Bernard DeVoto

Historian and conservationist, 1897-1955

Month: December 2015 (page 1 of 4)

to Katharine Grant Sterne, 1936

This letter is taken from The Selected Letters of Bernard DeVoto and Katharine Sterne, edited and annotated by Mark DeVoto and published in 2012 by the University of Utah Press.   Sterne (1907-1944), an honors graduate of Wellesley College and an assistant arts critic on the New York Times, wrote a letter to Bernard DeVoto in 1933 from a tuberculosis sanitarium where she was a patient.  DeVoto replied, and they continued to write to each other until Sterne’s death in 1944, exchanging more than 800 letters and memoirs, but they never met in person.  In 1943, DeVoto dedicated The Year of Decision: 1846 to Sterne, “a very gallant lady.”  The published volume contains about one-quarter of the total correspondence; the remainder is published on the website of the Marriott Library of the University of Utah:



Lincoln, Massachusetts

[18 February 1936; probably later]

Dear Kate:

Samuel Dye in Middletown: or, A Study in the Formation of the Small Bourgeoisie Following the Stage of Frontier Society…  The data regarding Samuel and his wife Rhoda have been listed in “Jonathan Dyer, Frontiersman,” which you may or may not have read when it came out in Harper’s.  These are relevant here: he was a religious emigrant from England to Deseret; he was a mechanic, not a farmer, who was nevertheless required by the Mormon system to become a farmer; he was docile to religious and political leadership; he reclaimed forty-odd acres of desert; he was tough as a hickory knot, in that life and circumstance were never too much for him.

The study is founded on — dependable — information from Grace Dye, spinster and milliner, of Pocatello, Idaho.

Excuse it, please.  I’ve just realized that I’ll never do this again and that I’d like a copy for possible reference.  God forbid that I should write letters this way, but, asking your favor, I’m going to insert a carbon.

[beginning on a new page:]

(How appropriate that the radio should be doing barn dances, across the hall.)  Well, then listening to Aunt Grace and checking off my interests, I was uneasily struck by the frequency of marital difficulties in the record, amazed by the more explicable prominence of the railroad theme, and quite unable to come to any conclusions about family diseases, as I had hoped to, and unable to make more than one generalization — which will follow in due time.

This is the generation of Samuel and Rhoda, except for one stillborn child.

Samuel:  Born in Boston, died in Ogden.  Education, country school.  Telegrapher for the U.P. in various parts of Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada.  Left the railroad and undertook to be a commission merchant in Nevada.  Finally got too expansive and went under.  Manufactured cleansing powder in a small shop.  Went back to U.P. as car inspector.  Ended running a filling station.  Cause of death: stomach ulcer.  Widow still survives.
Married to the daughter of a railroad man, in Wyoming.  Her family from Nebraska.  One child.  She divorced him.  She and the child unreported.
Married, 2d, to a (Mormon) daughter of a Scotch immigrant.  Children:

Rhoda.  High school education.  Married to a banker. Four children.

Beatrice.  (I think I have referred to her as Rhoda in earlier communiqués, out of some vague notion of disguise.)  With the possible exception of Edith, see below, the best looking descendant.  One year of college. Married an insurance man; is his business partner.  No children.

Maynard.  No education.  Died of epilepsy at the age of eighteen.

Glenn.  High school education.  Various jobs — still too young to classify.

Robert.  Still younger; no report.

Rhoda:  Born in Brooklyn, died in Ogden.  Education, “academy” (frontier high school) — by virtue of “hiring out” in Ogden in order to get it.  Worked as waitress in a railroad restaurant in Wyoming, before her first marriage; as dressmaker before her second marriage.  Cause of death: pernicious anemia.

First married to a New Yorker named DeWolfe, county clerk of Sweetwater County, Wyo.  When a shortage of funds was discovered, he held the bag and slipped away to Mexico.  She went back to her father’s farm, then moved to Ogden and took up dressmaking, divorcing her husband some eight years after the desertion.  This experience made a hysteric of her.

Child by this marriage, Cleveland.  High school education.  Railroad telegrapher in southern Utah, then buccaneer in Mexico, then a secretary, finally a C.P.A.  Now lives in Salt Lake City.  Has had no communication with his half-brother in twenty years.  Two children, one of whom is in his first year at college; the other will probably go that far too, if not beyond.  [marginal note in pencil: Both A.B.]

Second marriage: Florian DeVoto, then a railroad freight agent, later abstractor of title.  The only college man who appears in this generation — he held six degrees.  A man of great brilliance and completely paralyzed will.

Child by this marriage, Bernard.  Artium baccalaureus, cum laude.  One child so far.  (That A.B. is the only college degree to date.)

Sarah:  Born in Uinta, died in Sacramento.  Education, country school.  She seems to have been the dumbest of the children.  Cause of death, undetermined, general debility.  First married a Wyoming railroad man named White; details of his occupation unknown, for Aunt Grace dismissed him as a drunken bum.  Children of this marriage:

George.  Boilermaker, first railroads, now steamboats (California).  Married.  No children.

Bert.  Railroad conductor in California.  Married.  Two children.

Florence.  Died in infancy, of meningitis.

Cora.  Two years in some cow college in Idaho.  Married to a stock-breeder.  Two children.  This is one of the romantic parts of the saga.  Cora was born just after her father died — of D.T.’s, I gather.  Her mother was struggling to support the family, in the semi-cooperative house that my mother’s dressmaking establishment had by then become — all the sisters showed up there when widowed, abandoned, or out of work.  She gave the child to a childless couple to raise, and Cora grew up as their daughter, not learning her identity till they and her mother were dead.  I can remember the histrionic behavior when she came to see my mother after the revelation.  If my memory is dependable she was, next to Beatrice, the most intelligent of the grandchildren.

Second marriage: a Scotchman named Kennedy, a railroad mechanic, first in Nevada, then in California.  He died before she did, but not much before.  Children:

Madeleine.  High school.  Married.  Two children.  No dope on her husband’s occupation, for Aunt Grace has quarreled with her.  She is disliked by the whole family — faintly tartish behavior, followed by some kind of dispute over Samuel’s estate, I don’t know what it could have been, for her share would have been under a hundred dollars.  I remember her at seventeen as mildly pretty and godawful dumb.  I only saw her that once.

Donald.  High school.  Electrician, with particular reference to airplane beacons.  Married.  No children.

Edward.  Couldn’t, I believe, finish grammar school.  The lowest ebb of the family energy.  Aunt Grace describes him as a bum and a damned liar, that being the only oath I ever heard her utter.  It coincides with my observations during the month he spent with us when I was in high school.  Married.  No children.  No occupation.  Lives with various relatives till they pass him on.

Madeleine:  Born in Uinta, lived in Ogden, now lives in Bakersfield.  Education, pretty damn vague.  The aunt I never could stand.  She was neurasthenic and a weeper.  She used to weep in our house a good part of the time.  Also she was “poor” and that irked me — it meant that she couldn’t live on the modest level of the rest of us, and my too ready sympathies were always being aroused when I didn’t want them to be.
First marriage: to a big, genial, worthless hulk named Ward, a railroad fireman whom she picked up in Chicago while staying with Martha (q.v.).  He was a tough baby, contributed very little to her support, was always in trouble, once shot a man through the cheek, did some high grade swindling, bummed a bit, ran pumping engines, raised chickens, wheedled money from everyone especially my father, and was forever having to be kept or bailed out of jail, again by my father.  But I liked him.  He was worthless but he was genial and always jolly and kind to me.  Except for Samuel, he was the only one of my uncles I ever saw (I think), and the word Uncle has always had a glow because of him.  Children:

Grace.  Part of high school, I think.  A fairly pretty and pleasant dimwit.  Married dining-car conductor when she was seventeen.  Divorced him.  Learned beauty-parlor technique from Martha.  Married an insurance salesman.  Operates a beauty parlor somewhere in California.  No children.

Etta.  Practically no education.  Pretty and absolutely petrified.  Has been married twice, once to a farm-management teacher or superintendent (Aunt Grace is pretty vague, here), now, after divorce, to a gent who does nothing at all.  Lives with, and on, her mother.  Two children.

[handwritten: Omission: Albert.  About 22 yrs old.  RR mechanic — 2nd marriage of Madeleine follows later.]

