.

I gave a bottle of the liqueur Scotch I have mentioned to an editor who always took me on a tour of the speakeasies when I went to New York.  He later admitted that he did not much care for it, missing the smoke that was ladled into the domestic product and the throat-corroding bite.  And it took me a long time to find a rum that could please a famous Boston connoisseur, who was used to the offscourings of the New York trade.  I finally succeeded with a viscous Demerara of 160 proof that would have felled an ox.


Our importing firm stayed in operation till good liquor came on the market following Repeal, which, the elders among you will remember, took some time.  Ethical men both, Emery and I retained our amateur purity; we never sold a bottle to a friend.  But our cellars and our connoisseurship gave us a popularity we could not afford, and we were forced to abate it by occasionally letting some intimates club together and order a load.  They invariably refused to bring the liquor down themselves, convinced that the traffic was hazardous to an extreme.  At least their cars would be confiscated, beyond that there were jail sentences, and who knew but that they might be forced into bribery, assault, even gunfire?  They thought of us as professionals, with spectral cutlasses between our teeth and a wad of protection money in our wallets — just such characters as spent their leisure in the hall of heroes at the Rock Island tavern.  We could not see that the illusion did them any harm.

And in fact the best part of an exhilarating experience was that drive south from Eli’s house.  I suppose the only risk we ran was the unlikely one that we might have a collision in the presence of a city cop.  Even that would have had to occur in circumstances which required the cop to be censorious rather than sympathetic about a lot of spilled whisky.  But the dramatic fantasy of Prohibition had us driving U.S., 3, 4, and 5 with the certainty that every quarter-mile was hazardous.  At any moment a pursuit car might overtake us, round every curve we might be stopped by a road block.  I often drive those highways now and the landscape remains beautiful but it has lost its zest.  No revenuers are chasing me.


On the evening of December 5, 1933, my wife and I went to the Parker House for the ceremonies befitting the return of legal liquor.  The legislature of my native Utah was selling out its Mormon teetotalism for the publicity that would attend its becoming the thirty-sixth and decisive state to ratify the Twenty-first Amendment.  The flash came through about 11:00 p.m. and at once our waiter brought us a new legal bottle of Rhine wine in a now legal ice bucket, an insipid Liebfraumilch — all the good wines in Boston were locked up in closed, dispirited speakeasies.  But a newspaper photographer made a flash of it and us, and next morning’s Herald ennobled it as the first champagne sold legally in Boston since 1920.

During the last war Canada diluted its whiskies and enormously raised the tax on them.  It has neglected to abate either evil and now the smuggling through the Derby Line and Rock Island customs houses runs north.  Thrifty folk come down from Quebec to buy good, cheap liquor at Vermont state stores and hoist it up behind the rear cushion with a harness of twine.  And a little while back I remarked to some young person, “I was a bootlegger once.”  The appalling lack of social understanding that characterizes the modern young showed in his bewildered question, “Whatever for?”  At that, I was bragging like a tavern lounger.  I was never a bootlegger, I was not even a rum-runner.  Eli was the rum-runner; I was merely in the carrying trade.

The West Against Itself

The West Against Itself

Harper’s, January 1947

In Harper’s for August 1934, I called the West “the plundered province.”  The phrase has proved so useful to Western writers and orators that it has superseded various phrases which through two generations of Western resentment designated the same thing.  We must realize that it does designate a thing; that, whatever the phrases, there is a reality behind them.  Economically the West has always been a province of the East and it has always been plundered.

The first wealth produced in the West was furs, mainly beaver furs.  It made a good many Easterners rich.  Partnerships and corporations sent technical specialists – trappers and Indian traders – into the West to bring out the furs.  No producer ever got rich; few were ever even solvent.  The wealth they produced — from the West’s natural resources – went east into other hands and stayed there.  The absentee owners acted on a simple principle: get the money out.  And theirs was an economy of liquidation.  They cleaned up and by 1840 they had cleaned the West out.  A century later, beaver has not yet come back.

In the early eighteen-forties emigrants began to go west.  They leapfrogged over the plains and mountains, which were settled much later, in order to get to Oregon west of the Cascade Mountains and California west of the Sierra.  Their settlements were the first permanent local interests in the West and (with Mormon Utah) for decades the only ones.  The emigrants expected to stay in the West and expected their descendants to go on living off the country.  They made farms and set up local systems of production, trade, export of surpluses, and even manufacture.  The interests of these people, the permanent inhabitants, have always been in conflict with those who were liquidating the West’s resources.  Their interests have not been in conflict with the East, in fact have been worth more to the East than all other Western sources of wealth put together – so long as the East has been able to control and exploit them, that is from the beginning up to now.  The East has always held a mortgage on the permanent West, channeling its wealth eastward, maintaining it in a debtor status, and confining its economic function to that of a mercantilist province.

The development of the mineral West began in 1849.  Mining is the type-example of Western exploitation.  Almost invariably the first phase was a “rush”; those who participated were practically all Easterners whose sole desire was to wash out of Western soil as much wealth as they could and take it home.  Few made a stake.  Of those who did practically everyone carried out his original intention and transferred Western wealth to the East.  The next and permanent phase was hard-rock mining or mining by placer or dredge on so large a scale that the same necessity held; large outlays of capital were required and the only capital that existed was Eastern.  So the mines came into Eastern ownership and control. They have always channeled Western wealth out of the West; the West’s minerals have made the East richer.  (The occasional Westerner who fought his way into the system – called a “nabob” in his era – became part of that system, which is to say an enemy of the West.)

Mining is liquidation.  You clean out the deposit, exhaust the lode, and move on.  Hundreds of ghost towns in the West, and hundreds of more pathetic towns where a little human life lingers on after economic death, signalize this inexorable fact.  You clean up and get out – and you don’t give a damn, especially if you are an Eastern stockholder.  All mining exhausts the deposit.  But if it is placer mining, hydraulic mining, or dredging, it also kills the land.  Nothing will come of that land again till after this geological epoch has run out.

In witness of what I said last month about the West’s split personality, consider this: that in the West no rights, privileges, or usurpations are so vociferously defended by the West – against itself – as the miner’s.  The miner’s right to exploit transcends all other rights whatsoever.  Even the national government is unable to effect enough control over mineral property rights to harmonize them with conflicting or even merely different rights.

