Historian By Serendipity


Simultaneity, too, was a device he had used in Mark Twain’s America and would use again in Across the Wide Missouri . “A chronological symphony,” Frederic Paxson called it; it was familiar enough in the impressionistic novel but strange to history, and sometimes bewildering, for it meant moving many stories forward by small increments. At Henry Canby’s request DeVoto rewrote the first chaper of The Year of Decision: 1846 , tempering his wind to the Book-of-the-Month Club’s lambs, but even rewritten it was complex and difficult until the reader adjusted himself to the method. A decade after he finished The Year of Decision: 1846 , DeVoto told his friend and physician Herbert Scheinberg, “I wrote the book deliberately with the technique you will soon perceive. The technique forfeits nine out of ten readers. My theory is, however, that the tenth will get much more out of it than if I had used a different and easier technique. I was trying to suggest, as well as prose enables a writer to suggest, that all these actions were occurring at the same time. ” He was also trying to enlist his readers as collaborators. “In narrative, fewest is best,” he advised Mattingly. “If a reader is with you at all, he’s half a yard ahead of you.”

Vivid scenes, novelistic characters, selected incidents, symbolic culture heroes, the abiding presence of a judging intelligence, impressionistic brevity, these are the elements of the kind of history natural to a novelist. He accepted the obligation to be accurate, and he followed such preceptors as Schlesinger in his concentration on social history; but from there on he went his own way, and his way assumed that there “is no boundary between history and literature; each holds a large part of its field in common with the other. ”

Test-boring and simultaneity had given DeVoto the form and focus for The Year of Decision . They would operate in his next history as well, but serendipity would find the subject of Across the Wide Missouri for him. In April, 1944, following his formula of going to an expert and being helpless, he asked Henry Steele Commager for advice on how and where to learn the backgrounds of the Louisiana Purchase and other matters. He was going to write a narrative history of the Lewis and Clark expedition. But something else had already interrupted that project before he ever wrote Commager. In February a Hungarian émigré named Emery Reves had brought into the Houghton Mifflin office a hundred or more water colors and sketches painted in the West in 1837, when the artist, Alfred Jacob Miller of Baltimore, was employed by a Scottish baronet, Sir William Drummond Stewart, who wanted hunting pictures for his castle. The pictures now belonged to Mrs. Clyde Porter of Missouri. Reves was going to publish them and wanted a competent western historian to write twenty thousand words of captions. Dixon Wecter had suggested DeVoto.

DeVoto looked over the drawings and knew then) at once to be a priceless historical find, a gallery of the mountain fur trade in its climactic year. He would be happy to do the captions, though he thought twenty thousand words not enough. Thus lightly, the way he might have agreed to write a magazine article, he set out into the fur trade. But the negotiations were sticky: Reves’ part in the transaction was obscure and had to be defined, Mrs. Porter’s biographical essay on Stewart had to be all but discarded as incompetent. It was a year before the dickering was done, and by that time the book had altered. The twenty thousand words of captions would be forty thousand, or even more, and the title would not be “The Stewart-Miller Expedition.” That expedition, as DeVoto wrote Mrs. Porter, was going to be used “only as a line to hang the whole fur trade on. ”

By pure accident he had arrived at the book he had been unconsciously preparing himself to write for twenty years. He could finally express at full length, but within the form that suited him best, the enthusiasm he had felt for the mountain men when he was a romantic boy in Ogden Canyon, walking dust that had been printed by the moccasins of heroes. He could describe and celebrate skills he had admired and imitated, and he could tie the fur trade into the grand theme of the westward expansion. Here in these adventurers was Manifest Destiny before it was ever formulated as conscious idea. Here was one of the first and most direct consequences of the expedition of Lewis and Clark, which the Miller pictures had diverted him from. The “little caption job,” exciting but casual, which he had thought might take him six weeks, took him three years. A promoter and a woman’s-club amateur released him into the large freedom of the mountain past.