Martha:  We get on more agreeable ground here — she and Aunt Grace, with Beatrice, Rhoda and Webb, are the ones I have liked.  Born in Uinta, lives in Ogden.  Education rather hard to make out; some “academy,” I think.
First marriage (that was pure suggestion — she had only one)  She married a railroad man in Chicago named Gray.  Aunt Grace says he was an engineer, which is hard to fit in, for his family was on a distinctly higher level, economically, than the family had elsewhere attained.  His people were well to do and his father lived to become Governor of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.  Anyway, he was too much of a hand with the ladies.  He railroaded in Louisiana, Kansas, Mississippi, and finally Mexico.  When he went to Mexico, she left him, having had enough of his gayeties.  The experience produced the typical Dye crackup — see Rhoda and Grace, not to mention Madeleine.  She had herself a beautiful nervous seizure.  Once, when I was repeating the theme with brass and percussion, I asked her if she knew anything about it.  She said that for over a year she did not dare go into the children’s room after they were asleep for fear she might kill them…   But she, together with Rhoda and Grace, had Samuel’s toughness.  She took training in the Cook County Hospital and became a nurse, then went back to Ogden and worked at her trade.  Sometimes she parked the kids with my mother, sometimes she set up a joint household with Grace, sometimes she let them run themselves.  But she saw them married.  Then she went back to Chicago and took a highly-gadgeted course in beauty-parlor stuff.  Going back to Ogden, she worked up from a one-table joint to founding a school in the stuff she had learned.  When Edith died, she took the child and has brought him up.  She has made a modest competence — which has been damned convenient, along with Grace’s, for the Dye descendants.  The failure of the Ogden State Bank pretty well wiped her out.  But she has expanded her school again and is coming back.  This refusal to be downed by circumstance, this ability to meet it head on and subdue it, is the sheer guts that distinguished Samuel.  Just three of his children had it.  I won’t be able to follow the grandchildren, but it would be interesting to see where it appears in them.  Rhoda, maybe — I’ll tell you about her sometime.  Anyway, in Martha and Grace the Dye stock gets its highest expression.  Children:

Alice.  Two years at the U of Utah, taking kindergarten training.  Pretty and fairly clever.  Something of a tart, I think, in the first Wilson administration; anyway, a “flirt” and a “belle.”  Taught kindergarten.  If Skinny Browning’s oldest brother didn’t sleep with her for over a year, he was unlike the other Brownings.  Finally married a bank clerk — amiable and worthless.  Three kids.  Finally had to teach kindergarten again.  Now helping her mother run the beauty-parlor school.

Edith.  The one who taught my childhood that femininity was beautiful.  She was pretty even when I was adolescent and had seen other blondes.  High school.  Went to Pocatello to learn the millinery business from Aunt Grace.  Married a railroad clerk.  Died in the influenza epidemic.  One child, whom Martha has raised.  Martha dreamed of putting him through college (the best evidence that she was consciously joining the bourgeoisie) but Aunt Grace says he has decided otherwise and is a government photographer, recently at Boulder Dam.

Grace:  Born in Uinta, lives in Pocatello.  Education, “academy.”  Lived with my mother, clerking in an Ogden store, during the dressmaking period.  Learned how to make hats and worked in an Ogden millinery.  Had some kind of tragic love affair, about which neither I nor Rhoda, who was closest to her, have ever been able to find out anything.  My mother always refused to tell me.  Anyway, it gave her the Dye crash pretty early, and she never tried again, she’s unmarried.  She got together a little money, borrowed a little more from my father and elsewhere, and set up an establishment in Idaho Falls.  She laboriously got it out of debt and was prospering a little when it burned down, uninsured.  She had another crash, a pretty bad one.  She made another start, in Pocatello this time.  Little by little she has gone ahead, enlarging the story here, buying a farm mortgage there, salting away a bond elsewhere.  Martha has contributed to most of her sisters and some of her nephews and nieces, but Grace has practically supported them all at one time or another.  She has become the family’s capitalist.  She has a lot of Idaho farm land, some bonds, some good stocks, too many bum stocks.  She lives the good life, too.  She likes traveling about, and goes to California every year (where she is unmercifully milked by the grandchildren) and most years to Chicago or one of the national parks or the Gulf Coast or whatnot.  She likes the theater and is an inveterate sightseer.  She likes to motor through the mountain country and go on picnics.  She faithfully reads everything I publish, without ever understanding it, but is, thank God, completely unimpressed by it — she likes me because I have been a “good son,” because people with a claim on me can get money from me, and most of all because I obviously work hard.  She saw Sam Dye wrenching a farm from the desert — and that is what counts.  I could sell a million copies, get the Nobel Prize, or have a statue erected to me in the Hall of Fame, and she would pay no attention.  But she sees me working at my job, long hours, of my own will, every day — and that’s what a man should do, that’s what counts.  She is shrewd, self-contained, tolerant, in every real sense of the word sophisticated.  She gives off a curious and memorable aura of mastery.  She has dealt with the conditions of her life and subdued them.  I’d say she is Samuel’s highest reach, and it’s a damned shame that it wasn’t Sarah or Madeleine who turned out to be the spinster.

Edith:  Born in Uinta, lives in Pocatello [pencil: Oakland].  Education, not a hell of a lot.  She is said to have been the prettiest of the daughters, though Grace is certainly the handsomest now.  Appears to have been something of a bright girl, too; at least several of the pious Mormon books I salvaged from Samuel’s library were presented to her as prizes.  Married a railroad conductor from Nevada.  Divorced him some ten years ago.  Children:

Webb — or maybe Webster.  High school.  High school.  Several years older than I and the one grandson I liked.  Used to spend his summers on the farm.  Humorous and naturally sophisticated.  Was intelligent but a long sickness affected his eyes and he could not go to college.  Was a taxi driver for some time.  Now runs a small business of his own.  Aunt Grace describes it as a “basket lunch place.”  I don’t know what it is — a California invention probably.  Was married but his wife died.  No children.  Lives in San Francisco.

Martha.  2 years of college.  Married an insurance salesman.  1 child.

Madeleine (cont.): I forgot to list her romance.  She divorced Bill Ward and some years later, she being fifty or thereabout, married a childhood sweetheart, whose passion had endured through the years.  She abruptly ceased to be a charge on Grace and Martha.  For the sweetheart, beginning life as a U.P. engineer, ended it as a prosperous orange farmer in California.  He ended it pretty soon after exposure to her whines, leaving her a pleasant income.

Well, there’s the record.  It teaches a little sociology, maybe, but I’ll be damned if it teaches me any genetics.  Obviously there is a recurrent neuroticism but I can’t chart it.  I don’t know whether it has showed up in any of the third generation except me and the epilept.  I can’t plot any curve of intelligence, either.  Beatrice and Rhoda were conspicuously intelligent; but their brothers are dimwits.  Of the rest, only Cora, Webb and I have any brains, and I’m not sure of him, having not seen him since 1919.  Sam’s tenacious staying power skipped his son, touched my mother, touched Martha a little more and came out full strength in Grace.  Nobody else had it.  But the others don’t show any obvious traces of its counterpart in Sam’s wife, who was tireless, even tempered, optimistic.  She and Sam were readers and Sam was something of a student, granted his education and his status: of his children, only my mother ever read books, and of his grandchildren, so far as I know only my half-brother and I — and my father was more of an influence on me than my mother.  I doubt if Sarah’s and Madeleine’s children, except Cora, can read a headline without moving their lips.  About half of the grandchildren have shown an ability to maintain themselves in the world; the rest just subsist, with help from Grace and Martha.  Cora, Alice, Beatrice, Martha and I go [?got] to college.  My half-brother, Martha’s other daughter, Sarah’s second brood, Edith’s son certainly could have gone if they had wanted to, and my father offered to put Rhoda through.  They didn’t want to; probably most of them couldn’t have lasted if they had gone.

Conspicuous respectability, broken in the direct line only by Edward.  Conspicuous intellectual mediocrity, broken in the second generation only by Grace and in the third, if I may be so bold, only by me — and that break unquestionably due to genes that had their origin in Genoa.  Conspicuous looseness of heel — it doesn’t come out here but they have wandered all over the continent, and one of them remains in the occupation of the Founder.  There’s a kind of progressive deterioration, in that Sam was at least one of Malinowski’s earth-people, and only Grace of all that crew is today.  But they have, the better half of them, the industry, adaptability and tribe stability of the small bourgeoisie.  And they are a cooperative lot.  Most of them hate my guts but any of them would take me in, and I suppose I’d take any of them in — which is not a loyalty I get from my father’s house.  The third generation seems to be staying married better than its parents did.  Rhoda has done well for herself by marriage, I’ve done well for myself, financially I mean.  Probably only Beatrice and I have to pay income tax.  In the American social hierarchy, only Rhoda as the wife of a banker, Beatrice as the wife of a branch executive, and I as a college professor could sit about [sic] the salt.  But I’ll bet that half the grandchildren own at least an equity in their houses, have savings accounts and life insurance.  America seems safe enough, but somehow I think they haven’t lived up to Sam.