Oil and natural gas follow the pattern of the mines.  Because their development is comparatively recent the national government is able to exercise some control over them in the common interest, by using the lease system instead of the patents which it must issue to miners.  But just because that development is recent, Eastern capital has been able to monopolize oil and gas even more completely than ever it monopolized mining.  The wells, pipelines, and refineries belong to Eastern corporations.  They pump Western wealth into Eastern treasuries.  It is possible for a Western independent to make a mineral discovery, finance it, and maintain his local control in defiance of the absentee system; it has happened occasionally in the East and it happens occasionally now.  But the wildcatter in oil, the independent, has no chance at all except to submit to the system.  He may find oil without its assistance; in fact the system hopes he will.  But he cannot refine or transport or sell oil except to the system, on the system’s terms.

Western psychology prevents him from desiring to do anything else.  Last summer I talked with the manager of a small, locally owned refinery which, with much good luck but mostly because the necessities of war had set up exactly the right conditions, had cleared its debts, secured contracts which seemed to guarantee it permanent independence, and built up an impressive surplus and reserve.  It was a minute item of fulfillment of the West’s great dream, the dream of economic liberation, of local ownership and control.  And what had been done with that surplus and that reserve?  They had been invested in Standard Oil of New Jersey.  The West does not want to be liberated from the system of exploitation that it has always violently resented.  It only wants to buy into it.

So we come to the business which created the West’s most powerful illusion about itself and, though this is not immediately apparent, has done more damage to the West than any other.  The stock business.  Now there was stock raising along the Pacific Coast before there was American agriculture there, long before there were American settlements.  But the cattle business of the West as such has been conducted east of the Cascades and Sierra and in great degree east of the Rockies, and it began when cattle were brought to the open range – first to Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakotas, then elsewhere.  Its great era lasted from about 1870 to the terminal winter of 1886-87, which changed its conditions forever.  Changed them, I repeat, forever.  But the practices, values, and delusions developed in that era, the Cattle Kingdom of romance, dominate the cattle business today.

The cattlemen came from Elsewhere into the empty West.  They were always arrogant and always deluded.  They thought themselves free men, the freest men who ever lived, but even more than other Westerners they were peons of their Eastern bankers and of the railroads which the bankers owned and the exchanges and stockyards and packing plants which the bankers established to control their business.  With the self-deception that runs like a leitmotif through Western business, they wholeheartedly supported their masters against the West and today support the East against the West.  They thought of themselves as Westerners and they did live in the West, but they were the enemies of everyone else who lived there.  They kept sheepmen, their natural and eventual allies, out of the West wherever and as long as they could, slaughtering herds and frequently herdsmen.  They did their utmost to keep the nester – the farmer, the actual settler, the man who could create local and permanent wealth – out of the West and to terrorize or bankrupt him where he could not be kept out.  And the big cattlemen squeezed out the little ones wherever possible, grabbing the water rights, foreclosing small holdings, frequently hiring gunmen to murder them.  And, being Western individualists and therefore gifted with illusion, the little cattlemen have always fought the big ones’ battles, have adopted and supported their policies to their own disadvantage and to the great hurt of the West.

Two facts about the cattle business have priority over all the rest.  First, the Cattle Kingdom never did own more than a minute fraction of one per cent of the range it grazed; it was national domain, it belonged to the people of the United States.  Cattlemen do not own the public range now; it belongs to you and me, and since the fees they pay for using public land are much smaller than those they pay for using private land, those fees are in effect one of a number of subsidies we pay them.  But they always acted as if they owned the public range and act so now; they convinced themselves that it belonged to them and now believe it does; and they are trying to take title to it.  Second, the cattle business does not have to be conducted as liquidation but throughout history its management has always tended to conduct it on that basis.

You have seen the Missouri River at Kansas City, an opaque stream half saturated with silt.  A great part of that silt gets into it from the Yellowstone River, above whose mouth the Missouri is, comparatively, clear.  The Yellowstone is fed by many stream, of which those from the south carry the most silt, the Tongue, the Rosebud, especially the Powder River, and most especially the Big Horn.  Above the mouth of the Big Horn the Yellowstone is comparatively clear.  These plains rivers are depressing and rather sinister to look at, and they always have been helping to carry the mountains to the sea.  But one reads with amazement descriptions of them written before the Civil War.  They were comparatively clear streams, streams whose gradual, geological erosion of the land had not been accelerated – as it was when the cattle business came to Wyoming and Montana.  The Cattle Kingdom overgrazed the range so drastically – fed so many more cattle than the range could support without damage – that the processes of nature were disrupted.  Since those high and far-off days the range has never been capable of supporting anything like the number of cattle it could have supported if the cattle barons had not maimed it.  It never will be capable of supporting a proper number again during the geological epoch in which civilization exists.

That should be, but mostly isn’t, important to the citizens of Wyoming, whose heritage the West’s romantic business in part destroyed.  It is directly important to everyone who lives in the lower Missouri Valley or the lower Mississippi Valley, and only a little less directly important to everyone who pays taxes for flood control, relief, or the rehabilitation of depress areas.  For when you watch the Missouri sliding greasily past Kansas City you are watching those gallant horsemen out of Owen Wister shovel Wyoming into the Gulf of Mexico.  It is even more important that their heirs hope to shovel most of the remaining West into its rivers.

There remains lumbering.  It perpetrated greater frauds against the people of the United States than any other Western business — and that is a superlative of cosmic size.  It was a business of total liquidation: when a tree is cut, a century or two centuries may be required to grow another one and perhaps another one cannot be grown at all.  Also it killed the land.  A logged-out forest does not take so much geological time to come back as a place where a gold dredge has worked but during the generations of men it is even more evil.  The effects of denuding a forest extend as far as fire may go and beyond that as far as any of the streams on the watershed it belongs to may be used for human purposes or are capable of affecting life, property, or society.

Lumbering, however, shows several deviations from the Western pattern.  First, though the greater part of the timber came into Eastern ownership, with the consequent disregard of Western interests and the usual transfer of wealth out of the West, nevertheless an important bulk of it came into the hands of Westerners.  Second, the national government got on the job in time to protect vast areas of forest from liquidation – and to protect the heart of the West from geological extinction.  Third, a good many of the big operators got the idea in time and it is mainly they who are now trying to maintain privately owned Western forests as a permanent source of wealth, whereas the drive to liquidate all forests comes most vociferously from small operators, who have neither the capital nor the timber reserves for long-term operation.  But with lumbering as with the cattle business we see revealed the psychic split that impels the West to join its enemies against itself.

These, then, with power and irrigation which we may skip for the moment, are the businesses founded on the West’s basic natural resources.  While these businesses were developing, the rest of the West’s economic structure, the parts which are like similar businesses everywhere, was also developing.  There came to be in the West agriculture, transportation, wholesale and retail distribution, all the multifarious activities necessary to society.  As I have already said, they are in sum much more important to the East than the basic businesses it owns – so long as it can control them in its own interest.



