Bernard DeVoto

Historian and conservationist, 1897-1955

Month: January 2016

Homily for a Troubled Time

   Homily for a Troubled Time

Woman’s Day, January 1951

Six hundred years ago the plague we now call the Black Death swept over Europe, and at least twenty-five million people died of it, or something more than a fourth of the population of the Continent.  In all history there has been no other disaster so great.

There has been no terror so great, either, for nobody could understand what the pestilence was.  There was no way to cure it, no way to prevent it or escape it, and men lived in a nightmare of paralyzing panic.

The Black Death has always been the greatest symbol of human helplessness and of universal fear.  Until the present moment and the atom bomb.

In 1348 the plague struck the great Italian city of Florence and killed at least sixty per cent of the inhabitants.  One whom it spared was a writer named Giovanni Boccaccio, and a few years later he wrote a great book.  Called the Decameron, it has often been in disrepute because of the robust Latin humor that shocks our more delicate sensibilities.  But many scholars have called it the first modern book, and certainly it is the first one that shows the reawakening sunlight which we call the Renaissance, the warmth that means respect for and delight in the human experience.  It was written in the shadow of an almost universal fear of imminent death, with the end of the world at hand.

Its hundred stories are set in an extremely significant framework.  When the plague breaks out in Florence, a small group of people flee to Fiesole, in the hills above the city, and there in a great villa wait for the terror to pass.  They are rich, and all the luxuries of the medieval world are at their command.  But in the first place they must crowd the fear of the plague out of their minds, and in the second place life on their mountaintop above the stricken city is intolerably barren and empty.  So they determine to fill the vacuum by taking turns telling stories.

And what were the stories about?  They were about the common, hearty, exuberant, tragic life of Italy.  They were stories of adventure , of fortitude, of humor, of youth and age, faith and despair, love and grief — of the daily round of human experience from which the storytellers have fled.

On their sterile promontory, the life they had left behind in Florence preoccupied them — they could no more escape from it than from fear of the plague.  If you try to escape from death, you lose life.  That is the moral — and the danger — of our obsessive fear today.

At the beginning of the recent depression, a man I knew suddenly became rich.  He bought a large estate in a remote but fertile farming country and set out to make it self-sufficient.  It was to provide everything necessary for life, flour from his own wheat, meat from his own herds, fish from his own ponds, electricity from his own power plant.  All this was because the revolution (the paralyzing but never specifically defined terror of those days) might break out any moment.

His plan was entirely unworkable.  His power plant would stop operating as soon as the gasoline trucks stopped making deliveries.  The mobs he envisioned would overrun his place like locusts.  And so on.  It was a panic dream, a nightmare.  But I wondered, even if his dream of safety could be realized, what his life would be worth to him.  Just beyond his high fences his fellow countrymen would be meeting their destiny, warring horribly perhaps, and dying by the thousands — but grappling with the problems of the real world and working out some way of going on.  They would be alive.  My friend, digesting his dinner in safety, would have no part in their experience.  He would be withdrawn from human destiny, and so, while he walked his peaceful fields, he would be dead.

His dream of escape was widespread in those depression days.  We all knew people who bought places in the mountains or up the farthest creeks, so they could live untouched by the revolution.  One of the most publicized was a man who bought a canyon in the Oregon wilderness and over some years spent a fortune making it, so he thought, an impregnable fortress and an inexhaustible storehouse.  Heaven knows how many thousands of gallons of gasoline he stored in underground tanks, how many hundreds of tons of canned and dried and concentrated food he hid in camouflaged vaults, how many motor trucks he bought, how many spare parts, radio tubes, socks, rifles, medical supplies, refrigerators.  He thought of everything and bought a hundred of it.  Well, someday while he was stalking a revolutionist after the charge had broken against his wall, one whom he had not seen would get a bead on him, or his humble hired hands would take the place from him.  And even if that didn’t happen, what would be precious about sleeping warm and eating a good meal in a canyon while the nation worked out its fate?  An alimentary canal would be preserved for a while; but from the day he set in place the last massive stone of his guard wall, a man would be dead.

Now the fear is of the Bomb.  Soon after Hiroshima, a famous scientist arranged to buy an abandoned mineshaft in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  He and his family would be safe there, he thought, from the destruction that was to befall the United States.  Maybe they would, but they would no longer be a part of the United States or even of humankind.  His was an extreme form of a fantasy that is all about us.  Real-estate firms in Washington, Pittsburgh, New York, and other metropolises advertise suburban property as being distant enough from industrial and military targets to be beyond the bomb’s blast and radiation.  Many people have bought houses or shacks in remote locations they think safe.  Many others are working out ingenious plans to preserve themselves through the atomic war and enable them to survive when it ends.

The atomic bomb is real.  The war we are engaged in, whether or not we call it war, is real.  Terrible possibilities are real: that we may be led into a world-wide war, whose duration or even whose outcome we cannot foretell.  It is true and real that, if the big war does not come, at best the United States must expect an indefinite period of armament for war, constant vigilance, and a national effort that will forever change and harden the way we live.  Fear of these dangers in an age as desperate and precarious as any the world has ever seen is sane, logical, and justified.  Fear of real danger is always intelligent and always a valuable weapon with which to combat danger.

But unreal fear is a greater danger than any real danger.  We know this very well; but panic tugs at our minds, and the panic is worse than any horror it conjures up.  For it could paralyze our thinking and our action.

The essence of our modern despair is that the twentieth century has seen two world wars, after a century in which there were only little wars.  But take a thoughtful man when that peaceful century began just after Waterloo, which marked the downfall of Napoleon.  Such a man would remember that the eighteenth century fought four world wars, all of them, comparatively, as destructive and as full of agony as ours.  The seventeenth century fought three world wars, and each of them, like ours, changed forever everyone’s expectations and way of life.  The sixteenth century was a whirlpool of almost unceasing war, national, civil, religious.  Our philosopher of 1815, looking back through the twenty-five years of world-wide war ended by Waterloo, across the three preceding centuries, on to the ancient world and beyond it to the savagery from which civilization arose — the philosopher might well have believed that war is an inescapable part of the way men live together in society.

Suppose for a moment (though I do not believe it is true) that periodic war is an inescapable part of society, and that we are headed toward our worst world war.  Well, China’s Great Wall could not keep the invading armies out, any more than the stone walls Londoners built in Samuel Pepys’ time could keep the plague out.  No nation can live at the bottom of a mine.  It would not be a nation but only a cluster of fearbound and paralyzed polyps.

Yet we are not correctly interpreting this panic if we think of it as national.  It is individual, personal, private.  If you scrutinize it with care, it turns out to be an abnormal manifestation of a normal fear which is so fundamental a part of life that everyone normally disregards it — the fear of death.

It is every human being’s tragic hypochondria.  Civilization has increased our expectation of life, but the terms of individual life have not been changed, and any infant born today may die day after tomorrow.  Any time one crosses a street, the thin envelope of flesh may be obliterated by an automobile or a falling tile.  There is no safety, and our private fear of the atomic bomb is merely a denial that we must keep our final appointment.

Actually, the fear is not of tomorrow but of the day after, and that is its danger — for the fear of death can keep us from living.  There is the old question: If you knew you were to die day after tomorrow, what would you do tomorrow?  Only one answer has ever been sensible: Just what I would do if I did not know — go to the office, take the children to the park, go on with the job, get married, buy the house, have a baby.  All other answers would be folly, and the most foolish of all would be: I would spend my last twenty-four hours at the bottom of an abandoned mine.

We can never surely instill in our children what we have learned from our experience as we can bequeath them money we have saved.  But suppose we could, and suppose, too, that there were no threat of war.  What would you say to a son or daughter who intended to get married?

You might tell your children that many marriages lead to failure and divorce, anguish they could escape by staying single.  You might say that all marriages are full of deprivation, disappointment, and sorrow — husbands lose their jobs, savings are used up, homes have to be sold, children are crippled or they die or they grow up and break your heart.  How foolish it is to risk all this when all of it can be avoided.  But you never do say this.  However you phrase it, what you say means that the decency and dignity of life lie not in evading it but in experiencing it as fully as possible.  No one, you say, can promise anything surely or foretell what will happen.  But you make your cast, and no matter what happens, you will have affirmed life.  Whatever the bitterness, failure, or tragedy, to act positively and in belief is to be alive, whereas to refrain from acting is to be dead while you still breathe.

Marriage, education, job, career — about none of these can one say anything else.  The risk of failure is great, and death in the end is certain.  But to refrain from action because of the risk is worse than folly: it is a premature form of the death it envisions.  To anyone calculating the odds of life, one of the epitaphs in the Greek Anthology said three thousand years ago all that wisdom can ever say:

    A shipwrecked sailor on this coast
      Bids you set sail;
    Full many a ship, when ours was lost,
       Weathered the gale.

Now abandon the supposition that no war or disaster threatens us; face the reality of the world today.  What should you do tomorrow if you knew that war was going to break out the day after?  Precisely what you would do if you did not know.  Go to the office, take the children to the park, get on with the job, get married, buy the house.  No one can foretell how much fulfillment you will have, but you will have at least some; whereas you will have none at all if you refrain.  To withhold action through fear is to deny life, which is the blackest sin.

It is also simple foolishness.  For as you start down the abandoned mine shaft toward your twenty-four hours of safety, the ladder may break under your feet.

Life makes out its own price tag.  To everyone, the cost of being alive is just what he may be called upon to pay.  You pay the amount printed on the tag, and it is a waste of emotion to lament that someone else seems to have got off for less.  You cultivate your garden and take whatever crop it produces.  Do you think, because fear keeps you from trying for what you want, your neighbors will not take from life whatever it may hold for them?  Stop on the sidewalk transfixed by a horrible vision of the Third World War breaking out; all around you people are doing their jobs, shopping, going home to the family, making a date for dinner or the movies.  If you pack your family off to the bottom of the mine, it will be the same: the world and its work will be going on.  But you will not be part of it.

It will be the same if, while you watch your children playing with the pretty chunks of ore at the bottom of the shaft, the cloud of atomic fire mushrooms over the city from which you have fled.  Thousands will be dying there — in pain that is just like any other pain.  The rest will be working at the debris, patching up some sort of society, keeping the race going — getting married, begetting children, taking such fulfillment from life as they can, meeting their destiny.  You will be meeting yours, too, but with the difference that you will be alone.

“Fellow countrymen, we cannot escape history.”  Lincoln said that, and at a moment as dark as ours; some would call it darker, for war was here, and the nation seemed likely to die of self-inflicted wounds.  Now, as then, we cannot as a people escape destiny, any more than as individuals we can escape death.  The United States must pay the sum printed on the tag.  If this is an era of darkness, insecurity, and fear, that is the asking price for life, national and personal, in the days of our particular years, and there is no way of not paying the price.  There is no Fiesole to which we may flee from the Florence we live in.  It may be too bad — but it will be worse if fear of the day after tomorrow paralyzes us in the twenty-four hours that come between.

Fortunately, it will not paralyze the nation or many of us who, as individuals, compose the nation.  The panic is private and of the upper levels of the mind, but the deeper levels are wiser.  At the base of personality, sheer animal faith in life makes us affirm life.  There is always a pistol or a bottle of sleeping pills, but we vote to wake tomorrow and cultivate our garden.  Indeed, the affirmation is deeper than personality, for body has a wisdom that resides in the nerves, the muscles, the very cells.  They go on performing their function till death comes.  Their function is the maintenance and renewal of human life.  So is ours.

What does the asking price buy?  At worst it will buy, day after tomorrow, the knowledge that we have lived an additional day — and if fear has not paralyzed us, that we got from it what we could, and did what could.  The knowledge that the United States went out to meet its destiny, acting positively, not refraining from action in panic.  That we acted as a sound, sane, resolute people.  That as a people we affirmed the life which is in us and were members of one another; and that as individuals we have lived in a decisive time and not shrunk from our part in it.  That we stood for the dignity of human experience.

