Bernard DeVoto

Historian and conservationist, 1897-1955

Category: Journalism

to Philip Graham

to Philip Graham  (publisher of the Washington Post)

December 22, 1952

Dear Phil:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Easy Chair (1955)

[The Easy Chair, an anthology of articles that had appeared in Harper’s Magazine under that rubric, was published in November, 1955, to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of  Bernard DeVoto’s tenure of the department.   It does not contain other Harper’s articles that DeVoto had included in two earlier collections, Forays and Rebuttals (1936) and Minority Report (1940).  Two weeks after the book was published, DeVoto died in New York.


The Easy Chair

from the Preface (1955):

Whatever else society may have, and whatever it may at times lack, it insists on having priests, doctors, and people who disseminate and interpret the news. The demand for the services which the three professions perform is only increased by social turbulence that may threaten other professions with extinction. Journalism ranks much lower than the other two in public esteem and its practitioners are not granted the ordainment priests receive or the consecration doctors advertise themselves as possessing. But they are more constantly in demand and their field is by far the largest. Between them, the town crier and the pamphleteer pretty well cover that field, but it has many departments and they cover it by many kinds of activity, some of which have only an indirect relation to the news as such. Of many of these activities we may say that they are not important, they are only indispensable.

An assumption presents this book as entitled to a certificate of legitimacy under the statutes governing fair trade: the assumption that the kind of journalism represented by the magazine in which its contents appeared has proved necessary. Harper’s serves a good many uses, and it serves some of them by means of such articles as those reprinted here.

Courses given at schools of journalism must occasionally, I think, discuss Harper’s. How would a professor who gives such a course describe it to his class? He would characterize it as a magazine of critical inquiry and appraisal, a forum for the expression and discussion of ideas, and a vehicle for the publication of some kinds of news and of comment on many kinds. He would point out that it is addressed to the best educated audience in the United States. He would say that this audience gives it public influence altogether disproportionate to the size of its circulation. And I believe he would be constrained to add that there is no journalism more expert.

It began with the issue for June 1850 and as Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. Sixteen months later, in the October 1851 issue, a new department appeared in it, called “The Editor’s Easy Chair,” though it was not written — indeed it never was to be written — by the editor of Harper’s. It was a department of personal comment and it has appeared regularly ever since, except for a lapse of eight years.

For two years the new department was written, though not signed, by Donald G. Mitchell, who is known to literary history today only as the author, under his pseudonym Ik Marvel, of a series of sentimental fantasies called Reveries of a Bachelor. From 1853 to 1859 The Editor’s Easy Chair was written jointly by Mitchell and George William Curtis, the encyclopedist, publicist, and reformer. Mitchell’s association with it ended in 1859 and Curtis wrote it from then till his death in 1892, following which the eight-year lapse occurred. The column was revived in 1900 under the authorship of William Dean Howells, who wrote it for twenty years. Edward S. Martin succeeded Howells in 1920, and I succeeded Martin in 1935. At that time the name was abbreviated to The Easy Chair.

Thus the Easy Chair is the oldest editorial feature in American journalism. My four predecessors all had literary careers but they were all working journalists too. All had been reporters and editorial writers; all were expert at a characteristic form of magazine journalism that is neither reportorial nor editorial but expository. And all were that indefinable but highly specific thing, the professional writer. The title, the Easy Chair, was no doubt intended to suggest a lamplit study withdrawn from the bustle of commerce, with an overtone of reflection, of leisure, or at least time, to think beyond surface appearances. It was also meant to have a connotation of urbane informality, of a graceful interplay of thought and personality that used to be more highly regarded as literature than it is now. Yet the Easy Chair has never corresponded entirely to these connotations, which add up to the genteel or familiar essay. It has always had a quality it could not get in the study but only down the street, at the square, and in the city hall. If study and reflection have gone into it, so have legwork, sweat, and the opinion that is based not on research but on experience and participation. The five men who have written it were fairly entitled to more than five literary labels; three or perhaps four were novelists, two were humorists, one was a dramatist, and one a historian. But, I repeat, all have been working journalists and all have been professional writers.

