Historian By Serendipity


Bernard DeVoto, who died in 1955, was many things during his fifty-eight years—novelist, professor, editor, free-lance journalist, pamphleteer, and historian. In the 1940’s and early igso’s he was best-known as the occupant of “The Easy Chair” in Harper’s , from which he defended civil liberties, preached conservation, and asserted consumer rights with a vigor that endeared him to thousands as a giant-killer. His more permanent reputation rests on his histories: first Mark Twain’s America (1932); then The Year of Decision: 1846 (1943), Across the Wide Missouri (1947), and The Course of Empire (1952), the backward trilogy on the westward movement; and finally the condensed version of The Journals of Lewis and Clark (1953). Across the Wide Missouri won both a Pulitzer Prize and a Bancroft Prize; The Course of Empire won the National Book Award. It is as historian that DeVoto is a permanent part of American letters, and he was a historian by accident.

By accident, one says, and immediately draws back. Not accident—serendipity. He was a historian by the kind of inevitability that takes advantage of accidents. Also, he was a kind of historian many historians wish they could be, and others would not be if they could.

He told several stories about what he intended to be. One was that he set out to be a mineralogist but quit when he found that none of the perfect constructions of crystallography existed in nature. That story expressed his skepticism about all perfection but does not seem to have been true. Another of his stories was that he went to Harvard bent upon becoming a doctor (in one version a psychiatrist) but was diverted by World War I. It is true there was a spoiled M.D. in him, and true that he wrote much on psychiatry, especially in relation to literature, but there is no evidence that he ever aimed at medical school. When he came to Harvard in 1915 as a sophomore transfer from the University of Utah, he was already literary, and he stayed that way, despite some intense battles with the literary intellectuals, for the next forty years.

He wanted to be a “writer,” by which he meant a novelist, and he did not fully abandon that ambition until after the publication of Mountain Time in 1947. His first three books were novels; six out of his first eight books, if we count those of his alter ego John August, were novels; in his lifetime, under several names, he wrote eleven novels and more than fifty short stories. Those facts had consequences upon his handling of history when he finally came to practice it, and they also indicate how far from history his intentions were. So does his training. He had no higher degrees. As a Harvard undergraduate he had a course in modern history with Harold Laski, a political scientist ; one in the history of religion with George Foote Moore, a philosopher; and one in the history of science with L. J. Henderson, a chemist. That was it. His historiography was not by schooling but by inclination, imitation, invention, and carry-over from the art of fiction.

A historian without intention or academic training, he was also without institutional support. Though he taught from 192210 1927 at Northwestern and from 192910 1936 at Harvard, he taught in the English department in each case, at low rank and low pay, and at Harvard only parttime. He never had a sabbatical, he could count on no research aid, he never had a grant or a fellowship and never applied for one. And all the time he was writing history he never had an institutional salary but had to earn his living from the magazines. His bibliography contains nearly nine hundred items; only a small number of them are history. Except for one fairly concentrated decade, history was a spare-time occupation, too time-consuming to be much indulged.

And yet there was an inevitability awaiting its chance, an inclination needing to be satisfied. The inclination was partly geographical, the product of a boyhood in Utah’s Wasatch Range, where he was born in 1897; partly pietistic, the result of being the grandson of a Mormon pioneer whose character and works he respected even while he repudiated the faith; and partly defensive, the professionally western pose of an outsider in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which he had to call effete even though he wanted to live nowhere else. He began reading western history as a homesick student, used it as material for journalistic essays and historical novels, and continued it for information with which to confute Van Wyck Brooks’s theory that Mark Twain was a “spoiled artist. ” By preference he read firsthand accounts—the records of lived life were what caught his novelist’s eye—and he focused on the West. Very early he was dazzled by the theme of the young nation spreading inevitably from sea to sea, carrying its vigor and its folkways with it. And he had grown up at the mouth of Weber Canyon, one of the great historical gateways of the West. When, later, he said he had always wanted to write about the Civil War but had been deterred by his own inadequacy and diverted to the secondbest American theme, the westward movement, he was not quite candid, or was kidding himself. The Civil War was not his theme, though he knew and wrote a good deal about it. His theme was always the western one. Like Thoreau, westward he walked free.