Bernard DeVoto

Historian and conservationist, 1897-1955

Month: December 2015 (page 2 of 4)

to Philip Graham

to Philip Graham  (publisher of the Washington Post)

December 22, 1952

Dear Phil:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


to Mr. Chambers

to Mr. Chambers

May 22, 1950

Dear Mr. Chambers:

You find me in a captious mood.  Maybe I ought to address George Stevens, who wouldn’t give a damn.

In the first place, I feel that a publisher who sends a book to a writer uninvited has to take his chances.  There is yet no statute that compels a writer to read it unless he feels like it or say what he thinks about it unless he wants to.

In the second place, there is something screwy about a publisher’s requiring a writer to comment on a book which has not been sent to him.  So far as I am aware no copy of Guests of Don Lorenzo has appeared at this house and no copy of any other book by Mr. Robert Pick.

It is possible, of course, that you sent me galleys.  If you did I certainly threw them away without looking at them, and I will add that in the third place, a publisher who asks anybody to read galleys has forfeited the ordinary immunities of citizenship and would not be entitled to kick if the grizzly bit him, I hope to God.

Sincerely yours,

to Mr. Oberholtzer

to Mr. Oberholtzer  

April 3, 1950

Dear Mr. Oberholtzer:

Occasionally I have blown off steam in Harper’s about primary and secondary school and college students who call on me and others like me to do their work for them.  Your letter is the first time that a person at the head of a school system has ever made what seems to me a thoroughly unwarranted and illegitimate request.  If your Association is drawing up a program, it certainly has people qualified to make a bibliography.  There is no reason why I should interrupt my work to do the Association’s.  Delegate and pay one of your committee to do the research required.  If you lack confidence in the results when it has been done that is the time to ask for the critical judgment of someone else.  If that time comes, I suggest to you that there are plenty of experts in conservation in Denver, at Denver University, and elsewhere.

I am also moved to wonder how good your Yearbook is going to be unless some of those who write it have first-hand knowledge of the subject.

Sincerely yours,

to Mr. Foraker

to Mr. Foraker

July 5, 1949

Dear Mr. Foraker:

To begin with, western cattlemen did not lose anywhere near as much stock last winter as for propaganda and subsidy purposes they claim they did.  Furthermore, most of those they lost would have been saved if the western cattle business in general were conducted on any level above imbecility and with any system more modern than that of Abel.  The overall trouble with the livestock business out west is that it is antiquated in method and almost inconceivably stupid in conduct.

There is no need for a strain of beef cattle more resistant to winter.  The answer to the absurd western system has already been worked out in Texas and other places where a minimum of brains is used.  This is home ranching, home feeding, and breeding for increased production of beef per unit.  Such western cattlemen as can read and sign their names are coming to see this.  The rest will eventually be forced out of business if we begin to cut down their subsidies.  When beef are raised and fed on the home ranch there is no problem.

There is no problem about grass either except to keep cattle off it long enough for it to come back.  Scores of grasses perfectly capable of restoring the range and holding the soil down have been developed and are now in use.  Cattle owners will not submit to regulation that will enable them to get a foothold, however, and Congress will not provide funds for the extensive and expensive reseeding that must be done.  The native bunch grasses were good enough for buffalo and would be good enough for beef cattle if their owners did not insist on feeding ten where nature has supplied grass for only one.

I don’t think there is any future for the musk ox in the United States.  It would be simpler, less expensive, and more hopeful to shoot cattlemen.

Sincerely yours,

to Willard H. Pedrick

to Willard H. Pedrick (Northwestern University Law School)

December 11, 1952

Dear Professor Pedrick:

I inclose a copy of my piece about the FBI.  It was published in the October 1949 issue of Harper’s.  If you can return it to me when you have finished your study, I should like to have it.

As for the episode involving Mrs. Eisler —  or was “Mrs.” a courtesy title? — I was at the time a member of the executive committee of the Massachusetts Civil Liberties Union, having joined the organization in the early stages of the Strange Fruit case, the first step in an ultimately successful effort to weaken the system of extra-legal literary censorship that had made Boston notorious.  The others on the committee were lawyers, doctors, professors, and business men.  The CLU secretary believed that such people were very busy men, whereas writers were idlers and were never engaged in important work even when occasionally occupied.  It wouldn’t have been nice to call a teacher from a class, a lawyer from a case, or a store manager from a discussion of his golf score.  So whenever anything came up, she habitually telephoned me and I went gonging off to the fire.

