Ask anyone in Ogden about Bernard DeVoto and chances are you'll meet with a polite shrug and a blank stare. Hardly anyone seems to know who DeVoto is or was. How could his hometown have forgotten the one whom Wallace Stegner considered "the most distinguished writer who ever came out of the State of Utah?" In this "information age" of ours, how could one of America's most astute, authoritative and prolific writers be overlooked? Let's find out.
In a writing career that spanned more than thirty years, from the early 1920s to the mid-1950s, Bernard DeVoto became one of the most prolific and accomplished literary figures in America--a "literary lion" of the "top rank," according to historian Stephen Ambrose. DeVoto was celebrated nationally and internationally as a historian, conservationist, journalist, cultural commentator, humorist and more. For twenty years (1935-55) he was the editor of the popular and influential "The Easy Chair" column in Harper's Magazine. Around the same time DeVoto became the editor and first official curator of the Mark Twain papers (1938-46) and a leading Twain authority. Before that, DeVoto served as editor of the Saturday Review (1936-38), and, a century-and-a-half after Lewis and Clark had written their journals, DeVoto turned them into an American classic.
Moreover, Bernard DeVoto became the first Utahn to win a Pulitzer Prize (Across the Wide Missouri, in 1948). He was an inaugural winner of the Bancroft Prize for distinguished writing in American history (1948), and earned a coveted National Book Award (The Course of Empire, in 1953). Combined with The Year of Decision: 1846 (1942)--considered by Catherine Drinker Bowen to be his "most absorbing" book--this remarkable trilogy of the discovery, exploration and settlement of the American West made DeVoto a leading authority on the region. At the same time, he wrote five serious novels, all of which reflect his preoccupation with the West, and literally hundreds of articles, essays and short works of fiction. How was it that a boy who had grown up in turn-of-the-century Ogden went on to accomplish so much? To begin with, it required an exceptional intellect, coupled with the ability to work hard and to persevere.
Born in 1897 to a mother of Mormon pioneer stock (she had been raised on a farm in Uintah) and to a Catholic father of Italian descent from Indiana, DeVoto grew up in a modest duplex on Monroe Ave., approximately where James Madison Elementary School now stands. He was a precocious child who learned the alphabet before he could walk, read by the time he was three, and studied Greek, Latin and Italian by the age of ten. An aloof child--brilliant, studious and bookish--he spent countless hours in the old Carnegie Free Library less than half-a-mile from his home.
We know that DeVoto felt isolated from having grown up non-Mormon in a predominately Mormon community. His peers took him for a sissy. The fact that his father insisted he attend the all-girls Sacred Heart Academy just a few blocks up the street on 25th didn't make life any easier. And, when he reached high school, the adolescent torment continued. A former co-ed remembered him as "the ugliest, most disagreeable boy you ever saw" (in part from a squashed nose, the result of a baseball accident). Still others referred to him as "Barnyard Revolto." Little wonder he developed into such a scrappy fighter, giving as good as he got. Whereas Muhammad Ali could "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee," DeVoto was said to resemble a bumblebee who "writes [and stings] like an angry hornet."
Given these circumstances, it's little wonder young DeVoto came to relish the solitude and nearness of the mountains. He spent a great deal of time hiking and camping in the foothills east of town in the 1910s, when Ogden's population was only about 16,000 and the east bench was still years from development. He especially enjoyed exploring the wonders of the nearby canyons, usually packing a small sidearm or a .22 caliber rifle, and, according to his own account, never tired of the four-hour climb up to Mt. Ogden Peak.
After graduating from Ogden High in 1914, DeVoto enrolled in the University of Utah. However, the year he spent in Salt Lake City turned into a disappointment, marred by free-speech issues at the university, an experience that made him a fierce advocate of free thought and expression his entire life. DeVoto transferred to Harvard University, arriving "a raw western youth" impressed with the school's intellectual eminence. His classmates and professors described him as a "brilliant scholar," who "attached himself to a small literary group and showed little interest in anything other than the intellectual side of university life."
During his junior year at Harvard, the United States entered the First World War. At the end of the year, DeVoto enlisted in the Army, emerged from boot camp ranked 7th out of a class of 150, and yearned for combat overseas. However, he was "too good a shot to be wasted on the war," wrote Stegner, and was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant and became a small arms instructor stateside.
