to Robert S. Forsythe
October 6, 1927
[This letter is apparently incomplete. Forsythe was planning to write a biographical pamphlet about BDeV in connection with the publication of The House of Sun-Goes-Down, BDeV’s third novel.]
A headache, one of the sequelae of that accursed coryza, having made my projected evening on the Comstock Lode impossible, I try to make at least some gain for God by addressing my biographer, though the movement of my mind, barely discernible from that of a mud-dab, will probably bore you so that you cry aloud.
What do you mean, data? I guess you’d better send me a questionnaire. You tell me what you want to know and I’ll see that you learn it, though I may asterisk the more actionable portions. The subject of this sketch was born at Ogden, Utah, January 11, 1897. I don’t know what else happened in history on that solemn day. Ancestry mayhap? Well, my Pa’s Pa came to this country, I think from Milan, though there are also Genoa and Florence connections — it ain’t important — some time before the Civil War, I don’t know when. The yarn is — I do not vouch for it — that his wife, who was a DeRosa of the ancient house, was the daughter of a count or something of the sort and that the marriage with my Grampa, who came from a military family (what was a military family in Italy, at that time?) was sanctioned only on the condition that the pair would remove themselves permanently from the fatherland which she was disgracing by mingling her seed with that of a commoner. So runs my aunt’s account, but if God ever made a fool, she’s it — though she was several years older than my Dad, and so knew more of their parents. Anyway, the old man seems to have had plenty of money, and he made more here — running commission houses along the Mississippi and Ohio. He lived at various times at St. Louis, Cairo, and Cincinnati. He seems to have been (1) a royal old soak, and (2) a realist. In support of the second, I offer this anecdote, about the only one my dad ever told me about him. When a rebel raid got to Covington (I’ve never investigated which one — weren’t there two?) and the burghers of Cincinnati were subjected to an impromptu draft to dig fortifications and man them, the old man decided that he didn’t care for glory. He hid out on them. But there were rumors running about that he was a rebel sympathizer (and, I suspect, that he had been making a penny or two selling supplies down the river) and they sent out a provost guard to apprehend him. After some days, or nights, he crept in for food and they nabbed him in the clothes closet clad in one of his wife’s dresses.
Anyway he and his wife died when my dad was very young — I’d say 1867 or thereabout — and my dad and his sister were confided to the church, he being sent to Notre Dame, which ran an infants’ department in those days, and she to St. Mary’s nearby. There was a considerable estate. My dad lost it all in a Boom in the West. He first went west with my aunt and the Mother Superior of the order of Holy Cross nuns, when she went to Utah to establish St. Mary’s Academy in Salt Lake City. Some day I’ll write a dissertation on the attitude of the Mormons and the Catholics to each other — very interesting. He never got away again. My aunt did well for herself, marrying V. H. Coffman, Sheridan’s surgeon-in-chief in Texas after the war and practically that during the war, who went to Omaha, made a vast reputation for himself as a doctor and several millions out of advancing real estate values.