We may say that the professional is a writer who has subdued himself to the job rather than shaped the job to enhance his awareness of himself. If the Easy Chair has served a genuine need, it has done so for that reason. Indeed, since it is a column of personal comment, only a professional writer could write it effectively — only a man who knows that the opinion and the expression of the opinion are everything and that the person who holds it does not, in journalism, count at all. I do not know as much about Mitchell as I ought to but I am sure of my ground with the other three. What they had to say and getting it said were important; they knew that they themselves had no importance for the end in view. As for me, I agree with the character farther along in the book who remarks that you would only snicker if the chore boy proved to be too fastidious to go on mowing the lawn. But the chores have to be done.

I feel that the title does not misrepresent the book, though seven of the thirty-one items reprinted here did not appear originally in the Easy Chair. Six of them were text articles in Harper’s: “The Century,” “Doctors Along the Boardwalk,” “The Smokejumpers,” “The West Against Itself,” [“Sacred Cows and Public Lands,”] and “Conservation: Down and on the Way Out.” The seventh, “The Ex-Communists,” appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. There is no discrepancy. These pieces and the Easy Chair are all of the same substance, the substance of a Harper’s article, which I have described several times. Even “The Ex-Communists” expounds a text that was first a single sentence in an Easy Chair, in “But Sometimes They Vote Right Too.” My friend Charles W. Morton, the associate editor of the Atlantic, spotted a sermon in it and asked me to write the sermon.


I invite the reader to consider “Number 241″ a continuation of this preface.


Number 241

(Harper’s, November 1955)

The Nieman Fellows are newspapermen who spend a year studying at Harvard in order, so the grant that finances them reads, “to promote and elevate standards of journalism” in the United States. At intervals writers and editors are invited to talk to them about problems of journalism, and some time ago this election fell on the editor of Harper’s. He chose to discuss the kind of journalism that Harper’s publishes. Before he got very far there was a question from the floor: What fees did he pay for contributions? They are not of Hollywood size and another question followed at once, “How do you get anyone to write for Harper’s?” There was no problem, the editor said; the articles that Harper’s publishes are written by people who want to write for Harper’s. The magazine pays as much as it can afford to but for the Harper’s writer the fee is not the first consideration, it is not even an important one. He wants to bring something to the attention of the public.

For many Harper’s pieces there is only one other possible outlet, the Atlantic. I cite the articles about the struggle over the public lands that I have been running periodically in the Easy Chair and the body of the magazine ever since January 1947. Some have been straight news stories, some have been editorial comment, some have been primarily polemic; but whatever their nature, they have given the subject the only adequate coverage it has had anywhere. No newspaper has covered it well, and that goes for the New York Times. Apart from Harper’s no magazine has more than glanced at it. Presumably I could have published most of my pieces in the Atlantic — but where else? Several magazines for sportsmen ran occasional articles about isolated parts of the struggle. In the first year after the story of the landgrab broke — after I broke the story — Collier’s ran two pieces about it. No other mass circulation magazine would touch it. The weeklies never got past the fringe. But Harper’s ran my articles; to run such articles is one of its functions.

Harper’s and the Atlantic are the only survivors of what was called the Quality Group when I was in college. The phrase carries no implication that there is not journalism as expert in other magazine; it does imply that much quality group journalism is different in kind, context, or treatment from other journalism, and that is has some forms of its own. All the other original members of the group have died and only two magazines that can be considered to belong to it have been established, Fortune and the New Yorker. Some Harper’s articles might well appear in one or the other of them; some others might appear in such magazines as the New Republic or the Reporter. None of these magazines, however, shares more than a part of the Harper’s field. In the Easy Chair of the Centennial Issue I described that field, and I explained that Harper’s has survived because it assumed some functions that American journalism at large has either relinquished voluntarily or proved unable to perform. The “people who want to write for Harper’s” perform those functions.