We lack space to describe the system by which the East maintains the West as an economic fief.  It has been described many times and several recent books discuss it in relation to the current Western hope of breaking it up.  Mr.  A. G. Mezerik’s The Revolt of the South and West is sound but in some contexts emotional rather than factual and commits the fallacy of assuming that the modern Far West can have the same relation to the South that the Middle West had before the Civil War.  Mr.  Wendell Berge’s Economic Freedom for the West is more analytical and much more realistic.  Mr.  Ladd Haystead’s If the Prospect Pleases is less comprehensive than either but Mr. Haystead deals with the Western psychology that imperils the Western hope, as Mr. Mezerik and Mr. Berge do not.

The bases of the system are simple.  In a striking analogy to eighteenth-century mercantilism, the East imposed economic colonialism on the West.  The West is, for the East, a source of raw materials for manufacture and a market for manufactured goods.  Like the colonies before the Revolution the West is denied industry.  Natural evolution concentrated industry and financial power in the East but the same evolution gave all other sections but the West a sizable amount of both.  By the time the development of the West began it was possible to control the evolutionary process – to finance the West in such a way that the growth of locally owned industry became all but prohibited.

The control of capital is, of course, the basic process.  There is an amazing spread of interest rates between East and the West.  For such purely individual financing as real estate loans the West pays from two to three times as high a rate as the East.  For the ordinary conduct of business it pays exactly what the East cares to charge and always enough to constitute a handicap in competition.  But also as Western business becomes large enough to compete the Eastern financial network can either dictate to it absolutely or destroy it.  This at the simplest level.  Above it is the interconnected structure of finance: the monopolies, cartels, inter-industry agreements, control of transportation, and the many other instruments of power.

Take freight rates.  They are devised so that the East pays lightly for the transport of Western raw materials but the West pays heavily for the transport of Eastern manufactured goods – and is prevented from manufacturing its own goods.  The cowpoke on a ranch fifty miles from Sheridan, Wyoming, does not wear boots made at Sheridan.  He wears boots made of leather from hides shipped from Sheridan to Massachusetts, processed and manufactured there, and then shipped back to Sheridan.  The businessman of an Oregon town does not buy a desk made where the lumber is made, but in Grand Rapids whither the lumber is shipped and whence the desk is returned to his home town, paying two freight charges where he should pay none at all.  The wheat rancher in Washington or Montana has to buy agricultural machinery made not in rational proximity either to his ranch or to Western deposits of iron and coal but in Illinois, Ohio, or Pennsylvania – and is mentioned here because he pays not only that tax to Eastern control of business but another one, the tariff that protects the manufacturer but builds no wall round the wheat-grower.  Finally, the businessman who erects an office building in Denver or the county commissioners who build a bridge in northern Utah may indeed use steel produced within a hundred miles of the operation – but they pay on it, for the maintenance of the system, a tax assessed by the “basing point” principle that makes a satisfactory substitute for the outlawed “Pittsburg plus.”

The West is permitted to engage in preliminary operations that reduce the bulk of raw material so that the East can save freight costs in transporting them to the mills where the finishing operations are performed.  It is not permitted to perform those finishing operations, to manufacture finished materials into consumers’ goods, or to engage in the basic heavy industries which would give it the power to blow the whole system wide open.  So far as the West is industrialized, it has a low-level industry.  But there are necessarily loopholes in the system: kinds of industry which cannot be prevented from developing in the West.  Such loopholes do not disturb the Eastern masters.  Control of credit enables them to buy them out or dictate the terms on which they may be operated.  Or they may manipulate patent rights or trade agreements to the same end.  Or they establish a branch plant of their own which cuts the throat of the Western-owned plant.  Or they merely mention these possibilities and the Western industrialist, a fiery secessionist in his oratory, joins the system.

The result is an economy bound to the industrial system of the East even where it is not in fact owned and managed by that system.  That is to say, the West is systematically looted and has always been bankrupt.

There has never been a time when the West did not furiously resent all this nor a time when some elements in the West were not trying to do something about it.  All the furious agitations that have boiled out of the West and terrified the Eastern rentiers (but have seldom caused the actual engineers of plunder to turn a hair) have had the sole purpose of securing for the West some fractional control over its economic future.  None of them have ever succeeded except when they could perform an ancillary service to the absentee system – like the permanently inflated price of silver, as outrageous a robbery of the American people as any ever devised by the steering committee of a patent pool.  At most they have got the West an occasional tip amounting to a nickel or a dime, tossed back out of the millions drained eastward.  There was never a chance that they could accomplish more.  That is, there was never a chance till recent years.  But now there is.

The New Deal began it.  New Deal measures slowed the liquidation of resources and substituted measures of permanent yield.  They operated to rehabilitate depleted resources, halt and repair erosion, rebuild soil, and restore areas of social decay.  They eased credit, opened small gaps in the master system, and created much local prosperity.  Such things improved the economic system and more important measures widened its base.  Public power and rural electrification dented the power monopoly which I have not touched on here but which is a basic tool of the system.  A great expansion of reclamation projects increased agricultural wealth and, what is much more important, made a start toward the production of surplus electric power.  Finally, with such enterprises as the Central Valley Project and the stupendous, integrated plans for the development of the Columbia River basin, the New Deal laid the groundwork for a fundamental attack on the system.

The West greeted these measures characteristically: demanding more and more of them, demanding further government help in taking advantage of them, furiously denouncing the government for paternalism, and trying to avoid all regulation.  But the measures began to make possible what had not been possible before.  They would provide electric power so cheaply and in such quantity that great industrial development must follow in the West.  The Western economic structure must be revolutionized and reintegrated – which would imply tremendous changes in the national economic structure.  And for the first time the West had a chance to seize control over its own economic destiny.

The war came and the process begun by the New Deal was accelerated.  Factories of many kinds sprang up everywhere.  (Except in Montana, long the private fief of Anaconda Copper and Montana Power, which succeeded in preventing any serious threat to their control of labor and production.)  Mr. Berge has shown how, even in the stress of war, the absentee Eastern masters were able to direct much of this development in the old pattern, to restrain it to plants that performed only preliminary or intermediate processes.  But not altogether.  The West got airplane plants, shipyards, plants that manufactured such complex things as tanks and landing craft, heavy machinery, packing plants, innumerable processing plants.  At Fontana in California and Geneva in Utah it got basic steel production.  The war also produced something else the West had never had, a large body of skilled industrial labor.  Also, by building landing fields and modern airports everywhere it made at least a fissure in the monopoly of transport and took out of transport much of the handicap of time which the West has always had to carry.  Finally, it exhausted the new surplus of electric power and so hastened the already contemplated production of more power.