That, at worst.  But it is possible that the affirmation of life will be the renewal of life, and that to meet destiny squarely will be to master destiny.  We know down to the nerves and cells of our bodies that this is possible, that to act on faith may be to hold off the big war, prevent the cloud of atomic fire, and usher in an age greater than any we have known before.

to Mrs. Guilhert

to Mrs. Guilhert    
October 31, 1949

Dear Mrs. Guilhert:

I will gladly write your article if you will show me any evidence that women as such are any more likely to amend matters than men.  Actually American politics is crammed full of women’s activity and I cannot see that there is any sex differentiation.  I think you misconceive the nature of politics, which is the art of bringing men to agree on a workable resolution of their diverse interests.  There has never been a time anywhere in the world [when] the facts of government could seem pure and beautiful to a mind filled with ethical concepts.  Men as a species, which includes women, are very mixed, very deplorable, and mostly evil.  Any of us could invent offhand a theoretically more admirable species and a far finer government.  Politics, however, is the art of the actual and the possible.  I think we are doing well in this country and there have been few times in its history when great men were at hand.  If you admire Thomas Jefferson you must know that he was a devious and frequently dishonorable politician, though an exceedingly successful one, and that his integrity was questioned by many during his lifetime and has been by many others up to now.  He was a very great man indeed but he made many failures and did innumerable things which I am sure must appall the point of view from which you write.  I do not believe that women will ever act politically more wisely nor more unselfishly than men and I am by no means sure that unselfishness is either a wise or a safe force in politics.

Sincerely yours,

All Quiet Along the Huron

   All Quiet Along the Huron

(The Easy Chair, Harper’s, November 1940)

By the diagnosis of a gentleman in Michigan, the Easy Chair needs medical attention. Hysteria. The evidence is that, reaching Santa Fe just when the House of Brabant saved itself by enslaving its people, just when the Nazi tanks and bombers began the attack that was to enslave France, the Easy Chair wrote that these things were a danger to America, that they threatened the gentleman’s home town. That made the gentleman in Michigan mad and, with a number of others, he said so. He called the Easy Chair an agent of the hysterical East. He said that the Easy  Chair ought to get away from the East oftener and seek the quiet of the West.

He liked that phrase, “The quiet of the West,” for he repeated it. The West, understand, was quiet in that the death of Europe did not disturb it. It saw no portents; it wasn’t scared. Maybe the  Nazis were making a new earth under a  new heaven, but let’s take that in our  stride — it was only Europe after all, and  the Western pulse was calm. The world we grew up to know and count on had  been blown to hell by Panzer divisions, and the world we hoped our children might inherit had become a broken and fantastic dream but water was flowing down the Huron in the old untroubled way. There was a hand on our throat, but no matter, why make a noise about it? The future of America had become very much what the future of a house under construction becomes when a flood sweeps the foundation away, but the West was quiet. The gentleman from  Michigan enjoyed that quiet and he resented a voice from the hysterical East shouting that the dam was out and the waters on their way down the valley.

I have a certain snobbery. I grew up in the Rocky Mountains, and so I have always objected to the carelessness of  Middle Westerners who call their section the West. And you’re wrong, brother, it wasn’t the West that was quiet when Europe died. I found the West, where the conditions of life, so much harder than those you’re used to in Michigan, make people realistic – I found the West just as disturbed as I was by those trivial events overseas, just as certain that America was in ghastly danger. The West wasn’t quiet. It was the Middle West that was quiet – people like you in places like Michigan. So, since we can all be diagnosticians, I’m going to explain your disease.

I’m pretty scared, brother, but you’re scared far worse. Do you know that hysteria is the mind’s retreat from what it dares not face? A crisis can get through your instinctive defenses and make you, for a moment, see things plain. During those days when the French army was being pushed always farther back, while France was opening along the seams, you hung over the radio, desperate for each new bulletin.  You kept asking yourself and everyone would listen, When will Weygand counter-attack?  You clung to your friends and the clerk in the cigar store and strangers on the street, trying to understand what was going on, trying to master your alarm, trying to find some intelligent defense against it.  You read Dorothy Thompson and Walter Lippmann and other people who were telling you that the catastrophe of France was an American catastrophe too. You understood that, you agreed with them, you kept asking Why doesn’t someone do something? Maybe you sent some wires to your good, gray Senator Vandenberg telling him he was blind and obsolete. There was a healthy quiver of fear in your stomach, quiver enough to make you amenable to thought and capable of action but not enough to stampede you. This was while the crisis wa,s at its height, while every headline and every broadcast beat its urgency over your head, while the tension of life in a crumbling world was at its tightest stretch.

Then the tension got too great and snapped; France fell, the headlines had so long overloaded the sensory nerves that no further sensation could get through; there came a lull which was just exhausted emotions, the crisis — as we playfully put it — was over. At once you went into what is correctly diagnosed as traumatic shock. Dorothy Thompson and Walter Lippmann went on pointing the moral of what had happened, but suddenly you couldn’t take it. Instead of feverishly absorbing every word they wrote, you found yourself unable to absorb or even read them any more. You  began to feel that they were dangers to America, which means that you felt  them as dangerous to you. Probably you wrote to them saying they were suffering from hysteria: that’s what you  wrote to me when I remarked that you were in danger. Panic had laid hold  of you.  Panic assured you that these events in Europe could not possibly affect you. Panic told you that everything would be all right if only people would shut up. Panic told you that quiet was best. It was panic that. made  you quiet, that made the Middle West quiet, hysterical panic. Hysteria, remember, is the mind’s retreat from what it dares not face. That’s what happened to you, that’s why your home town is serene. Of course you’re quiet; anyone is quiet who is scared stiff. There is such a thing as coma.

You’ll come out of that quiet every time events go into the crescendo of another crisis. You’ll hang over the radio again, and read Walter Lippmann like a starving man seeking bread.  Each time, however, you’ll come out of it not quite so far; you’ll scurry back faster into the amniotic waters; you’ll demand quiet more desperately and find it more easily.  You’ll get madder at anyone who seems  likely to disturb you. You’ll yell at them always more loudly: Oh, for God’s sake leave me alone, peace at any price, we’ve got to live in the same world with Hitler, haven’t we? it’s not our war, America  has its own problems to solve, and shut up, shut up, shut up, I’ve got to have my sleep.

Do you know that you’re a set-up,  brother? They count on you, overseas.  You’re in all the books. You know that  phrase, the war of nerves, you use it glibly. It’s aimed at you. They know about your nerves and how to work on  them, how to make you panicky, how to  induce this quiet in the Middle West. They’ve said they needn’t bother to spend money or risk lives invading  America, for America is a soft, timorous, peace-loving, hysterical nation that can be handled ever so easily, America, they say, will be a pushover. They’re talking about you, and your quiet town.

Catatonia. A forced flight, into sleep because the waking world is too terrible to be faced. You need the treatment given people who have taken an overdose of some hypnotic. We must keep you walking the floor no matter how drowsy you may be, feed you all the black coffee you can take, subject you to endlessly repeated stimuli, stimuli so simple that the numbed mind cannot misinterpret them, repeated so frequently that it gets not time to harden its defense.

Have you got a car?  Of course you have, you live in Michigan. Probably it’s a Buick, for your printed letterhead shows that you are comfortably placed, and Flint, where Buicks are made, is just an hour’s drive east of your quiet town. Do you count on turning it in next year, on a new one? Maybe you won’t. When the time comes to turn it in you may oddly find yourself unable to afford a new car. There will have been a queer but very quiet erosion; it will have taken part of your bank account away. They are building other machines besides automobiles in Flint; whether asleep or awake you’ll be paying for them. That is one thing that Mr. Lippmann has been talking about, the new car you won’t be able to afford.

Have you got a house? Of course you have. You belong to the well-upholstered middle class; you’ve done well for yourself even during these past ten years when it hasn’t been so easy to do well for oneself as it used to be. It’s a fine house too, a new one, no doubt a better one than you could have managed if it hadn’t been for the twenty-year amortization plan that the FHA and the banks worked out. You’re proud of that house, you love it profoundly, it symbolizes the deepest part of you and your expectation of America. Maybe you aren’t going to pay off that mortgage. Maybe you’re going to lose that house. That too is what Miss Thompson and Mr. Lippmann are talking about, the collapse in America of your house and the organization that enabled you to build it, under the weight of the events abroad that you don’t want to hear about. You like a bit of butter on your bread, just like Christopher Robin’s king, and that house is a bit of butter. Some of your butter is going to be turned into guns no matter what happens; American guns if you and your quiet towns get the point in time, or German guns if you don’t — and if German guns, why, then, all your butter. While you sleep quietly, shingle by shingle that house of yours is blowing down the wind. Better not sleep too long.

Have you got children? It was the  children I was talking about. Your dreams for them are the best of you. All these years you have hoped to start them off on their own a little more favorably  than you started. You’ve wanted them to have sound bodies, good health, skills and training, poised and disciplined  minds. You’ve wanted to fit them to grapple with the unknowable future.  Millions of fathers have shared that desire; it is the health and the promise of  our middle class; the trite phrase for it is “the American dream.”  And while everything stays quiet in your home  town, bit by bit that expectation is being vetoed. A bomb falling on Dover has  hit your children’s school. The War  Department must order some more  planes, and so your daughter won’t be  going to that summer camp you had in  mind. The Nazis seize Rumania, and  so you won’t be able to send your son to  a professional school; maybe even college will prove to be quite out of the question. You’ve got to accept a lesser expectation  for them, in detail, in the whole, and for  their children too. You won’t like that. They won’t like it either.

During these past years that dream of yours has sometimes been displaced by a  nightmare. You have had brief, paralyzing phantasies of your son unable to  find work during the years of his vigor — your son, impotently idle — on Relief.  They have been a sharp agony, and so how do you like the picture of your son sucked into the aimless rioting of the dispossessed as jobs get fewer, as business  and society progressively break down, as the framework of American life caves in?   Or, alternatively, how do you like the picture of him with a bland smile on a  vacant face, goose-stepping in one of the youth-pulverizing battalions that the Nazis know how to organize, all the personality and individuality you’ve labored  to give him systematically destroyed?   I’m not talking about some foreigners pictured in Life; I’m talking about your son in the quiet Middle West.

Your house is on fire and your children will burn. Your country will burn –  that pleasant town in Michigan, an hour west of Flint.  Life shows you some Dorniers and Messerschmitts flying across  the English Channel. What you’re too scared to see is that they’re flying across  Lake Huron too. You boast of the quiet there in Michigan. But, you see,  that’s yesterday. Placid in yesterday, you’ve watched Europe go down; for over a year you’ve seen tanks and planes blasting their way across it. Because  they haven’t blasted their way across America you think they haven’t moved across it; but they have. The world has changed forever; America’s place in it  has changed; with every beat of your  pulse America is becoming something different — pounded into a different shape by the detonations which you think of as merely sound-effects in a newsreel. It really is a pleasant town — I know for I drove through it a month or so before you wrote to me — but it won’t be pleasant very long now unless you wake up.  Even if you do wake up it will never again be the town you’ve lived in up to now — but you can keep it a good town.

If you wake up. This angry protest of yours comes out of sleep; it is a sleeper’s defense against realities that would shatter his dream. When the world is dangerous sleep is so much better than waking, dream is so much easier than courage. But sleep and dreaming are death just now, and that is why you must be waked and kept awake no matter how angrily you may resent the voices that get through to you. I didn’t know that I was writing to you personally when I sent that letter from Santa Fe, but it turns out that I was — to you. About your house, your car, your school system, your children — about the United States and you and your home town. We have still got a chance to control events, to bring America and your son through the storm in such a way that the promise of both of them can still be fulfilled.  Oh, not at all in the way you and I hoped for, perhaps not in any way that we can understand just now, but certainly in some  way that will preserve the worth and use the talents of both, some way that will  save their freedom. Our chance to do it is still a good chance, the odds are still in  our favor — if we stand on our feet and  face things, if we keep our nerve, if you  come out of the coma that is pure panic.