I appear to be the person who wants most to write for Harper’s. I have kept a file of my publications but I know that it is not complete and so I cannot say exactly how many pieces I have published in this magazine. There must have been at least thirty text articles and I began writing the Easy Chair twenty years ago this month, with the issue of November 1935. The total must be at least eight hundred thousand words, and more likely it is nine hundred thousand — the equivalent of half a dozen long books. As my twentieth anniversary approached, it occurred to me with some force that I have written more for Harper’s than anyone else now living.

When my turn to address the Niemans came, I reminded them that the Easy Chair is the oldest editorial feature in American journalism. It is subject to the conditions of monthly journalism but only one limitation is set on it, that of length. I used to work three weeks ahead of publication, but the breathtaking advance in technology that is called American knowhow spread to printing establishments and for some years I have had to work seven weeks ahead. The limitation of length and the long time lapse are a monthly test of a writer’s professional judgment, not to speak of his luck. (My luck has been good; in twenty years I have had to make only one stop-press change because a situation developed otherwise than I had judged it would.) Also, I have a deadline. The editors will tell you that I have never missed it, and I can tell you that I am scrupulous not to anticipate it. One of the satisfactions of being a Harper’s writer is that you remain your own writer; your work is not taken down, disassembled, and rewritten by a committee; you are expected to provide your own structure, verification, and who-he. But even the writers who edit Harper’s are editors; their fingers may be counted on to twitch if given time.

When the Niemans pressed me for a label that would describe the Easy Chair I could do no better than “cultural criticism,” which is unsatisfactory. I have never formulated any principles for writing it but I have probably observed some. Such a column as this could not easily be pretentious and I have tried to keep it from being pompous. I have tried to avoid repeating myself, at short intervals anyway, and to keep the subject matter so varied that a reader would not know what to expect when he turned to the column. I have ranged so widely that I found I could not represent the full scope of the Easy Chair in this volume of selections. I have assumed that there was no public demand for me to write about anything at all but that if I was interested in something, some readers would be interested in it too. But also I have written about a good many subjects not primarily because I wanted to write about them but because it seemed likely that no one else would. Harper’s does some chores because it believes that journalism must not leave them undone; so does the Easy Chair.

Some implications of my job were obvious from the beginning; others became apparent to me only gradually. Fact pieces in the New Yorker have a formula which is intended to preserve the convention that Mr. Tilley’s interest in anything is strictly dilettante. “When I met Mr. Chase the next morning, he suggested that I have coffee with Mr. Sanborn while the reports from the whatisits were coming in.” For a time after I began writing the Easy Chair I went to equal length to give it an appearance of editorial anonymity. But the personal pronoun is a space-saver and I found myself more and more forced to make use of it. I was surprised to find that readers welcomed it. Not many places where personal journalism can be practiced legitimately remain; there seems to be a use for what is left of it.

Equally surprising is the value attributed to such editorial space as mine by press agents. In the name of our common culture and the American way they call on me to publicize goods, liquors, restaurants, business firms, crusading organizations, crackpot organizations, causes, people who pay to get their names in print, and one columnist whose social engineer keeps demanding that I explain to my readers how the American language has been enriched by the words he invents. These efforts are occasionally subtle but usually high-pressure, frequently elaborate, and sometimes so persistent that it would have been cheaper for the client to buy four pages of display space in Harper’s. If any has succeeded, then it succeeded brilliantly for I did not know I was being taken. Sometimes a press agent’s solicitation has resulted in my abandoning an Easy Chair I had intended to write.

Such eagerness does not inflate my ego, for there are counter-irritants. Some of my most enthusiastic readers are people who have been reading someone else, frequently Elmer Davis. Others understand that the Easy Chair is a department of the Atlantic. And things happen, as when an apparently sober publisher once thanked me for rescuing a book he had published. The sale was small and had dried up, he said, but following my Easy Chair about it, it revived and ran sixteen thousand copies. This was a flattering story but it had a hole in it, for I hadn’t written anything about the book. And I get a lot of letters praising or denouncing pieces which neither I nor anyone else has written.