Some organization, and I forget what it was (if indeed I ever knew its name), though doubtless it was a front group or at least composed of moony yearners, had arranged to bring Mrs. Eisler to Boston for a lecture — probably to raise funds for Eisler’s defense, though I am not sure of this.  The group had hired Jordan Hall for the lecture.  Jordan Hall is the concert hall of the New England Conservatory of Music, a staid and painfully respectable institution, and was then the second largest auditorium in Boston — a larger one has since been built.  It was, and still is, hired for all kinds of musical performances that could not be expected to fill the larger Symphony Hall, and for various kinds of lectures and theatrical performances.  Thus it was, and still is, a source of badly needed and greatly appreciated income for the Conservatory of Music.

One morning the Boston newspapers carried a story saying that, the previous evening, the Boston City Council had passed a resolution calling on the Mayor to revoke the license of Jordan Hall because of the forthcoming lecture.  Possibly the Mayor was out of town, or more likely Jim Curley was still Mayor and a prisoner in a federal penitentiary.  If Curley had been on the job there would have been no problem, for he would have disregarded the resolution.  The Acting Mayor was Mr. John B. Kelly, then President of the Council, later Attorney General of the Commonwealth.

I had barely read the news story when the CLU secretary phoned me and said that we had to act, as was obvious.  I assembled a committee of the greatest respectability […] and that afternoon led them to the Boston City Hall.  Mr. Kelly was in his own office but would not meet with us till he could get down to the Mayor’s office, and there was a further delay while he summoned the newspaper reporters who covered the City Hall beat.  Mr. Kelly’s literacy was not so overwhelming as to embarrass either him or his listeners.  We went in and I explained to him that the Council’s resolution, which had been passed while he was in the chair, was against the bills of rights in both the Federal and Commonwealth constitutions, that it was destructive of the right to freedom of assembly and of speech, and that so far as I could determine by phone calls to various lawyers the Mayor had no power to revoke the license of Jordan Hall anyway.  I am sure that Mr. Kelly regarded us as highly dangerous people, though that his information gave him any clear notion of what a Communist is can be doubted, but he did have some rudimentary notion of freedom of speech, having heard the aldermen hurl the phrase at one another during their intramural feuds, and a very clear and vivid notion of political opportunity.  He stood up, and facing the newspapermen, delivered a rousing oration to the effect that he was a patriotic American, that America was the land of freedom, that he loathed Communism, and that he would safeguard both the freedom and the patriotism of Boston.  In the course of this prose poem he intimated that he would not revoke the license of Jordan Hall.  The intimation did not seem to me sufficiently binding, so I kept after him till he said specifically, and in the presence of reporters, that he would disregard the Council’s resolution and make no effort to revoke the license.  I thanked him and we filed out in a reverent manner and dispersed.

That was the entire episode.  It was routine for the CLU, though in those days most of our energy went to rescuing Jehovah’s Witnesses from various painful situations which their incorrigible trouble-making proclivities had got them into.  There is one interesting feature about McCarthy’s use of it.  I understand that the former FBI agent who does his research was in Boston for several days, trying to dig up dirt about Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., who, incidentally, was a student of mine when I taught at Harvard.  The Boston newspapers had devoted about an inch to our appearance before Mr. Kelly, I am morally certain that the agent could have got wind of the episode only in a newspaper morgue, and I am personally convinced that he could have been directed to it only by a newspaper, presumably the Post or the Herald.  It was a trivial matter, and, I am sure, had vanished from human memory.  […]

The preparation of both McCarthy and his agent was extremely superficial.  In spite of his emotions about the State Department, he missed the fact that Archie MacLeish had been an Assistant Secretary of State, which would have enabled him oratorically to gain forty or fifty yards if not score a touchdown.

If I can judge by a wisecrack that Judge Wyzanski tossed at me in the library, he believes that McCarthy libeled me.  I myself have no doubt that he did.  I did not hear the first speech but I did hear the second one, and I have heard tape recordings that were made of it.  In that speech he quoted me as having made in the piece about the FBI statements which in fact I did not make, ferociously inflammatory statements.  I take that to be libel.  Whether or not he damaged me in a pecuniary way I do not know.  I do know that an editor and a lecture agent with whom at the moment I was negotiating contracts solemnly inquired of their associates and representatives whether they would lose money if they employed me.

