Historian By Serendipity


What legacy has he left to American historiography? The question should be answered by a member of the guild, not by someone who is even further outside it than DeVoto was. But it seems clear that he was one of the first to teach the profession the- importance of pictorial materials such as the Miller pictures. He took the frontier of Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis and turned it into a world peopled by living men and women, a vividly realized world patiently re-created from the personal experience of those who had made it. He did something to resist the trend toward the monograph, and it is notable that many of the greatest names in the profession agreed with him on that matter of the big subject boldly grasped. One thinks of Webb, Morison, Nevins, Commager, Smith; and one remembers that though Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., objected to DeVoto’s historical methods, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., is more of DeVote’s party than his father’s.

DeVoto was always challenging the shibboleths and mass judgments of the historians, as for instance he challenged the standard opinion, including that of Allan Nevins, on Frémont. But most historians would now agree that he was right and Nevins wrong, and a scorecard on his other challenges would show him with a sound batting average. No course in the history of the West can afford to leave his books off the reading list. Moreover DeVoto through his own writing and through his influence on the early years of the History Book Club had a hand in literally creating a popular taste for the real history of the West as distinguished from the sentimental, mythical, or phony.

He went to the experts and was helpless; but also he had the sense to know who the experts were. Insofar as history is an artifact, the history of the West is partly his handiwork. But no historian that I know of has adopted his dearest devices, test-boring and simultaneity, and none seems to me to be writing with a comparable narrative vigor and descriptive vividness. None that I know of has given a history book the impressionistic form of a novel. The reason may be not that historians so universally repudiate the method, but that the method is not imitable. DeVoto was sui generis. If he has a place in history, the place is among those historians who practiced an art, not a science.