Readers write to me; newspapers run quotes from the Easy Chair and write editorials about it; other writers use it or refer to it in articles and books. These are the only means I have of judging the response to it. It has had enough supporters to count or I would have been fired. It has had opponents and even enemies, some of them habitual or occupational. I have annoyed quite a lot of people but though I have cost Harper’s some subscribers there have been no lawsuits. A cheesemaker tried hard to suppress me and a publisher of books to censor me. Neither succeeded.

The Easy Chair is sometimes called controversial, even by Personal and Otherwise, but the adjective is inaccurate. I have deliberately precipitated only one controversy, the one over the public lands I have mentioned, and I precipitated that one as a reporter. It took me some time to understand what the reality behind the inaccurate adjective is and why the Easy Chair has produced so much more heat than it has carried. My job is to write about anything in American life that may interest me, but it is also to arrive at judgments under my own steam, independently of others. With some judgments that is the end of the line; express them and you have nothing more to do. But there are also judgments that require you to commit yourself, to stick your neck out. Expressing them in print obliges you to go on to advocacy. They get home to people’s beliefs and feelings about important things, and that makes them inflammable.

I seem most consistently to offend two groups that have in common a love of simplifications and absolutes: writers of advertising copy and contributors to quarterlies that deal with epistemology and, trailing by some lengths, literature. Copy writers always run a mild fever, quite trivial stimuli can send it shooting up, and I am always wounding these poet-patriots without intending to. Commonly they assail me with one or the other of two libels, that only a communist would disparage manufactured goods and that I could have made a fortune, as clearly I have not done if I had gone into advertising. Often they are rhetorically belligerent and the announced intention of one is to punch my nose. Still, I was once asked to address a meeting of advertising men, whereas so far as I know no quarterly has ever approved of anything I have written. The accusation here is on different grounds and there is no lament that I once had it in me to become a literary person. Instead there is a twofold anxiety, to establish that I am middlebrow, philistine, superficial, the enemy — in a word, a journalist — and that I have betrayed or subverted literary thinking.

The condescension seems superfluous, a waste of energy. It is fully visible that I respect reality-judgments as requiring more intelligence than fantasy and think them a better instrument for critical analysis. Just as visibly I distrust the literary approach to experience, preferring direct approaches. The universals of a priori thinking are not for me, large abstractions will not fit my hand, and I work with complexities and tentatives. Certainly, I am a journalist. But who is using all those epithets? Long ago I got used to seeing ideas which were first expressed in this column, or in my books, turn up as the invention and fee-simple property of literary thinkers who scorned and denounced them when I published them.

More than that. When I was preparing this book I found clipped to one Easy Chair an article I had forgotten. The critic who wrote it proved me a fascist, without disclosing that he knew what fascism is but simmering with the same resentment that nowadays represents me as a red, and went on to say, “If Mr. DeVoto is a democrat, then I am not.” That may be a true statement but we have no way of knowing, for there is nothing to tell us what he is. I have been reading him for many years and I have yet to see him stick his neck out about anything except the symbol of the peach in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Getting out on that limb may have required courage but not of a kind that would make trouble for him, and I believe that some years later the peach proved to have been eaten by Edward Fitzgerald. Some battles cannot be fought after the fact and in journalism a writer runs into some he does not care to be above.

The first Easy Chair I wrote described some asininities committed by a New Deal agency. (Prophetically, it was a news story, one I had dug out for myself.) Various newspapers promptly admitted Mr. E. S. Martin’s successor to the Republican Party. The welcome was premature. I doubt if anyone was ever a 100 per cent New Dealer — obviously Mr. Roosevelt wasn’t — but though many New Deal intellectuals had a much higher proof than mine, on the whole I had to go along. I got to that position by studying history, and the study of history has held me to the working principles of American liberalism.

Here, I believe, is where the accusation that I have betrayed literary thinking comes in, for fashions and events have required me, every so often, to show that literary liberalism is something else. I was at odds with the dominant fashions of literary thinking during the nineteen-twenties. Most of those who followed them seemed to me naïve and ignorant, ignorant especially of our history and of politics. During the nineteen-thirties I felt no impulse to seek comfort in Marx and Lenin, and it was again my job to point out that the literary thinkers who did were naïve and ignorant, ignorant especially of American history and of the politics which they told us they had mastered.