This has crowded out a lot of flashes and week-end cables from the Harvard sector.  I hope it hasn’t bored hell out of you.  I’ll be back on the air after writing lectures on the Muckrakers and Greenwich Village and reviewing the new Wolfe.




Middletown: ref. to Middletown, a Study in Contemporary American Culture, by Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd, sociologists, 1929, 1936; Middletown in Transitions, a Study in Cultural Conflicts, 1937.  Deseret: Mormon sobriquet for Utah Territory.  generation of Samuel and Rhoda: Samuel George Dye (1834-1924) and Rhoda Paxman Dye (1830-1919), both natives of Hertfordshire in England, were married in 1856, emigrated to Boston and then New York, and settled in Utah Territory in 1861.  Their children were Samuel George Dye, Jr. (1859-1928); Rhoda Ann Dye (1861-1919), Bernard DeVoto’s mother; Sarah Jane Dye (1863-1909); Madeleine Dye (1864-1946); Martha Amanda Dye (1866-1954); Grace Matilda Dye (1868-1950); and Edith Elizabeth Dye (1872-?).  The stillborn child died in December 1870.  See “The Life of Jonathan Dyer,” in Forays and Rebuttals, 1936.  U.P.: Union Pacific Railroad.  the other will probably go that far, too: Laprielle DeWolfe, called Dee, married Gerald Boicourt; she died in 1954.  Florian DeVoto: in fact he earned only five degrees, all from the University of Notre Dame.   Etta:  1901-1996.   Albert: 1909-1989.   Martha: known as Aunt Matt.  influenza epidemic: the pandemic of 1918-19 is thought to have killed 60 million people worldwide.  Rhoda, who was closest to her: Rhodas appear in at least three generations of Dyes.  The one referred to here is the daughter of Samuel Dye, Jr.  Webb: Webb Moore.  sit about the salt: correctly, “sit above the salt,” i.e., sit in a place of higher social rank or distinction.  Muckrakers: reformist journalists and popular historians who attacked the failures of American society and corruption in politics and big business; the best known were Ida Tarbell (1857-1944; History of the Standard Oil Company, 1904); Upton Sinclair (1878-1968; The Jungle, novel about the meat-packing industry, 1906); and Lincoln Steffens (1866-1936; The Shame of the Cities, 1904).  the new Wolfe:  BDeV’s review, “Genius is Not Enough,” of Thomas Wolfe’s The Story of a Novel appeared in SRL 13/26 (April 25); reprinted in Forays and Rebuttals, 1936.

God — Litterateur

    God  —  Litterateur

originally published in The Guardian: A Literary
Monthly Published in Philadelphia, Volume I, no.
V (March 1925), pp. 188-197.


Whatever fault one may find with the conversation of a United States Senator or the treasurer of a large corporation, one does not usually criticize it on the ground that it lacks a sense of religious values or betrays ignorance of the dogmas of the true church.  Modern concepts of statecraft and commerce tend to exclude theology from the discipline of their leaders.  Yet there is one populous section of this country where religiosity is so bound up with trade and government that a successful banker or official must of necessity be an ecclesiastic as well.

If Senator Reed Smoot, tariff prodigy, chairman of the Senate finance committee, and tiler to the inner council of the G.O.P. should in a serious mood deliver to a Washington dinner table a message from the Angel Moroni concerning the true meaning of a disputed text in the Old Testament or an admonishment to flee the imminent retribution of the Lord, he would only be exercising a prerogative of his office.  As Senator from Utah he is, almost ex-officio, a member of the quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, whose duty is to preach the everlasting gospel to “all nations, tongues, and kindred,” and a member of the Higher or Melchisedek Priesthood to whom it is given “to have the privilege of receiving the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven — to have the heavens opened unto them — to commune with the general assembly of the Church of the firstborn, and to enjoy the communion and presence of God the Father and Jesus the Mediator of the New Covenant.”  And if Charles W. Nibley, Presiding Bishop of this Church of God should, in a prospectus of any corporation of which he is ex-officio treasurer, mingle the phraseology of Scripture with a summary of the corporation’s assets, he could show divine authority for the mixture.  As a bishop, his pedigree derives by demonstrable steps from Aaron, and the precedent is apparent in all the works of Aaron’s seed.

Nor, in Utah and its environs, would either event occasion surprise.  Rather, both would be regarded as normal examples of  the working of the Holy Spirit, exhibiting the piety of the individual but in no way singling him out form his fellows.  For among the Mormons the function of priest has not been distinguished from that of cowherd, soda dispenser, or garbage man, and the Chautauqua ideal of religion that is work, work that is play, and play that is religion has been achieved for close to a hundred years.


The contributions of God to American literature have never been adequately surveyed.  Altogether the bulk of His writings during the past three centuries on this continent must be enormous.  And in Utah at least, the critic who approaches this field will discover, God has long been and continues to be the favorite author.  I do not mean the Bible.  That, though considered to be of divine inspiration, is believed only “in so far as it is correctly translated,” and is read very little, if at all.  Nor do I mean the histories of Abraham, Nephi, Jarom, Mosiah, Alma, Ether, Mormon, and other worthies collected in the Book of Mormon, the “Gold Bible” of our grandfathers’ generation, the translation of which by Joseph Smith Jr. is specifically warranted correct by God.  These, by reasons of irrelevancy and an almost unreadable style, have become obsolete, and though occasionally mentioned at Conference are unknown to the average Mormon of today.  But the direct words of God possess a universal currency among the faithful.  They are the only living literature of the Latter Day Saints, and, in spite of a flood of Church propaganda and a system of Church magazines intended to reach all readers from children to patriarchs, they are the only Mormon literature likely to attract the critic.

The book which embodies the words of God has the general appearance of the Book of Common Prayer as furnished to American Episcopal churches, but is a little larger and thicker.  It is called The Doctrine and Covenants, and the title page declares that it contains “the revelations given to Joseph Smith, Jun., the Prophet, for the building up of the Kingdom of God in the Last Days.”  Strictly, it contains also seven lectures on faith by the prophet, which are never read, an account of his martyrdom, and a few scattered revelations to others, including the sole message of God to Brigham Young, which are unimportant.  As the favorite book of three quarters of a million Americans, as a work of American literature which has been translated into more foreign languages than Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The Last of the Mohicans, and as the most extensive anthology of the words of God ever compiled in America, as indeed a purely American theopathy — it deserves the attention of every patriotic critic.

In this book God speaks directly.  There is no secondhand reporting, as in the works of Moses and the Prophets.  The function of Joseph Smith is purely that of stenographer taking dictation from the Almighty.  The method of dictation, we learn from other sources, differed with the occasion.  Sometimes God visited Joseph in a dream, a vision, or a trance.  More often, when the need for guidance in practical affairs grew pressing, Joseph retired to his office and shortly thereafter issued again with a revelation, hot from the tripod, directing a recalcitrant Saint to sell his farm or, if his presence was embarrassing, to depart to work the vineyards of the Lord several hundred miles away.  On several occasions God even spoke to Joseph at the council board, when the opinion of his Apostles or Seventies was going against him, and he was able to confound them by tossing across the table an incontestable decision from the final authority.  Always, however, it is God who speaks, in His own person.

The literary style of The Doctrine and Covenants is an advance over that of The Book of Mormon.  The latter was the work of Solomon Spaulding or Sidney Rigdon, or of Rigdon in revision of the other, and to both God has plainly a superior terseness and economy of thought and language, if not a more literate English.  The point of view adopted and the vocabulary used to express sit are those of the American peasant of 1830, a creature somewhat less civilized than the Georgia cracker of today, a hard-headed zany who has his frontier superstitions by heart and is willing to voice them in imitation of a traveling revivalist.  The result is almost incredibly naive.  The fears, antipathies, and longings of the backwoods-man become God’s commandments.  Yet, intermingled with addlebrained theology, one finds the business acumen which has ever since commended the book to the Saints.  In His own due time God achieved a blend of commerce and religion not unprophetic of future developments on this continent and pragmatically designed to advance His church.