In short, the West now has an industrial plant and the conditions for its use are favorable – and certain to become more favorable.  That is the fact on which the reinvigorated dream of economic liberation rests.  The plant is too heavily concentrated along the Columbia, Puget Sound, the Willamette Valley, and the Pacific Coast – more so than it would have been if the development had been more gradual – but it does extend through much of the West.  And with the production of, for instance, ingots and rolled steel and aluminum, heavy industrial goods, and many kinds of finished consumers’ goods, and with the certainty that the production of power will increase, the terms are changed forever.  The West can at last realistically envision developing a high-level economy with all that that implies: stability, prosperity, rising standard of living, successful competition with other sections, a full participating share in an expanding national economy.

Realization that the dream can be fulfilled has made the West all but drunk.  It is looking forward to the future with hope and confidence.  I cannot list here the sectional and interstate associations and committees engaged in implementing the dream, the plans they are working out, the measures they are preparing, or any other specific details that have been born of a strange wedlock – the dynamics of boom which any trigger whatever has always been able to release in the West and the unique opportunity which the last few years have brought about.  Enough that the West understands the opportunity, understands the possibilities of success and of failure that are inherent in it, and is taking every conceivable measure to avert failure and insure success.

With a conspicuous exception.  The West seems unaware of one possibility of failure, the one that is inherent in its historic psychology.



Some doubts will occur to anyone.  Thus if the upheaval should merely transfer financial power from Wall Street to Wall Street’s California branch office, the basic system would be changed no more than it was years ago by the entrance of Chicago finance into the Western exploitation that had previously been monopolized by New York and Boston.  A coastal dictatorship would merely be substituted for a trans-Mississippi one.  Certain assurances will also occur to anyone and of these the principal one is that the Northwest has a better chance of pulling it off than the West as a whole.  Its natural resources are more compactly concentrated and have been less impaired.  The Northwest is a more self-contained unit with fewer internal frictions and the Columbia system is more uniform and manageable than the Missouri system or any other possible focus of future development.  Most important of all, the Northwest seems to have got the idea that sustained use of natural resources – which is to say simply, the future – is incompatible with the liquidation of those resources in the present.

I have described a basic split in the Western psyche.  Whether the great dream will fail or be fulfilled depends on how that split works out.  Western individualism has always been in part a belief that I stand to make more money from letting my neighbor down than from cooperating with him.  Westerners have always tended to hold themselves cheap and to hold one another cheaper.  Western resentment of its Eastern enslavement has always tended to be less a dislike of the enslavement than a belief that it could be made to pay.

The oil refinery that invested its surplus in Standard Oil was hardly warring on absentee control and the same thing is to be seen throughout the West.  The Wolfville Chamber of Commerce which is campaigning almost rabidly for local investment, local manufactures locally owned, integration of the local commercial system – all surcharged with violence about Wall Street, “foreign” corporations, the freight rates, and the East as such — that Chamber of Commerce is also campaigning by advertisement and paid agents to bring Eastern corporations to Wolfville.  At the moment when its rhapsody of insurrection is loudest its agents are spreading out their charts on the desks of Eastern industrial managers.  Look, we’ve got this cheap federal power at Wolfville and a labor surplus, too.  The unions are feeble in Wolfville and in fact throughout the state – it’s not Paterson, it’s not Akron, it’s a setup.  We’ll give you a site free and build your spur.  Now as for tax abatement, just what do you need?  Just what additional advantages do you need, that is, over the locally owned businesses of Wolfville we are trying to build up in order to break the stranglehold of the East?

The symptoms of the division in the Western mind show more clearly in the Western press, the newspapers, and the specialty journals of mining, lumbering, cattle and sheep growing, engineering.  It is, to begin with, an astonishingly reactionary press.  The Western radical who occasionally scares the East usually turns out to be advocating on his native plains something a couple of decades earlier than Mark Hanna.  An average Democratic newspaper in the West would seem by, say, the advanced liberalism of the Pennsylvania state machine, to be expressing a point of view much too backward for Boies Penrose.  A typical Republican editorial page in the West is written out of the economic and social assumptions of avalanche capitalism just after the Civil War.  The point is that these conceptions, assumptions, and values are improperly labeled when they are called Democratic or Republican.  They are Western.

One image of the West that the East accepts is that of the West not as economic peon but as pensioner of the East, as beggar.  The West with its hat held out beseeching the expenditure on its behalf of federal money which must be raised from Eastern corporation and income taxes.  Considering how much of that income is plundered from the West, the image is both comic and profoundly ironical.  But there are ways in which it is also true.  You can hardly find an editorial page in the West that is not demanding as Western right, as compensation for the West, and as assistance toward Western liberation, the expenditure of more federal funds.  More government money for public health, hospitals, inspection, treatment; for schools; for service by the Bureau of Mines to the mining industry; for the improvement of Western agriculture, the replenishment of soils, the instruction of farmers; for the instruction and protection of cattle and sheep growers, the improvement of stock and range, quarantine, research; for fire protection in the logging business; for drainage; for reseeding and reforestation of private lands; for roads; for weather service; and always for dams, canals, and the whole program of reclamation.  

But at the same time: hands off.  The West has been corrupted, its press believes all but unanimously, by a system of paternalism which is collectivist at base and hardly bothers to disguise its intention of delivering the United States over to communism.  The second column of the editorial page is sure to be a ringing demand for the government to get out of business, to stop impeding initiative, to break the shackles of regulation with which it has fettered enterprise, to abjure its philosophy of suppressing liberty, and to stop giving money to people who will only store coal in the new bathtub.  The editorial is certain to have a few lines about bureaucrats in desk chairs, impractical theorists, probably professors and certainly long-haired, who are destroying the West by interfering with men who know how.  Also it is certain to be horrified by the schools, which the bureaucrats are using to debauch our young people with Russian propaganda.

An editorial typical of scores I read this summer begins, “Next to getting over our complex that we have to appease labor and give it more money every Monday a.m., our next task is to go over to the schoolhouse.”  It denounces a handful of revolutionary notions, including the dreadful one that “the people should own the water power and the forests,” and goes on to suggest measures, of which the first is, “we would call in the principal, or the president of the university, and quiz him on why do his teachers recommend socialism.  And if his answer was dubious we would get a pinch hitter to take his place.”