You know the Burma Shave signs.  Our highways ought to be lined with similar sequences that you would have to read, sequences of simple, plain, bitter truths. Still shorter and plainer ones  ought to be set up at every stop light, and  over the entrance to your office building, and on the counter where you buy tobacco. Little slogans which would pound the nerve that winced when you read my piece. Skywriters ought to smear them in mile-long letters above your golf course. Every radio program ought to plug them at the beginning and at the end and half-way through. They ought to leap out at you from billboards;  sound trucks should blare them all evening long in the street before your fine new house. Because, you see, this desperate drowsiness resists them with the full strength of your panic. If that panic  wins we lose — you lose.

What ought they to say? Simple, elementary, readily understandable things.  The things that you dread most and so deny most vehemently. Just that the world is on fire. That America will be  burned up unless you come awake and do something. That time is passing.  That the quiet of your home town, which you boast about, is the quiet of a slumber that is settling toward the quiet of death.

Ogden: The Underwriters of Salvation

    Ogden: The Underwriters of Salvation

in The Taming of the Frontier, 1925

The Overland Limited stops at Ogden for fifteen minutes.  The tourist, a little dizzy from altitude but grateful for trees after miles of desert, rushes out to change his watch and see a Mormon.  He passes through a station that is a deliberate triumph of hideousness and emerges at the foot of Twenty-fifth Street.  Beyond him are the peaks, the Wasatch at more than their usual dignity, but in the foreground are only a double row of shacks far gone in disintegration, stretching upward in the direction of the hills.  The gutters, advertised as sparkling with mountain water, are choked with offal.  The citizenry who move along the sidewalks are habituated to the shanties, but the newcomer, who whether from east or west believes in a decent bluff of progress, is invariably appalled.  What manner of folk, he wonders, what kind of Digger Indians, can suffer this daily assault upon the credo of Kiwanis?  He thinks of the First National in Kokomo, or the Biltmore in Racine.  He shudders.  He hurries back to the train, pausing on the way to buy a bag of table salt from Great Salt Lake.  That at least is up to date.

Robert Louis Stevenson, the one poet known to have passed through Ogden, faced these same shanties when they had withstood some forty fewer years of drouth.  His only contribution to the booster-literature of the city was a note on the Chinese immigrants, who, he observed, displayed a far greater personal cleanliness than the natives.

Lest an Ogden spirit be offended, let me make amends.  It is true that the one new building on Twenty-fifth Street since 1900 is the Pullman porters’ club.  But let us take the tourist blindfolded through the city, past the Cornville Center palaces of the wealthy and the bungalow-warrens of the bourgeoisie, to Ogden Canyon.  Past that, still blindfolded against the Keep Kool Kamps and the Dewdrop Inns, to some ridge whence he may see the joinsts and rafters of a continent, with the city insignificant on the plain.  Here he will see Ogden as it is, an oasis, a garden in the desert, with the peaks splendid above it — lines that sweep they eye irresistibly onward, distances and colors that carry the breath with them, the mountains in which the gods of the Utes walked in the cool of the day.  For majesty, he will be willing to forget the measles of the street.

Better still, let him arrive on one of the three or four midwinter days when the smoke has drifted westward and left the sky clean.  Then, emerging in a heliotrope twilight, he will not see the shanties or the filth.  The city is blotted out and there are only ridges deep in snow, saintly and whitened peaks with collars of mist half way down their slopes — mist slowly burning to its core of tourmaline, with sapphires winking at the edge.  Night brings its erasure of hideousness, the good folk ride homeward in the world’s worst trolleys, and presently they are fed and stalled.  But almost till the time they are abed, the eastern peaks, above their chasubles of mist, are luminous with a garnet flame that tints the snow against the night.  Infinitely cold, the mist and the darkness; but warm the glow — a fire burning on the very hearth of heaven.

But do not conclude, because the city is resolute in shabbiness beneath the peaks, that it is leading a schism from the faiths of Rotary and Mr. Bok.  Its hideousness, its squalor, are no protest against The Ladies’ Home Journal.  Your Ogdenite, instead, sees his city as those dreams come true.  He peoples these streets with the chaos of State and Madison, lines them with Wrigley Tewins, roofs them with elevateds.  To him the Eccles Block is sixty stories high, and the constable at the corner, who is flapping a hand at three Fords and an Overland, is waving back six rows abreast of Packards as far as the traffic towers stretch toward the Chicago River.

Or, if not now, at least by tomorrow noon.  An idealist, he sees the illusion in front of the fact of dirt and mediocrity.  A dreamer, he dwells for ever in the city of his hopes.  Besides, when you come down to it, he asks, turning his back on the Broom Hotel, what city its size? — etc.  Follows a list of statistics from the Weber Club, of mines and sugar beets, of warehouses and factories, of jobbers and railroads and farms….  And so on — a small backwater American city, less immaculate than most, less energetic, less comfortable, but at one with its fellows in drowsiness, in safety.

Yet once, even the tourist must remember, once the frontier marched through Ogden with its chariots and its elephants.  Once there were demigods and heroes.  Once there was desire and splendor — something of courage and adventure, something of battle, life a hot throbbing in the veins.  Where now there are culture clubs and chiropractors, there was a city shouting its male-ness to the peaks.

For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground, and tell sad stories of the death of Roughnecks.

Into the Mormon hegira of 1845-47 went much heroism, much genius, much suffering.  And yet the Mormon was a prosaic fellow.  His prophet had been martyred, he himself undertook the desert for religious freedom, he conquered the wilderness and, neighboring with the coyote, brought forth a state.  And so on — the recital is familiar.  Yet he did all this without humor and without imagination — did it with poverty-stricken realism, and above all with an intangible smugness, a bucolic megalomania, a self-righteousness which assured him that the Lord God Jehovah, whose hinder parts Moses and Joseph Smith had seen, watched over all his businesses and made them sound.

So for twenty years after their arrival in the desert, the Latter Day Saints practiced a religion of thrifty visions.  They were such folk as would be attracted to such a religion.  The Church, after settling all disputes that had racked Christendom for nineteen centuries, made its own contributions to theology.  It taught a plurality of gods, and, later, the opportunity for any Mormon to become a god.  It gave its pious swineherds the power to interpret visions, to speak in tongues, to recognize and cast out devils, to hold conversations with angels.  It taught the imminent end of the world; baptism of the dead; the evil of tobacco and cocoa; the true nature of ectoplasm; and much other extravagant nonsense.  And, of course, it taught polygamy.

So much absurdity has been preached about this last doctrine, the only one associated with Mormonism in the public mind, that the facts have been obscured.  In Utah polygamy was practiced on an extensive scale only by Brigham Young, and a god third of his concubines were purely honorary, veterans of the hegira, widows of the prophet Joseph, or similarly decrepit alumnae who were awarded a fraction of his name as a sort of decoration.  Only a few of the nobility practiced it at all, and they did so with not wholly unanimous felicity.  Heber Kimball remarked, with a sincerity that touches the heart, that if God ever set a curse on him, it was wives.

The truth is that polygamy was established to justify certain deplorable impulses of the prophet Joseph.  The vigorous nature of Brigham Young was adapted to the opportunity thus created, and these precedents fastened the doctrine on the Church as the commandment of God, let him follow who might.  The institution was breaking down of its own weight when the national government, by attacking it and rousing the always violent martyr-complex of the Mormons, prolonged it beyond its time.  And the reason for its decline, as we shall see, was the one reason whose cogency the Mormon Church has ever recognized.  It was an economic mistake.  It didn’t pay.

For Brigham Young had left Nauvoo with a religion, but had established the State of Deseret with a commercial system.  Here they were, in a great Salt Lake City during these twenty years, planted on a desert, creating wealth, unhampered by interference.  Mr. Werner has recently declared that Brigham’s genius for organization and finance entitles him to rank among the greatest minds of his century.  At his death his private estate, built up from nothing, was worth three million, and while he was amassing this, he laid the foundations on which the Mormon Church has become the greatest financial power in the intermountain west.  Such a man deserves mention with the Belmonts and the Goulds of his time.  What Brigham might have done, given stockyards or railroads or steel plants, only those who know most about him are able to imagine.
While he lived, Brigham Young was Utah; it follows that, during the first two decades of Salt Lake, he was the city.  Fortunately, though the head of the most colorless of American heresies, Brigham was a man of color and power.  In the midst of thousands of fanatics who had virtues in abundance but never a jot of imagination, he was one who easily caught fire.  In a creed where any communicant of humor must have laughed himself into apostasy, he had humor — was the one Mormon in all the history of Mormonism who could laugh.

Above all, he was energy.  And the frontier, the frontier that stirs the heart, was only energy.  Day by day he was driving more surely the stakes of Zion.  Nor did he forget that a prophet deserves well of the church he is giving an inside track to heaven.  The statutes of the early Territorial legislatures are confined almost exclusively to granting Brigham Young the gtimber-rights of this canyon, the water-rights of that, the sawmill privileges here, the toll-gate privilege there.  He builds houses, stores, bridges; he sells dry goods, flour, horses; he directs a theater; he invents apartments; he establishes a university.  When the Territory is surveyed and opened to homesteads, he builds a house on wheels which his pensioners set down where four section corners meet, and thus files on government by wholesale.  He has a finger in the invention of an alphabet, a purely Mormon language based on the one spoken in heaven and designed to crowd out the Gentile tongues on earth.  He creates a Mormon currency, the “wooden money” of later Gentile sneers, and perhaps the one legal tender of all history based on the promises of Almighty God.  He publishes a newspapers.  He even organizes a sect of communists, who deed over to him as trustees in trust, the last run of their possession — deeds conveying to him chickens and beds and underwear are onthe records of Weber and Salt Lake counties.  And all businesses in the valley have him as an active or a silent partner — banks and barrooms, freight-companies and the mills that manufacture the holy union-suits of the faithful.

In the midst of all this activity, he is watching over the souls of his Saints — and is a little troubled by them.  Week by week he is thundering at  them in the Tabernacle, roaring a diapason of wrath and praise, promising them triumph over the Gentiles or God-damning them as loafers.  For the prophet had dwelt too long among the Gentiles and had acquired a certain vocabulary.  In the “Journal of Discourses” these sermons are printed today, no less vigorous for being foul-mouthed, no less productive of piety for being Rabelaisian.  Brigham, simply, could not express himself in other ways.  Here before him was a crowd of Saints, honest men but so inferior to him that he seemed godlike, mulish and dull, incapable of seeing their own best interests, slow to see anything at all.  He would, he said, infinitely rather kill a man than suffer him to lose his soul.  On occasion, no doubt, he had the execution performed, but for the most part, swearing sufficed.

For, in these meetings, you must remember, this bearded man was not merely Brigham Young the glazier and the millionaire, but was Brigham Young the seer and revelator, the vicegerent of God, whose words came down from heaven.  Faces, ten thousand at a time, looked up at this little man, and saw what Christ had seen on the morning of Resurrection. … This frontier Moses made annual processions across his domain.  The cavalcade, with banners and outriders and bodyguard, with Amelia or perhaps several of the less favored wives, struck out across the territory.  Everywhere children were scoured and ruffled and drilled to decorum.  Young girls threw flowers — the blossoms of desert plants or the more cherished hollyhocks of the dooryard — beneath the wheels of the chariot, and sang their pious doggerels to this little man, who held one hand beneath his flatulence and nodded as he fancied God would nod.  And old men and women hobbled back home, happy that they had lived another year to witness the passage of the holy one.

“I’ll say we got knives here as well as the boys in San Pete,” he had shouted last Sunday in the Tabernacle, referring to the irremediable humiliation of a young man who had looked too often on a maiden designed for his bishop.  “Get out your knives, boys.”  The Saints hearkened.  This was the prophet of God, the practitioner of polygamy, telling them that they must not commit adultery.

What Brigham aimed at was a commonwealth of Saints, wherein all labored for a common end, where the will of God and the prophets was law, and where the United States was a foreign power.  For twenty years that was what he achieved.  Now and then, some Saint’s voice was raised against the despotism: there was thunder in the Tabernacle and a repentance or an exile.  Sometimes, it must be remembered, there was even a corpse.  The Mormons of to-day call the Danites a myth; no doubt they were, but there was Porter Rockwell, there was Bill Hickman, there was John D. Lee; the last, deserted by his church after the massacre it had directed, was shot beside his coffin.