One thing more.  McCarthy’s second speech was he delivered it was more vicious and scabrous than the advance text which he supplied to the newspapers.  I have been told that the same thing is true of the first speech.  I have examined several hundred newspaper clippings and so far s I can see no newspaper called attention to this fact.  In my opinion this is important.  Incidentally, my sole function in Governor Stevenson’s Research Group was that of an expert on conservation and public lands policy.

I am glad that you are making your study and hope that this letter will facilitate it.

Sincerely yours,

The Easy Chair (1955)

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


The Easy Chair

from the Preface (1955):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Number 241

(Harper’s, November 1955)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

to Raleigh Blake

to Raleigh Blake


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[apparently unsigned]

to Robert S. Forsythe

to Robert S. Forsythe  

October 6, 1927

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

Dear Prof:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hell’s Half Acre, Mass.

    Hell’s Half Acre, Mass.

The Easy Chair,  Harper’s, September 1955

I must begin by explaining that, notwithstanding widespread libels in the press, I am neither a nature lover nor an outdoorsman.  For years the conservation war has kept me in active alliance with the organizations of those who are, but I puzzle them.  I have not tried to catch fish since my early twenties and, though I was an expert shot till I sold my guns, I have done no hunting since my late teens.  Because I learned the requisite skills early in life, I get on comfortably in the wildernesses to which my trade takes me every little while, but though I have no objection to a sleeping bag I prefer an innerspring mattress, and though I am a competent camper I would rather end the day at a good restaurant than at a campfire.  I much prefer an automobile to a horse, I have never liked canoeing, and a distaste for birds that I was born with often becomes hostility.

I have one marked superiority to most outdoorsmen, though that is not the noun they use when alluding to it: nothing bites or stings me.  Mosquitoes settle on and ants crawl over my companions, not me; ticks, midges, black flies, wasps, hornets, and all other bugs and insects invariably detour me to get at the poets and sportsmen I associate with in the wilds.  You will guess that I have been offered many explanations of this immunity.

But though my tastes are metropolitan and I have no urge to be active in the wilds, I agree with the outdoorsmen; life would be intolerable if I could not visit woods and mountains at short intervals.  I have got to have the sight of clean water and the sound of running water.  I have got to get to places where the sky-shine of cities does not dim the stars, where you can smell land and foliage, grasses and marshes, forest duff and aromatic plants and hot underbrush turning cool.  Most of all, I have to learn again what quiet is.  I believe that our culture is more likely to perish from noise than from radioactive fallout; noise is the worst torture we inflict on one another.

Nothing in this is sentimental or poetic.  It is necessity.  And to get to my point, it is necessity to a hundred million other Americans.

Interest in natural history normally awakens in the early teens.  This spring and summer I have watched a number of boys of high-school age pursuing that interest.  The schools, which did nothing about it when I was that age, now provide quite remarkable training, but the training can be put to use only with difficulty.  With these stirrings has come, inevitably, the desire to go camping in the outdoors that is pure fantasy at first; for some of these boys it is going to remain fantasy unless they get some unlikely breaks.  One of them lately dug out of my shelves a book called Camping and Woodcraft by Horace Kephart, which in its way is as remarkable as the same author’s standard work, Our Southern Highlanders.  The copyright date is 1917.  I had not looked at it for years; glancing through it now, I realize that its fascinating lore must remain just reading matter to a great many people.  When Kephart wrote it, the experiences it deals with were open to anyone in a few hours and at the cost of a few dollars.  Now, in the East, in practically all the Middle West, and in most of the South they call for a formidable outlay and a lot of time.


A month ago I was called on to drive one of these boys, with a load of collecting and killing jars, Riker mounts, microscope slides, scalpels, and scientific manuals, to some place where he could pursue his field inquiries amidst some natural abundance.  The nearest place that would do (but only barely) was a Massachusetts state forest, ninety miles from Cambridge.  A drive of about a hundred miles would have taken us to the Green Mountain National Forest or adjacent Vermont woods owned by power and lumber companies which are willing to have people use them if they will behave intelligently.  On the trip we settled for we reached portions of the White Mountain National Forest in about a hundred miles, but to find all we wanted we had to drive through Crawford Notch to the vicinity of Fabyan, thirty-five or forty miles farther.  Of course, there are plenty of woodlots and some fine hills and even peaks much nearer.  But the woodlots are private property that you don’t want to trespass on, and are usually forbidden to, and few of them are large enough anyway.  Hills and mountains so near to Boston are a kind of park, and parks are not right for the study of even elementary ecology.  Well, to go 140 miles to reach a reasonably neglected natural area is quite an undertaking for a boy who is too young for a driver’s license, and though I can easily rearrange the working-hours my trade calls for, most fathers can’t.