It shakes down to a platform: get out and give us more money.  Much of the dream of economic liberation is dependent upon continuous, continually increasing federal subsidies – subsidies which it also insists shall be made without safeguard or regulation.  This is interesting as economic fantasy but it is more interesting because it reveals that the Western mind is interfusing its dream of freedom with the economic cannibalism of the post-Civil-War Stone Age.  It is still more interesting as it reveals the West’s attitude toward the federal intervention which alone was powerful enough to save Western natural resources from total control and quick liquidation by the absentee Eastern ownership.

For that preservation the West is grateful to the government.  But there was and still is a fundamental defect: federal intervention has also preserved those resources from locally owned liquidation by the West itself.  So, at the very moment when the West is blueprinting an economy which must be based on the sustained, permanent use of its natural resources, it is also conducting an assault on those resources with the simple objective of liquidating them.  The dissociation of intelligence could go no farther but there it is – and there is the West yesterday, today, and forever.  It is the Western mind stripped to the basic split.  The West as its own worst enemy.  The West committing suicide.



The national parks are composed of lands that were once part of the public domain (plus a few minute areas that had previously passed out of it).  Exceedingly small in total area, they are permanently reserved and dedicated to their present uses: the preservation of wilderness areas, the protection of supreme scenic beauties, and the pleasure and recreation of the American people.  By the terms of the original dedication and by policy so far kept inviolate they are to be maintained as they are, they are not to be commercially exploited at all.  But they contain timber, grazing land, water, and minerals.  And that, in the West’s eyes, is what is wrong with them.

The Olympic National Park contains a virgin stand of Sitka spruce, which yields a wood that was once essential for airplanes.  During the war a violent agitation was conducted by logging interests (unobtrusively backed by other interests with an eye to natural resources) to open these forests to logging.  It presented itself as patriotism and skillfully assimilated itself to the emotions of wartime.  There was more than enough Sitka spruce in privately owned and national forests to take care of any demand but no matter: victory depended on our opening the Olympic National Park to logging.  The persistence and power of that agitation and its accompanying propaganda (some of it conducted in the public schools, which are supposed to be poisoned with collectivism) would be unbelievable to anyone who had not looked into them.

The National Park Service, backed by conservation associations and by other lumbering interests which have seen the light, was able to hold fast – the Olympic Park was not logged.  But immediately the war ended the same interests, augmented by a good many others, began an even more violent campaign of agitation, commercial pressure, and political pressure.  We must now house the veterans and clearly we could not do so unless we opened all the national parks to logging.

That onslaught has been held in check and it will not win this time.  But it will be repeated many times and the West intends it to win.

This campaign had nothing to do with Sitka spruce, winning the war, or housing veterans.  Its purpose was to make a breach in the national parks policy with the aid of war emotions, and to create a precedent.  Once that precedent should be set, the rest would follow.  Lumber companies could log the parks.  Cattle and sheep associations could graze them.  Mining companies could get at their mineral deposits.  Power companies could build dams in them, water companies could use their lakes and rivers.  Each of those objectives has been repeatedly attempted in the past and the sun never sets on the West’s efforts to achieve them.  Success would mean not only the destruction of the national parks but, as we shall see, far worse.

The parks are trivial in extent, though the destruction of their forests, many of which have critical locations, would have disproportionately destructive effect on the watersheds – the watersheds which must be preserved if the West is to continue to exist as a society.  They are trivial – the main objectives of the Western assault on the natural resources are the remnants of the national domain, the Taylor Act grazing lands, and the national forests.

I have heard this assault called a conspiracy but it is in no way secret or even surreptitious; it is open and enthusiastically supported by many Westerners, by many Western newspapers, and by almost all the Western specialty press.  Openly engaged in it are parts of the lumber industry (though other important parts of that industry are opposing it), some water users (though water users would be its first victims), the national associations of cattle and sheep growers and a majority of the state and local associations, large parts of the mining industry, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (some of whose local chambers are in opposition), and those Western members of Congress who represent those interests. Obscure but blandly cooperative in the background are Eastern interests perennially hostile to the West and concerned here because they greatly desire to halt and reduce government regulation and to open additional Western wealth to liquidation – notably the power companies.  

Right now the cattlemen and sheepmen are carrying the ball.  We must confine ourselves to them and their principal objectives – remembering that the organized assault aims at many other objectives which would benefit other groups. Their limited objectives are:

(1) Conversion of the privilege which cattlemen and sheepmen now have of grazing their stock on Taylor Act and Forest Service lands – a privilege which is now subject to regulation and adjustment for which they pay less than it is worth – into a vested right guaranteed them and subject to only such regulation as they may impose on themselves.

(2) Distribution of all the Taylor Act grazing lands, which is to say practically all the public domain that still exists, to the individual states, as a preliminary to disposing of them by private sale.  (At an insignificant price.  At an inflammatory meeting of committees of the American National Livestock Association and the National Woolgrowers Association in Salt Lake City in August 1946, the price most commonly suggested was ten cents an acre.)

(3) Reclassification of lands in the national forests and removal from the jurisdiction of the Forest Service of all lands that can be classified as valuable for grazing, so that these lands may be transferred to the states and eventually sold.  Immediately in contemplation is the removal of all government regulation of grazing in about 27,000,000 acres of forest lands and their distribution to the states – and to stockmen and woolgrowers as soon thereafter as possible.

These tracts compose the Minidoka and Caribou Forests in Idaho, all the forests in Nevada, most of the forest land in the southern half of Utah, and some ten or twelve million acres in Arizona and New Mexico.  But that is just a start: a further objective is to wrest from Forest Service control all lands in all forests that can be grazed.  And beyond that is the intention ultimately to confine the Forest Service to the rehabilitation of land which lumbermen and stockmen have made unproductive, under compulsion to transfer it to private ownership as soon as it has been made productive again.  The ultimate objective, that is, to liquidate all public ownership of grazing land and forest land in the United States.  And the wording of the resolution in which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce came to the support of the program excepted no government land whatever. That represents the desire of most of the leaders of the assault.

The immediate objectives make this attempt one of the biggest landgrabs in American history.  The ultimate objectives make it incomparably the biggest.  The plan is to get rid of public lands altogether, turning them over to the states, which can be coerced as the federal government cannot be, and eventually to private ownership.

This is your land we are talking about.