And today I feel no impulse to regress to Burke, Hobbes, Mandeville, or personal revelation. It is now high literary fashion to represent the fashionables of the earlier decades as naïve and ignorant, and this fact has a rich flavor but the empirical grounds from which the representation is made seem worse than dubious. The thinkers are still practicing book reviewing. They have mastered politics just as their predecessors did, by making it up while gazing earnestly at their navels. Nothing could astonish a journalist more than the fantasies regularly published in the literary quarterlies about the government of the United States, which its mechanism and energies are, how they are controlled. The practice of journalism has led me not only to work constantly with the reports of committees, commissions, and bureaus, but constantly to study Congress and the federal bureaus in action. I have had to know intimately many Senators, Congressmen, and bureau officials, and I have shared or assisted the work of a good many. I have seen nothing to justify the literary critic’s belief that he is more intelligent than the politician. And when I read what the quarterlies say about actions I know empirically — and say with a condescension that would be unbecoming in an archangel — I seldom find any realization at all of what the real energies are work are, or the real issues. I conclude that there is one infrangible virginity: literary criticism is not an approach to politics.

The Chicago Tribune put me on its list long ago and invented the word “DeVotoism” to classify one entire order of its phobias. The heaviest mail I have ever received was evoked not by the FBI piece that McCarthy lied about but by an Easy Chair a year before we entered the war which said that we ought to enter it and predicted that we would. Orders had gone out from the GHQ of America First to work me over. The organization charged its heirs to keep after me and they have been faithful to the trust. A lot of them are too pure in heart to sign their names.

If I have written as readily about disk jockeys as about The Federalist, that willingness too can be ascribed to the study of history. Library stacks as well as the town square taught me that no manifestation of American life is trivial to the critic of culture. Such a column as this could not easily avoid politics but no doubt I have felt an additional incentive to write about it because I was practicing history. Also, unlike much writing, political comment is a form of action. Sometimes it runs to prophecy too, and here I am entitled to brag. All but one of my prophecies have been borne out by the event, and if that one was a national-championship flop it originated in a mistake we are all prone to make. I underestimated the stupidity of the Republican grand strategy.

My commonest political theme has been the erosion of the Bill of Rights. Before the war, and this is revealing, the Easy Chair was disturbed by such peripheral matters as literary censorship and our home-grown Catos. During the war it was usually suppression of the news, and I was uncomfortable for I had to take potshots at my friend Elmer Davis in order to get at the authorities who were muzzling him. Since the war the attack on our freedoms has come closer to the jugular, and so I have been suspect in the indicated quarters. If I can judge by the quotations adduced by other committees, the file which the Un-American Activities Committee has on me contains little more than the Daily Worker‘s praise of the Easy Chair on the FBI. But most of the beagles have bayed at me (as their newly arrived imitators in Congress have begun to do) and I have been named on various lists of subversives. Nomination to them is the diagnostic test of decency for anyone who has a public forum. We have fought at Arques: where were you?

In twenty years I have published eight books and two collections of occasional pieces. I have edited a basic document of American history, and I have supported my family by writing for magazines more affluent than Harper’s. And I have written the Easy Chair. Always I have written it under pressure of haste and with the morose knowledge that I was not writing it well enough. But in my private assignments it has always come first.

I hope that what I have said has been said gracefully and that sometimes it has been amusing, or informative, or useful. No one has got me to say anything I did not want to say and no one has prevented me from saying anything I wanted to. The Easy Chair has given me a place in the journalism of my time. No one knows better than a journalist that his work is ephemeral. As I have said in my preface, it is not important, it is only indispensable. The life or the half life of an issue of Harper’s has never been calculated; the magazine has durable covers but even the copies kept in doctors’ waiting rooms wear out and are dumped in the bay or ground up for pulp. But a historian knows that a lot of writing which has no caste mark on its forehead gets dumped in the bay too, and that he can count on finding bound files of Harper’s in library stacks. He has to use them; he cannot write history without them.