To make their notes on birds, these boys have been going to Mount Auburn Cemetery.  It is excellent for that purpose and besides is beautifully landscaped and has many species of trees and shrubs not native to this region.  About three miles farther out, in the town of Belmont, there is a swamp in a first-rate condition of neglect and they have done there some investigations that seem to me truly remarkable.  But most of their nature study has been carried on in an area which, I learn, they are calling Hell’s Half Acre.  I had not visited it for some years, for reasons that have led them to give it that name.  Recently, however, some of them took me there on a guided tour, for purposes of propaganda.


By the time the Charles River reaches Cambridge it is foul and noisome, polluted by offal and industrial wastes, scummy with oil, unlikely to be mistaken for water.  Still, it is a river.  And between the river bank and the Cambridge Cemetery which is on a slight rise, there is a narrow strip of neglected land about a mile and a quarter long.  It follows some pleasing curves of the Charles, crosses the Cambridge line, and extends to the U. S. Arsenal at Watertown.  During many years I walked there often and so did a lot of other people.  There were trees, grass, a lot of mixed vegetation, minute watercourses, and so much small wildlife that the myriad rats and the always-burning Watertown dump never invaded it.  It was from here that an occasional skunk wandered down to startle some Cambridge gardener.  I cannot say that it was a beauty spot and the Cemetery insisted on littering one edge of it with withered floral pieces, but it was open, tolerably quiet, tolerably fresh, and a pleasant place to have in a city of 130,000 people.

At the beginning of the war, the government fenced off the upstream third of this stretch, to provide a storage area for the Arsenal.  Immediately after the war a new bridge was built across the downstream end, so that one of Boston’s improved access roads could connect with a state highway.  Promptly bulldozers and graders chewed up the lower end of it and the construction company dumped thousands of tons of earth and rubble on it, so much that a range of small hills several hundred yards long resulted.  It heaped its miscellaneous junk there too.  The citizenry of Cambridge began to do the same; the place is not officially a dump, in fact dumping is prohibited there, but it is being used as one nevertheless.  It is hideous and offensive.

Diminished by about half, a stinking and scabrous dump, littered with oil drums and automobile fenders and old refrigerators, that is Hell’s Half Acre.  Yet the apprentice naturalists rejoice in it as a convenient place to study nature.  The small range of hills blocked off some of the minute watercourses, which ran through patches of peat bog, and a small pond has formed, with an equally small marsh at one end of it.  The marsh is thick with cattails, bulrushes, sedges, and blue and yellow flags.  Bindweed, milkweed, pokeweed, blue toadflax, tansy and the like have covered much of the contractor’s litter.  There is a luxuriant growth of vetches, docks, mulleins, sheep sorrels, and sweet clover.  You can find white campion, cinquefoils, evening primroses.  Poplars and wild cherries have appeared in quantity and some gray birch is coming in.  (“No fungi, ferns, horsetails, mosses, or liverworts,” say the notes which my guides made as we explored it.  Those notes list more than twenty species of plants, worthless weeds to you, that I have not mentioned.)  Muskrats have taken up residence in the marsh; I am sure there were none before.  Several families of mallards were being reared on the pond.  We heard bullfrogs and saw a couple of pheasants, a night heron, a number of killdeer and kingfishers, many red-winged blackbirds, and of course all the species of birds you see in city parks.  My guides have listed several species of butterflies and scores of species of other insects, arachnids, and myriapods.  There are turtles and various kinds of snakes but, I fear, no longer any skunks.


I was taken on this tour because my instructors attribute more power to the press than it has.  They hoped that if I mentioned Hell’s Half Acre in the Easy Chair, the City of Cambridge could be induced to fence off the lower end and so keep people from dumping any more refuse there.  They had still dizzier hope that less than three-quarters of a mile of rubbish-befouled wasteland could be constituted a nature preserve — that the highway to be built there would be routed somewhere else.  They believed that Cambridge ought to maintain a few acres of land in a condition of judicious neglect.  So that mallards and muskrats could breed there, night herons could stalk among the sedges and bulrushes, wild radish could cover the rusty tin cans, and people could look at plants, flowers, birds, and spiders in natural associations and, seeing them, could learn a little, reflect a little, and refresh their spirits.