On January 19, 1841, at Nauvoo, Illinois, God directs the establishment of a hostelry.  “And now I say unto you, as pertaining to my boarding house which I have commanded you to build for the boarding of strangers, let it be built unto my name and let my name be named upon it. . .  Let my servant Joseph and his seed after him have place in that house for ever and ever, saith the Lord. . . and let the name of that house be called Nauvoo house and let it be a resting place for the weary traveler, that he may contemplate the glory of Zion. . . verily I say unto you let my servant George Miller and my servant Lyman Wight form a constitution whereby they may receive stock for the building of that house.  And they shall not receive less than fifty dollars for a share of stock in that house.”  The revelation goes on to direct various individuals, presumably those who doubted the value of the stock, to subscribe the issue, assuring them that it will pay heavy dividends both heavenly and earthly.  One of them, William Law — always a hard man for Joseph to control and afterwards the chief cause of his martyrdom — is promised as a bonus the keys of the priesthood, and outward signs of heavenly favor.  “He shall heal the sick; he shall cast out devils, and shall be delivered from those who would administer to him deadly poison, and what if I will that he should raise the dead, let him not withhold his voice.”  Wages to the builders are fixed, and after a distribution of priesthoods and proctorships, the revelation ends: “and ye should prepare rooms for all these offices in my house when you build it unto my name, saith the Lord your God.  Even so — Amen.”

The Nauvoo house was by no means God’s first commercial venture.  One feels that God is surer of himself here than at Kirtland, Ohio, ten years earlier where, at his direction, the saints had organized a bank.  State regulations impiously intervened, the enterprise was declared wildcat and bankrupt, and the prophet was forced to flee, like several of his biblical prototypes, into the wilderness.  He emerged in Missouri, where the faithful, to the number of several thousand followed him, and where God presently condoned the failure.  “As you obtain a chance to loan money by hundreds or thousands,” God says to the prophet, no doubt with an eye to the indictments, “even until you shall loan enough to deliver from bondage, it is your privilege.”

In Missouri, where God turned to real estate promotion, the Saints proved a trifle sceptical.  The Kirtland bank having failed, what security had they here?  God thereupon rechristened Spring Hill “Adam-Ondi-Ahman,” a mysterious title associated with Paradise and with great wealth, and boomed the country thereabout as the site of the Garden of Eden.  Furthermore the locality was pronounced the gathering place for the judgment day, the authentic center of the end of the world and the beginning of the millennium.

Thus assured, by divine prospectuses, that real estate values would increase, the Saints plunged.  God, as always, directed the investments — with, one concedes, sublime indifference to the expulsion of the faithful to Nauvoo, only a few years in the future.  “It must needs be necessary that ye save all the money that you can, and that ye obtain all that ye can in righteousness, that in time ye may be enabled to purchase land for the inheritance, even the city.”  “And again verily I say unto you, let my servant Sidney Gilbert establish a store, that he may sell goods without fraud, that he may obtain money to buy lands for the good of the Saints.”  “I say unto you, that my servant Isaac Morley may not counsel wrongfully to your hurt, I give commandment that his farm should be sold.”  “Purchase all the lands by money which can be purchase in Jackson County, and the counties round about, and leave the residue in my hand.”

Waldo Frank, in a moment of rhapsody, has pronounced the Mormon Church an attempt to escape from the negation of frontier religion into dynamic joy.  Considering that the frontier churches were given to protracted meetings, revivals, mourner’s benches, exhortations, the jumps, agonized rollings of the convicted, and exultant leaps by the converted, it is difficult to see just wherein they lacked the emotional ecstasy which Mr. Frank believes the Mormons to have sought.  If indeed they did seek it, they sought in vain.  Ecstasy, the joy of the expanded soul is nowhere present in The Doctrine and Covenants.  God neither promises nor delivers consuming emotions.  He is content to promise a very literal inheritance of the earth and to furnish detailed directions for achieving it.  “For in my own due time will I come upon the earth in judgment, and my people shall be redeemed and shall reign with me upon the earth” — this is the extent of the spiritual hope of the people, and wherever it appears in the words of God it is accompanied by regulations for the stocking of his granaries.

The only escape discernible in the book is an occasional attempt  to redeem the colorlessness of names.  The town of Kirtland becomes, by divine ordinance, Shinehah; New York City, Cainhannoch.  Joseph Smith is variously Enoch, Gazelam, and Baurak Ale; Sidney Rigdon, Pelagoram, and his tannery “the lot of Tahhanes.”  One can understand the satisfaction of a quid-chewing, illiterate bishop on being informed that though he be plain John Johnson on earth, his name will resound through celestial glories as Zombre, and that he will greet his friend Frederick G. Williams through all eternity with the blessed name of Shederlaomach.  “And let my servants Shederlaomach and Olihah (Oliver Cowdery) have the Laneshine-house (printing office) and all things that pertain to it.”  The parentheses are always present in the text.  But this resounding and perhaps wistful nomenclature was only a brief whim of the deity’s sometimes led to ambiguity, and endured for only a few pages.

No, the typical Saint of the eighteen-thirties and forties was an ignorant and unimaginative lout, of an active bigotry and superstition, unable to understand a world larger than his parish and his acquaintances.  The literary genius of God is best seen in that He adapts His message exactly to this type of mind, utilizing its fears and hopes and adopting its Weltanschauung.

“Cease to be unclean; cease to sleep longer than is needful,” God says at Kirtland, immediately after discussing Michael and the Lamb of God, “retire to thy bed early, that ye may not be weary; arise early that ye may be invigorated.”  “Strong drinks are not for the belly, but for the washing of your bodies,” God adds a few pages later, at the same time directing all beasts of the fields to abandon carnivorousness.  “And on the first and second lots to the north shall my servants Reynolds Cahoon and Jared Carter receive an inheritance.  These two houses are not to be built until I give you a commandment concerning them.”

Always the touch is personal.  God speaks to the individual saint, who will thereby have a greater confidence in the message.  “Verily thus saith the Lord unto my servant William Marks and also unto my servant N. K. Whitney, let them settle up their business speedily.”  “Let my servant Zombre (John Johnson) have the house which he lives.”  “Let my servant Lyman Wight beware, for Satan desireth to sift him as chaff.”

The personal message becomes poignant when one of the Saints has offended.  Oliver Cowdery, the scribe to whom Smith dictated his translation of The Book of Mormon, has been offering revelations of his own.  God addresses him through Smith, “Verily, verily I say unto thee, no one shall be appointed to receive commandments and revelations in this church excepting my servant Joseph.”  Cowdery, thus rebuked, is further directed to reason with another false prophet: “And thou shalt take thy brother Hiram Page and tell him that those things which he has written from that stone (evidently an unholy imitation of Urim and Thummim, the stones which enabled Smith to translate all languages) are not of me, and that Satan deceiveth him.”

The famous revelation on polygamy contains an exquisite reprimand of Emma Smith, the legal wife of the prophet.  “And let mine handmaid Emma Smith, receive all those (wives) that have been given unto my servant Joseph. . . for I am the Lord thy God, and ye shall obey my voice. . . and I command mine handmaid to abide and cleave unto my servant Joseph. . . but if she will not abide this commandment then shall my servant Joseph do all the things as he hath said, and I will bless him, and multiply him and given unto him an hundred fold of houses and lands, wives and children…”  One gets a picture of the sorrows of a prophet of God laboring in spite of wifely jealousy and impediments to do God’s will by bringing some half-dozen plural wives into the house.

But the most touching direction in the book is that given to William E. M’Lellin and Samuel H. Smith.  Both, seemingly have wavered in their faith, repented, and received forgiveness.  They are now about to go forth as missionaries, spreading the true religion.  They are told to be faithful and patient, to heal the sick and succor the sorrowing, to abide affliction and to remain till God summons them.  The text does not make clear which one is addressed in the peroration; but, says God, dismissing them in all magnanimity: “Seek not to be cumbered.  Forsake all unrighteousness, commit not adultery, a temptation with which thou hast been troubled.  Thus saith the Lord your God, your Redeemer.  Amen.”


Such material as the foregoing does not, of course, exhaust the book.  Doctrinal matters receive the same attention, and here again God shows himself thoroughly of the period.  One wonders how far the imaginative and intellectual squalor of the age is responsible for the gifts with which God promises to endow the Saints.  They are to cast out devils, to heal the sick, to speak in tongues and interpret them.  They are to be immune from the poison of enemies and serpents, from pestilence and plague.  They are to annihilate their persecutors and to inherit the earth — the earth conceived as a fertile farm whereon man and beast alike dwell in leisure and reproduction of their kind.