Gentiles came to the valley, forewarned.  Sometimes they set up their stores, sometimes offered merchandise below the prices of the Saints.  Soon neat signboards appeared above the doors of the faithful — the all-seeing eye of God, sacred in Mormon symbolism, and above it “Holiness to the Lord.”  And men loitered about.  A Saint, approaching the Gentile store, felt a tap on his shoulder.  “Brother Brigham favors the Jones establishment,” he was told.  The Gentile came to terms.  When he didn’t, when his tribe increased so far that it was cutting the ground from under the Church stores — for a bargain is a bargain even under the all-seeing eye — Brigham organized a chain, the Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution, which has grown into one of the largest of the Church’s immense properties — and licked the Gentiles once more.

Governor, judge, and marshal — one by one they beat out their precedents and sovereignties against the little bearded man.  They had from him smiles when he wanted to bestow them, but more often contumely.  Cut-throats he called them, and embezzlers, and lick-spittles, and all opprobrious things.  Every Sunday saw him in the Tabernacle reviling the governor, pouring out on him unimaginable abuse.  Always he won.  Arrested, his own courts gave him habeas corpus.  Denounced, he replied in kind.  Ordered to submit to the United States, he declared by proclamation that the territory was his to do with as he willed.  Governor gave way to governor, all gladly, some made laughing-stocks, some disgraced.  If their own foolhardiness did not betray them, it was always possible to trap them in a trumped-up brothel and so be rid of them.

In Utah there was no power but Brigham.  He was superior to the United States, not only by virtue of his agency from God, but actually by power of arms.  So, when the United States sent an army against him, he outgeneralled the brilliant Albert Sidney Johnson, burned his baggage, holed him up in winter quarters outside the Territory, and treated as an equal with the United States.  The expedition, which cost the government some seven million dollars, added almost that much wealth, by auction and the spoils of war, to the victorious Church. … But it was Brigham at his darkest hour.  Boasting to his followers that he would deliver Zion, he found out what it was to doubt in secret.  The terms of peace allowed the troops to save their faces by marching through Salt Lake City and to build a camp some forty miles beyond.

The Mormons had reason enough for their hatred of the United States, their prophecies against it, and their oaths of disaffection.  If they had always met the government with treason, the government had always betrayed them.  The tropps coming through Salt Lake City, who knew but they might have orders to shoot down all who got in their way, and generally to lay waste the Jerusalem the Saints had built up with their sweat in the desert? …

That day the quickstep echoed through empty streets.  No one was in sight, beyond an occasional Gentile waving his hat at a corner.  The Mormon women and children were miles away, with their pottery and their blankets, and most of the men were with them.  There, too, was Brigham in his chariot.  Here and there about the city a Mormon was hidden, ready if need be to light the faggots that were piled behind the doors.  Brigham, in valedictory, would bring the city down on the heads of its despoilers.

For once this low-comedy prophet reached dramatic heights.  Silent in his chariot, miles away from his Jerusalem, holding up his paunch with an arm, he was planning out his course if the city must be burned.  Between the Mormons and the Americans must be war forever — as he had known for years even before the prophet Joseph collapsed over the windowsill at Carthage jail.  O longer would he delude himself with hope of peace.  He would lead his Church on a second flight, this time to the Canyon of the Colorado, to the badlands where an army could never penetrate.  There he would conduct the feud without mercy forevermore — Mormon against American, to the death, while an ounce of powder remained to the faithful.

The tragic heights subsided.  The city, of course, was not burned.  The wives came back and the Sunday rhapsodies continued.  Soon the troops were called back to a more extensive battlefield and not even a pretense of authority was kept over Brigham.  As for the deathless feud — that, too, has been buried by the years, and for the best of Mormon reasons.  It was useless extravagance.  It didn’t pay.

The colony at Ogden, thirty-five miles to the north, had been founded by divine command.  Brigham thumbed through his tithing-lists, selected those who suited his purposes, and sent them off to plant another stake at Zion.  So, during these years, Ogden was a scattering of log and adobe huts, well off the main currents of the frontier.

There is much that is pathetic in the scene of these earnest Mormons going out to plough their alkali fields and bring down water from the hills in the name of God.  There is more that is side-splitting.  For, when you meditate on the piety of this persecuted breed, on this religion that led thousands across the desert, remember of what ingredients that faith was made.  Equal parts of smugness, ignorance, and superstition is the formula.  Remember that the God of this Israel was a person very much in the likeness of Brigham Young, a fat old man with a bad temper, who used abominable English, who had begotten mankind by actual sexual congress with a polygamous harem of she-gods, and who had undertaken to deliver the earth into the hands of his anointed.

That is where the earthly humor of Mormonism enters.  These simple folk, who ploughed the desert under and out of alkali brought forth bread, these tired, almost dehumanized men was Chosen People.  They walked their furrows by day and lay down in their shanties by night confident that they were building brick by brick the new Jerusalem whence some day God and Joseph Smith and Brigham Young should direct the universe.  These fences of cedar were really the bastions of a new earth.  These poplar barns were the granaries of the Lord, incrusted with pearls.  These trickles of white water — were they not piped from the four rivers of Paradise?

The frontier passed them by, thirty-five miles to the southward.  Through Salt Lake City went the pageantry of the American folk-wandering.  Through Salt Lake City streamed the Forty-Niners, hellbent for California, with their washbowls on their knees.  They swarmed their hour about Brigham’s boulevards, bartered their luxuries for staples at extortionate rates, and hurried on.  The Church made a good thing of them, as it had of the Mexican War before them.  In their wake came the Overland Mail, with its Concord stages thundering into town behind a dozen mules, captained by men of a grandeur not to be equalled off the deck of a Mississippi packet.  Follwed the second great mining stampede, to Virginia City this time, and another wave of violent men, swaggering their male-ness down avenues dedicated to God and God’s dollars.  After that, the pony express, following the stage-route, a venture that bankrupted itsw backers but gave the West its

[Plate: Salt Lake City, Utah Territory, in 1857, lithograph]

most colorful legend — a legend of galloping hoofs, foamy flanks, and the halloo of a rider who was swallowed up by dust or darkness as soon as he was seen.

All this energy, all this restlessness and aspiration, streamed through Salt Lake City, under the eyes of Brigham who saw in it the end of his isolation, perhaps, but also an immediate source of profit.  Ogden passed it by.  Ogden was a settlement of pious Mormons who tilled their fields and obeyed the prophet, who looked at the mountains but saw the meadows of Jerusalem.

And then word came that the Pacific Railroad was not disposed to adopt the prophet’s suggestion.  “Why,” said the engineers, “should we build over an extra divide merely to get to Salt Lake City when we can follow a water-level route through Weber Canyon?”  And Weber Canyon debouched a mile or so from Ogden.  Then suddenly there was a freight-line from Zion, and a little later came the surveyors from east and from the west.  Then a new goldfield, poised on the present boundary between Idaho and Wyoming, opened up.  An adventurous Gentile made a trail to it, shortened its line of supplies two hundred miles, and the first affluence Ogden had ever seen began.

There were two streets — then three, then four.  Saloons came, bringing progress — bright lights, tablecloths, store shirts, flowered vests, the etiquette of the Colt.  The miners came, and scarlet women; such women as Ogden had never seen.   Women with laces and silks, with rouge and rice powder.  Women who were all that Mr. Service has declared their Alaskan sisters to be, but who brought civilization to this cowpath settlement.  Women who, it may be, troubled the souls of their Mormon sisters.  For Mark Twain, looking impartially at the evidence, has said that a man who married one Mormon woman was a hero and a man who married a dozen of them was a large-scale benefactor of the human race.

Strange sights by day in the streets that had seen nothing more extraordinary than a drove of pigs.  Ox teams by the dozen plodding ahead of a freighter’s wagon with seven-foot wheels and a bullwhacker snaking his whip above their ears.  Mules singly or in tandem packed with the outfits of prospectors, their owners trudging in their dust.  Gamblers, settlers, bartenders, Mexicans, Chinks, remittance men.  And by night what sounds!  In the saloons, the roar of good men singing, the fellowship of males, the debate of a hundred disputants at once, each one an authority.  Above them the seduction of fiddles where the women consorted with their prey.  In the streets, strayed revelers taking the long way home, the clop-clop of horses as belated ones arrived, the the click of dice, sometimes the voice of the Colt. … It was a little different from discussions as to the true nature of Satan’s fur, or from the hymns with which the Mormon dances had begun.  Sin had come to Ogden.

And now descended on Ogden the Hartigans and the McCarthys and the Flahertys.  Through the mouth of Weber Canyon, racing against its ten-mile day and the Chinks of the C.P., the Union Pacific burst like a spring flood.  Now came Hell on Wheels to Mormonry.

Not long did it pause, this mobile terminal, but never again would righteousness be quite the same.  The Irish roared and sang and hammered, like happy devils assaulting the earth, and laid their steel and passed on.  On to Corrine they went, on to Promontory Point, and met the Chinks and sniped at them from behind ties or seized them bodily, when the scientific spirit was strong, and took them apart.  Those last eighty miles of railroad building, both companies roaring for land and fame, were a romancer’s dream of strength and trickery and violence.  They ended; dignitaries came to drive their golden spike; and the Central Pacific built on into Ogden any way, in the hope that it could swindle the government of fifty thousand acres more.  And the Irishmen all came back.

For Ogden was now a railroad town.  Those who had swung picks, fought Indians, and sniped at Chinks, would now undertake to keep the U.P.’s cars on its tracks.  A race of men, these.  For the most part Union veterans, they were old before their youth was done; their arms were like the girders of the bridges they built; and they, who had tamed spring rivers and battened rails across the spine of a continent, were afraid of neither God nor devil.  Still less were they afraid of men who were anointed to hold converse with both.

It was Porter Rockwell who learned as much soon after the first roundhouse was built at Ogden — Porter Rockwell, mysterious emissary of Brigham, who, if he performed one-tenth of the murders attributed to him had disposed of more Gentiles than Brigham had married wives.  Bearded and very hard was Porter Rockwell, a man to set strong men wailing in their dreams, a man who had publicly allowed that the temple union-suit he wore, blessed by Brigham, would turn any bullet ever fired by Gentile.  He was strolling down Spring Street one day, newly come form mysteries of retribution, and he was listening to the earth quake in terror of his passing.  Appeared now one twisted Flannigan, deplorably gone in drink.  “Are ye Port Rockwell?” the half-size Irishman demanded.  The strong right arm of Brigham nodded.  “Then by God, y’are the man whose underwear will turn bullets, and I’m called of God to put it to proof.  ‘Tis a revelation, y’understand, to speak accordin’ to Mormon.”

In something less than a second Porter Rockwell was on his knees in Ogden’s dust, and had swallowed five inches of steel barrel.  For ten minutes the railroader marched round him, dictating enormous obscenities about Brigham Young for his victim to acclaim, and then marched him off down the street for exhibition, the Colt prodding his pants.

Ogden was frontier.  From Salt Lake Brigham built his railroad, the Utah Central, to connect with the U.P., and from Ogden northward into his Idaho dominions as the Utah Northern.  One landboom after another rocketed city lots.  The land agent came, and with him both fortune and bankruptcy.  Northward the freighters sent their cavalcades, long files of wagons under the white-gold cloud of dust, creaking of axles and grunt of oxen, oaths and laughter — the strain and vigor of life.

Came too, not only Bret Harte’s gambler, but his aristocratic cousin, the confidence man, of derringer and long-tailed coat, who worked the passenger trains and fleeced his traveling companions at faro or sold them mountain peaks or rivers or franchises to build ferries in the desert.  The good and the great came, to see what the railroad was doing in the waste places.  And now that other symbol of the west began to come — the cowboy making his long drive northward from Texas, his face hidden in his bandana, his lungs choked with alkali.  Ogden was as far west as the Long Trail ever came, as far west as the dionysiac joy of the buckaroo ever set the peaks echoing.