The boys’ cause is hopeless.  The City of Cambridge could do nothing, even if it saw any reason to, for the area is under the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan District Commission, the highly effective intergovernmental organization that grapples with the problems of Greater Boston.

But the boys’ argument is entirely sound, entirely unanswerable.  If civic intelligence did not contain a built-in factor of social stupidity, the new highway would be routed up the street on the far side of the Cemetery and these few scarred acres would be fenced off and let alone.  If this should cost ten or fifty times as much as taking the highway across Hell’s Half Acre, it would nevertheless be an economy — a cash and tax economy — so great that a commission endowed with proper business sense could never consider any other course.


Because my instructors will not accept the explanations I have offered them, they may learn from Hell’s Half Acre a second lesson, as important as the one they have learned about nature’s ability to heal its injuries and cover its scars.  I have explained the fearful pressures that are at work on every aspect of our municipal life — constantly growing population, heavier traffic, greater crowding of business, diminishing living space, diminishing space of every kind.  I have made clear that city planners, engineers, architects, and the political bodies that direct them are, contrary to what my instructors and many austere adult thinkers believe, dealing with these problems more effectively than there was any reason to hope they could.  But the boys dismiss all this as irrelevant and are moving directly to the perception that counts most — to the knowledge that civic intelligence does contain that component of social stupidity.  So a few years from now they may decide that they had better get to work eradicating the component before it is too late.

For Hell’s Half Acre is as nicely mounted a specimen as any slide of infusoria in their collections.  Cambridge has some parks but by no means enough, and sometime will have to construct a lot more at fearful expense; the one place where anyone, including high-school boys, could see a little of the web of nature is now a dump, it will presently be a highway, and from then on forever the city will have no place at all.  You must now drive a hundred miles to get to a patch of natural woods large enough to justify studying it.  And Cambridge is Massachusetts, which has lately arranged to spend two million dollars to get a public sea beach and will eventually have to spend scores of millions of dollars to provide open spaces, and forests and semi-natural areas which it once could have got for a few hundred thousand dollars.  In fact, Cambridge is the United States.  Anywhere in the country the distance to unchlorinated water, clean air, and the quiet of nature is the distance to the nearest state or national forest.

Go anywhere you choose.  See the suburbs and the shopping centers spreading into the fields.  See the expressways carving up open areas whose loveliness and quiet are indispensable and are also ended forever.  Pick up any newspaper and read what is happening everywhere.  For everywhere natural areas, semi-natural areas, and wholesomely disregarded areas in a partially natural state, are being obliterated.  The growth of towns, cities, and industries is swallowing them up.  No end to this process can be imagined, and it is irreversible.


Forty years ago Cook County, Illinois, began to buy small groves and residual patches of woods and marsh, hoping to link them loosely together in a kind of belt round Chicago.  The result is the Cook County Forest Preserve, 42,000 acres, partly park, partly semi-natural area, which serves a hundred villages, towns, and cities.  It is perhaps a fifth of what the County needs and a tenth of what it could use.  See any part of it on an August Sunday when 400,000 people, a tenth of the population, are using it, and you will perceive that it is Cook County’s most valuable possession.  The commissioners acquired these areas with infinite labor and at always increasing expense; their plans call for acquiring 8,000 acres more, which will be even harder to get.  And the pressure by towns, institutions, and corporations to carve up the Preserve and use it for what they regard as practical purposes it never lets up.  Oak Park would like ten acres of it for a parking lot and twenty for for a playground.  River Forest wants fifty acres for a high school.  A club demands a hundred acres for trap shooting and similar sports.  The University of Illinois would like three hundred acres for its Chicago campus.  The Corps of Engineers wants to dump its excavated material on another part of the forest.  And so on, every day, year after year, with increasing urgency.

No doubt the towns and cities Cook County need space for these things.  Rudimentary financial judgment would bid them rip up the belt railroads and demolish the Loop rather than encroach on the Forest Preserve.  Chicago may not be forced to such drastic actions but the leveling of expensive portions of some big cities is predictable.

