Historian By Serendipity


In March, 1940, years after he had begun picking at the year 1846, DeVoto published “Anabasis in Buckskin,” the story of the march of the Missouri Volunteers in the Mexican War; and in the fall ofthat year, crowding it into his prodigious work schedule between Easy Chairs and serials and magazine journalism and work on the Mark Twain papers, he started seriously to write what had been gathering in him for nearly eight years. On February 15, 1942, he wrote the last longhand page, had it ceremoniously signed by John Dos Passos and some other friends gathered for a drink, and sent it off to Houghton Mifflin. Publication was held up, first by serialization in the Atlantic and then by a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, so that The Year of Decision: 1846 was not published in book form until March, 1943. At once it was clear that here was a new kind of history—if, as some doubted, it was history at all.

In a half dozen essays and Easy Chairs beginning with “The Skeptical Biographer” in 1933, DeVoto had made assertions about the writing of history. One was that the literary should not be allowed to do it—they were temperamentally incapable of dealing with evidence, confused wish with fact, and characteristically used facts (as he said Van Wyck Brooks had done in writing about Mark Twain) to prove an a-priori thesis instead of drawing inductive conclusions from them. Another was that historians had too much ignored social history in favor of the political, economic, and metaphysical kinds. Another was that too many historians were narrow monographers, afraid of big subjects. Another was that they forgot the close relation between history and story and refused to dramatize; they habitually stopped on second base because in their view historians did not hit home runs. Another was that very few historians could write. Still another was that, even when possessed of the facts, historians had been trained to be timid in judgment. They mistakenly tried to make history a science; they suppressed the historian as artist.

The Year of Decision: 1846 flew in the face of all the conventions of academic history. It was not only narrative, it was a braid or weave of narratives of “some people who went West in 1846.” “When you get a scene, play it,” DeVoto advised Garrett Mattingly, and he practiced what he preached. He played the bitter Mormon exodus from Nauvoo, the ordeal of the Donner party, the march of the Missouri Volunteers, the adventures of Susan Magoffin on the Santa Fe Trail—all the stories of his fabulous year—for all they were worth. He strove to “realize the Far Western frontier experience … as personal experience” by using all the devices of evocation and vividness that he had learned as a novelist. He did not hesitate to judge. He called Zachary Taylor a lucky fool and John Charles Frémont a pompous publicity seeker; he made bold thumbnail sketches of James K. Polk, Brigham Young, Jim Bridger, a whole gallery. His positiveness did not please all historians. Frederic L. Paxson might remark that the book was “a brilliant job on the borderland common to the historian, the essayist, and the analyst,” but DeVoto’s old friend Arthur Schlesinger declared flatly that it was “not history,” and many objected to the “inevitability” that was DeVoto’s theme. “Inevitable,” said Ralph Gabriel, “is a strong word. ”

But none denied the book’s vigor, and the vigor came from the use of original and unorthodox techniques. Writing to an Ogden librarian, Madeline McQuown, DeVoto said: Very few historians of our time, practically no academic historians, realize that history is not only knowledge, not only knowledge and wisdom even, but is also an art. I do. My books employ the methods and techniques of literature and especially they have structure as literature. They have form. … Form is used to reveal meaning. … You are quite right in perceiving that the books are like novels—they are constructed and written like novels, to exactly the same end as novels. Finally, the materials of history have become so multifarious that, I think, from now on some kinds of history can be written satisfactorily only by methods which I have used … and may possibly be the first to have used … methods which I can designate roughly as the test-boring and the focus on simultaneousness.

These techniques are worth a glance. What he calls the “test-boring” is what Robert Frost meant when he called himself a Synecdochist. “All that an artist needs is samples,” Frost said. The part might represent the whole, one illustration might prove more than a whole catalogue. In that spirit DeVoto let the year 1846 encapsulate the whole history of the frontier. His “narrative history of a year” did not prove his thesis, it illustrated it as possibility; and his sampling permitted the re-creation of brilliant historical scenes and minimized dull chronological connective tissue. By one form of test-boring, certain individuals—in this book the mountain man Jim Clyman—became true “culture heroes,” archetypes. When DeVoto had stumbled upon Clyman, away back in 1933, he had known instantly what use he would make of him.