Following the Armistice in 1918, DeVoto returned to Ogden until he could re-enroll at Harvard. Much of the time during the spring and summer of 1919 he spent caring for his flu-stricken mother, who died in late August. DeVoto returned to Cambridge, completing his senior year, and graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1920 with a degree in philosophy.
Reluctantly, DeVoto again returned to his hometown, this time for two full years, writing and teaching for a year at North Junior High (renamed Mound Fort in 1931), before accepting an instructorship in English at Northwestern University in 1922. This move marked the last time DeVoto would return to Ogden for anything other than short visits, usually just passing through on his way to or from some research trip or speaking engagement.
DeVoto taught at Northwestern for five years, during which he married Helen Avis MacVicar, "the brightest co-ed in his freshman English class" and his intellectual match. But teaching took up too much time for the ambitious young author, so the DeVotos decided to move to Boston where he could write full-time. His newly-adopted New England home was where Benny ( as his friends called him) found the most suitable intellectual climate for his chosen career.
DeVoto went on to publish 21 books and wrote well over 800 articles, essays, short stories and book reviews. He wrote for a living, and his works ranged from magazine "pot boilers" to urgent and important essays and articles; from serialized fiction under pseudonyms to serious short stories, novels, and works on American literature and social history. A descriptive list of his enormous body of work could easily fill over 100 pages, and would cover a range of genres. He was, to use his own account, a "literary department store." In the end, however, his greatest achievement and most lasting legacy as a writer came through his histories. These enabled a generation and more to understand the West, his West, and to appreciate its importance in the broader context of America's past. As Wallace Stegner pointed out, the young writer from Ogden, who started out "wanting to be a literary artist," became an acclaimed historian, one who knew as much about the opening of the American West as anyone then alive.
DeVoto's love of his native West--which is to say, the Rocky Mountain and Intermountain West--also led him to become one of our most influential conservationists. The historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., a long-time friend and former student of DeVoto's at Harvard, called him "the first conservationist in nearly half a century, except Franklin D. Roosevelt, to command a national audience." Historians Douglas Brinkley and Patricia Nelson Limerick refer to him as the "preeminent conservationist writer between Theodore Roosevelt and Rachel Carson." And former Oregon senator and political ally Richard Neuberger crowned him "the most illustrious conservationist who has lived in modern times." Indeed, he "fought for conservation before anybody knew there was a fight," wrote Time Magazine's Melvin Maddocks. DeVoto used his monthly column in Harper's Magazine to give voice to the West, to defend its resources, and to crusade for America's national parks. In the process, DeVoto became "his era's foremost defender of public lands," writes journalist Nate Schweber, DeVoto's most recent biographer.
So how is it that Ogden scarcely recognizes so much accomplishment? Naturally, the answer is as complicated as was the man himself. DeVoto was born a century and a quarter ago, barely a year after statehood, when Ogden was brushing the dust off its frontier past and preparing for a new era. And he died nearly 70 years ago. But his anonymity can't be blamed strictly on the passage of time. It was compounded by the fact that he more or less exiled himself from his hometown at the age of 25, and soon thereafter wrote some inflammatory things about the people and the culture he had grown up with. Moreover, his harsh criticisms were published for the entire country to read. In a word, he "DeVotoized" Ogden, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and the State of Utah. So bitter was the reaction here that an entire generation of Utahns came to despise their native son and extinguished his memory.
The fact that DeVoto criticized his birthplace was nothing new among the generation of writers who came of age during WWI and established themselves in the 1920s and 1930s. It was trendy to ridicule rural and small-town America. Well-known figures like Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sherwood Anderson famously engaged in the practice, but DeVoto was unusually hard on his twin targets: provincial Utah and sanctimonious Mormonism. His stinging words were the result of pent-up anger from growing up an outcast in Ogden--he considered himself "collateral damage," caught between cultures--but his words mortally offended readers back home. While other communities forgave their trespassers, Utahns wouldn't forgive DeVoto his ridicule, even though he tried to make amends. He confessed at one point that he himself was to blame for his "miseries," not the environment he grew up in. And he went so far as to admit that his early articles about Utah were "ignorant, brash, prejudiced, malicious . . . and irresponsible." But he died unexpectedly in 1955 at the age of 58, and the reconciliation that adopted Utahn Wallace Stegner believed might have occurred never did.