The demand for the conversion and destruction of state reservations is even stronger, though the most populous states have learned that this cannot be listened to.  Far more dangerous are the unceasing attempts to reduce the size of federal reservations, and to convert them to “sensible” and “profitable” uses.  Readers of the Easy Chair are familiar with the efforts of the Bureau of Reclamation to destroy Dinosaur National Monument (with holding companies lined up behind it eying eight other national parks), and with the continuous effort of Western stock growers to get hold of the national forests, an effort that would bankrupt the West if it were to succeed.  As I write this, the House of Representatives is inquiring into intention of the Department of the Interior to get rid of large portions of the wildlife reserves and to convert other portions to what it considers profitable use.  Lumber companies, corporations that raise cattle, and a few millionaires’ clubs would get part of this loot, but even less pardonable is the effort of the Army to get in on the steal.  The Army has even been lying to Congress to get what it wants.  (It would cost a lot of money to build and maintain Army installations for the proposed purpose in the Nevada desert, but the total would be only a small fraction of what the conversion of the wildlife reserves would cost.)  The Forest Service is under constantly increasing pressure to reduce the size of the portions of various forests which it reserves in their primitive condition as Wilderness Areas.  The sum of these pressures is terrifying, it is a national danger.  But, far from learning as some states have learned that they must be resisted no matter who loses a profit, the Administration is enthusiastically yielding to some of them.


And the population keeps on growing, the suburbs extend farther into the fields, a high-school boy has to be driven 140 miles to find some Fontinalis, and the ordinary citizen must go always farther to find clean water and a natural silence.  If we do not soon acquire a little business sense and some social intelligence, the nation will collapse from spiritual hemorrhage.

God knows it is good to have a President who is a real fisherman, not one who puts on the costume for the sake of the photographers.  But he ought to look at the rivers he fishes.  He likes the Fraser; does he know that its doom has been spoken?  Some once equally delightful Colorado rivers are now dead, more are dying, many are seriously sick.  Some are out of control, none flows as much water as it used to.  I understand that every trout taken from its river costs Colorado four dollars; it will be eight dollars in a few years.  The President lately went fishing in New England.  I do not know how much Maine and New Hampshire fish cost, but I do know how much the rape and spoliation of the New England woods and wilderness is costing the people of New England.  Mr. Eisenhower should have tried the Connecticut River, an open sewer where once he could have caught salmon as far up as Second Lake or crossed the river dryshod on the backs of shad as far up as Brattleboro.

I know that the President has not got time to look at the right places.  But someone close to him should certainly look at them.  If Mr. Sherman Adams or Mr. Robert Cutler will give me a ring the next time he is in town, I will be glad to show him Hell’s Half Acre.

[on American Literature]

    [on American Literature]

September 24th, 1943

Professor Oscar Halecki, Director
Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in America
37 East 36th Street
New York, N.Y.

Dear Professor Halecki:

I send you a running summary of my remarks at the Institute, as well as I can remember them.  I think it might be advisable to run a prefatory note saying that it is a summary and that all explanatory and illustrative material has necessarily been left out of it.  I hope that in its present form it will not be too discouraging.

Sincerely yours,

Bernard  DeVoto


Until toward the end of the 19th century American history is primarily the story of the differentiation of an American way of life from the various strains of European culture and the development of a native culture in terms of the environment of the new world.  From the earliest plantations the Impact of that environment on Europeans had been making them over, altering their consciousness and changing both their experience and the interpretations that they put on experience.  The American Revolution was the political expression of a fact already achieved, the establishment on the American continent of a new nation.

In some degree the history of American literature is also the story of a differentiation, the establishment of a national consciousness and the achievement of an existence independent of European literature.  The two histories do not, however, coincide.

During the first century of the English colonies there was little artistic expression of any kind.  Only in the tidewater society of the South and in the small provincial capitals of Philadelphia, New York and Boston was there sufficient wealth to afford anyone reprieve from the struggle for existence in the wilderness and permit the cultivation of the arts.  The educated classes thought of themselves as Englishmen and insofar as they read or tried to write literature, they conformed to the fashions and traditions of the mother country.  Such slight literary expression as exists is frankly imitative, and not only that, but imitative of modes and manners already obsolescent or even obsolete in Great Britain.  This specific kind of lag, the reproduction in America of literary fashions already waning In England, has been a recurrent phenomenon of American literature almost down to the present era.  Apart from this sparse and feeble dilettante literature, there was no belles lettres at all.  The characteristic literary expression of the period is to be found In theological exegesis and controversy, sermons, and hymns.