They are to go, after death, to one of three glories, the terrestrial, the telestial, and the celestial, which are like the stars, the moon, and the sun in magnitude.  There they are to be either ministering angels — the fate of the least fortunate, those who have not entered the covenant of eternal marriage — or patriarchal heads of families.  This last is the highest reach of God’s — of the Mormon — vision, a state of perpetual connubiality, where the Saint shall rule over his house and over quantities of plural wives, strong as plowhorses and fecund as rabbits, who shall surround him with illimitable offspring.

Our literary critic will no doubt find this eschatology significant.  Nowhere in God’s book is there a hint of reflection, of meditation, the disregard of time and circumstance once associated with godliness. Still less is there any softness or languor, any exaltation, any beauty.  Most significant of all, this lack of beauty.  The critic, marking it, will remember that for three quarters of a century the Mormons have lived among mountains as beautiful as any on earth and have produced millionaires in plenty but not one artist.  Their churches have all the grace and distinction of the railway station at Gopher Prairie.  The only sculptor born among them escaped into the possibility of achievement by apostatizing, and the works of their painters hang fitly in their meeting houses and the lobbies of their banks.  Poets there have been none except the anonymous authors of hymns unspeakably bad, and the author of an epic which is read in Sunday schools with the utmost solemnity.  Only one Saint has essayed fiction.  His masterpiece deals with the experience of two Mormon souls united in love on this earth and translated to the ultimate glory where for many chapters they are made perfect and talk with God.

God, in The Doctrine and Covenants, is too thoroughly occupied with founding hotels to deal with intelligence and beauty.  Rightly so — for his audience demanded such literature.  If there was leisure from that occupation, then the audience would permit a few rules for their guidance amid evil spirits or for putting other sects in their place.  God provides such reading.  He gives directions for the holy life.  He explains visions and dreams.  He foretells calamities and the end of the world.  He provides charms and incantations.  He gives directions for solving the deceits of the devil and even provides a means for unmasking his messengers.  (The last is simple and serviceable.  If a supernatural messenger appears, hold out your hand.  If he is an angel, having no flesh and being unwilling to deceive, he will not extend his in return.  If he is of the devil he will hold out his hand, whereupon you can readily perceive that it is spiritual, not material.)

Above all, God insists on the superiority of the Saints.  On the frontier almost the only social activity was the disputation of textual and doctrinal matters.  All these God settled definitely in favor of the Saints.  The Mormon doctrines of baptism, episcopacy, sacraments, creation, and last days are ratified endlessly.  Always the salvation of God’s people is reiterated, and unutterable dooms are predicted for the opponents of the true Church.  All heretic sects — chief among them, one gathers, were the Disciples, the Methodists, and the Catholics — are assailed and vilified.  Mormon supremacy is asserted till one understands the smugness of the contemporary Mormon.  It is a smugness immediately apparent to one who visits Utah today, an infrangible self-righteousness, a bucolic megalomania founded on the authority of God.

Not infrequently excessive zeal leads God into contradictions.  For instance, in March 1831 he condemns a church for forbidding the use of meat and for denying marriage to its priests — asserting that monogamy is a sacred institution.  Three years later appears the Word of Wisdom, mentioned above, which forbids meat not only to men but even to carnivores.  And in 1843 God reveals the holy sacrament of polygamy which, though, long out of active practice, remains the only distinguishing characteristic of Mormonism in the public mind.

Such is God, literary artist.  Such is the book which represents a culture that was almost universal on the frontier twenty years before the Civil War.  And, if literature is something that comes home to men’s bosoms and business, the critic will hesitate before recording his judgment.  Because it has come close home to their business, the Mormons have accorded God’s literature a popularity far surpassing that of the most popular novelists.  God, in short, is a good business man; he is therefore a successful artist.

The critic will waive the question whether such destinies are not the common lot of American religions, when successful.  He will consider merely its bearing on American literature.  It is evident that the Mormons are not a singular community.  They oversubscribed their quotas in the Liberty Loans.  Kiwanis clubs multiply over their land.  The Drama League is among them.  The per capita ownership of Fords is high.  They are part and parcel of the American scene — typical Americans in origin, in history, and it appears in literary judgment.  One does not deny that Zane Grey and Edgar Guest have a large circulation among them.  One merely notes that God’s circulation is considerably greater.

Why should it not be so?  Following the principles laid down in God’s book they have developed prosperity from a poverty as great as their intellectual squalor, and this in face of persecution, exile, and even confiscation.  God, in effect, has made good.  There is wealth in plenty in Utah, and a material culture as modern as any in the nation.  All this they have achieved by reading God’s book and acting on it, by following God as few other artists have ever been followed.  The Doctrine and Covenants has interpenetrated every part of their lives, business methods with their worship and metaphysics with their trade.

That is why any Saint today will stop in the act of selling you a gallon of gasoline or cutting your hair to discuss the fact that God has “body, parts, and passions,” and is by actual sexual conjugation the father of mankind.  That is why your bell-boy is likely to stay a moment after receiving his tip to warn you of the wrath to come or to set you right about the Sermon on the Mount.  Your banker will mingle the lost tribes with his caution against overdrafts.  And if the Honorable Reed Smoot has never lightened a caucus by recounting the events of Christ’s visit to this continent after the Crucifixion, it is not because he lacked power or authority.  For, if he is given good health, and conceivably before his present term as Senator expires, he will be President of his church.  As such, he will be officially Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, charged with the duty of receiving the oracles of the Church, of making known the private opinions of Almighty God on all subjects, and of standing as the actual deputy of God to several hundred thousand people.  A spectacle likely to afford some amusement to the ribald and certain to cast one national political party in a role it has never had before in all its history.

to Katharine Grant Sterne, 1940

This letter is taken from The Selected Letters of Bernard DeVoto and Katharine Sterne, edited and annotated by Mark DeVoto and published in 2012 by the University of Utah Press.   Sterne (1907-1944), an honors graduate of Wellesley College and an assistant arts critic on the New York Times, wrote a letter to Bernard DeVoto in 1933 from a tuberculosis sanitarium where she was a patient.  DeVoto replied, and they continued to write to each other until Sterne’s death in 1944, exchanging more than 800 letters and memoirs, but they never met in person.  In 1943, DeVoto dedicated The Year of Decision: 1846 to Sterne, “a very gallant lady.”  The published volume contains about one-quarter of the total correspondence; the remainder is published on the website of the Marriott Library of the University of Utah:




May 2, 1940

[a letter from KS to BDeV  just prior to this is apparently missing]

32 Coolidge Hill Road
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Dear Kate:

Jesus, I don’t know how you summarize political parties in the Republic, short of a million words…

Well, there are continuities… of a kind.  Don’t ask too much of them.  In general, there has always been a simple dichotomy (a more fundamental one, I mean than the ins and the outs), and for the most part it has always taken about the same expression it has now.  There has usually been a party which stood for debtor class and another one which stood for the propertied class — in the rough.  Each has always been badly confused and impeded by the discordant elements which, the American equilibrium being so unstable, it has had to incorporate or form alliances with in order to get, or retain, power.  It is, however, a fundamental mistake to think of the dichotomy as analogous to the English one, since not even the Southern Democracy had any function as a landholding class.  (You will be much nearer the truth if you will think about them as, in the typical American way, exploiters of new land — by means, as it importantly happened, of human machines.)  Nor is there any division similar to the beautifully neat (and altogether unrealistic) one that French analysts believe in, the rentiers vs. the spéculateurs.  Neither landholders nor rentiers as such or per function have ever had any but the mildest importance.  What we have had from the beginning is a party which stood for the inflation of currency and one that stood for the contraction of currency.  A party for the relief of debtors and a party for the sanctity of mortgages.  A party for the support of agrarian and laboring interests, and a party for the assistance of trade, manufacture, and banking.  Less consistently but in the main, a party which aimed to develop the home market by assisting the producers, and a party which aimed to develop it by assisting the manufacturers.  Even less consistently but in the main till recently, a party which stood for less national and centralized authority, and a party which stood for more of it.  The confusion introduced by this last consideration is paralleled in all the others to a lesser degree, but by and large all the parties named first in the above oppositions have been one and the same party, and all those named second have been the other party.

