- Historic Sites
Historian By Serendipity
August 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 5
Bernard DeVoto, who died in 1955, was many things during his fifty-eight years—novelist, professor, editor, free-lance journalist, pamphleteer, and historian. In the 1940’s and early igso’s he was best-known as the occupant of “The Easy Chair” in Harper’s , from which he defended civil liberties, preached conservation, and asserted consumer rights with a vigor that endeared him to thousands as a giant-killer. His more permanent reputation rests on his histories: first Mark Twain’s America (1932); then The Year of Decision: 1846 (1943), Across the Wide Missouri (1947), and The Course of Empire (1952), the backward trilogy on the westward movement; and finally the condensed version of The Journals of Lewis and Clark (1953). Across the Wide Missouri won both a Pulitzer Prize and a Bancroft Prize; The Course of Empire won the National Book Award. It is as historian that DeVoto is a permanent part of American letters, and he was a historian by accident.
By accident, one says, and immediately draws back. Not accident—serendipity. He was a historian by the kind of inevitability that takes advantage of accidents. Also, he was a kind of historian many historians wish they could be, and others would not be if they could.
He told several stories about what he intended to be. One was that he set out to be a mineralogist but quit when he found that none of the perfect constructions of crystallography existed in nature. That story expressed his skepticism about all perfection but does not seem to have been true. Another of his stories was that he went to Harvard bent upon becoming a doctor (in one version a psychiatrist) but was diverted by World War I. It is true there was a spoiled M.D. in him, and true that he wrote much on psychiatry, especially in relation to literature, but there is no evidence that he ever aimed at medical school. When he came to Harvard in 1915 as a sophomore transfer from the University of Utah, he was already literary, and he stayed that way, despite some intense battles with the literary intellectuals, for the next forty years.
He wanted to be a “writer,” by which he meant a novelist, and he did not fully abandon that ambition until after the publication of Mountain Time in 1947. His first three books were novels; six out of his first eight books, if we count those of his alter ego John August, were novels; in his lifetime, under several names, he wrote eleven novels and more than fifty short stories. Those facts had consequences upon his handling of history when he finally came to practice it, and they also indicate how far from history his intentions were. So does his training. He had no higher degrees. As a Harvard undergraduate he had a course in modern history with Harold Laski, a political scientist ; one in the history of religion with George Foote Moore, a philosopher; and one in the history of science with L. J. Henderson, a chemist. That was it. His historiography was not by schooling but by inclination, imitation, invention, and carry-over from the art of fiction.
A historian without intention or academic training, he was also without institutional support. Though he taught from 192210 1927 at Northwestern and from 192910 1936 at Harvard, he taught in the English department in each case, at low rank and low pay, and at Harvard only parttime. He never had a sabbatical, he could count on no research aid, he never had a grant or a fellowship and never applied for one. And all the time he was writing history he never had an institutional salary but had to earn his living from the magazines. His bibliography contains nearly nine hundred items; only a small number of them are history. Except for one fairly concentrated decade, history was a spare-time occupation, too time-consuming to be much indulged.
And yet there was an inevitability awaiting its chance, an inclination needing to be satisfied. The inclination was partly geographical, the product of a boyhood in Utah’s Wasatch Range, where he was born in 1897; partly pietistic, the result of being the grandson of a Mormon pioneer whose character and works he respected even while he repudiated the faith; and partly defensive, the professionally western pose of an outsider in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which he had to call effete even though he wanted to live nowhere else. He began reading western history as a homesick student, used it as material for journalistic essays and historical novels, and continued it for information with which to confute Van Wyck Brooks’s theory that Mark Twain was a “spoiled artist. ” By preference he read firsthand accounts—the records of lived life were what caught his novelist’s eye—and he focused on the West. Very early he was dazzled by the theme of the young nation spreading inevitably from sea to sea, carrying its vigor and its folkways with it. And he had grown up at the mouth of Weber Canyon, one of the great historical gateways of the West. When, later, he said he had always wanted to write about the Civil War but had been deterred by his own inadequacy and diverted to the secondbest American theme, the westward movement, he was not quite candid, or was kidding himself. The Civil War was not his theme, though he knew and wrote a good deal about it. His theme was always the western one. Like Thoreau, westward he walked free.