The attack has already carried important outposts.  Regulation of the use of Taylor Act lands, the vast public range outside the national forests, was vested in the Grazing Service.  Over the last few years that service was so systematically reduced in staff and appropriations that some cattlemen have been grazing the public range just as they see fit.  Violation of the Taylor Act is widespread, flagrant, systematic, and frequently recommended to their members as policy by various local cattle and sheep associations.  The Grazing Service was organized to assist grazers and to protect the public interest.  When it took the latter purpose seriously it was emasculated and this year has been killed by Western members of Congress, under the leadership of Senator McCarran of Nevada.  But Senator McCarran is by no means so extreme as the majority of the big stockmen whose interests he serves so brilliantly in Washington.  His more limited purpose is to get the public lands away from those he calls “the swivel-chair oligarchy,” that is, federal officials who cannot be coerced, and into the hands of the states, that is, officials who can be coerced.  His model is his own state government, a small oligarchy dominated by stockmen.  At the Salt Lake City meeting I have mentioned he warned the associations that demands for private ownership were premature and might embarrass his efforts, and he is understood to have been furious when, after he had left, the combined committees declared for ultimate private ownership of all public lands.

Senator McCarran has been the ablest representative of cattle and sheep interests in Washington, against the West and the people of the United States.  But from time to time he has had the help of more than half the Western delegation in Congress – most surprisingly of Senator Hatch – and especially of Congressman Barrett and Senator Robertson of Wyoming.  (New Mexico and Wyoming are the only states whose delegates to the Salt Lake City meeting were unanimous for the program.)  Let us look at some of the measures they have proposed.

Senator McCarran has fathered a number of bills aimed at small or large objectives of the program.  The one in point, however, is the “McCarran grazing bill” (S 33 in the last Congress) which has now been defeated four times but will certainly be reintroduced in the next Congress.  This measure would give present owners of grazing permits in the national forests fee simple property rights in those permits, on the theory that if you have leased an apartment from me (at half price or less) you have become its owner.  The purpose was to convert a privilege (and one that is subject to regulation) into a vested right, to confine the use of grazing rights in the national forests to the present holders, and to deny the Forest Service the greater part of its present power to regulate the use of grazing lands.

The Barrett Bill of last session (HR 7638) provided for the sale of disconnected tracts of unorganized Taylor Act grazing land, up to four sections per tract and to the total of over 11,000,000 acres.  Priority in purchase was to be granted to present lessees of those tracts.  Its purpose was to let present users of public grazing lands, who pay considerably less than a fair rental, buy that land at less than it is worth – and to get public grazing land out of public regulation and control.

But the most revealing bill was last session’s S 1945, introduced by Senator Robertson.  The Senator is, it should be noted, the owner of one of the largest and finest sheep and cattle ranches in Wyoming.  He holds a grazing permit in his own name in the Shoshone National Forest for 2400 sheep, has a financial interest in an association that grazes 1200 sheep there, and acts in various ways as agent for individuals and associations that graze nearly 8000 more sheep in the same forest.  His bill is a sweetheart.

The Robertson bill would transfer to thirteen Western states all unappropriated and unreserved lands, including the minerals in them; all oil and mineral reserves; all minerals, coal, oil, and gas and all rights related to them in the public lands; and all homestead lands that have been forfeited to the United States.  It would empower the states to dispose of these lands as they might see fit – that is, to sell them – except that coal, oil, and gas lands must be leased, not sold, and the federal government would retain power to prorate production.

The guts of the bill, however, are the provisions which set up in each state a commission ordered to re-examine every kind of reservation of public land – national forests, national parks and monuments, Carey Act (irrigation district) withdrawals, wildlife reserves, reclamation reserves, power sites, and certain less important ones.  The commission’s duty would be to determine whether parts of the national forests in its state are more valuable for grazing and agriculture (practically no Forest Service land can be farmed at all) than for timber production, and if it should decide that any were, to certify them for transfer to the state for sale – that is, the commission is intended to get forest grazing land into private ownership.  The commission’s duty in regard to other reservations is to do the same in regard to grazing and agricultural land – and also to determine whether the original purposes of the reserve can be achieved by state ownership or “individual enterprise,” and whether the reserves may not have lost their importance or perhaps do not justify national administration.

The Robertson bill is both transparent and carnivorous.  It would liquidate the public lands and end our sixty years of conservation of natural resources.  And this single bill would achieve all the main objectives of the whole program of the Western despoilers at one step, except that purely timber lands in the forests would still be protected and would have to be attacked by other means.  In some respects it goes beyond anything that had been publicly advocated by the despoilers.  Nowhere else, for instance, has it been proposed to turn public power sites or reclamation reserves over to private hands.  But it expresses the program.

The public lands are first to be transferred to the states on the fully justified assumption that if there should be a state government not wholly compliant to the desires of stockgrowers, it could be pressured into compliance.  The intention is to free them of all regulation except such as stockgrowers might impose upon themselves.  Nothing in history suggests that the states are adequate to protect their own resources, or even want to, or suggests that cattlemen and sheepmen are capable of regulating themselves even for their own benefit, still less the public’s.  And the regulations immediately to be got rid of are those by which the government has been trying to prevent overgrazing of the public range.  Cattlemen and sheepmen, I repeat, want to shovel most of the West into its rivers.

From the states the public lands are to be transferred to private ownership.  Present holders of permits are to be constituted a prior and privileged caste, to the exclusion of others except on such terms as they may dictate.  They are to be permitted to buy the lands – the public lands, the West’s lands, your lands – at a fraction of what they are worth.  And the larger intention is to liquidate all the publicly held resources of the West.

Everyone knows that the timber of the United States is being cut faster than replacements are being grown, that the best efforts of the government and of those private operators who realize the other generations will follow ours have not so far sufficed to balance the growth of saw timber with logging.  Everyone knows that regulation of grazing is the only hope of preserving the range.  Open the public reserves of timber, the national forests, to private operation without government restriction and not only the Western but the national resources would rapidly disintegrate.  (And presently the government, on behalf of our society as a whole, would have to wipe out private property in forests altogether.)  Turn the public range over to private ownership, or even private management, and within a generation the range would be exhausted beyond hope of repair.

But that is, by a good deal, the least of it.  Most of the fundamental watersheds of the West lie within the boundaries of the Taylor Act lands, the national forests, and the national parks.  And overgrazing the range and liquidating the forests destroys the watersheds.  In many places in the West today property in land, irrigating systems, and crops is steadily deteriorating because the best efforts of the government to repair damage to watersheds – damage caused by overgrazing the ranges and overcutting the forests – has not been enough.

Stream beds choke with silt and floods spread over the rich fields on the slopes and in the bottoms, always impairing and sometimes destroying them.  Dams and canals and reservoirs silt up, decline in efficiency, have to be repaired at great expense, cannot be fully restored.  Fields gully, soil blows away.  Flash floods kill productive land, kill livestock, kill human beings, sometimes kill communities.