One and all they made their way from bar to bar but ended at the Chapman House.  French Pete, other and true name unknown, was the civilizing influence that turned many a man toward the arts.  Here is a menu of French Pete’s, preserved to this smaller age.  Turtle soup, crackers; mountain trout, Columbia river salmon, oysters San Francisco; antelope steak, shoulder of venison, beef Chicago; breasts of sage hen, prairie chicken in cream, quail, mourning doves, Canada goose; southern yams in candy, peas, celery, watercress, potatoes O’Brien; hot biscuits, cornpone; honey, watermelon, peaches and cream.  The little slip indicates that one was expected, not to make a choice from this ecstasy, but to down it all from the first to the last.  The other side is an equally heroic list; cocktails named after railroad presidents, Indian chiefs, and mining camps; punches, cordials, highballs, fizzes, rickies, Juleps; it ends, “Irish whiskey, fifteen cents a glass.”  And one line reads, “Champagne: California, $1.00.  Imported, $2.00.”  A pint?  No, a half-gallon.

To the Chapman House came the mining and railroad millionaires, the English cattle-barons, actors and singers making continental tours, and more than one princeling from Graustark or beyond.  The register, if it could be recovered, would be a miniature history of the frontier.  Perhaps most curious of its names would be the curtly signed “Bill.”  This was Rattlesnake Bill, who came for some weeks twice or thrice a year, to eat the savories of French Pete, and to sit for hours on the upper veranda, smoking, chatting, looking down at Fifth Street or out at the shadows deepening on the peaks.

Innumerable legends cluster about this man of the white sombrero above the long black curls.  No one ever ventured to ask his name.  No one knew whence came the money that clad and housed him so magnificently.  One heard that he was a Mason sent to murder Mormons, that he owned a secret bonanza surpassing the Comstock Lode, that he was successively all the desperadoes who plundered the mines and the mail, that he was the illegitimate son of a British prince and once a month received an order on the royal exchequer.  He had killed, one understood, his dozen; he had led men on desperate piracies beyond the hills; he had said to men in New York, in China, or in London, “Do this,” and it was done.

But there he sat, smoking cigars that were never bought in Ogden, telling stories to the Chapman children, and bowing to men and women who counted his nod an accolade.  Once a year he contributed to Catholic, Mormon and Protestant Churches; and at Christmas time all railroad men on duty and all wayfarers fed at his expense on French Pete’s cooking.  He died one night in the Chapman House, of an apoplexy.  No papers were found in his buffalo trunk.  But there were books there:  Childe Harold, a Shakespeare, several originals of Voltaire, and a volume of strange devices which pious Saints believed to be the original of the Book of Mormon, which would have made Bill the angel Moroni.  But it proved to be only a sixteenth century Odyssey, whose ex libris had been obliterated.

Near the Chapman House was Gentile Kate’s brothel, incomparably the leader of its kind.  Kate was herself  a respected part of the business life of the town, a speculator in real estate. the most liberal customer of the stores; she was, too, an unofficial great lady.  When a railroad dignitary or a visiting Cabinet member was to be banqueted, she was always bidden to provide conversation and fine raiment above the reach of Ogden.  No one was ever swindled at her establishment; no one was ever disorderly there, twice.  A person of dignity was Gentile Kate, and of more than a little wit.  But her annoyance was Mormons — perhaps because she disliked their colorlessness, perhaps because she felt that their multiple marriages were sabotage against her profession, perhaps because she had knowledge of certain patriarchs and bishops who, by day, denounced her in their meeting-houses.  Doing almost a bank’s business in loans and mortgages, she never lent a penny to a Mormon; and the one unladylike expression in her vocabulary coupled a vivid genealogy with the name of Joseph Smith.

Early in her career, Brigham Young died of overeating, and soon there was an auction of his effects.  O late years he had taken to parading the streets of Salt Lake in a new carriage — a barouche made for him in the East.  One sees the picture: Brigham at his portliest, at his most benignant, leaning back in the wine-colored cushins, one arm bracing his paunch, his eyes straying over the multitudes who uncovered and bowed their heads as the right hand of God went by.  An equipage of splendor, behind gray stallions, on one side the all-seeing eye, carved and glistening, [page 49] on the other side the beehive of Deseret, and on the rear the angel Moroni ascending to heaven from audience with Joseph Smith.  But only a carriage, after all.

The Utah Central, one day, bore it up to Ogden.  Next day, behind the same gray stallions, bearing the same ignia of Mormonry, it rolled up and down the streets of Ogden, and haughty in its cushions was Gentile Kate.

Meanwhile, following the Irish, other people were settling in Ogden, putting up their stores shipping their freight to the multitudes of little towns that had germinated in the railroads’ wake.  Much money was being made in Ogden — and this, as it was Gentile money, gravelled the Mormon’s souls.  Now begins the last protracted struggle between the faithful and the damned.  As always, it gave the Mormon more than his native color.  Unmolested, he is only a fanatic worshiping outrageous gods; but fighting the Gentile, he is laved with all the high-lights of martyrdom and sanctity and desperation.  Brigham Young was dead, but behind the figureheads of the presidency was George Q. Cannon, who was scarcely less a general.

Politics had served the Church well in Illinois; perhaps the Mormon ability to cast ten thousand votes as one might help out now.  For a dozen years the battle waged unequally — centered, of course, in Ogden where alone the Gentiles might make a stand.  The town began to glow.  Its somnolent avenues to-day bear no hint that they have witnessed emotions no less intense than those that followed Bloody Mary about her realm.  They were for the most part bloodless, but were no less bitter; only, the Irish kept them on the comic side.  Your Mormon, battling at Armageddon for his dollar, is no light-headed man; he regards levity as the sin against the Holy Ghost; his god, as the god of this world, centers his interest in cash, wherefore to be else than solemn is to risk hell.  But the Irish, who had created and obliterated the frontier, were less awed.

A merry decade it was, these ten years of the People’s Party and the Liberal Party — ten years of plot and counterplot, of stuffed ballot boxes and bribed judges, of scandals built to order and set off at the right moment; of broken heads, of oratory and defiance.  From Mormon pulpits streamed curses that had for their model the chapters of Deuteronomy which raise cursing to an art.  From Irish bar-rooms streamed the laughter of men.  Sometimes a Gentile Machiavelli was set upon by night in an alley and his head was bashed.  Sometimes one was bought outright or another caught with the goods.  In the last case he would be tried by a Mormon jury before a Mormon judge, with his comrades — who wasted no sympathy on a man who could get caught — swearing him into centuries of prison.

Sometimes a madness would come upon the Irish, and they would go out for entertainment.  Bishop Jones, hurrying to priesthod meeting, would find himself captive to a dozen brawlers who would, perhaps, drag him to the new steam laundry, strip him, and immerse him in a vat of soap with lewed parodies of the Temple ordinances.  Did he believe Brigham Young had taken to wife Semiramis and Cleopatra and the Queen of Sheba?  Down with him into the suds!  Did he expect to beget souls in heaven?  Let the soap cover him!  And so on till the bishop, recanting Mormonism, precept by precept, emerged a bishop of the black mass.

They went forth to battle, these Irish, but they always died.  Till one November the auguries pointed the other way and the Irish swaggered down the middle of the streets.  Election day saw two machines perfected.  One by one, in the outlying districts where no Gentiles lived, the Mormons filed in, voting for themselves, for their wives, their children, their great grandparents, and the legions they had taken to wife in celestial marriage.  A Gentile election-judge nodded jovially and called them by their first names.  All day long till the polls closed.  Then, out of nowhere, came rigs galloping; hard men descended on the polls, lifted the ballot box, and disappeared with the Gentile judge.  Down the Weber and Ogden rivers flowed stream of ballots sanctified by the Lord’s chosen.

Word had reached the Liberal headquarters that special trains had come up from Salt Lake City and that the Mormons were voting all the names on the tombstones.  Headquarters grinned and consulted watches.  A special arrived from as far north as the Idaho line — and northward there were only Mormons.  The upper floor of the city hall filled with a reserve to be called into action ten minutes before the polls closed.  A Gentile leader made to go up the stairs.  No less a man than Porter Rockwell, now again, and soon to die, tapped him on the shoulder.

“My orders,” Porter said, “is to shoot anybody that goes up them stairs.”

The Gentile nodded and beckoned two deputy marshals who happened, very casually, to be standing nearby.  “Your orders,” he informed them, “is to shoot anybody that comes down them stairs.”

An hour before the polls closed all the locomotives in the railroad yards began to whistle.  Two specials roared in from Echo, Wasatch, Evanston, and points east.  How many Irish clambered down from cars and roofs and tenders history does not estimate.  But they streamed uptown and began to vote.  They voted the payrolls of the U.P., the registers of the Chapman House and the Broom Hotel, the tax-lists of Evanston, and every other document that bore names.  Then, reversing first and last names, they voted again. …

That night the planets knew that Gentile Ogden was delivered from the oppressor’s heel.  How much firework was burned, how much firewater drunk, it is a melancholy business to calculate.  The peaks gave back shriekings until dawn.  And at dawn a cowboy who had been making his first visit to Ogden was discovered setting up a sign on a hill some miles from the city.

“Ogden City,” the sign read.  “Ogden City.  Hotter than Hell and the Hottest Place This Side of Hell.”

About this time, too, the Mormons achieved their last moment of dignity.  Persistently they had agitated Statehood, to remove the congressional supervision exercised under the Territory.  Persistently their hamstringing of governors and their practice of polygamy had stood in their way.  The Liberal victory pricked them to greater efforts, but coincidently, the propaganda of Gentile sects became effective and the Edmunds-Tucker bill, the first anti-polygamy measure with teeth, passed Congress.  At once the Mormons found themselves helpless, once more martyrs, once more hunted, once more without civil rights.  Church property was confiscated, all who practiced polygamy were placed without the law, and all who would not disavow it were disfranchised.  The government had them where the hair was short.

For a moment, then, the familiar Mormon frenzy of martyrdom.  Mass-meetings of women all over the Territory resolved their ardor for polygamy — a phenomenon to be explained not so much by a woman’s preference for one-tenth of a superior man to a whole lout, as by the priesthood’s Mohammedan domination over its women.  Mormon leaders, with a price on their heads, disappeared into the desert.  In Ogden there was secret traffic by night, riders going out from son in control to father in hiding, other riders following them to head off pursuit.  The pulpits flamed with their old-time hatred of the United States.

A moment of tragedy, a moment when God seemed to be testing his chosen with the fire that had tried their fathers, a moment that seemed bound to repeat the catastrophe of Nauvoo, when the Church, without leaders, money or supplies, was driven out the face the desert.  Only this time there was not even a desert; Israel could not isolate itself from Babylon, but must be scattered piecemeal and destroyed, all for the purest motive man ever defended, for religious faith.  So there was peering into darkness, heartbreak, resolution, and despair. …  The last downstage tableau of the Saints.

But only for a moment.  The stuff of Mormonry had grown both weaker and wiser.  Remember Brigham, fulminating his defiance of government, stationing men with torches in his forsaken city, resolved to lead his Church to the Canyon of the Colorado and there fight the United States unto the end.  Mormonry had changed: it oculd onot contemplate the destruction of a dogma without shudders, but the loss of property was something else.  It recalled that when Brigham had opposed the Gentiles with force he had often been menaced and sometimes licked, whereas no one in history had ever beaten him in a business deal. …

It is recorded that those in authority who favored trial by battle were looked on by the rest with a certain wild impatience, as men who had not penetrated the symbolism of God’s truth.  So presently polygamy was repealed, not by revelation but by declaration of inexpediency, and except for old fogies tottering with their harems to the grave, it is now obsolete.

It is a doctrine still, now made intricate with years of rationalization, but it is taught the young Saints as an ordinance to be practiced hereafter in those days to come when all men are made perfect. when the Saints dwell like gods with their grandfathers and their grandsons, when Brigham and Joseph come back with their wives and take their proper stations somewhere between the first and second members of the Trinity. The latest President of Israel treats those suspected of believing too currently in plural marriage with the ferocity his predecessors reserved for rival revelations.  He is right.  Any effort to bring polygamy from the hereafter to the now is bad business.  It doesn’t pay.  And, in the end, for Mormonry, there is no other test for truth.

