Bernard Augustine DeVoto was born on January 11, 1897, in Ogden, Utah, the only son of Florian Bernard Devoto (1856-1935) and Rhoda Ann Dye Devoto (1861-1919). Bernard DeVoto received his elementary education at Sacred Heart Academy in Ogden before entering Ogden High School, from which he graduated in 1914. Following his freshman year at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, he transferred to Harvard College as a member of the Class of 1918. Upon the entry of the United States into the Great War, he enlisted in the Army and was commissioned as a second lieutenant, serving as an instructor of musketry and riflery at Camp Perry in Ohio. Mustered out after the Armistice, he returned to Harvard, graduating cum laude in 1920 with a major in philosophy, and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.
For two years DeVoto taught junior high school in his native Ogden, and then accepted an instructorship in English at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. In June, 1923, he married Avis MacVicar, a student in his freshman English class. In 1924 he published his first novel, The Crooked Mile, and began to write for national magazines. In 1927, determined to make a living as a writer, he resigned from Northwestern and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Two more novels soon followed, The Chariot of Fire and The House of Sun-Goes-Down, and in 1929 DeVoto joined the faculty of the English Department at Harvard as a lecturer. In 1930 his first son, Gordon King DeVoto, was born. DeVoto remained at Harvard until 1936, teaching courses in English composition and modern American literature. In 1932 he published a well-received work of history and criticism, Mark Twain’s America. This led indirectly, six years later, to his appointment as unpaid literary curator of the Mark Twain Estate, a position he held until 1946; several important studies and editions eventually came from this work, including the best-selling Letters From the Earth, which appeared only in 1962.
In 1934 DeVoto published his most ambitious novel, We Accept With Pleasure, and in 1935 he was invited to write “The Easy Chair,” an editorial column for Harper’s Magazine; he continued to write it every month for twenty years until his death. From 1932 to 1938, and from time to time thereafter, DeVoto was a regular staff member of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference for two weeks every summer at Middlebury College in Vermont.
DeVoto was unsuccessful in his effort to achieve a professorial appointment at Harvard. In 1936 he resigned his lectureship to become editor of the Saturday Review of Literature in New York City, and moved his family to White Plains. The magazine was struggling financially and DeVoto found it difficult to maintain his own schedule of writing while managing the editorial office. In January 1938 he resigned as editor but continued to write occasionally for the magazine. Without a regular job, he had more time for writing and lecturing, and soon contracted to write the second of five potboiler novels for serialization in Collier’s Magazine under the pseudonym of John August. His financial situation thus made more secure, DeVoto returned to Cambridge, where he worked intermittently and unsuccessfully on a novel, and continued research and planning for a multivolume history of the American frontier, to be called Empire.
The DeVotos’ younger son, Mark Bernard DeVoto, was born in 1940. During the summer of that year, accompanied by his friend and former student, the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., DeVoto traveled west by automobile on a research trip in preparation for the first of his three major historical works. The Year of Decision: 1846 was published in 1943 and became a best seller. That same year, he gave a series of lectures on twentieth-century American literature at Indiana University; these were published in 1944, to considerable controversy, as The Literary Fallacy.
With his family, DeVoto traveled west again in the summer of 1946. In the course of his historical research he gathered information about a planned political assault on America’s public lands. During the next eight years he published some twenty articles documenting this assault and promoting the conservation of natural resources. Across the Wide Missouri, the second volume of DeVoto’s historical trilogy, was published in 1947 and won the Pulitzer Prize in history in 1948. Mountain Time, his last novel, was also published in 1947. In 1950 he collected several essays on the technique of fiction writing and worked them up into a single volume, The World of Fiction. The following year a short book, The Hour, about American whiskey and the dry martini, showed DeVoto’s lighter side, as did several articles published in Woman’s Day under the pseudonym of Cady Hewes.
The final volume of the historical trilogy, The Course of Empire, won the National Book Award when it was published in 1952. During that year he also took part in the national presidential campaign, serving as a speechwriter and advisor to Governor Adlai Stevenson on public lands policy. DeVoto’s The Journals of Lewis and Clark, the first popular abridgement of the multivolume original, was published in 1953 in time for the sesquicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
DeVoto’s third collection of Harper’s essays, The Easy Chair, was published in 1955. His twentieth-anniversary Easy Chair, “Number 241,” appeared in Harper’s in November. On November 13, 1955, while visiting New York to appear on a television program, Bernard DeVoto suffered a ruptured aortic aneurysm and died. He was 58 years old. A few months later, his ashes were scattered from an airplane over the Clearwater National Forest, along the Lochsa River near Lolo Pass in Idaho, near the present site of the Bernard DeVoto Memorial Cedar Grove on U. S. Highway 12, dedicated in 1962. His papers and professional library were acquired in 1956 by Stanford University, where they form an archive that is available today. A smaller archive was established in 2012 at the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah.
In 1974 DeVoto’s close friend Wallace Stegner published a biography, The Uneasy Chair: A Biography of Bernard DeVoto, which was followed the next year by The Letters of Bernard DeVoto, a selection of about 150 out of several thousand.
At the time of his premature death in 1955, DeVoto had completed about two-thirds of a book about the complex relationships of history, geography, and ecology of the American West, to be called Western Paradox. Beginning in 1997, following a centennial conference in New Orleans about DeVoto’s life and work, the historians Patricia Nelson Limerick and Douglas Brinkley examined and edited the partial typescript, together with a number of earlier essays on conservation and the public lands; the compilation appeared as The Western Paradox in 2001. In 2012 the University of Utah Press published The Selected Letters of Bernard DeVoto and Katharine Sterne, edited by Mark DeVoto and representing about one-quarter of the 800 letters and memoirs exchanged from 1933 to 1944.