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A Country in the Mind: Wallace Stegner, Bernard DeVoto, History, and the American Land

A Country in the Mind: Wallace Stegner, Bernard DeVoto, History, and the American Land

by John L. Thomas

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In this beautifully written account, John Thomas details an intimate portrait of the intellectual friendship between two commanding figures of western letters and the early environmental movement--Wallace Stegner and Bernard DeVoto.. The authors of enormously popular works--Stegner most well known for his novels The Big Rock Candy Mountain and the


In this beautifully written account, John Thomas details an intimate portrait of the intellectual friendship between two commanding figures of western letters and the early environmental movement--Wallace Stegner and Bernard DeVoto.. The authors of enormously popular works--Stegner most well known for his novels The Big Rock Candy Mountain and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angle of Repose and DeVoto for his classic history of western exploration, The Course of Empire--they also played important roles in the efforts to stop government and private interests from carving up the vanishing West. Part of the fractious group of public intellectuals at Harvard that included Edmund Wilson, Mary McCarthy, and Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., they saw no contradiction between their literary and political selves and entered the public debate with conviction and passion.

Drawing on their writings, personal correspondence, and dozens of articles from the pages of Harper's, where DeVoto was a columnist for years, this illuminating account demonstrates how their concerns for the western environment continue to resonate today.

Editorial Reviews

Rocky Mountain News
Thomas succeeds in pulling together an impressive array of information as he shifts between the lives of Stegner and DeVoto and their shared interests...[he] offers us the lives of two American writers whose voices deserve to be heard.

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A Country in the Mind

Wallace Stegner, Bernard Devoto, History, and the American Land
By John L. Thomas


Copyright © 2002 John L. Thomas
All right reserved.

ISBN: 041592782X

Chapter One


    In the March 1951 issue of Harper's Bernard DeVoto, the irascible, pugnacious, and seemingly inexhaustible editor of "The Easy Chair" feature, boldly faced down his newest enemies, the "humble sheep-walker" and the "bronzed horseman" riding out of the fabled West and into Washington bent on another raid on the public lands. In a hard-hitting article entitled "Two-Gun Desmond Is Back," DeVoto watched their legislative approach warily and warned his readers to beware of yet another landgrab by organized grazing interests, this time under the guise of a cut in fees. Four years earlier he had helped fight off an even bolder move to repeal the Taylor Grazing Act and return all public land in the West to the several states. Now the same predators were back again "bellyaching about bureaucratic tyranny" and bent on "taking back" what they mistakenly considered their land. Their fraudulent claim was the product of a major miscalculation, DeVoto announced in appealing to public opinion. "You have got to know about it because it is your property they want to alienate." The national forests, he reminded his readers, belong to the American people, and by far their most vital function in the West is the preservation and protection of watersheds in an otherwise arid land. "Vital parts of every important watershed in the West are in the national forests—and stock-grazing is a threat to a watershed the moment it becomes overgrazed." It was just this kind of destruction by benighted special interests that the larger American public would have to prevent. "You had better watch this, now and from now on," DeVoto admonished his readers. "The land-grabbers are on the loose again and they can be stopped only as they were before, by an effective marshaling of public opinion." The people's property was at stake, their money was subsidizing a raid on their own wealth. "You had better make sure that your Representatives and Senators understand clearly what is going on and where you stand. Then if you don't belong to one of the conservation societies, join one and keep in touch." Americans would need to be on their guard, keep their eyes open, and continue to "walk the bounds" of their collective commons.

    When he sounded his warning in 1951 DeVoto had been walking the bounds of his native West for three decades, accompanied for nearly two of them by his friend, colleague, and eventual biographer, the Western writer Wallace Stegner whose steadying companionship he cherished and whose recent recruitment to environmentalism paralleled his own. Together the two friends constituted a model of the engaged intellectual, DeVoto confronting predatory grazing, mining, and timber interests in his native region and drafting environmental statements for Adlai Stevenson's 1952 presidential campaign, and Stegner continuing to rally the nation's growing environmental forces for four decades. Both men were sons of the Mountain West. DeVoto was born in Ogden, Utah; Stegner, twelve years younger, arrived in Salt Lake City as an adolescent in the early twenties and came to call the Arid Region home.