My dad has the finest mind I’ve ever known. Hanging around Notre Dame so long, he naturally acquired everything in the way of a degree they issued — M.A., M.S., B.A., B.S., Ll.B. It was before the Ph.D. reached the Middle West, and I never understood why or how he was able to acquire so many seemingly self-cancelling degrees, but he did for I’ve got the diplomas, and though I don’t read much of the Latin I do know that they are real sheepskin — and I’ll be damned forever if mine is. Dad is, really, a genius, about the only one I’ve ever known. He had a strong artistic strain, painted well, and when a French artist (I’ve a slight hunch it was Puvis de Chavannes, but have never investigated) came to paint murals in the chapel at N.D., Dad became his protégé and helped on them. He wanted to be a painter but my aunt and the Mother Superior promptly killed that — for, I blush to confess it, there are Catholic puritans, and my aunt had a gentility complex. Then he wanted to go to Columbia and study law, but the two of them killed that. He was, and is, a mathematical wizard, sorcerer, necromancer. He taught math at N.D. for a year or so, and I’ve thought that that was the life he should have kept to, failing the others, for he would have enjoyed the quiet and the intellectual surroundings and would have made a great, though captious, teacher. I have a letter from the chief of the Bureau of Standards, saying that he (Dad) taught him all the math he knows. For years engineers came to him from all over the West to have their insoluble problems solved for them. I’ve seen him clear up, in less than an hour, a maze of miscalculations that had stalled the whole engineering force of a transcontinental railroad for thirty days. He must have earned a million dollars in expert’s fees in his time — and never charged a cent of it. He’s that way. He threw away one-third of the Silver King mine (Sunrise Queen) because he thought there should be honor in national politics, the damned idiot. He located one of the richest Portland cement deposits in the country (for he is also a mineralogist and assayer) but he never went to the trouble of doing anything about it, and he has cursed the men who did for thieves, all his life — for he is very bitter and a complete misanthrope, and he believes that it is dishonorable for one to make money where he has scorned to do so. All the other abstractors in Utah are corrupt, you understand, because he is still charging the fees he set in 1900. He charges the Sugar Trust precisely the same fee he charges some meek little widow who wants a deed drawn up, with the difference that he will end the Trust a bill, five or six years after the statute of limitations has operated on the account.
Well, when he had blown the family pile in boom lands, he went to work for the UP. I never knew just what he did. He was a train dispatcher, I think. He acquired, during the strikes of the early Nineties, a conception of laborers and labor unions that accords with his conceptions of all other people. After a while he became an abstractor of title and has remained one ever since — a tragic waste of such gifts as his, but inevitable when you consider the defeatist philosophy he breathes out at every pore. It is impossible for me to tell you how good a land-expert he is. Well, you are a learned man and you can imagine how learned a man can get to be, such a man as my dad, in the insanely complex land-titles of the West, with their Spanish grants, a dozen different kinds of U.S. patents, squatters’ rights belatedly recognized by the courts, and above all the mining law in its half-Spanish, half-Vigilante intricacy. He has had, from the first, magnificent offers from land companies, banks, etc., all over the West and especially in California, but he has been almost psychopathically resolved to stay on the scene of his failure, surrounded by people he hates, no equal of his ever appearing there. He could have been Land Commissioner of every state in the West, or, if he did not have a compulsion to insult everyone he talks to, of the national government. No big bank on the coast, including the Federal Farm Loan bank, will accept any abstract to any land in Weber County unless it has been passed on by him — in fact, none in the state that involves anything but straight-from-patent stuff. Knowledge of this fiendishly intricate and exact science, I’m sure, has been the one solace of his years.
If you can imagine a combination of Heyst, in Conrad’s Victory, and the Swift who wrote about the Yahoos, you’ve got the secret philosophy of my dad. I mean, his life has been a terrible tragedy, with my mother the one good thing in it, and he is the bitterest man I’ve ever known. All men are fools, liars, and knaves, infinitely petty, infinitely noisome, and nothing in life is worth a damn. His experience has been just that, in ways it would take me too long to describe here. He himself has the finest honor I’ve ever known, and he has kept it clean at the expense of all the friendships he never formed….And yet he is also the kindest man that ever lived. He has been poor all his life not because he didn’t make a lot of money (though not one one-thousandth of what he might) but because he has kept alive literally scores of people, broken-down whores, old desert rats that are quite mad, my mother’s enormous family, beggars, poor people, God knows whom. He would give his shirt to anyone, and has many times, and many people have exploited his benevolence. In another way, he is a gentleman of the old school, ferociously upright, reactionary, a lover of the classics (which he reads in the original to this day), an unreconstructed states rights Democrat who hated Bryan but voted for him, who despised Roosevelt and who belongs exactly and completely in that simpler day when there were men and principles in politics. He played a considerable part in the early Democracy in Utah, and especially in the Liberal Party that freed Ogden from the Mormons (see DeVoto, Bernard, “Ogden: The Underwriters of Salvation,” in Aikman, Duncan, The Taming of the Frontier).