When he came back to Cambridge in 1927, having resigned from Northwestern to live by writing, he had written no history except as fiction or popular-magazine articles. But in Cambridge he made or renewed acquaintance with a group of men all of whom, in individual ways, corroborated his addiction to the West and to social history, and influenced his way of reporting them.
One was L. J. Henderson, a passionate exponent of the inductive method. Another was Hans Zinsser, that bacteriologist of great integrity, low boiling point, and picturesque prejudices. Others were Kenneth Murdock and Perry Miller of the English department, who shared his interest in all things American. And there was a whole group of historians, especially Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., Samuel Eliot Morison, Fred Merk, and Paul Buck. All of them had a hand in his making. As he told a correspondent later, the way to become a historian was to go to an expert and be helpless. He did not add the corollaries that applied in his own case: go to a good library, say the Widener Memorial, and be industrious, and start some other kind of book—and history will come in by the side door.
His first excursion into history is listed in the libraries as literary criticism. It began in angry disagreement with Van Wyck Brooks’s theory that Mark Twain was an artist thwarted and crippled by the Calvinism and cultural poverty of the frontier that bred him. In the course of his refutation DeVoto found it necessary to recreate the Missouri, Nevada, and San Francisco frontiers; to demonstrate that, far from being inhibiting, they had been stimulating, enlarging, full of excitement and wonder and the life of the senses, swarming with human types and charged with dynamism. Thus the book twisted in his hands. Schlesinger, Sr., was not far off in calling it the social history of Mark Twain, and he and Fred Merk knew what they were doing when they urged DeVoto to write a full social history of the frontier. The critics, too, were clear on what made Mark Twain’s America important. Henry Seidel Canby spoke for many of them when he wished that DeVoto had thrown his stones in a pamphlet and written his book afterward; it was too good a book to be half spoiled by controversy.
It was an important book. It not only corrected some dubious deductions by Brooks; it remade Mark Twain criticism, and it made DeVoto a major authority on the frontier. But he set history aside, wrote another novel ( We Accept with Pleasure , 1934), wrote serials, stories, and essays for the magazines, taught his way deeper into Harvard. But in 1936, being without higher degrees and being an interdepartmental maverick, a teacher of writing and contemporary literature whose major scholarly interest was outside the English department bounds, he found himself one of the first victims of President Conant’s upor-out policy. Wanting above all else to stay on at Harvard, he had to settle for the editorship of the Saturday Review of Literature and the role of public thinker in “The Easy Chair” at Harper’s . From those two posts, which gave him unprecedented power in the literary world, he sniped at the literary Marxists for a lively but for him unsatisfying year and a half. I n March, 1938, while retaining “TheEasy Chair,” he stepped out of the Saturday Review and into the curatorship of the Mark Twain papers. Both of those roles pointed directly to a continued career as a literary man.
And yet. The trussed and gagged historian in him struggled and bugged his eyes and groaned to speak. He had moved back to Cambridge, taking the Mark Twain papers along. Widener’s western shelves were a daily temptation; his historian friends prodded him. As early as 1933 they had discussed a DeVoto trilogy with the whole westward movement as its subject, and he had written of it in letters to his historical conscience, Garrett Mattingly, once his colleague at Northwestern. It might have gone the way of all the fictional trilogies he planned, but it didn’t. It worked in him as Manifest Destiny had worked in the Americans on their way west, as an urge below the level of consciousness, an inarticulate compulsion, an addiction that he neither quite named nor fully acknowledged. From very near the beginning he had focused on the year 1846 as the year when the “frontier bacillus” was most in evidence and when forces that had been operating in the West since before the Louisiana Purchase came to their climax: when Oregon came to compromise and Mexico to war, when the Wilmot Proviso settled the question of slavery in the territories, when the movement of covered wagons westward foretold that the Civil War, which was inevitable, would be won by the North. In conversation Paul Buck had begun to refer to 1846 as “the year of decision,” and that phrase both expressed the evolving thesis of DeVeto’s book and became its title.
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.
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.
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. ”
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.
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.