    By the time they met in the late thirties, Stegner had already published his University of Iowa doctoral dissertation on Clarence Edward Dutton, the geologist colleague of John Wesley Powell, and was also the author of a novel, a prize-winning novella, and some half-dozen short stories and essays. The two met in Chicago at a convention of the Modern Language Association after Stegner had written the older man thanking him for his part in awarding the Little, Brown Prize for Short Fiction to his Remembering Laughter. They met again the following summer—1938—at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in Vermont when Stegner was asked to join the fiction writers' group. Soon he was making final corrections on his third novel, assembling notes for a fourth, and collecting memories that would take shape in his compelling autobiographical novel, The Big Rock Candy Mountain. For his part, DeVoto, by the time he turned west for research and revitalization in 1940, had written three novels about his home country and another on Boston in the year of the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti; dozens of short stories under the pen name John August; as many hard-hitting articles and reviews for the Saturday Review of Literature and Harper's; plus a bruising defense of his favorite author, Mark Twain, against the attacks of the literary "coterie" of Eastern intellectuals. To call Stegner and DeVoto compulsive achievers is to understate the case and underestimate both men, who over the next fifteen years would use their talents to help form and direct a growing environmental movement. Their examples of conversion and continuing contribution serve as guideposts in a later and more threatening phase of the struggle over the American environment.


     Bernard Augustine DeVoto was born at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains on January 11, 1897, the son of an apostate Catholic father and a lapsed Mormon mother whose joint defections may have supplied their offspring with a lasting example. More certainly, they gave him affection and support—intellectual stimulation and grudging approval from a contrary-minded father, adoration from a doting mother who, DeVoto remembered, "lived to be very proud of me," for having a son at Harvard "symbolized dizzy grandeurs to her." Her death in the influenza epidemic of 1919 plunged her wildly ambitious but deeply insecure son into a two-year, paralyzing depression from which he finally extricated himself by writing his first novel. From his father, Florian DeVoto, "the finest mind I've ever known" but also the most difficult personality an adolescent could confront, he inherited a hair-trigger temper, a censorious outlook on the world, wild impatience, and an undying hatred of sham. Mathematical genius, mineralogist, assayer and abstracter of titles, and according to his son, a "complete misanthrope," Florian held it "dishonorable for one to make money where he [had] scorned to do so." Though generous and fundamentally kind, he was a determined failure, convinced that the world was composed of fools and liars. But he was also, his son recalled with lingering admiration, "a gentleman of the old school, ferociously upright, reactionary, a lover of the classics ... an unreconstructed states rights Democrat who hated Bryan but voted for him, who despised Roosevelt and who belongs exactly and completely to that simpler day when there were men and principles in politics." Throughout his own lifelong excursion into the world of American history DeVoto would arrive at many of his father's ethical judgments while at the same time freeing himself from Florian's paralyzing cynicism.

    The adolescent DeVoto cast himself heroically in the role of the lone outsider, intellectual superior, and scoffer at the pieties and certainties of a Mormon establishment. He looked the part of a feisty intellectual—short, slightly pudgy, a moon face framed by glasses and with a nose squashed against his face by an errant baseball. The young man carried his defiance of the world with a swagger which became a lifetime posture. Wallace Stegner pieced him together from a collection of contradictions: "precocious, alert, intelligent, brash, challenging, irreverent, literary, self-conscious, insecure, often ostentatiously crude, sometimes insufferable." The verdict of a sister of a schoolboy friend was more succinct and withering: "The ugliest, most disagreeable boy you ever saw." The boasting and bragging would become muted in maturity but not the adversarial temperament nurtured by a profound insecurity. Wallace Stegner, who also suffered moments of shattering self-doubt, traced his friend's "incomparable knack of infuriating people" to a nagging lack of confidence that blunted his social sense "of how much was enough":

how far to go in colloquialism among those who spoke only the stiffest king's English, how far to go in profanity among those whose mouths had early been sterilized with soap, how far to go in familiarity with reserved strangers or friendly women, when to stop tomahawking the body his intelligence and eloquence had slain, how much to resent an apparent slight, how not to turn simple disagreement into insult, how to state his opinions, which were quick, powerful, and sure, without stating them at someone's expense.

Social graces all, Stegner admitted ruefully, which his friend and mentor never managed to acquire.

    DeVoto's career was set inside an intensely felt personal history of a postfrontier upbringing "in between" the mountains and the metropolis, midway between wilderness canyons above and industrial wasteland below, both within distance of a bicycle ride from home on the edge of the foothills and encroaching sagebrush. Young DeVoto's third-generation Ogden was a world in which the frontier survived, in his telling phrase, as "fossilized memory," its mountain men, cowboys, rustlers, and train robbers enshrined in myths of derring-do. The mature historian, driven by a lasting boyhood urge to set the record straight, would spend an entire career correcting these and other regional fictions and attacking the booster state of mind which nourished Mormon society. In explaining his obsession with facts and lifelong irritation with the purveyors of fictions, he once wrote, "You see, it's the concrete thing, the living thing, that I go for, and the abstraction from it repels me."