Nevertheless there was going on a sub-literary activity out of which were eventually to come the earliest beginnings of a native literature.  At the level of folk art, legends, tales, proverbs and the common experiences of common people in the wilderness were creating an oral literature.  In part this literature represented an adaptation of the immemorial folk literature transported from Europe.  In part it recorded and expressed experiences of the new world.  It first found print perhaps in disregarded broadsides and almanacs, or as unconscious interpolations in more polite literature, but its tales and ballads enormously enriched the nation’s consciousness and in due time would fertilize a finer literature.
The 18th  century was the second century of American experience.  During this century the nation grew to political consciousness and finally independence.  Polite literature remained provincial, a minor and usually antiquarian department of English literature.  The fashionable essayists and poets of twenty-five years earlier in London were the models accepted and usually accepted unthinkingly by the wits and. literati of the colonies.   One sees a still greater cultural lag than in the preceding century.  What was truly American was political literature.  As agitation and conflict sharpened, whole schools of political theorists arose to rationalize, explain, and implement the tremendous changes that were occurring. In the formal arguments of such men as Jefferson and Hamilton, the only less formal exegeses of such a man as Franklin, or the more nearly literary interpretations of such a man as Hector St. John Crèvecoeur, the experience of the differentiated American way of life finds a genuine expression.

The steady development and enrichment of folk literature continued. It is certainly true that the popular consciousness found native expression in music and even in painting before it did in literature. Nevertheless, by the middle of the 18th century there was something faintly recognizable as an American theater, if not an American drama, and there was abundant evidence of a humble popular literature almost ready for mature expression. One is aware of sharply characteristic rhythms and imagery in American speech, which in turn had already created a characteristic American humor, and it was through humor that the American consciousness was first to find expression in formal literature. Franklin writing essays on manners or education is almost altogether a late imitator of Addison. Franklin’s familiar correspondence, however, his Poor Richard aphorisms, and his rowdier editorials and addresses frequently employ rhythms and imagery and above all the characteristic turns of thought of the life immediately around him. They frequently rise to the level of a native expression of autochthonous experience. They tremble on the verge of an independent literature corresponding to the political independence agitated for in political literature and achieved in the Revolution.

It is certain that by Franklin’s time that independence had been achieved in speech, in oral literature and in folk literature. Franklin may not have said, “We must all hang together or we shall all hang separately,” but if he did not, then one of his contemporary Americans did say it. We are told that after Franklin became famous in Philadelphia it was remarked of him in New England that his keel had been laid in Nantucket but his mother had had to come to Boston to launch him. In either of those expressions one may discern an instinctive use of the language quite inconceivable in England. Crèvecoeur’s “this new man, this American” was speaking in a new way. It remained for literature to adopt that way of speaking.

For many decades the conflict in the American literary consciousness was between the native way of thought and the form and traditions of English literature. The conflict has never been wholly resolved, perhaps never can be, perhaps never ought to be. In the sense that western civilization is one and that all cultures have some international expression in common, American  literature is properly a phase, if an independent phase, of European literature. Nevertheless for generations the American writer was oppressed by a feeling of provinciality and a conviction  that he had to struggle with a lesser medium, inferior subject matter, at a great distance from the true sources and meeting places of literature. Emerson’s “The American Scholar” was a summons to writers to cease to feed a minor stream of a foreign culture, to cast off conventions, fashions and literary ideals not native to  them and to compose out of purely American experiences a purely American literature. At intervals throughout our literary history  it has been necessary to repeat Emerson’s challenge, and in fact one continuing and easily recognizable activity of American criticism has been the rewriting of “The American Scholar” in terms of the changing generations.  In the period since the First World War American literature has matured so widely and on so many levels, and has exercised of its own right so important an influence in world literature, that we may too easily forget the long labors and the innumerable and heart-breaking failures which American writers suffered on the way.