Another Consociate Family

Another Consociate Family

The Easy Chair,  Harper’s,  April 1936

Let me say that I know very little about Black Mountain College except from reading Mr. Adamic’s article. I may seriously misunderstand and misrepresent the college: if I do, I must delegate the blame to Mr. Adamic. I should add that I have been a college teacher for twelve years, five of them at a large co-educational university, seven at Harvard. What I take to be logical objections to “experimental” education may be sheer prejudice; at any rate, I have been offered chairs in three different experimental colleges and have declined them all, each time with increased distaste. I have always distrusted the assumptions and the aims of such colleges, and as my experience increases I distrust them more. I believe that the basic problems of education are insoluble, and though I see no reason why people should not try to solve them, I regard optimism and idealism as unpromising equipment for such efforts. I believe that there is no right way to teach, or even a best way, and no optimum environment for college life — there are only more or less effective ways of ad hoc teaching in circumstances so complex and multifarious that it is idle to theorize about them. The conception of an ideal college seems to me preposterous; I cannot believe in such a conception and if confronted with its realization I should probably flee howling.

Mr. Adamic is a layman: his article frequently demonstrates his ignorance of the past and the present of education in America. The “revolutionizing of American education” which he thinks twenty Black Mountain branches would  accomplish has been at the boiling point for a century—for  two centuries if you recognize the process as religious.  It is  cyclic and its periodicity could probably be worked out. At any rate Black Mountain is older and less insurgent than he thinks. Nearly everything he mentions has been tried before, even in the same linkages and relationships: all of it has been, if you include the educational sects among the educational institutions. Whether or not it is new, of course, makes no difference; but at least there is a basis in experience for the objections I proceed to voice. For some of the things that rouse Mr. Adamic’s enthusiasm seem to me futile, some of them irrelevant, and some vicious.

Let’s begin with the simplest, the mixture of physical and intellectual labor which dozens of colleges encourage to-day and which has been a cornerstone for scores of our consecrated groups, from Mother Ann Lee’s Shakers on up through Brook Farm to Helicon Hall. Mr. Adamic thinks that rolling roads and picking up cigarette butts give the students “a sense of participating in the vital day-to-day life of the place as a whole.”  Well, you find that participation in the oddest places. It is the practice in jails and army cantonments, and if dishwashing is a stimulus to communal life we ought not to be so hard on Hitler and Stalin, for they realize this educational ideal in their labor battalions. If a student has to support himself by such work, college teachers usually regard it as a tolerable evil but still an evil.  Some of my students wash dishes and tend furnaces; I think they would be better students if they didn’t have to. So do the deans and college presidents who are continually trying to get larger scholarship funds. I don’t think that the deans and presidents are conspiring against the good life.

It’s pretty bad for the students.  It’s far worse for the  faculty.  (I understand Mr. Adamic to say that the dividing  line is pretty faintly drawn at Black Mountain, but it must exist.) The best use for an astrophysicist is in astrophysics, not bookkeeping. His job is to be a scientist and to teach.  The functions of the teacher-pupil relationship, however mystical they may be at Black Mountain, can be better exercised within the limits of his science; if there is anything spiritual in bookkeeping, a professional bookkeeper will be more adept at it than a philologist. No college will ever be free of administrative work. It’s best to have it done efficiently, by specialists. Most teachers are bad at it and dislike it and are glad to be relieved of it. Even if they like it and are good at it, any time they spend at it has to be taken from their primary jobs.

And these repeated efforts to give the management of the colleges back to the faculty have always seemed to me a kind of romance. A type-specimen of human absurdity is any college faculty forced, reluctantly and protestingly, to deliberate any question of policy or government. Ask anyone who ever went to a faculty meeting. The Boys don’t know much about it, are properly skeptical of those who pretend to, resent being called from the laboratory, bog down in inertia, and are pitifully glad to leave the decision to a committee or a dean. All a faculty needs — more than it usually wants— is a reserved sovereignty, to make sure that nothing will be slipped over on it. It nearly always has that, few attempts to slip something over are made, and fewer still succeed. No attempt has ever been made by any college officer or trustee to limit my freedom of thought, expression, teaching or action, or that of any acquaintance of mine. Such attempts are sometimes made and sometimes succeed, but the total is far smaller than editorial writers believe. The college teacher is about the freest man in the country. Certainly he is freer than the members of any other profession. When you read otherwise you are being misinformed. When his freedom is threatened, he has his own pressure groups, and you can do more for him by solidifying those groups than by giving him a part-time janitor’s job.