My maternal grandfather was, as a young man, converted to Mormonism in, I think, Liverpool, though it may have been London. He was a laborer in a linseed-oil mill. He and his newly acquired wife came to this country in one of the Emigration Companies organized by the colonization dept. of the church. He landed in Boston where he went to work as foreman of a linseed mill in Charlestown. Later, he went to Brooklyn in the same capacity and there my mother was born, the second child and oldest girl of a family of seven children. Five other daughters followed her. Soon there was talk of drafting soldiers instead of getting them as volunteers and if my granddad had been more bellicose than he was he wouldn’t have found any encouragement among the Mormons, who frankly sympathized with the South but weren’t going to shed any of their blood for either side. His journal merely says that there was no sense in staying east any longer, especially when he could make sure of not being drafted by going West. (The church encouraged its converts, you understand, to stay east a while and pick up a stake before going to Zion.) Well, my mother was born in 1861 and was something over a year old when her oldest sister was born in Wyoming in the bed of an emigrant wagon. Sam — his name was Samuel G. Dye, but he didn’t have anything in common with Sam Bingham — knew nothing about farming, and I may say that damn few Mormon converts of that day ever did, but after letting him drive a freight wagon for some months, the Church directed him to go to Uintah, in Weber Valley, eight miles south of Ogden, and buy a farm from one of the brothers there. He did so and there he stayed till a year or so before he died in 1925. He obeyed the church in all things but one and believed in it till his dying day. He was a perfect peasant, submissive, unimaginative, stolid, industrious, faithful, thorough. His wife was far finer stuff — the true frontier woman, a type I haven’t tried my hand on yet, though I’ve approached it in some ways with Mrs. Yancey. All that I’m proud of in my maternal inheritance, and I’m really proud of that whereas I merely accept the paternal (and larger) inheritance, was due to her. The one disobedience in granddad’s life came when the Bishop of the Uintah ward, seeing that the old man was now sufficiently prosperous to provide each child with a covering though not with underwear or shoes, told him to take a second wife. The old man got out the horse pistol and drove the bishop off the place, and the subject was not brought up again. But that’s the real lowdown on polygamy, Prof, on this gilded Oriental luxury and vice we read about. Oriental luxury, hell, it was damned poverty.
The poverty of those days simply cannot be imagined today. The kids never had shoes. The only plaything I ever heard them tell about was an old scoop in which they used to coast down the hills in wintertime. There was no school — my mother was the only one who got any schooling and she did it by working out in Ogden — there was not the slightest comfort in the house, not even bare necessities for years. Everyone worked his head off, kids and all. The railroad buzzed through in ‘69 and improved matters somewhat by hiring the old man as a teamster. I don’t go into that life here, though it’s tremendously fascinating. Don’t identify the Dyes with the Binghams, for at least four of the Dyes had real stuff in them. Some day I’m going to make a novel about them.
Nor need I dwell on the long and important story of my mother’s ill health, though that too makes a novel. She was a widow with one child when Dad married her in Ogden, 1895 I believe. She was keeping a rooming-house and supporting two or three of her sisters, who were trying to be dressmakers etc. Their married life was really noble, which is a word that sits strangely on my lips, and the only happy thing in the life of either one. She lived to be very proud of me, for, of course, a boy in Harvard who was also a lieutenant in the Army symbolized dizzy grandeurs to her. She always thought that the poverty in which my dad supported her was the wildest kind of affluence. It was, to her. She died in 1919, after a long siege of the sequelae of influenza, and what her death did to me, though interesting to a psychiatrist, does not interest a biographer.
None of my progenitors appears in any of my books, as such. Whether they have colored them or not, you can judge better than I. The farm at Blaine in the early CM, though not in the later book, is an idealized version of my grandfather’s farm as I remembered it from my childhood. The situation is literal to the last syllable.
[The letter breaks off here without signature. “Sam Bingham” is a character in The House of Sun-Goes-Down. “Mrs. Yancey” appears in several of BDeV’s short stories; “CM” is his first published novel, The Crooked Mile, 1924.]