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: http://content.lib.utah.edu/cdm/ref/collection/UP-Bryson/id/922
[18 February 1936; probably later]
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.