In an active career Bernard DeVoto (1897-1955) was a journalist, essayist, novelist, literary critic, historian, conservationist, college teacher, and all-around professional writer who once said in a letter, “I am a literary department store.” During his lifetime he published 20 books and about 800 miscellaneous pieces in magazines and other public fora, including essays, reviews, polemics, commentaries, addresses, and editorials; in private he wrote letters numbering in the thousands. For twenty years he presided over a monthly column, “The Easy Chair,” in Harper’s Magazine and contributed dozens of other articles to that magazine as well as to many others. In 1932 he published a book-length study of Mark Twain, the first of five such analyses or collections; the last of these, Letters From the Earth, was published in 1962, seven years after DeVoto’s death. From 1936 to 1938 DeVoto worked in New York City as editor of The Saturday Review of Literature, to which he had already been a regular contributor. In 1943 he published the first volume in a trilogy about the history of the American West, The Year of Decision: 1846; this was followed by Across the Wide Missouri (Pulitzer Prize, 1948) and The Course of Empire (National Book Award, 1953); all three of these books are still in print today, as is his popular edition of The Journals of Lewis and Clark (1953).
Bernard DeVoto was born and raised in Ogden, Utah. Following a year at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, he transferred to Harvard College, and majored in philosophy. He graduated cum laude in 1920 after 16 months of service in the Army during the Great War. He taught public school for a year, and then moved to Illinois to teach in the English Department at Northwestern University from 1922 to 1927. In 1923 he married Avis MacVicar, who had been a student in his expository writing class, and in 1924 published his first novel, The Crooked Mile. In 1927 he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in 1929 began seven years of teaching at Harvard University. He published three more novels before leaving Harvard for his editorial position in New York; except for occasional short visits, he never went back to college teaching, though he did earn four honorary degrees.
Back in Cambridge from 1938, DeVoto earned a living mostly as a freelance writer, working on his histories and supporting his family in part by writing potboiler novels under the pseudonym of John August, and in 1947 his last work of serious fiction, Mountain Time, was published under his own name. Other books that he published include two volumes of literary analysis, The Literary Fallacy (1944) and The World of Fiction (1950); a lighthearted tribute to American whiskey and the dry martini, The Hour (1951); and three collections of essays, the last of which, The Easy Chair, appeared two weeks before his premature death in 1955. He left an important examination of the history and ecology of the American West about two-thirds finished in draft; this was edited by Patricia Nelson Limerick and Douglas Brinkley and published as The Western Paradox in 2001 (Yale University Press), summarizing a decade of DeVoto’s thought and research about conservation and politics of the American public lands. A related collection, DeVoto’s West: History, Conservation, and the Public Good, edited by Edward Muller (Swallow Press of Ohio University Press) and including a number of DeVoto’s other writings, was published in 2005.
A biography of Bernard DeVoto, The Uneasy Chair, by his close friend Wallace Stegner, was published in 1974; a collection of DeVoto’s letters, also edited by Stegner, appeared the following year. In 2012 the University of Utah Press published The Selected Letters of Bernard DeVoto and Katharine Sterne, containing about 150 letters and memoirs chosen from some 800 items of an eleven-year correspondence. Bernard DeVoto wrote about his own family history in two letters, to Robert Forsythe in 1927 and to Kate Sterne in 1936.