So vanished the last energy of Utah, of Salt Lake City and of Ogden.  Why should Israel longer fight Gentiles with politics?  Why should it longer retain beliefs which meant a money loss?  Why should it indulge itself with martyrdom, the most extravagant of all waste?  After all, the father’s house held many mansions and the victory promised the Saints could be worked out in the most formidable of them the counting-house.

And so it was.  Mormon organization, a priesthood whose function is ambivalent, a communistic system directed by a tight oligarchy, the religious force harnessed to economic machines — all these have, in thirty years, brought Israel into its kingdom.  Your Mormon dwells in peace and brotherly love with his Gentile neighbor, for intolerance and warfare lost money — they didn’t pay.  He fights no more political or social battles — they wasted money in the old days.  In 1917, instead of Brigham’s vilification of the government as of 1861, and his prayers for the success of the South, the Church oversubscribed its Liberty Loan quotas and outdid New England in hatred of the Teuton.  For patriotism pays.

The Mormon has done well.  There are no Mormon poor.  The Church looks after its own.  The “peculiar people” have a stranglehold on the wealth of the intermountain region.  God’s promises have been certified.  The underwriters of salvation have made good.  Even the religion tends toward Rotary: you must dig through many layers of rationalism and defense before you get at the awkward gods, the taboos, and the ignorance at the core.  For color of history or of person, for individuality and all such strange, un-Mormon impulses — these, too, do not pay.

That is why the tourist, singling out his Mormon bishop for identification, is most likely to pick out the high-church rector of St. Luke’s.  That is why the real Mormon bishop looks like a bank-director; he is one.  That is why to-day a Mormon is indistinguishable from a Gentile in Ogden.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has come into its own; it has inherited the promised land, the promised power, the promised glory.  It has won its battle; it has tamed its cities; it has delivered its enemies into slavery.

In all things. …  Only, of course, victory carries with it its own sequelae.  Mormonry, let it be said, once more, is a religion of this earth, a deification of produce and merchandise and high interest.  And naturally it has reaped in kind.  The Ogden of to-day, we have noticed, is hideous, intolerably. The life that goes on behind its dingy walls is no less so.  No less so in Salt Lake City or in the uttermost parts of the State.

The bishop of an Ogden ward — “ward” is the appropriate Mormon term for parish — was presenting to his church a picture which one of his flock had painted to the glory of his people.  Save for the halo round Brigham’s head, the smear might have been torn from a billboard advertising Camels.  And wholesome awe was in the bishop’s voice.

“Brother Sorenson tells me,” said Bishop Jorgenson, “that the materials in this painting cost him less than six dollars.  If he had not wanted to give it over to the Church, he could have sold it for fifty dollars.  That, by brethren, is how it pays to get an education for the glory of your Church.”  The congregation sang its hymn of praise.  A young priest in the back row sighed, and surreptitiously putting on his shoes went to the table to bless and distribute the sacrament. …

The mountains all about, one would think, ought to bring something of splendor into the lives of those who live among them, something of poignancy, of beauty.  Here about the Chosen People are extravagance and excess of beauty — why, then, has it never worked its way into their hearts?  Well, the Church was first enlisted and has ever since been increased from the bankrupt fringe, from the very dregs of foreign and domestic society.  Neither artists nor their patrons floruish among such folk.  And then, a man who can believe in the pathological god of Joseph Smith and who must worship him after the mercantile manner of Brigham Young, such a man has little understanding of beauty or refinement and no patience with them.  They do not pay.

Talent, by biological aberration, does sometimes arise here in in Ogden.  A child is born with a voice, with a gift for the stage, the violin, or the brush.  The Church is kind to him.  However modest his circumstances, he is sent to conservatories or to dramatic schools or wherever else training may be had for him.  And in due time he is brought back to drill the faithful in singing “O, My Father,” or to teach their children how to paint sago lilies in their sketches of the prophet Joseph talking to the angel Moroni.  I do not deny that the Mormons have an art.  They have the most apalling art this side of the Australian bush (where they now proselyte), and it is practiced for the glory of the Church as was the art that reared the cathedrals of France.  Cooperative competition for the glory of the Church and the profit of its rulers is the Mormon formula.  So the child who can recite “The Village Blacksmith” gets a point for his ward in the monthly standing; his sister, by setting a stanza of Eliza Snow’s doggerel to something resembling music, may get five points for the ward, thereby equalling Annie Christopherson, of the next ward, who during the week invented a new way of making cake without eggs.

And, asks the bishop, is there any other worthy kind of art?  Does any other art make us better Mormons?  Does it make us more efficient?  Does it add to the stature of the Church?

So the Mormons have dwelt their eight years among the mountains and never seen them.  And, because they have won their battle, they have kept the Gentiles from seeing them as well. …  Down the streets of Ogden to-day go the Mormon Buicks and the Gentile Fords, equally intent on the matter at hand.  No dominant energy is apparent.  The frontier is buried deep beneath this crumbling asphalt.  By day or night there is no dust of mules teams no roar of miners’ chorus or shout of Irish going forth against the Chink or the Mormon. Even the transietn color of the tourist flees away.

Why not?  Since frontiers must fall Ogden could not be Hell on Wheels for ever.  Not even its ghosts will walk for it but emigrate westward to Hollywood where at times they lift another squalid art to moments of insight.  And if Ogden is not an American city, if it will not bustle or erupt, if it is dingy and penurious and sleeping — why, for that too it has a recompense.  It is an outpost of the New Jerusalem, concentrated on the things that pay.

Wherefore some day all cities will bend their heads in its direction while the skies open to sudden thunder and St. Brigham and St. Joseph Smith Jun., sharing between them Helen of Troy and all dead, aphrodisiac ladies, come down to chain the devil and populate the earth with Mormon robots.

[First published in The Taming of the Frontier,
“by ten authors,” edited by Duncan Aikman;
New York, Minton, Balch & Company, 1925]



American Mercury 7/3 (March 1926)


I. Wilderness

I had gone to a reception at the home of a Harvard professor. I was vouched for by a youth ancestrally related to the Cabots and Lowells. Later in the evening our hostess, on her rounds among the freshmen, casually asked me where I came from — and three centuries of Boston Kultur kept her face expressionless at my answer. Thereafter she was at pains to be kind to me, visibly shielding me from the severities of Brattle Street, Cambridge. But as I left, amazement triumphed.

“So people really live in Utah!” she exclaimed.

I could see pity in her eyes — and, also, apprehension. And no wonder, for she heard a noise at the gates of Harvard, yes, at the Johnston Gate itself — the bridles and the scabbards of the Goths.

“But how?” she asked.

That was a number of years ago. I have since then been asked the very same question at least once a week. It has been propounded to me even by natives of Tallahassee and Escanaba. Here is my answer.

Before the good old days ended, people lived very well in Utah, if they liked the rude exhilaration of frontier life, and if mountain scenery repaid them for the absence of civilization. But those days ended in June, 1906, when the Senate of the United States, remembering that a national campaign impended, voted that Reed Smoot was entitled to the seat he held. That decision, to the Mormons, meant rehabilitation and complete vindication. To the Gentiles, however, it meant decisive failure in the most ambitious assault on the Saints since the Edmunds-Tucker Act. It marked, in fact, the end of one of history’s most hilarious wars, the sixty years’ strife between the Mormon and the Gentile. But what is more important, it spread a blanket of peace, fraternity and monotony over Utah, and since then the State has never enjoyed itself.

Long before the first Mormon train pulled a white-top over the mountains, Utah was familiar to the trapper. The Hudson’s Bay Company, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, and the Missouri Fur Company had explored it. They followed the Green river into the Uintah Mountains, or the Bear river into the Wasatch. They laid their traps along every creek, and they wintered in sheltered canyons, beside boiling springs. Annually, they held a Summer rendezvous at Ogden’s Hole or in Cache Valley. This rendezvous, the frontier equivalent of Mardi Gras or Saturnalia or the Eleusinian mystery, was picturesque enough. The trappers came from all the thousands of miles of mountain wilderness, the owners came from the East, and the Indians from everywhere. For a year, singly or in threes and fours, the trappers would fight the Indians, blizzards, starvation and madness. At the end of that period they would draw a year’s pay, give back most of it to their employers for new outfits, lose the rest at cards and drink themselves blind for a fortnight. The owners drank a trifle less than their employés. The Indians drank as much as they could beg, barter for, or take by force. It was no suave liquor, no bourbon or rum or even applejack that they drank — but raw alcohol. When the trail is two thousand miles long and wheeled vehicles are an impossibility, one has to take what one gets.

Any frontiersman must have courage, strength and skill. He must also have a nervous system only a little more sensitive than that of a goat — or he could not survive. At best, the fur-trader was little better than a savage, at worst he was unquestionably a madman. Immense strains racked him. At any moment he might lose his scalp. Floods, snowslides, quicksands, falling cliffs might destroy him. Most of all, the unimaginable solitude of the peaks tortured him. It will, even today, age a tourist ten years overnight, if he get lost in it. The trapper spent his life in it: he crawled through canyons shut out from the sun, he toiled over passes so high that he saw visions, he fought mirages on the level and he peopled the land with enemies and monstrosities. He developed a characteristic melancholy. He grew silent, surly and superstitious. Sometimes he even reverted to unlovely racial voodoos.

I do not know for sure whether Jim Bridger ever choked a grizzly bear to death, as legend says he did, but it is almost certain that Jedediah Smith went for one with his fists and delivered a knockout blow to the jaw. When two such gladiators took to mauling each other, however, they used the short skinning knife of their guild, a weapon capable of dramatic effects. The victor customarily carved a trophy from his victim’s ear or forearm and wore it in his cap. They approved the Indian custom of scalping and employed it on every redskin they slaughtered. Sometimes, too, they tore out the Indian’s heart and ate it raw. Occasionally, as a diversion, they ate one another when a cache of food could not be found under the snow. They made casual marriages with the daughters of Indian chiefs — not only for solace, but to strengthen the uncertain loyalty of the tribes. They thus acquired a stake in the country. Their progeny became the guides of the next generation, the generation of settlers.


II. The Brigham Golden Age

They were the first Americans in Utah. Ashley, Ogden, Smith, Sublette, Bridger, Wootton, Carson, Provost, Cox. Long before them the Spaniards had passed this way. Cardenas probably touched the Southeast corner in 1540, eighty years before the Mayflower sailed; and in July 1776, while Jefferson’s committee was meeting, a Franciscan priest, Padre Velez Escalante, set out from Santa Fé to break a route through the Great Basin to Monterey. By September he had reached the meadows of the Green river and had christened them “The Plain of the Holy Cross.”

One wishes that the Spaniards had lingered somewhere in that vast expanse of mountain and desert. A few hundred miles away, in Arizona and in New Mexico, you may find their arrogance looking at you from Indian eyes or see their grace preserved in Indian ankles. Their place names give a gentle beauty to many a map and landscape, and their Catholicism has left on the lives of these States a faint but ineradicable poetry. There is no poetry in Utah. A different religion settled on the Wasatch. This was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, fleeing the jurisdiction of the United States. Alas, they had hardly reached Utah when it, too, came under the flag. The frontier of the trapper now became the frontier of settlement. Pious cowherds who believe themselves capable of summoning angels to converse with them went out to plow the desert. Almost at once another frontier swung across Utah and so killed forever the Mormon dream of isolation. The Oregon Trail had missed the state by miles when it turned North to reach Fort Hall, though Sublette’s cut-off to California touched a desert corner in the West. But the Forty-Niners roared through Salt Lake City — and the Overland Trail was made. Along it came all the pageantry of adventure, Overland Mail, pony express, the Creighton telegraph, the road-agent, the confidence man, the gambler. Utah thus became a picture frame for all the shifting frontiers of the West.