There is also a kind of continuity in pattern — at least in growth and senescence.  Take Jefferson’s Republicans, who torturously and tenuously survive in Franklin’s New Deal.  The party began to coalesce round him during Washington’s first term, in part because of the activity of Jefferson, the intellectuals he was allied with, and groups and interests that had been most crimped by the compromises that went into the Constitution, but in greater part because of the plain bearing of Hamilton’s fiscal policies and the groups and interest they plainly served.

Everything in this period is so fluid that all lines are blurred and no statements hold absolutely.  But in general it is true that the Republicans were what Jefferson’s ideas held them to be, small landowners, small merchants, mechanics, free laborers.  Sure, but also they were the Southern planters (in the main, not always) and they were the western pioneers.  The link between the last two classes is obvious.  Until the new lands in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi were opened up, there was no such thing as a solvent planter.  They had been in debt to English factors from the beginning, and as that debt receded after the Revolution it merely found its way increasingly northward.  (In fact, it is arguable that there never was, in all American history, a solvent Southern planter.  DeBow said as much for twenty years before the Civil War and Helper proved it, or nearly proved it, just on the eve of hostilities.  But during the last quarter century before the war there was in the Deep South such an illusion of solvency as we can remember from H. Hoover’s time.)  The planters were, in actual fact, a debtor class, albeit a garnished one.  And the rockbottom fact of American history is that all frontier communities are debtor communities.  These were the interests principally served by the Jeffersonian party…  Let us be clear: by and large men belong to parties because they think their interests are served by those parties, and by and large parties think they are serving the interests they actually do serve…  But also there were other elements, whose relationships to these others could be indicated only by long parentheses.  Notably there were the immigrants and the internationalists.  Tammany began on the immigrant vote.  And there rallied to the Republican party all those whom the blatant Anglomania of Hamilton’s Federalists had annoyed, angered, or cost money.  And all those who felt that the torch lighted in America must be handed on to Europe, by way of France.  And finally, the reformers.  In a sense, down to Jackson, reform was properly only clarification and extension in areas where nothing had been shaped or provided for.  But the battle cry and the effect was the same…  This has been the make-up of the Democratic party, fairly steadily, ever since.

Jefferson’s Republicans did not completely establish or fill out the pattern — there are gaps in it.  This was due not only to the fluidity of everything but also to the fact that they had no real Opposition.  The Federalists were a genuine party but they could not survive an Adams, a foreign war, and the death of Hamilton.  They are one of the two major parties in American history that have been blown up in toto.  It is interesting that the death blow was an act of usurpation that happened to run counter to a sentiment.  For what killed the Federalists was primarily the Alien and Sedition Acts — and the ammunition they gave the Jeffersonians.  (There were, of course, many intricately related things but let them go.)  Without those Acts, the undeclared war with France would certainly have lost them 1800 anyway, and might very well have destroyed them — because things were so fluid.  Finally, nobody could fill Hamilton’s shoes and the organization was not yet rigorous enough to go on without someone who could.  (Note that the Republicans did not perish because of Jefferson’s Embargo Acts, which did far more damage than the A and S but did not offend a sentiment.)  By 1800 it was clear that the Federalists were done for, nationally.  They declined into a sectional party, dwindled, and committed suicide with the Hartford Convention.

Now as outlined above, there are obvious contradictions in the Republicans, of the kind that always make any party course a zigzag and produce the continual frictions and cleavages that impair American party government — and, I think, not only establish the movement of our history but provide the necessary freedom of movement that permits our economic and social system to function.  And there is implicit in them a major paradox.  It is the major paradox not only of the Jeffersonians but of our entire political structure, and in one form or another it has raised hell with every party in our history.  It is this: that whereas the interests of the debtor classes, and especially of the frontier, require the central government to be as limited and diffuse as possible (emphasizing “states’ rights” or the federal republic), those same interests also necessitate a centralizing tendency which must constantly invade the rights of the federated states and accrete power.  Jefferson had been in office just two years when he faced this rockbottom fact.  (His was, genuinely, a “reform” administration to begin with, though Gallatin’s reforms look a hell of a lot like Hamiltonianism.)  If the Mississippi were closed, then trans-Allegheny America would simply fall off from the seaboard.  He had to get at least lower Louisiana.  He got Louisiana.  He had no power to do so and it violated all his principles and beliefs — except self-preservation, Anglophobia, and the voice of the people.  In effect, he set the whole mould of the future…  The strongest nationalizing, which is to say centralizing, force in our history is the expanding frontier.  In its own interest the debtor class has always been forced to forge the instruments which exploited it.  The party in power has always accelerated the tendency, no matter how vehemently it has denied doing so.  Louisiana was one form.  “Internal improvements” was another.  So was “the American system.”  So was “free land.”  So was the tariff.

Yet the outline was neither clear nor complete down to what the texts still call the Jacksonian revolution, by which time everything we know today was established.  The Whig party had grown up to inherit, roughly, the interests served by Federalism and to add to them the interests of the expanding mercantile class and the embryo manufacturing class together with the rudimentary financial system growing out of both.  Yet nothing is ever so simple as the textbooks make out.  Notably, the strong Whig interest in the South is a paradox and the stronger one on the frontier is a greater paradox.  Furthermore, though the central onslaught of the Jacksonian Democracy, which was Jefferson’s Republicans in modern dress, was directly at the financial system which had now learned to use its teeth in protection of its interests, still it is astonishing how much support the Democrats drew from financial interests either excluded from or at war with the system.  Many financial interests are always served by inflation and many others have exactly the same interests as the debtors they have mortgages on.  It is right here, with the rise of the Jacksonian party, that the modern complexities of our politics begin.

The national lands were the biggest single determining force, together with the speculation in them by financial interests, the need for debtor relief, and the development of wildcat banking which, effectively if not by design, provided it.  There was also growing up the manufacturing system that was to become dominant after the Civil War.  The financial system that was implementing that system was, effectively, what the Democrats were aiming to destroy.  Yet (a) it was essential to much of their own functioning, so that (b) they could not muster enough strength to overthrow it, and (c) though they compromised, they sufficiently damaged it to weaken their own organization internally.

It was a hell of a lot less simple a party than Jefferson’s.  And it was a hell of a lot like Franklin D.’s.  It had to swallow the alliance that has always since then partly paralyzed it, the marriage between the agrarians of the first part and the mechanics and city proletariat of the second part.  This, the second great paradox of our political history, proves something or other about America, for what God hath put asunder the Democracy has, on the whole, kept together.  When the Democracy has been out of power, it has been because this shotgun marriage has been broken.  The fundamental interests of the two groups are both relatively and absolutely at odds, and the party has looked a hell of a lot less looney whenever the farmers have been detached…  Jacksonism did not come to power by a mass uprising of the common man, especially the frontiersman, as the texts usually say.  It was, besides that marriage, pretty exactly the New Deal.  It had an energetic nucleus of intellectuals who worked well with the first full crew of professional politicians, as distinct from paid politicians, ever developed here.  It had also the best organized press up to that time.  Jackson was really a front for the politicians and especially the intellectuals.  They have been curiously underestimated and even ignored by the historians and my pupil (who may go West with me, by the way), Arthur Schlesinger Jr., is going to make a reputation very easily because of them.  We hear about Jackson’s Kitchen Cabinet: what we do not hear is that its effectives were the intellectuals of whom Amos Kendall was the bright star.  Blatantly during both of Jackson’s administrations and less openly for another twenty years, Kendall was both the Charlie Michelson and the Tommy Corcoran of the time.  Beyond and behind Kendall were a good many others, notably the young George Bancroft and the older Orestes Brownson (the first real advocate of the class struggle in America if not in the world, a pre-Marxian, and the author of more platforms and presidential messages than has been acknowledged).  To these were added the discouraged but not disenchanted reformers (as time went on), like George Ripley.  And to these, the lunatic fringe — for a while, till the rising Republican party drained them off.

(I wonder if Kendall shows the future of Corcoran.  He declined into a kind of lobbyist — for many years the Man To See in Washington.  I suspect — no one has proved, few have ever studied him — that he got a large cut in a good many projects he put across.  Yet he remained, also, as much a giant as there was in those parts.  The Diary of a Public Man which Sandburg quotes so extensively and so effectively was almost certainly written by Kendall.)

It was the intellectuals, really, who grappled with the one firm reality that Jacksonism ever came to grips with, the developing corporation.  It was the corporation, a good deal more than the factory itself, that implemented the industrial revolution and, in doing so, changed the financial system forever.  The boys had a pretty good idea of what it was and was becoming, and what they wrote about it might just as well have been written by A. A. Berle.  They never had a clear idea what they wanted to do about it, and of what they wanted to do they were able to do only a part, which on the whole was worse than nothing at all.

