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]