Mr. Hearst, the American Legion, and all the other ogres combined have done less damage to American education than that hoary wisecrack about Mark Hopkins and a log. Some people like that kind of education, but there are a lot of us who don’t. Mark Hopkins is all right at one end of a corridor, the longer the better, if there is a first-rate laboratory or library at the other end. It’s nice to have Mark on call when you want him, if he holes up when you don’t (Black Mountain’s cramped quarters might make that hard to manage) , but he is a ghastly bore when he is on hand all the time, and you want a good microscope or some original-source  documents oftener than you want Mark. You can frequently  find substitutes for Mark or even do without him, but there  is no substitute for libraries and laboratories, and the small college, the poor college and especially the experimental college fall down here. Mark can ramble on ever so enchantingly  about the web of nature or the class struggle, but you learn  about them by investigating them, and that takes equipment,  and equipment costs money and isn’t to be assembled overnight. For instance, Mr. Adamic’s article sent me to a lot of  original publications of Brook Farm and the Oneida Community, to verify my impression that I had seen a good deal of Black Mountain there. How many of those publications  has Black Mountain got?

Then there is freedom for the student. I don’t know what is good for either society or the individual, and no one has yet convinced me that he does. But granted that Black Mountain knows, I can’t say that its procedure is an innovation. Let’s say that the superior students are one fifth of any  enrollment. Most of us begin our teaching on a theory of the more liberty the better for everybody. Year by year we back away from the theory, and the interesting thing is that the pressure which makes us back away comes from the four fifths. They flounder and sink in freedom, and they resent it. My belief is that it doesn’t matter what happens to the four fifths, and year by year more of my energy is expended on the one fifth. The trend of the colleges in America is just that. The superior student has complete freedom now, in most places, and teaching-methods, library and laboratory equipment and social environment are all being oriented from him and toward his development. It seems to me that Black Mountain is in a serious dilemma. If it holds to its policy of the cross-section, it must to some degree disregard the superior student. If it concentrates on the superior student, it can’t possibly afford the libraries, laboratories and teaching by specialists that he needs.

All this, however, is comparatively unimportant. The pat answer to it is that Black Mountain isn’t so much interested in developing students as in developing personalities. And right here is where Black Mountain as Mr. Adamic describes it stops being, in my opinion, merely irrelevant or vieux jeu and becomes downright dangerous. It sounds a good deal less like an educational institution than a sanitarium for mental diseases, run by optimistic amateurs who substitute for psychiatric training sonic mystical ideas that sound nonsensical to me and sonic group practices that we usually denounce when we find more conspicuous groups indulging in them. This fact does not alarm me. A lot of the “group influence” must be fun, and anybody who wants it is certainly entitled to it. The human organism is tough: it can survive the mayhem we orthodox pedagogues commit on it, which is the insurance policy that safeguards education, and it can survive evangelical psycho-analysis by idealists. But the idealists are monkeying with mechanisms which they are not trained to monkey with and which psychiatrists leave strictly alone except in the gravest emergencies. You do not invade a gall bladder for fun but only when it gets infected,  and then you want a surgeon, not a woodcarver, be he ever so artistic and optimistic. As a teacher, I’ll stay away from  those areas, thanks, and as a father I’ll hope that when my children reach college age they won’t be interested in fingering themselves that way.