They were always impeded, sometimes nullified, and frequently made idiotic by the discordances within, which as time went on produced the strains that culminated in the schism of 1860, though by that time senescence was so far advanced that the same break-up could have occurred from half a dozen other tensions.  With two interregnums they governed the country for thirty years, and fairly well, considering, during the first twenty of them.  Like all government, theirs was a resultant of partially tangential forces, not a program, not a party government.  What threw them when they tried to control the developing corporations was what threw them throughout, the conflicts between the divergent interests of their own components.  You cannot incorporate in a party the frontier, the plantation system, the mechanics and proletariat, and the metropolitan machines — without considerable friction.  Thus the protective tariff, which the Democracy always swore they were opposed to, was a subsidy to manufacture paid for by the farmers, yet the West had to have internal improvements, which only the tariff could pay for.  Furthermore, manufacturing was thus subsidized at the expense of the planters, yet the planters had to take it because the Democracy would lose the city machines if they didn’t — and had to keep the city machines in line if they want to go on governing.  So, in actual fact, the tariff was never seriously lowered (except once) during the Democratic administrations and was sometimes increased.  Polk, who was honest, blind, and a promise-keeper did, as I shall show in my book, raise hell by forcing a tariff for revenue only through Congress — and, since he had elected to fight a foreign war simultaneously brought the national treasury the closest it had yet been to bankruptcy.  Only the famines in Europe saved him — and won the war…  The tariff was only one of several dilemmas but it would take a lot of space to specify the others.  The point is, government is always by guess and by God, issues seldom correspond to interests, and the young John Chamberlain has finally got it through his head that there are a multiplicity of functioning systems in America, several of which combine in precarious equilibrium to produce a party — and partially hamstring it.

What happened to the Democrats during the Fifties was a result of the inconceivable stupidity of the Southern planters and the accelerating energies of the industrial revolution.  Beyond question, the planters were the biggest fools in our history, which is a weighty superlative.  They never learned how to farm land, they never had intelligence enough to analyze their interests, and they never learned any skill either in politics or in economics.  They are most readily understood not as agrarians but as exploiters of natural resources — who used up land (by means of expendable human machines) precisely as lumbermen used up forests or the miners used up lodes and veins — and as exploiters who, nevertheless, committed themselves to an agrarian economy, and a one-crop agrarian economy at that.  The spread of cotton culture southwest created the illusion of prosperity, the flush times.  With incredible folly, they thought they could perpetuate the phantom by political means — and for political control of Congress they paid the price of economic subjection.  Which is exactly half of the Civil War.  It was, furthermore, a subjection by anarchy.  The manufacturing system and the financial system developed on strict Darwinian principles, without effective control of any kind.  Which is half of the remaining half of the Civil War…  For political control of Congress, conceived as protection of slave property in protection of cotton, they delivered themselves up hogtied into the keeping of the financiers.  The intelligent thing to do would have been to make an alliance with the developing system, rather than fight it head-on, taking what they could get, keeping a share in what they had to give up.  But sublime ignorance of economics (“Cotton is king” was gospel at a time when, as Helper pointed out, the hay crop of the North alone was worth more than the entire cotton crop), plus the delusion of secession, which was really a delusion that southern cotton was necessary to French and British economy, made them mad.

Defence of the status quo invariably and inevitably becomes petrifaction.  During the Fifties the Democracy hardened into an intense reaction, concerned about only one thing, the constitutional defence of slavery, and armed with only one weapon and that terroristic, the threat of secession.  They yowled about the tariff, but they voted for it, buying votes for the protection of slavery thereby.  They became a mere orthodoxy, with their heels dug in.  Efficiency departed from their bureaucracy, not courage only but intelligence departed from their leadership — the descent from, say, Calhoun, to, say, Jeff Davis or Rhett or Yancey (from the tidewater aristocracy to the Deep South parvenus) is approximately the descent of Niagara.  Planless, leaderless, unintelligent, ignorant, opposed to the main currents of political and economic development, they contracted arteriosclerosis as a party and were dead before they were defeated.  They kept power during the Fifties by place and momentum — the accident of history that gave them a respite because the Whigs were annihilated and the Republicans merely being born.

They unconsciously developed the major public policy which the Republicans were to apply consciously: that of, as I have said somewhere, buying the farmer in order to sell him out.  They did it inadvertently, but they did it and it has been the major domestic policy of American politics for something like ninety years.

The Civil War destroyed the Democracy.  It came back after the war to rest one-half of its paradox on the Solid South, to slowly regain the city machines, and to slowly come into national power again by the time-honored process by which the minority party incorporates all the parties of dissent, protest, agitations, and political and economic lunacy.  From the Greenbackers of 1870 down to the LaFollette twins of today, by way of the Granger movement, Populism, Free Silverites, Mugwumps, and anti-imperialists, they have all been gathered to Democracy’s bosom.  (It is to be said of third-party movements that, though their program is usually adopted, as Wilson put into effect practically everything Bryan campaigned for in 1896, their energy usually comes to little in the end and they make the interior stresses and contradictions so great that they hasten the ultimate break-up and defeat.)  But there was one outstanding and overwhelming difference — they had lost their historic alliance with the Middle West.  And this is the third great paradox of our political history and one of the basic facts about America — and it also says something or other, I don’t know what, about the power of sentiments.  So far as there has been an American agrarian party, actually and historically, it has been the Democracy.  The strongest southern interest is and always has been agrarian.  The Midwest and Western agrarian interest is its natural ally against the exploitation of the East — which is to say, of industry and finance.  The Republicans, because they had the leadership and because the Democrats were blind and crazy, succeeded in detaching the Midwest from this alliance during the Fifties.  They did so by realistically serving the Midwest interests, at a time when (as a minority party) they could afford to and when the Democracy didn’t have brains enough to serve any interest, even its own.  The Civil War, converting the Republicans to the party of power, industry, and finance, also handed them the Midwest in apparent perpetuity.  And this was mere sentiment — the Union forever, down with the traitors, vote the way you shot.  Iowa, Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois, the rest of them might start to stampede off in favor of the Grange, the Populists, or anyone else who seemed likely to readjust, even a little bit, the terrible economic inequalities created by the protective system, the Republican financial system, and the concentration of economic power.  But all the GOP had to do for thirty years was to wave the bloody shirt and all it had to do for nearly twenty more was to draw on its war chest.  This is a stupefying fact.  It enabled the system to change the economic set-up of the world.  It delivered the Midwest into the pockets of Wall Street and it made the whole story of the West that of what I have called a plundered province.  And this in defiance of plain interest.  The spectacle of an Ohio wool-grower, in 1870-80 or -90 voting for a tariff on wool because there was a picture of Honest Abe in the postoffice is not only stupefying, it’s inconceivable.  But there you have it, and that was American history 1865-1912, and for a hell of a lot longer than that.  The one overwhelming service of the New Deal was to readjust that tremendous dislocation — for how long?  Those whom the GOP had put asunder were joined together in 1932 and 1936 but they probably won’t stay joined next November.

[marginal note in pencil, next to the foregoing paragraph:] The next great paradox — disregarding the War — is already a-borning, the Southern industrialists turning Republican


The Whigs were, by a hair, a more contradictory collection than the Democrats.  Always far stronger locally than nationally, it was an effective Opposition by fits and starts but too greatly strained within to elect more than two Presidents, both War Heroes, or to hold power once it got it.  It had an extraordinary number of able leaders but had too many for its own good — their personal rivalries, quite as much as the divergent interests they served, weakened the party.  It grew by the process of incorporation through the Thirties and Forties, and the incorporated material was so indigestible that it died.  But Clay and Webster were tremendous powers, though they were never able to fuse an effective organization.  They stood for the emergent mercantilism, manufacture, and finance, but it grew too fast for them, was too little aware of what its own interests were, and, in short, they never caught up with it.  But they did save the nation at the most critical crisis before the War, 1850, and by saving it then, saved it in 1860…  They are my favorite party and I could go on at length, but there’s no point.