Less than a month before the joint committees met in Salt Lake City this summer, a hundred and twenty-five miles away in the little town of Mount Pleasant, Utah, the annual parade was forming for the celebration of July 24, the greatest Mormon feast day.  That parade never got started.  A heavy summer storm struck in the hills and gulches above town and what marched down Mount Pleasant’s main street was not a series of decorated floats but a river of thick mud like concrete that, in a town of twenty-five hundred people, did half a million dollars’ worth of damage in ten minutes.  The range above the town had been overgrazed an the storm waters which would have been retained by healthy land could not be retained by the sick, exhausted land.  They rushed down over Mount Pleasant, bringing gravel, stones, and boulders with them depositing several feet of mud, damaging many buildings and much of the town’s real estate, leaving much of the grazing land above town ruined and much more damaged and dangerous.

The destruction had been predictable – and predicted; in a small way it had happened before.  The government had been working for many years to restore that range but had not been able to begin the infinitely slow process soon enough.  It knew and had repeatedly said that such a catastrophe might happen just as and where it did happen.

The same thing has happened repeatedly in Utah, in some places more destructively, in others less so.  It has happened and goes on happening throughout the West wherever the grazing land of watersheds has been exhausted or their forests overcut.  Mud flows and flash floods are dramatic but only occasional, whereas the steady deterioration of the watersheds and the slow destruction of their wealth go on all the time.  Overgrazing and overcutting – and fire, the hazard of which is greatly increased by heavy cutting – are responsible.  The program which is planned to liquidate the range and forests would destroy the Western watersheds.  Which is to say that it would destroy the natural resources of the West, and with them so many rivers, towns, cities, farms, ranches, mines, and power sites that a great part of the West would be obliterated.  It would return much of the West, most of the habitable interior West, to the processes of geology.  It would make Western life as we now know it, and therefore American life as we now know it, impossible.

There you have it.  A few groups of Western interests, so small numerically as to constitute a minute fraction of the West, are hellbent on destroying the West.  They are stronger than they would otherwise be because they are skillfully manipulating their support sentiments that have always been powerful in the West – the home rule which means basically that we want federal help without federal regulation, the “individualism” that has always made the small Western operator a handy tool of the big one, and the wild myth that stockgrowers constitute an aristocracy in which all Westerners somehow share.  They have managed to line up behind them many Western interests that would perish if they should succeed.  And they count on the inevitable postwar reaction against government regulation to put their program over.

To the historian it has the beauty of any historical continuity.  It is the Western psychology working within the pattern which its own nature has set.  It is the forever recurrent lust to liquidate the West that is so large a part of Western history.  The West has always been a society living under the threat of destruction by natural cataclysm and here it is, bright against the sky, inviting such a cataclysm.

But if it has this mad beauty it also has an almost cosmic irony, in that fulfillment of the great dream of the West, mature economic development and local ownership and control, has been made possible by the developments of our age at exactly the same time.  That dream envisions the establishment of an economy on the natural resources of the West, developed and integrated to produce a steady, sustained, permanent yield.  While the West moves to build that kind of economy, a part of the West is simultaneously moving to destroy the natural resources forever.  That paradox is absolutely true to the Western mind and spirit.  But the future of the West hinges on whether it can defend itself against itself.


The following notes were appended at the end of the 1955 volume, The Easy Chair, which in addition to “The West Against Itself” included seven other essays about various aspects and phases of the Western landgrab, as DeVoto called the persistent efforts of business interests to remove the American public lands from the national domain.

The articles in this group are arranged in chronological sequence, as those in the other groups are not, and I have made my selection to cover the most important events in the political contest they describe.  They constitute more than half of the Harper’s pieces I have written about the persistent attack on the Forest Service; I have not included any that discuss other aspects of the struggle for the public lands.  My own and other publishers have occasionally suggested that I bring together in a book everything I have written on the subject, but I have thought it best to cover it by outline here, with these pieces.  I am treating the whole subject in a book which I am writing as this one goes to press.  [The book, which DeVoto did not live to complete, was about two-thirds finished in draft; it was eventually published by Yale University Press in 2001 as The Western Paradox: A Conservation Reader, which also reprints eleven of DeVoto’s previously published essays.]

The group shows how the kind of journalism practiced in Harper’s can do an essential job that journalism at large leaves undone.  Here is a subject of national importance.  Yet, as I say in “Number 241,” no newspaper and no other magazine gave it anything like adequate coverage.  No other is covering its current aspects now.  I may therefore provide some annotation – and may add that I did not embark by original intention or desire on a course that has occupied so much of my time for eight years.  My conception of my job required me to.

In 1946 plans for an attack on the Forest Service that had been carefully worked out by parties described in these articles were coming to a head.  The immediate objective was to prevent reductions in the size of various grazing permits (not many all told, and not large reductions) in the national forests.  Beyond that there were the objectives of discrediting the Forest Service and reducing or destroying its regulatory power.  And the ultimate objectives were to destroy the Forest Service and the national forests.  To make the Service merely the temporary custodian of cutover timberlands in process of reforestation, and to transfer the national forests, the most valuable of the public lands, to private ownership under forced sale and at bargain-counter prices.  These are still the objectives of the same interests, of much more powerful interests that support them, and of their agents in Congress and in the Executive branch.

The decision was to develop a legislative program embodying these objectives, for introduction into Congress.  How fast could such a program move?  How many stages would be required and how much should be attempted with each step?  These questions were debated for over a year.  A program for the first stage was finally agreed on at a meeting in Salt Lake City, in August 1946, of the Joint Committee of the two national stock associations which my articles describe.  The committee intended to launch it in the next session of Congress, at some date which it presently became my job to determine.  They were counting on a Republican victory in the midterm elections, November 1946, and the event was to prove that they had calculated correctly.  Their plans were bold; they were, in the literal meaning of the word, revolutionary.  But success depended on two conditions: proper timing of the congressional assault and concealment of its specific details till it should be made.

What was planned in general was no secret.  Historically, wealthy stockmen have tended to be loud-mouthed, boastful, and arrogant.  Those adjectives describe their public utterances and those of their trade press during the spring and summer of 1946, and they talked even more arrogantly in private.  Western conservationists therefore knew that something was going on.  So did certain Western newspapermen but it is clear to me that they failed to understand its importance.  If they had understood it, they would have tried harder to get the story; as I found out, it was not hard to get.

I was a newspaper reporter as a young man and, as other articles in this book also show, I have frequently written as a reporter for magazines.  Furthermore, I have long devoted myself to historical research, which requires the same skills. I add that I have been acquainted with the Forest Service ever since I was in high school, though I had had no occasion to study its operations systematically until the events I am relating here.  Also, as a historian I had a specialist’s knowledge of the public-lands system, the history of the public reserves,the great land frauds, the conservation movement, and the psychology of the bronzed horseman and his politicians.