The mining camps soon played out their violent comedy. Virginia City, Gold Creek, Helena, Lewiston, Missoula, Clearwater, Bitter Root, Sublette, down to such recent names as Goldfield and Rhyolite and Tonopah — one and all they hurried across the mountains their groups of frenzied men. Each one carried its wake of less respectable characters, and each one left its deposit of undesirables — of Gentiles — in Utah. Then came the Union Pacific from the East and the Central Pacific from the West, shaking the earth with mighty labor, to meet near Ogden and give Oakes Ames a chance for scandal and Bret Harte one for poetry. After the railroad came the cowboy. After him the homesteader, the land-boomer, the sheepman, the populist and the Mormon-baiter. Whatever the frontier was or did, in some degree Utah responded. Even as late as 1906 Harriman was bridging Great Salt Lake and D.C. Jackling was on his way to Bingham. During all this time life in Utah provided spectacle and intensity. No poets lingered there, no musicians, philosophers, or scholars. The atmosphere was neither cultured nor urbane, but it was interesting. No native was ever bored; no transient ever yawned. A first-rate religious war was then progressing through crescendoes of bitterness and farce.

The Mormons were staid peasants whose only distinguishing characteristics were their servility to their leaders and their belief in a low-comedy God. They had flocked to the Church from localities where civilization had never penetrated. Then, with an infallible instinct, they had recruited their numbers from the slums of English factory cities and from the bankrupt crofter-districts of Scandinavia. The Gentiles were less fanatical than the Mormons and less ignorant, but they were also less robust. They represented the unfit of the frontier, those who had fallen by the wayside along the trail to glory. They had started for California or Idaho or Montana mines, they had given out at the first oasis — and they stayed there.

For sixty years their warfare made the State a matrix of living color — color that reached even the Christian Endeavor Societies of the Atlantic seaboard, and even Congress. It set loose over the land a nomadic tribe of uplifters who harrowed their audiences with tales of Mormon murders and titillated them with one-sex-only exposures of polygamy. But these prurient fools, the worst injustice the Mormon heresy has had to bear, left the battle at home undisturbed. While the evangelical communions shuddered and the politicians ranted in the Senate, Mormon and Gentile fought out in Utah their protracted, desperate, side-splitting battle for supremacy. Albert Sidney Johnston led an army to end it forevermore. His army was stopped outside the State, its trains were burned, its menace was burlesqued. That trick went to the Church. It was the Gentiles’ turn when, after Brigham Young had bastinadoed some Federal officials and prayed publicly for the success of the Confederacy, Colonel Connor marched a regiment into Salt Lake City. He camped in the foothills, trained a cannon on the Endowment House, and told the new officials to carry on. But on the whole, while Brigham lived, the Mormons had the better of the argument. The invading horde of governors, marshals and magistrates were all corrupt and stupid politicians, and, opposing Brigham Young, they were child-like and innocent.

Brigham’s artillery, both light and heavy, bombarded them in the Tabernacle. The curses of God, most dreadful, and the wit of a giant joker, most obscene, took off their hides in patches. The Gentiles fumed and threatened, but Brigham ruled and ridiculed. They formed secret sodalities for defense — but these were impotent. They sold their goods, when the prophet allowed them to, and they paid tribute, when he willed.


III. The Gentiles Triumph

Then Brigham died. Pygmies succeeded him, and the Gentiles entered a bull market. The Union Pacific began dragging in trainloads of deacons and deaconesses hell-bent for converting the infidels, and it soon hauled out the same folk, all burning with the desire to tell the dreadful story. It was an era of indictment. The reformer prowled abroad. Religion and morality, the nation over, urged extermination of a whole people. Congress investigated. Congress legislated. Lecturers spewed out their farrago of lies and shocking tales of immorality. The eyes of the nation, when they were not staring with horror at the greenbackers, at Charles J. Guiteau, or at the Mulligan letters, stared with horror at these monsters of bigotry and licentiousness.

At home the struggle became desperate. The Gentile ranks had increased. They had developed the mines, they had got a foothold in business, and they had established newspapers of their own. So they fought stoutly and, since the nation upheld them, victoriously. The struggle took on economic, social and personal aspects. There were midnight skull-crackings and even murders. There were vilification and abuse. There was bribery, apostasy, subornation. This public and private hatred soon became an element of everyone’s daily life; it worked into the unconscious impulse of every Utahn. These were days of a mutual hatred almost unparalleled in our history. There is no understanding Utah without realizing that neighbor, for sixty years, was at neighbor’s throat.

The Gentile victory came with the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887 which — unconstitutionally — confiscated Church property to the United States, attached a test-oath to the suffrage, outlawed polygamists, dissolved the corporation of the Church and in general gelded, strangled and gutted the organization of the Saints. Within a year the leaders were in hiding, the Territory was bankrupt, the Gentiles were delirious with triumph and the Mormon martyr-complex was strengthened a thousand-fold. Before another year was out, polygamy was declared to be inexpedient, and chastened leaders were seeking the Prophet’s amnesty. In January 1896 Utah entered the Union as a sovereign State — and the Mormon question was settled forever.

But it was a victory far more for Kansas and Iowa than for Gentile Utah. Midwestern Epworth Leagues might hereafter be sure that no octogenarian Mormon in Utah could enjoy the delights of a harem, but in Utah no Gentile storekeeper could be sure that the infidels would not undersell him. The Utah Gentiles had used the hullabaloo about polygamy only as a weapon to destroy the monopolies of the Saints, but all too soon they saw that their victory was a mirage. The Church, rid of its worst encumbrance, progressed more in ten years than it had in the preceding sixty. In the next two decades it quadrupled that progress. Once more the Gentiles advanced with fixed bayonets. But, alas, the outside world knew that the Mormon question had been settled with the repeal of polygamy. The Gentiles succeeded in barring a polygamist from the House of Representatives. But they could not bar Reed Smoot from the Senate. The old warfare was over.

When God’s ultimate histories are written, 1906 will stand out as the first vindication of the Saints. The good old days ended, and the era of Good Feeling for the Sake of Business began. That year, too, marked the fall of other frontiers. The Lucin cut-off approached completion, and the industrialization of Bingham began. The mortality rate among the pioneers increased. The old generation of inflexible haters and rigid doctrinaires, who had seen Joseph in the flesh, began to die off. Leadership and public feeling among the Saints tended to soften, to set profit above principle, to accept the Gentile as good pay. And the Gentiles began to see the necessity of compromise.


IV. A Starless Firmament

Such was the old Utah, a frontier State always racked and scarred by religious warfare. A State peopled by frontiersmen — ruddy, illiterate, herd-minded folk. A State where the very process of survival demanded a rigorous suppression of individuality, impracticability, scepticism and all the other qualities of intelligence. A State which never produced nor wanted an aristocracy. A State where life was honestly rude, where even the crafts languished, where the Indians seemed only an hour away, and the sense of martyrdom was a present reality. This Utah produced but one man whose name has crossed its borders. In him it produced nobility and tragedy. I refer to Frank J. Cannon, the first senator from Utah. Utah will not look upon his like again. How successful a political career he threw away one may judge by the power of Reed Smoot, much his inferior, has attained; and he threw it away because he set a value on his pledged word. Not content to ruin a political career by saving his honor, he deliberately wrecked his career within the Church. His talents, his family and his services all marked him for leadership. His father was loved by the Mormons as no other leader has ever been; he himself could have succeeded to that reverence. Today he is considered, next to the murderers of the prophet Joseph, the worst devil in the Mormon hell. And why? Because he had a quaint notion that the Church should respect its oath. He acted on his belief. He should have known his people better than that.

Here, coming to other names, I pause. How am I to suggest the utter mediocrity of life in the new Utah? How can I suggest its poverty in everything that makes for civilization? A little over a year ago Edgar Lee Masters came to Salt Lake City to lecture. The propaganda department of the Church took him in hand. And lo, when Mr. Masters came to contribute to the Nation‘s symposium on the vicissitudes of artists in the United States, he said that if he were a young artist, he would flee not to Paris but to Salt Lake City! Here, he informed us, was a whole people who loved, respected, encouraged and produced beauty. Here art was the common bread, and here the artist was king. We read his article, we who had lived there a few days more than overnight — and we burst into laughter.

I defy Mr. Masters or anyone else to find one artist or even a quasi-artist in all the wide expanse of Utah, from Soda Springs to Hurricane, from Roosevelt to St. George. No artist ever lived there ten minutes after he had the railroad fare out. If the presence of one should become known, the Mormons would damn him as a loafer and the Gentiles would damn him as a profligate. Look, let us say, for picture. You will find life-sized portraits of Mormon apostles and blue-ribbon Holsteins. The two art sops in the State, run by men who know their public, display greeting cards and framed mottoes. Sculpture? You will find one exquisite monument to the seagulls, and three dozen wooden Indians covered with tin plate and named after the martyrs. No building in the State could qualify for reproduction in any respectable architectural journal. There is no public library worth the name, no college library up to even the Carnegie standard. Music? The Church boasts of its organ, its choirs and its great love of music. You may test this assertion every noon during the Summer, when the propaganda department holds free concerts in the Tabernacle. You will hear “The Rosary,” Handel’s Largo, the Anvil Chorus, and “Come, Come, Ye Saints.”

Who, indeed, ever heard of a Utah painter, a Utah sculptor, a Utah novelist, or poet, or critic, or educator, or editor, or publicist M who ever heard of a Utahn? I have, but then I have studied the State for many years. I am confident that Mr. Masters has not. Let him repeat a line of Utah poetry or the name of a Utah book; let him whistle five bars of Utah music, or describe a Utah painting, a Utah statue — any work of the mind or spirit that may be associated with Utah. let us take a look at the starry catalogue.  Accident of birth, not residence, assigns Maude Adams to the State. The same is true of Solon Borglum. Cyrus E. Dallin, whose romantic Indians grace several galleries, was born in Utah, it is true, but he lives in Boston. The official panegyrist, Professor Levi Edgar Young, lists a number of other sculptors, the most prominent being the one who carved the bird that roosts atop the Eagle Gate. He cannot claim even such distinction for the painters. The best of them, we learn, exhibited a canvas called “The Gypsy” at the Centennial Exposition of 1876. Professor Young, with typical academic ignorance, omits from his list the finest artist that ever breathed mountain air — Beauregard. His work caught the mystery of the desert as no one has that Taos has given us. He was beginning to feel his strength; then he died. Last summer I made occasion to mention him in Utah. In Salt Lake City none of the intelligentsia had heard of him. I found an alumnus of the Ogden High School who remembered that a Mr. Beauregard once taught there but did not know that he painted. Chicago, New York and even Los Angeles hang his canvases, but the art lovers of Utah know him not.

There are no Utah writers. There are no Utah composers. No Utahn has ever sung his way into celebrity. There were Hazel Dawn, and her sister, Margaret Romaine, and Emma Lucy Gates. You have, perhaps, heard of them. The State university, after many years, assembled a faculty of considerable distinction, of too great distinction, in fact. Five of them were fired for disseminating ideas. Fifteen of the others left in disgust. Among those who resigned was Byron Cummings, the discoverer of the Nonnezoshe and one of the most learned and most brilliant
American anthropologists of today. In Professor A. A. Kerr, the university has filled his place more satisfactorily than that of any of the heretics. Dr. Kerr is a trained anthropologist, and he stands out like a sequoia amidst sagebrush — a scholar alone in a mob of Mormon bishops, tank-town annotators and hicks. There is a critic who has made a collection of one-act plays. There is a sociologist who has achieved his doctorate by holding up Mormon group-life as the salvation of the Republic. There is a historian who has rebuked Mr. Wells for not including Joseph Smith in his “Outline of History.” Such are the adornments of Utah, the flowers of its art and learning.


V. 100% American

But the people? Utah is normal. As a commonwealth of greengrocers who have lifted themselves from the peasantry it is no different from Indiana, Iowa, or Nebraska. Poverty is rare. Morality, the unassuming morality of unassuming folk, is high. Civic virtue is even higher. The State’s roads, schools, per capita ownership of Fords, patriotism, sewer system and modernity of office appliances are, in fact, well above the average. Those who have no interest in social or intellectual or artistic life may live there as well as anywhere else in this best of all possible Republics. The difference is merely that should they ever, for a moment, want to enter or observe such life or feel the need of anything that springs from it, they would be at a dead stop. Civilized life does not exist in Utah. It has never existed there. It never will exist there.

