Historian By Serendipity


In the summer of 1950 he had been writing pretty steadily for a year, and everything in his temperament that had been solid was liquid, everything liquid had turned to gas that was escaping at every petcock and threatening to blow the safety valves. Again he took it out on the patient Mattingly: I have, in nomine Patris et Filii, this day got the French out of North America. One year to the day, and three million words, after I began a book that had no intention of getting the French into North America. … So where are we? With thirteen million words written, or by our Lady some two score million, we have now accounted for 229 years that do not enter at all into my book, and have only forty more years to go, or say an even million words, if in the meantime I can learn something about concentration or alternatively get a tight cinch on my bowels, before we reach the beginning of my book and, with a sigh of infinite satisfaction and a suffusing glow of happy realization that only ten million words lie ahead, take up a blank, virgin sheet of paper and write at the top of it Page One.

The fantastic hyperbole reflected the intensity of his effort. He was writing a kind of history, Mattingly told him, quite different from anything he had ever written before, covering centuries instead of focusing a tight dramatic narrative within the span of a year or a handful of years. His tricks of test-boring and simultaneity were of little use; the scope of his subject kept him from developing vivid scenes or extended portraits. At best he could thumbnail and pass on. He felt like the slave of chronology.

“Okay, she’s dull,” he said resignedly in April, 1951. But even as he said that, he was noting with satisfaction that the book was going to peak right where he had guessed it might, that the English, French, and Spanish explorations in North America came to a confluence on the upper Missouri, from where Lewis and Clark could carry knowledge westward to the sea. He got the Lewis and Clark expedition afloat on the Missouri on page 435 and from there on could write the dramatized and narrative history he liked, the history he had set out to write. But he had created a complex web of context for that adventure; Lewis and Clark were the culmination of what had fascinated him, “the movement of these boys across a map that is not the map they have in their minds.” Fable and ignorance were replaced by knowledge in this climactic exploration, and so in the long run, without his conscious manipulation, test-boring worked for DeVoto again.

And it was by no means as dull as he had feared. Mattingly, reading the manuscript in March, 1952, summed it up for him : “And so we come to the Pacific with a sense of having crossed a continent, and a foreknowledge of getting back again, and a premonition of the nation that would cross after us, and the feeling of history shaping us and being shaped by us and emerging from the fluidity of dream or myth into concrete, ineluctable reality. It was an exhilarating experience. ”

The reviewers found it so. Walter Webb and Henry Nash Smith and Grace Lee Nute applauded it. Henry Commager. who had had a glimpse of it when it was no bigger than a man’s hand, thought it “the best book that has been written about the West since Webb’s The Great Plains , and the best-written book about the West since Parkman. ” The profession at large, through its representatives, corroborated the reviewers by giving The Course of Empire the National Book Award in the spring of 1953.

Except for the shortened edition of The Journals of Lewis and Clark , that was DeVoto’s total historical career. It was a controversial career while it lasted. He publicly scorned the work of too many people to be popular. When he told the historians they couldn’t write, some of them replied, No, not like you, and wouldn’t want to. When he suggested that every innovation in historiography in a hundred years had been made by amateurs, he seemed to be putting down the profession that he simultaneously aspired to. When he repudiated “objective” and scientific history in favor of narrative, and especially when he chose the grand Parkmanesque subjects that the academics warned their students against, he offended some people who might have agreed with him if he had phrased his criticisms less bluntly.

On the other hand he could not be ignored or discredited. Nobody ever caught him in serious factual errors, however much they might object to the conclusions he drew from his facts. And many of the best Americanists respected his prodigious learning and delighted in the vigor of his prose. Not many, interrogated now, would fully subscribe to the assumptions behind DeVeto’s work on the westward movement, assumptions that might be designated in shorthand as Manifest Destiny. Those assumptions, permeated with a nineteenth-century admiration for the energies of the American folk-wandering, have a jingoistic sound to the ig/o’s; they suggest a certain callousness toward Indians, Mexicans, and others who got in the way and were crushed. But those defects cannot be pinned on DeVoto alone. They appear in much of the history, including some of the best, of his time. The years have forced a reinterpretation that DeVoto did not live to make. Nevertheless he did the Indians the honor of learning more about them than most historians ever bothered to learn; and if he took the folk-wandering to be inevitable, he by no means condoned all its brutalities or made all its exponents heroes.