The Republican party made the most astonishing growth in our history.  It was approximately six years old when it won in 1860.  It was even more a union of warring antitheses than the Whigs.  Abolitionists and Cotton Whigs voted for Lincoln, which is to say, Communists and Liberty Leaguers voting for Franklin D.  Its Free Soil inheritance, by which it first began to drain off the prairies, was at violent war with its New England, New York and Pennsylvania high-tariff, pro-factory inheritance from Whiggery.  It attracted all the reformers, suffragists and labor reformers as well as abolitionists, and in its earlier phases is an index to all the crank notions of the time.  Yet the nucleus round which all these elements coalesced was the Free Soil and “smart business man” coalition.  In any given small town the local banker stayed Whig as long as he could, then turned Republican in the hope that mortgages would stay sound.  The fires of war really are the fires of war and the party of A. Lincoln, which kept its Free Soil promise by passing the Homestead Act (which was either an irreparable damage to the nation or the most powerful assistance ever given the poor man, or both, and you can take your choice for I don’t know) came out of the war the perfected instrument of entrenched financial interests — interests which it had entrenched.  Another war measure, the Pacific Railway Act, was the beginning of a long line.  So was the National Bank Act.  From both the interknit effects ray out till they blind you…  But as a matter of fact, all subsequent history of the U. S. is the history of the Civil War and you had best not get me started on that.  And there is no need to characterize the post-1890 Republican Party down to, shall we say, 1940.

This should be glossed by a treatise on issues.  But that would merely show that each party has in its turn used both sides of every prominent issue — and I’ve got to go to bed…  If this isn’t the sort of thing you want, put in another call card.  But make it fast, for I think I’m leaving for the West in about ten days.




NOTES by Mark DeVoto:

rentiers: (French) stockholders, investors; persons of private means.  Jefferson’s Republicans: Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, headed the party freely called Democratic Republican by historians; its main political opposition was the Whig Party, which collapsed in the 1840’s and was reborn in the 1854 as the Republican Party.  Washington: George Washington (1732-1799), first president of the United States, served his first term from 1789 to 1793.  De Bow: James D. B. De Bow (1820-1867), author and editor, professor of political economy, founded Commercial Review of the South and Southwest, 1846-47.  Helper: Hinton Rowan Helper (1829-1909), author, attorney, and diplomat; The Impending Crisis, 1857.  Tammany: the Tammany Society, or Tammany Hall, founded 1789, became in the nineteenth century a principal instrument of New York City politics and remained powerful well into the 1960’s, but hardly exists today.  Hamilton’s Federalists: Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804), the first Secretary of the Treasury, was co-author (with James Madison and possibly others) of The Federalist; Washington and John Adams, second U. S. president, were the only presidents from the short-lived Federalist Party.  Alien and Sedition Acts: enacted in reaction to the French Revolution then engulfing Europe and enforced between 1798 and 1801, these gave the president power to deport aliens, and to prosecute critics of the national government.  The Acts were clearly contrary to the First Amendment to the Constitution which guaranteed freedom of speech and of the press and were soon repealed; persons convicted under the Acts were pardoned by President Jefferson.  Jefferson’s Embargo Acts: Jefferson was president from 1801 to 1809.  The Non-Importation Act of 1806, the Embargo Act of 1807, and the Non-Intercourse Act of 1809 severely restricted foreign trade and effectively ruined the shipping industry for several years, but failed to keep the United States from being drawn into war with England in 1812-1814.  Hartford Convention: Federalist representatives from the New England states met secretly at Hartford, December 1814 to January 1815, to consider formal opposition to “Mr. Madison’s War,” with some extremists recommending secession from the United States.  The Convention approved several more moderate resolutions but these were mooted after the Treaty of Ghent was signed on 24 December 1814, ending the war.  Gallatin: Albert Gallatin (1761-1849), Swiss-born Secretary of the Treasury after Hamilton; diplomat at Ghent; later president of the City College of New York.  Arthur Schlesinger Jr.: (1917-2007), Harvard ’38, professor of history at Harvard, later at CUNY; The Age of Jackson, 1946, Pulitzer Prize in history; The Age of Roosevelt, 3 vols., 1957-1960; A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, 1966, Pulitzer Prize in biography; memoir, A Life in the 20th Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950, 2000.  Kendall: (1789-1869), attorney and journalist; Postmaster General of the United States, 1837-1840.  Bancroft: (1800-1891), author and historian, known as the “Father of American History”; minister to England, 1846-49; History of the United States, 10 vols., 1834-1874.  Brownson: (1803-1876), “educator and philosopher” (ANB); Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Orestes Brownson: A Pilgrim’s Progress, 1939.  Ripley: (1802-1880), clergyman, writer, critic, co-founder of the Brook Farm Community.  Diary of a Public Man: this was published anonymously in North American Review, 1879.  Berle: Adolf A. Berle (1895-1971), Harvard ’13; author, attorney, braintruster in the Roosevelt administration; assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs, 1938; The Modern Corporation and Private Property, 1932.  Calhoun: John C. Calhoun (1782-1850), congressman, Secretary of War, 1817-25, Vice President of the United States, 1825-32, resigned in 1832 to become Senator from South Carolina; Secretary of State, 1843-45.  Rhett: Robert Barnwell Rhett (1800-1876), southern statesman, architect of secession.  Yancey: William Lowndes Yancey (1814-63), southern politican, Confederate commissioner and senator.  Greenbackers: the Greenback Party of 1874-76 sought to erase farm debts by inflating the currency; nominated Peter Cooper for president in 1876.  Free Silverites: after the panic of 1873, the Free Silver movement supported fluctuation of the price of silver; eventually arrived at a ratio of 16 to 1 in valuation of silver versus gold (Bland-Allison Act, 1878).  Mugwumps: epithet for Republicans who supported the Democrat Grover Cleveland for president over the Republican James G. Blaine in the election of 1884.  a plundered province: “The West: A Plundered Province,” Harper’s 179/3 (August 1934), reprinted in Forays and Rebuttals, 1936.  two Presidents, both War Heroes: William Henry Harrison (1773-1841), ninth president, known as “Tippecanoe” for his victory in an Indian battle (7 November 1810), died only a month after his inauguration; Zachary Taylor (1784-1850, known as “Old Rough and Ready”), twelfth president, 1849-50.  when it won in 1860: Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth president, was the first Republican president.  Liberty Leaguers: the Liberty League was a short-lived organization of anti-Roosevelt conservatives, 1934-40.  Free Soil: the Free Soil party of 1847 opposed the institution of slavery in former Mexican territory; in 1848 it supported Martin Van Buren for president.  Homestead Act: 1862, granting 160 acres, a quarter section, of national land to homesteaders.  Pacific Railway Act: the Pacific Railroads Act of 1862 chartered the Union Pacific Railroad the same year.  National Bank Act: 1864; superseded by the Federal Reserve Act, 1913.

to Mr. Woodford

to Mr. Woodford
April 3, 1950

Dear Mr. Woodford:

Of course you have my permission to use the quotation from The Year of Decision you ask for.

Incidentally, I solicit you not to assist the growing conviction of publishers that permission for quotations has to be asked and if possible paid for.  The law is quite clear: “reasonable” quotation, which may run to many hundred words, is everybody’s right.  It is only when a writer stands to profit from the work of others rather than his own that he is infringing any law or
any custom of the publishing business.  If a man is merely editing someone else’s work, as in an anthology, he ought to pay for it.  If, however, he is commenting on it or using it illustratively he is entitled to use as much as he likes and the courts will so find.  Ethically and culturally a man who publishes a book puts it at the disposal of anyone who wants to use it.  If there is such a thing as cultural heritage, then it belongs to everyone and only those who expect to profit from it
should pay.

I look with distrust on the habit publishers have formed in recent years of trying to turn an illegitimate penny by making difficulties or by intimidation.  I regard my own stuff as freely available to anyone who wants to use it and as a matter of principle I do not ask permission when I quote.

Excuse the sermon but I regard the point as important.

Sincerely yours,

to Mr. Warren

To Mr. Warren    
December 10, 1943

Dear Mr. Warren:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely yours,

to Jarvis Thurston

to Jarvis Thurston

May 24, 1943


Dear Mr. Thurston:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely yours,

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

to Rose Wilder Lane

to Rose Wilder Lane

June 12th, 1942

Dear Mrs. Lane:

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

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

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

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

Sincerely yours,


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

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

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

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

to Mr. Williams

to Mr. Williams

May 2, 1945


Dear Mr. Williams:

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

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

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

Sincerely yours,

to Van Wyck Brooks

to Van Wyck Brooks

August 2, 1943

Dear Mr. Brooks:

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

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

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

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

Sincerely yours,

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