I had arranged to spend the summer of 1946 in the West, in order to work in the field on the book that was subsequently published as The Course of Empire.  To finance the summer, I got commissions for articles on the West from Life, Fortune, and Collier’s.  When I headed west in June I knew nothing about the intended attack on the Forest Service but I began to pick up hints about it as soon as I crossed the Hundredth Meridian.  I remember with pleasure that I got my first real tip by listening (I could have avoided listening only by going outside) to a very loud and very drunk cattleman in the Range Riders Café in Miles City.  (A fine bar and it has a first-rate restaurant upstairs.) In the next few weeks I talked to a good many boastful and indiscreet stockmen, as well as to many other stockmen, most of them small operators, who bitterly resented the intention of the national associations.  None of them of either persuasion knew any specific details.  Neither did anyone else I talked to – for I soon realized that something important was being cooked up and I set out to learn what it was.  By the first of August I had the whole story, except for the specific details of the legislative program.  They were the heart of the matter.  I decided that they could be obtained.

I have often been asked how I got them and it is an amusing story but the proper time to tell it has not come.  Enough that every newspaperman knows quite positively that if plans are being kept secret, the plot includes at least one conspirator who is a captive, who opposes it but goes along because he is forced to.  As a reporter, all I had to do was find this man, and I found him.  When I headed east again at the end of August, I knew as much as any member of the Joint Committee about the legislative program.  Also, and this is what counts, I had a copy of a document which I will not describe but which no one except the committee and its employees had seen.  I have not yet used all of it, which is one reason why the adversaries I promptly acquired have never used against me some measures that they must have wanted to use.  But I used enough of it in “The West Against Itself” to reveal to the Joint Committee that I had the facts that counted.

Here the nature of Harper’s is again relevant.  I had dug out a news story of national importance.  By now, however, it was not a story that any newspaper could make a national story unless the New York Times or the St. Louis Post-Dispatch should assign a correspondent to it and give him his head.  I could only assume that both papers had scouted the ground and decided that what they saw above ground did not justify the effort.  It could become a national story only by means of a magazine – and what magazine was there?  It was the sort of thing that George Horace Lorimer had loved; many times he put such writers as Emerson Hough and Stewart Edward White to work on just such jobs.  But his era was over.  As I was to find out later, his current successor on the Post would not touch such a subject with a ten-foot pole or anything else.

It was, that is, a Harper’s story; by now, indeed, the danger was that some Western newspaper might get hold of some small part of what I had and publish it.  I had certain knowledge that stockmen do get drunk in bars, and if the right one happened to say the right thing, the resulting partial publicity might enable the plotters to amend their strategy successfully.  There remained a formidable editorial problem, when to break the story and how to break it most effectively.

Clearly the artificers of the program would keep it quiet till the bills were introduced in Congress. No one, not even the Congressmen and Senators who had agreed to introduce the bills, knew when that would be; they must be timed according to the necessities and opportunities of the coming session, which would begin in January 1947.  On the basis of what I knew about Congress, I decided that the bills were not likely to be introduced before April.  I also decided that my best timing would be to break the story about three months in advance.  That would be roughly the first of January.  The annual meetings of the two national stock associations were scheduled to be held in late December.  I decided to use the story in the January issue of Harper’s, which would be out in late December.

There were two decisions here.  One of them was proved right; I am not sure that the other one was.  I decided to tell the story of the landgrab – the word I applied to the operation, which has been used ever since – in the second of two lead articles I proposed to devote to my impressions of the West after spending a summer there for the first time since 1940.  That is, I decided to unveil the landgrab in its social and historical setting, rather than treat it by itself in a straight news story.  My first article, to be published in the December Harper’s, would be called “The Anxious West.”  (It is not reprinted in this book.)  The second one would be called “The West Against Itself” and I would make the landgrab the climax of the argument it was to develop.  This last is the decision that I now believe to have been mistaken.  Publication of the story accomplished all that I had hoped it would, but I believe that it would have had even more impact if I had run it by itself, in its own terms, as news.  As it was, we retired one Congressman and one Senator to private life, helped retire another Congressman, and made Praying Indians, for the time being, of the entire cowboy delegation.  But we might have got another scalp, and not improbably two more, if I had foreseen the eight years of political maneuvering that followed.  I knew enough to foresee them but that fact is that I did not.

I had expected “The West Against Itself” to be published while the first of the two stock association meetings was in session.  But at 49 East 33rd Street publication day is a movable feast, and it appeared on the first day of the second meeting.  Its disclosure of the plans made for Congress caused great consternation among the plotters, and even greater anger.  (I am happy to say that the limited supply of Harper’s in San Francisco forced the newsstand price up to five dollars.)  And note this: monthly journalism had scored a news beat of national importance.  The story should have been on the wires of all news services from Salt Lake City in the third week of August, but Harper’s had an exclusive in December.  Salt Lake Tribune and Ogden Standard-Examiner (edited by my old boss, Darrell Greenwell) please copy.

More to the point, my article fused an explosion.  It provided the necessary information, the concrete details of the proposed steal.  With that information in their hands, conservationists, Western newspapers, and Eastern news agencies and editorial writers could get to work.  They got to work, and long before April, when I had calculated the program would be launched in Congress, they had roused public opinion to the point where it could not be launched at all.  Of the bills prepared only one was introduced, the one discussed in “Sacred Cows and Public Lands.”  Its sponsors bitterly regretted introducing it and one of them paid for it with his public career; the Joint Committee and the cowboy lobby at large regretted the blunder even more vehemently.  The proposed landgrab was stopped cold.  The strategy of the attack on the Forest Service and on the public-lands system had to be completely changed.  Everything had depended on hurrying the legislation through Congress before Congress itself and the public at large could find out what it was all about.  There had been an excellent chance that the effort might succeed.  A much better chance than the cowboys have ever had since.

The other articles in this group have been chosen to describe the principal developments from that time on.  They analyze the changes in strategy and the crucial episodes in the continuing attack on the Forest Service.  I reprint them with satisfaction as what the part title calls them, a treatise on one function of journalism.  For they played a part in a decisive action.  The reason why the landgrab did not succeed in 1947, and the reason why the continuing attack on the public lands system since then has not succeeded, is that journalism has kept the public informed about what was going on.  Harper’s and these articles have shared that public service – they have helped provide one of the reasons why the attack is not going to succeed even now, with a President in the White House who is ignorant of the situation and piously indifferent to it, the landgrabbers in control of the Department of Interior, and the chambers of commerce in control of the Department of Agriculture.

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