Historian By Serendipity


When he came back to Cambridge in 1927, having resigned from Northwestern to live by writing, he had written no history except as fiction or popular-magazine articles. But in Cambridge he made or renewed acquaintance with a group of men all of whom, in individual ways, corroborated his addiction to the West and to social history, and influenced his way of reporting them.

One was L. J. Henderson, a passionate exponent of the inductive method. Another was Hans Zinsser, that bacteriologist of great integrity, low boiling point, and picturesque prejudices. Others were Kenneth Murdock and Perry Miller of the English department, who shared his interest in all things American. And there was a whole group of historians, especially Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., Samuel Eliot Morison, Fred Merk, and Paul Buck. All of them had a hand in his making. As he told a correspondent later, the way to become a historian was to go to an expert and be helpless. He did not add the corollaries that applied in his own case: go to a good library, say the Widener Memorial, and be industrious, and start some other kind of book—and history will come in by the side door.

His first excursion into history is listed in the libraries as literary criticism. It began in angry disagreement with Van Wyck Brooks’s theory that Mark Twain was an artist thwarted and crippled by the Calvinism and cultural poverty of the frontier that bred him. In the course of his refutation DeVoto found it necessary to recreate the Missouri, Nevada, and San Francisco frontiers; to demonstrate that, far from being inhibiting, they had been stimulating, enlarging, full of excitement and wonder and the life of the senses, swarming with human types and charged with dynamism. Thus the book twisted in his hands. Schlesinger, Sr., was not far off in calling it the social history of Mark Twain, and he and Fred Merk knew what they were doing when they urged DeVoto to write a full social history of the frontier. The critics, too, were clear on what made Mark Twain’s America important. Henry Seidel Canby spoke for many of them when he wished that DeVoto had thrown his stones in a pamphlet and written his book afterward; it was too good a book to be half spoiled by controversy.

It was an important book. It not only corrected some dubious deductions by Brooks; it remade Mark Twain criticism, and it made DeVoto a major authority on the frontier. But he set history aside, wrote another novel ( We Accept with Pleasure , 1934), wrote serials, stories, and essays for the magazines, taught his way deeper into Harvard. But in 1936, being without higher degrees and being an interdepartmental maverick, a teacher of writing and contemporary literature whose major scholarly interest was outside the English department bounds, he found himself one of the first victims of President Conant’s upor-out policy. Wanting above all else to stay on at Harvard, he had to settle for the editorship of the Saturday Review of Literature and the role of public thinker in “The Easy Chair” at Harper’s . From those two posts, which gave him unprecedented power in the literary world, he sniped at the literary Marxists for a lively but for him unsatisfying year and a half. I n March, 1938, while retaining “TheEasy Chair,” he stepped out of the Saturday Review and into the curatorship of the Mark Twain papers. Both of those roles pointed directly to a continued career as a literary man.

And yet. The trussed and gagged historian in him struggled and bugged his eyes and groaned to speak. He had moved back to Cambridge, taking the Mark Twain papers along. Widener’s western shelves were a daily temptation; his historian friends prodded him. As early as 1933 they had discussed a DeVoto trilogy with the whole westward movement as its subject, and he had written of it in letters to his historical conscience, Garrett Mattingly, once his colleague at Northwestern. It might have gone the way of all the fictional trilogies he planned, but it didn’t. It worked in him as Manifest Destiny had worked in the Americans on their way west, as an urge below the level of consciousness, an inarticulate compulsion, an addiction that he neither quite named nor fully acknowledged. From very near the beginning he had focused on the year 1846 as the year when the “frontier bacillus” was most in evidence and when forces that had been operating in the West since before the Louisiana Purchase came to their climax: when Oregon came to compromise and Mexico to war, when the Wilmot Proviso settled the question of slavery in the territories, when the movement of covered wagons westward foretold that the Civil War, which was inevitable, would be won by the North. In conversation Paul Buck had begun to refer to 1846 as “the year of decision,” and that phrase both expressed the evolving thesis of DeVeto’s book and became its title.