The farmers differ little from farmers anywhere else. They are, perhaps, a little absurd in their belief that Christ was inferior to Joseph Smith. But get away from the fertile valleys where the farms are and into the arid lands and you will find the ranchers — a race of better men, self-reliant, courageous, humorous, hospitable. Life on the desert ranches has a certain dignity of skill and courage, an unhurried awareness of mastery. It has the assurance that strength develops. It is, perhaps, a bit backward in the matters of china-ware and central heating. But, in tolerance, human intercourse, refinement — in all the qualities of civilization — it is infinitely less primitive than Salt Lake City. This ranch life, I fear, is all I can offer in rebuttal of my Cambridge hostess. Certainly the gentry, newly developed in the Babylons of Ogden and Salt Lake City, are an offense to heaven. After 1906 prosperity came to Utah. In a few years a generation whose fathers had begotten them under the eyes of their mothers and sisters in one-room shacks began to be conscious of their wealth. They bought closed cars. They learned that there were other beverages beside straight whiskey. They tried manfully to achieve the blisses of adultery hinted at in the works of Mr. Chambers, the one novelist they knew of. They experimented with golf pants for men and riding pants for women. In short, they became civilized.

I trust I am not unfair to my home State when I “declare in words of soberness” (to crib the Book of Mormon) that these nouveaux-riches, these cultured exponents of society, lead the most swinish life now discernible in the United States. I may be wrong; for the sake of the mountains that brought me so much delight in my youth I hope I am. The millionaire cow-puncher, I know, is epidemic in our times and infests every corner of the country. But even in Los Angeles you will find expatriated Iowans who can read French. Even in Hollywood a movie gal, when arrested, had, beside the Police Gazette, a volume of Freud. Even in Chicago there are a few who rank Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms slightly above Our Lord Calvin Coolidge. Even in South Boston, Massachusetts, you will hear talk of Yeats, of Thackeray, of Shakespeare. Even in Richmond disgruntled folk deny that Hoover is greater than Caesar, and read the Dial, or speak now and then of Gauguin, or Osler, or Huxley. But not in Utah. There people talk only of the Prophet, hogs and Fords.

Even the ancient color of the State is gone. Mormon and Gentile dwell together in amity and Rotary. The State, at this moment, is whooping up the fellowship, with its fingers crossed. The Gentile merchant hires Mormon clerks. The Gentile Chamber of Commerce rebukes an alien congressman who has sneered at the Mormons. The Gentile churches, once the foci of righteous hatred, turn their eyes on the Asiatic field. The Gentile booksellers refuse to sell a book that laughs at the Church. The Salt Lake Tribune, once the archfiend of Mormon persecution, is now the guardian angel of the followers of the Prophet. The Mormon legislature repeals the Mormon anti-cigarette law, at the directions of a Mormon governor. The Mormon merchant hires Gentile clerks. The uncouth Temple union-suits give way to officially sanctioned lingerie with lace and ribbons. “We are a peculiar people,” long Zion’s boast, becomes the plaintive “We are no different from other people.” “We are no different from other people.” Yearning for fellowship, the present-day apostle boasts that rabbis, Catholics and even Methodists have preached in the Tabernacle and are always welcome. The president of the Agricultural College, interviewing the notables he has subsidized to lecture at his Summer School, magnificently informs them that the Church will not interfere with their freedom of expression — a naïveté, by the way, without parallel in the history of American colleges. And at the University of Utah, Heber J. Grant, Prophet, Seer and Revelator, anointed to interview God and convey his will to all mankind, introduces Eddie Guest to a rapt student body, explaining that he has Mr. Guest’s complete works in limp leather, and that Mr. Guest is undoubtedly the greatest poet of all time, greater even than Eliza Snow, a widow of the Prophet!

How do people live in Utah? They join the business-men’s calisthenics class at the gymnasium. Or they buy Fords on the five-dollar-a-week basis. Or they yawn. Or they die.


[See also Bernard DeVoto’s letter to Jarvis Thurston, 1943]

from The Hour (1951)

The American Spirits

from The Hour, Chapter 1 (1951)

We are a pious people but a proud one too, aware of a noble lineage and a great inheritance. Let us candidly admit that there are shameful blemishes on the American past, of which by far the worst is rum. Nevertheless we have improved man’s lot and enriched his civilization with rye, bourbon, and the martini cocktail. In all history has any other nation done so much? Not by two-thirds.

Whiskey came first; it has been the drink of patriots ever since freedom from her mountain height unfurled her banner to the air. The American people achieved nationality and Old Monongahely in a single generation, which should surprise no one since nations flower swiftly once their genius has budded. Look, for instance, at the Irish, for many centuries a breed of half-naked cave dwellers sunk in ignorance and sin and somewhat given to contentiousness. Then the gentle, learned St. Patrick appeared among them. He taught them to make usquebaugh and at once they became the most cultured people in the world. No one challenged their supremacy, certainly the Scotch didn’t, till inspiration crossed the Atlantic and set up a still in Pennsylvania.

Or look nearer home, at the Indians. Gentler than the Irish, they were an engaging people whose trust we repaid with atrocious cruelties. (As when, after the French had educated them to brandy, we forced rum on them.) Yet a thoughtful man may wonder whether they had it in them to rise to cultural distinction. They evoke both pity and dismay: north of Mexico they never learned to make a fermented beverage, still less a distilled one. Concede that they had ingenuity and by means of it achieved a marvel: they took a couple of wild grasses and bred them up to corn. But what did they do with corn? Century succeeded century and, regarding it as mere food, they could not meet the challenge on which, as Mr. Toynbee has pointed out, their hopes of civilization hung. Across the continent, every time the rains came some of the corn stored in their granaries began to rot. Would it be doom, the Age of Polished Stone forever, or toward the stars? The historian watches, his breathing suspended, and sees the pointer settle toward decline. They threw the spoiled stuff out for the birds, angrily reproaching their supernaturals, and never knew that the supernaturals had given them a mash.

The Americans got no help from heaven or the saints but they knew what to do with corn. In the heroic age our forefathers invented self-government, the Constitution, and bourbon, and on the way to them they invented rye. (“If I don’t get rye whiskey I surely will die” expresses one of Mr. Toynbee’s inexorable laws of civilization more succinctly than ever he did.) Our political institutions were shaped by our whiskeys, would be inconceivable without them, and share their nature. They are distilled not only from our native grains but from our native vigor, suavity, generosity, peacefulness, and love of accord. Whoever goes looking for us will find us there.

It is true that the nation has never quite lived up to them. From the beginning a small company have kept idealism alight, but the generality have been content to live less purely and less admirably. The ideal is recognized everywhere; it is embodied in an American folk saying that constitutes our highest tribute to a first-class man, “He’s a gentleman, a scholar, and a judge of good whiskey.” Unhappily it is more often generous than deserved. Anyone who will work hard enough can acquire gentility, but there are never many judges of good whiskey. Now there are only you and I and a few more. One reason is that there is little good whiskey to judge — we do not hold our fellows to the fullness of the nation’s genius.

In the era called Prohibition we lapsed into a barbarism that was all but complete — though that dark time did contribute some graces to our culture. In those days one heard much scorn of Prohibition whiskey, but the truth is that there was just about as much good whiskey then as there had been before or is now. (It was then, moreover, that a taste for Scotch, previously confined to a few rich men who drank an alien liquor as a symbol of conspicuous waste, spread among us — a blight which the true-born American regards as more destructive to the ancient virtues than Communism. Think of it less as a repudiation of our heritage than as the will to believe. If we paid the bootlegger for Scotch, we thought, we might get the Real Old McCoy, though one whiskey is as easily made as another where they print the label and compound the flavoring.) Such good whiskey as existed was hard to find but when hadn’t it been? Below the level of the truly good we went on drinking the same stuff we had drunk before. We are still drinking it now. The untutored are, and the unworthy.


Well, you say, how good is good whiskey? Out in the bourbon country where the honor of the taste buds runs 180-proof, you can get an argument in ten seconds and a duel in five minutes by asserting that it is as good as it used to be. Here the little stillhouse comes in again. Men grown reverend and wise will tell you that the glory departed when the big combine bought up the family distillery. They are remembering their youth and the smell of mash in a hundred Kentucky valleys. There was art then, they say, and the good red liquor had the integrity of the artist and his soul too, and between Old Benevolence and Old Mr. This there were differences of individuality but none of pride, and how shall America have heroes again, or even men, with this dead-level nonentity they force us to drink now?

They scandalize and horrify the modern distiller. The little stillhouse, he tells you, was steadily poisoning Kentucky. The old-time distiller’s mash was not only uncontrolled and vagrant – he got his feet in it and no doubt his hogs too, and it spoiled on him or went contrary or deceived him. Those remembered subtleties were only impurities, or maybe eccentricities of the still going haywire, or the leniency of the gauger, or most likely an old man’s lies. He himself with his prime grains, his pedigreed yeast, his scientific procedures controlled to the sixth decimal place, and his automatic machinery that protects everything from the clumsiness and corruption of human hands – he is making better bourbon than the melancholy gaffers ever tasted in the old time.

We have run into a mass of legend and folklore. It reveals that we are a studious people and serious about serious things, but it does make for prejudice and vulgar error. (You want to know where I stand? You must never besmirch yourself with a blend, son — what do you suppose bond is for?) Devoted men, hewing their way through it, have come out with one finding that leans a little toward the opinion of the elders. The old-time distillers, known locally as the priesthood, put their whiskey into bond at less than proof, that is with the percentage of alcohol below fifty. Four years of the aging process brought it up to proof and they bottled it as it was, uncut. The modern distiller, known everywhere as a servant of the people, impelled by government regulation and the higher excise, bonds his stuff at a few percent above proof. Aging in bond increases the percentage still more, so after bottling he cuts it back to proof with water.

There is instruction here: when you add water to whiskey, you change the taste. In a moment of pure devotion, therefore, the faithful drink it straight….See to it that your demeanor is decorous and seemly at that moment. Attentively but slowly, with the poise of a confidence that has never been betrayed since the Founding Fathers, with due consciousness that providence has bestowed a surpassing bounty on the Americans or that they have earned it for themselves. Our more self-conscious brethren, the oenophilists, are good men too and must not be dispraised, but they vaingloriously claim more than we can allow. Their vintages do indeed have many beauties and blessings and subtleties but they are not superior to ours, only different. True rye and true bourbon wake delight like any great wine with a rich and magical plenitude of overtones and rhymes and resolved dissonances and a contrapuntal succession of fleeting aftertastes. They dignify man as possessing a palate that responds to them and ennoble his soul as shimmering with the response.

The modern distiller will tell you that whiskey comes to full maturity in its sixth year, that thereafter its quality falls off. The truth is not in him, do not give him heed, and why for a hundred and seventy years have sound distillers, and quacks too, used the adjective “Old” in their brand names? He obviously does not believe himself. At mounting expense he keeps some of his product in bond for eight years and charges correspondingly, and the result is well worth the mark-up. Eight years is the longest period for which he can get bond but at still greater expense he keeps some in the wood for four years more — and with a twelve-year-old whiskey to point to, Americans can hold their peace and let who will praise alien civilizations. The distiller will also tell you that nothing happens to the finest after it is bottled, and again he is wrong. He is especially wrong about rye. In the spacious time when taxes increased the cost of whiskey by only five hundred percent (it is several thousand now) the wise and provident and kindly bought it by the keg, in fact bought kegs up to their ability to pay, and bottled it themselves in due time and laid it away for posterity. Better to inherit a rye so laid away in 1915 than great riches. I have known women past their youth and of no blatant charm to make happy marriages because Uncle John, deplored by the family all his life long as a wastrel, had made them his residuary legatee. There is no better warranty of success in marriage; an helpmeet so dowered will hold her husband’s loyalty and tenderness secure. A rye thus kept becomes an evanescence, essential grace. It is not to be drunk but only tasted and to be tasted only when one is conscious of having lived purely.

© 2018 Bernard DeVoto

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