Even though DeVoto left Ogden early on and chose to live in the East, he retained a fierce affection for his native Mountain West. And despite a strained relationship with Ogden, this affection extended to include his hometown. "Approach Ogden from the west," he wrote in an article published posthumously, " . . . and it is one of the most beautiful towns on earth." In a memorial tribute to DeVoto, published in The Ogden Standard-Examiner on Christmas morning, 1955, just a month and a half after his death, signs of truce were evident. Here, his hometown newspaper described him as a "Literary Giant," and "a many-sided, brilliant contributor to his times whom Ogden and Utah can be proud to have had a substantial part in creating and nurturing." The following month, the associate editor of the Standard-Examiner, in an article published in the Utah Historical Quarterly, had this to say:
As we measure and assay the entire DeVoto, we discover that the elements of greatness and goodness far outweigh the faults which some of our fellow Utahans [sic] continue to see in his life and works.These should be forgotten or forgiven as we contemplate his influence on American life and thought, recall his pride in his country and in its people, and wonder at his admiration of our region, the history of which hehas enriched with his writings.
Although DeVoto once claimed that Ogden was the source of all his neuroses, Ogden was also an inspiration and served as an important source of his infatuation with the American frontier and the American West. He may have fled Utah as a young man, but he never ceased to think of Ogden as home. And as Stegner pointed out, "it troubled him all his life that he was hated in his home state."
Bernard DeVoto, the man some described as "wild" and out of control as a young writer--the "Terrible-Tempered Mr. Bang," as a Time Magazine reviewer once called him--went on to become "one of the most respected voices of conscience" in America. Always the nonconformist devoted to the "common good as against individual greed and group stupidity," he was always fiercely, sincerely, and authentically American.
The "mountain-to-metro" community we call home has changed significantly since young DeVoto roamed the foothills above Ogden over a century ago. We have grown, become more diverse, more sophisticated, more cosmopolitan, and, above all, more tolerant. On the eve of the 125th anniversary of Bernard Augustine DeVoto's birth (January 11, 1897), the time is right for us to set aside lingering feuds and long-forgotten arguments and to embrace our most distinguished literary native son. As one of ours, it's time he is recognized and is granted a place of honor alongside Ogden's other notables.
Scott L. Greenwell
- "Angry Man," Time Magazine, Aug. 26, 1940. (Review of DeVoto, Minority Report)
- "Bernard DeVoto, Historian, 58, Dies," The New York Times, Nov. 14, 1955.
- "Ogden--'A Good Place to Grow In,'" The Ogden Standard-Examiner, April 1, 1956. (Reprinted from Lincoln and Mercury Times, March-April, 1956)
- "The Challenger," Time Magazine, November 28, 1955. (A final tribute to DeVoto)
- "Why So Hot?" Time Magazine, April 24, 1944. (Review of DeVoto, The Literary Fallacy)
- Bernard DeVoto, ed., The Journals of Lewis and Clark, A Mariner Book (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997). (Foreword by Stephen E. Ambrose)
- Bernard DeVoto, The Western Paradox: A Conservation Reader, Douglas Brinkley and Patricia Nelson Limerick, eds. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001). (Foreword by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.)
- Catherine Drinker Bowen, Edith R. Mirrielees, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Wallace Stegner, Four Portraits and One Subject: Bernard DeVoto (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963).
- John Rasmuson, "The Champion of Echo Canyon," Vamoose Utah, Vol. 5, No. 1 (February-March, 2019).
- Melvin Maddocks, "Go East, Young Man," Time Magazine, February 11, 1974. (Review of Stenger, The Uneasy Chair)
- Ray White, "Bernard DeVoto, Literary Giant, Was Ogden's Own," The Ogden Standard-Examiner, December 25, 1955.
- Wallace Stegner, ed., The Letters of Bernard DeVoto (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975). Wallace Stegner, The Uneasy Chair: A Biography of Bernard DeVoto (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974).