Historian By Serendipity


God was good to give him Sir William Stewart to hang the whole fur trade on, though it is clear from the way he used Joe Meek and other mountain men that DeVoto could have found unifying culture heroes without Stewart. As in The Year of Decision: 1846 , recurring and recognized figures braid through the narrative. Encounters in the wilderness suggest remote imperial rivalries. The Oregon question moves up the Columbia and the Snake with Ogden and Ross, the Spanish Southwest comes up from Taos on the Bent’s Fort-Fort Laramie trail. Counterespionage or its probability drifts in and out with the enigmatic figure of Captain Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville, as bald as if scalped and playing the fur trade so improvidently that he must have had other motives than profit. Yankee ambition challenges the great fur companies in the person of Nathaniel Wyeth. The partisans whose names are legend lead their brigades through the most romantic wilderness ever known or imagined, performing prodigies of skill, endurance, and war. The Scottish baronet and his party touch here, touch there, live with Indians, hunt buffalo and grizzlies, make the Rendezvous, know familiarly the men in dirty buckskins who are as heroic as anything in Homer and who sit by their fires smelling of bear’s grease and singing Injun while their squaws gnaw green hides or pound serviceberries or embroider moccasins with beads and porcupine quills. The artist is there, too, making his quick sketches of things that no pencil or brush has ever recorded or will, ever record again with such primal purity.

A romantic wrote Across the Wide Missouri , a romantic who knew what he was talking about. DeVoto could not have written as he did about the fur trade, about the dreams that pulled westward men as various as James Dickson and Jed Smith and Henry Spalding, if he had not dreamed those dreams himself and imagined those hardships and practiced those skills and lived in that country. The frontier experience as personal experience, that is his aim. He wants us to be physically disturbed by Narcissa Whitman’s most un-Calvinistic charms; he wants us to admire the ingenuity and persistence, even in failure, of Nat Wyeth; he wants us to recognize in Joe Meek the representative of a savage way of life in transition to something tamer. He wants us to feel the country, the space, the keen air, the color, the danger, of the trapper life. Something moves in the willows and the Manton is cocked and Sir William stands up in his stirrups—Ephraim is there, Old Caleb, the white bear of the mountains, so terrible that to kill one is a coup as glorious as striking with your bare hand an enemy in his own tipi. For half a mile mules and wagons are stretched out in flat light, dust above the caravan like an opening umbrella, emptiness everywhere, the earth flowing like water at its edges, a false lake hung with groves that have no reality. Here are the braves riding in from the hunt; their faces are like a sorcerer’s mask, they are naked to a g-string, the blood of buffalo has soaked their moccasins and dyed their forearms and calves, the squaws wait for them with basins of clear cold water from the Siskadee. …

“Sure you’re romantic about American history,” he wrote Catherine Drinker Bowen when she complained that a professor had put her down. “What your professor left out of account was the fact that it is the most romantic of all histories.” That was his mood when he set out to write the Lewis and Clark adventure, and his mood did not change when he got derailed into the fur trade. But when he returned to Lewis and Clark, he found that he could not make it stay a romantic story. It had antecedents and consequences, it spread and spread and spread. To encompass it he had to learn another way of writing history.

In November, 1948, when he had been on The Course of Empire about a year, he wrote to Garrett Mattingly, his historical mentor: Do I think maybe I Yn Francis Parkman? … What do you do about geography? I mean, what do I do about it? Have I got to go up the Saskatchewan too? Or Lake Winnipeg? … Christ, Mat, I can’t dig out the background of the background of the background. … For that matter, why should I ? … This was supposed to be about Sacajawea, wasn’t it? I figure I can clean up the predecessors of L&C in 30 years more, oh, easy. I figure I can do the empires and the wars in less than ten years more and the transAllcgheny U.S., the state of scientific thought, symmetrical geography, the diplomatics and American politics in another 10, and maybe in 5 years I can get Napoleon and La. straightened out. …

Mattingly soothed him with the assurance that he just had a light case of regressus historicus . But it was more than a light case. From Lewis and Clark he was led backward to earlier and earlier explorations and at the same time was tempted by what he called in self-derision Historical Ideas, particularly about the ways in which the continent altered the consciousness of its settlers and about the possibility that Jefferson had unadmitted imperialist aims and wanted to take the United States from sea to sea, even before the Louisiana Purchase. Deeper and deeper his research led him. He worried about producing a monstrosity in which “the birth of Christ got a dangling participle and Rome rose and fell in a paragraph.” He thought that when he finally began to write, the first word would be “Verrazano, ” or maybe “Folsom Man. ”