I have already alluded to the early development of an indigenous popular literature and pointed out that it was chiefly characterized by humor and even by vulgar humor. Struggling to be born in the United States was a literature of democracy corresponding to the democratic society which had already developed. Such a literature lagged far behind the society itself, and the lag was considerably increased by the provincialism of writers and their adherence to forms and traditions of English literature, many of which, as I have said, were already obsolete in England when they became fashionable here. In the first thirty or forty years of the 19th century one may frequently find the indigenous strain embedded in the lifelessness of primarily imitative polite literature. This indigenous strain, which is always the only part of the literature that seems to have any life today, is encountered in the humorous presentation of humble characters, usually bucolic and frequently backwoodsmen. A stiff and empty Gothic novel, for example, or an equally preposterous romantic drama will center about principal characters, heroes, heroines, and villains who are altogether lifeless and who are taken over from the conventions of second-rate English novels and plays.  Yet in that same novel or play there may be a shrewd countryman or a rambunctious frontiersman whose emotions, behavior and speech are unmistakably observed from the life. The small farming communities and the westward-making frontier thus came to have in American ltierature precisely the same function of democratization that they had in the development of American society.  This strain begins as humor but continues as realism, and if American literature as a whole has made any characteristic contribution to world literature it may be generalized as democratic realism.  It must be so generalized here,  since a detailed discussion of it would supply matter for an entire course of lectures.

An indigenous and truly national American literature first found mature expression in the 1840’s and 1850’s and was demonstrated by a group of New England writers of whom at least two, Emerson and Thoreau, have become the possession of international literature.  It is characteristic of our history that this literature represented something of a cultural lag, in that the dominance of New England was already waning and that the nation was expanding socially, politically and geographically far beyond its consciousness.  The United States of Emerson and Thoreau is the last stage of the society of the founding fathers, the society of a small republic whose centers of power were still east of the Allegheny Mountains, and for which the Atlantic was far less of a boundary than the great wastes of land to the westward.  Nevertheless, this is a mature and permanent literature, absolutely expressive of the way of life from which it arises, a purely American literature in terms of American life and therefore of equal citizenship in world literature.

The second great age of American literature began some ten years after the end of the Civil War and may be said to extend for a quarter of a century thereafter.  Its great names are those of such men as Mark Twain, Howells, Whitman and Henry James, although Whitman really represents the bridge between this and the earlier period.  I have elsewhere called this the literature of the American empire, as distinguished from the first republic represented by Emerson and Thoreau.  It is significant that none of the four men I have mentioned was a New Englander by birth but it may also be significant that three of them lived for a long time In New England.  The effective centers of power and of national vigor had crossed the Alleghenies, and there had grown up in the great valley of the Mississippi a new and vigorous phase of American culture, destined eventually to become the dominant phase.  The same lag that we have encountered earlier is encountered here in the fact that whereas this new phase of American life found its highest political embodiment in Lincoln, it had to wait many years for Its finest literary embodiment in the work of Mark Twain.  The same way of life shaped the minds of Lincoln and Mark Twain, yet it had been unable to get literary expression before Mark Twain.  It is, of course, a far more spacious and far less genteel America, as robust and as rude as the lines of Lincoln’s face, or the technique of a Mark Twain novel.  It is a continental America turned inward from the oceans rather than outward toward them, immensely less aware of Europe, and already tinged with a sorrow and pessimism foreign to Emerson and Thoreau and based on an instinctive realization of the boundaries and limits alike of democracy and progress, which the America of the earlier period had not known.  It is, however, an enormously vigorous prolongation and widening of the democratic realism which had produced them.

These two major periods before our own are distinct but nevertheless continuous.  Between them they defined the channel in which American literature has flowed ever since and seems likely to continue.  There has been a third principal period in American literature, the one in which we are now living.  Its achievements have been various and large.  If it has produced no single writer of unquestioned genius and comparable to the great names of either of the two preceding periods, it has nevertheless maintained a far higher average of excellence than either of the others.  The commonly accepted statement that American literature came of age with this period is flatly untrue, for it came of age nearly a century before with Emerson and Thoreau. But in the period following the first World War the labors of generations of American writers came into harvest. By that I mean that American writers achieved a higher stature in public estimation and the freedom to determine their literary conduct as a matter of course, a freedom for which their predecessors had had to fight. The literature of this period has been more various, more nervously alive, more concerned with the immediate experience of men than the average of any period of American literature before it. It has also been more immediately influential abroad. The product of a confused time, however, it has had far less unity and far less sense of being a proud continuance of an American tradition. That it has continued a proud tradition is evident in the fact that it also may be most justly generalized as a literature of democratic realism.

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