Mr. Adamic talks about “truth” in a large and pretty  vague way. I doubt that Black Mountain knows what truth is any better than jesting Pilate did. I don’t know what it is,  but I do know what these phenomena of  “group influence”  are; lots of people regard them as the most desirable things in the world, but they make me gag. No matter how suavely contrived, they are the phenomena of evangelical conversion,  and we have a lot of them in the colleges. Out in Terwillinger, which I was writing about last month, the Y.M.C.A.  invokes them every year with much the same jargon and  machinery. The Oxford Group, the Buchmanites, who carry on what seems to me a pretty loathsome activity in the  better colleges, are an even more exact parallel. There you  have the same mechanism of house-parties, exhibitionism,  group pressure, the dark night of the soul, mutual criticism, summons to the more ecstatic life, and rebirth in grace.  Pretty dangerous stuff. Usually it doesn’t do any harm to the  individual, except as exhibitionism and emotional jags may be harmful per se and as a state of grace is usually a state of Godawful priggishness as well. But it can do harm.  It can increase emotional instability and maladjustment, and it can create them. It can produce hysteria and even insanity: the camp meetings, which use the process in its purest form, are not a fine flower of the good life. Let us prayerfully remember the “burnt-over district” and its effects on American society—the hundreds of consecrated groups and experimental communities, which were also based on a cockeyed psychology and which also multiplied as Mr. Adamic expects Black Mountain to do.

The terminology varies—Black Mountain’s is more like Gourdyev’s than John Humphrey Noyes’s—but the energies involved and even the mechanisms employed are eternally the same.  A teacher or a student from Black Mountain could step into any of the Consociate Families of a century ago and, except for the vocabulary, feel perfectly at home.  The consecrations of those days didn’t prove much—except, maybe, that dedication and hope and idealism are neither an aim nor a process of education, and that phrases like “to experience an art as a process which is also life” are mere logomachy.  I can’t see that Black Mountain proves anything that wasn’t known and suspect long ago. And certainly it is part of the renewed Transcendentalism of these days. The long summary of Mr. Rice’s ideas which Mr. Adamic gives in his third section is full of echoes for anyone who knows Ripley, Brownson, Alcott, the Dial and the Harbinger.  There is the same call for the second birth of the individual and the regeneration of society, the same mystical ecstasy, the same wild marriage of apocalyptic vision and untenable psychology—and the same jargon.  For if Mr. Adamic understands what he represents Mr. Rice as saying about education and about the function of the artist in society, I don’t and I doubt that many others can find meaning in it. It may carry a more direct consolation and inspiration than meaning can
possibly have, but I am not sensitized to receive it and a good many people must share my lack. I can only say that its conception of mankind, the world and society is hidden from me and certainly different from mine, and that, to me, it sounds like a trance. I have seen that trance a good deal in our history, and I distrust it. It sounds like Charles Fourier to me, and Fourier has nothing to say to us to-day. We’ve tried him out—why repeat the experiment? In the end he came to promising that, if his theories were faithfully applied, all the seasons except Spring would disappear and the oceans would turn to lemonade. They didn’t, and Black Mountain’s promises seem to me no more realistic.  Fourier’s American followers could interpret a man’s character by putting a line of his handwriting to their foreheads and could work other mystical miracles, just as some of the Black Mountain boys and girls can converse by twitching their eyebrows.  But that proved to have not much bearing on the problems of education, and the phalansteries broke up. Mr. Adamic expects Black Mountain to multiply, but its predecessors multiplied by fission, by division, and that is the history of experimental societies and colleges in America.  Black Mountain itself came about by secession: another experimental college split mitotically to give it birth.

George Ripley, one of Mr. Rice’s forerunners, stated as the great object of all social reform: “the development of humanity, the substitution of a race of free, noble, holy men and women, instead of the dwarfish and mutilated specimens which now cover the earth.” That is the object that experimental colleges have always had in view. It would be interesting to see some really radical experimenters forego the free and holy and occupy themselves with the dwarfish and mutilated. An experimental college staffed by fanatical real ists and fanatical cynics instead of idealists would have a lot less fire but it might have a lot more iron. But you could never get such a faculty together. Teachers like that stay where they are, being bored from within and thanking God for an occasional brilliant student whom they can really help. Such a student doesn’t show up very often, but when he does they try to assist his search for knowledge — they don’t lead him down into the waters of redemption that he may be born again.

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.

© 2018 Bernard DeVoto

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