    Many of those concrete facts lay buried in his boyhood waiting for memory to excavate them. An essay written for Harper's in 1935 uncovers DeVoto's ambivalent attitude toward his home country and its history, skillfully mixing reminiscence with cultural conclusion. In "Fossil Remnants of the Frontier" (April 1935) he announces himself, as he had done for fifteen years, as the dry-eyed demolitions expert armed with the facts and determined to blow sky-high every fable, figment, or fabrication of the Western past he encounters. The American Indian of legend? "I have not found him a beauty lover, the creator of a deeply spiritual religion or an accomplished metaphysician who plumbs eternal secrets which his brutish conqueror could never understand." Call it racism and philistinism, if you must, DeVoto warns the "best minds" of the Eastern intellectual establishment, but "sybilline women and rapt men from megalopolis have been unable to persuade me that neolithic culture was anything but neolithic culture." What about frontier violence of storybook fame? The era of violence in the Mountain West ended in "a forced equilibrium" imposed by the Mormon Church on the city of Ogden and the whole state of Utah, and "very little strife found its way to the children." The cost of that peace, however, has been steep, not to say prohibitive. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints built "a semi-cooperative society governed by an oligarchy who claimed divine sanction and exercised absolute power." The chief influence of Mormonism on his own postfrontier generation, DeVoto scoffed, was "to spice it with miracle. In few societies are angels as common as policemen and heaven rather more familiar than a city park." And culture in Ogden's brave new world? Mormonism has long pronounced its blessing on a commercialized consumerism bequeathed it by an industrial East. "Luncheon clubs arrived, and Chautauqua, the Y.M.C.A., the syndicated press, booster movements, the hysterias and compulsions of wartime and prohibition, and the liberal point of view and national prosperity." It was no wonder, then, that a bright, intellectually ambitious young man had escaped as soon as he could.

    Yet at this point in his recollections of his Ogden boyhood he paused—as he would in everything he ever wrote—to introduce a contradiction that enormously complicated the process of making judgments and confounded the would-be critic. Ogden in a postfrontier age, oddly enough, was home to an "all-inclusive freedom that touched every aspect of our lives." The liberating force came as wind off the nearby mountains. "By the time we were eight we went on daylong explorations of the foothills, miles from home, unsupervised by older people. Two or three years later we were beginning to climb the peaks, and by the time we were fourteen we were camping out for days at a time, without tents, in the canyons up the range." The several canyons running east up into the Wasatch Mountains offered a temporary escape from the pieties and rigidities of Mormon society, and the young DeVoto frequently availed himself of hiking paths and trout streams in upland country that was still open but within easy reach of civilization below. Weber Canyon, the largest, winding south out of Ogden had served as an entryway into the valley for Mormon settlers and California-bound wagon trains. In DeVoto's childhood and youth it furnished the pass through the mountains for the railroad which ran past his grandfather's farm, where the boy spent part of his summers. "Almost wilderness," Wallace Stegner called it in likening the country to the canyons winding out of his own hometown Salt Lake City across "middle ground" and up into the peaks. Though no athlete, the adolescent DeVoto was a tireless hiker and already the crack shot that would make him a stateside Army instructor during the First World War.

    This brief holiday DeVoto recalled as the principal frontier remnant—an interval between two ages. A fragile frontier system had collapsed within memory, but the new industrial order had yet to lay its deadening hand on Western life. The original frontier had disciplined children by necessity; the rising industrial system taught its children, albeit haphazardly and inconsistently, a new ethic of humanitarian responsibility. "Our order granted them the frontier freedom and then, omitting discipline, disregarded them. In some ways it was not a bad system."

    Ogden in the early years of the century was a grimy industrial city of some forty thousand which straggled up from railroad yards and smelters in the bottomland through the business district and past palatial Mormon homes like that of the Mariner Eccles family and on up to lower-middle-class duplexes on the margins of respectability where the adolescent DeVoto grew up. By his own admission he was not well adjusted to an environment of Mormon prosperity and piety. "These people are not my people," he explained to a friend on his return to Ogden after his years at Harvard. "Their God is not mine. We respect, hate, and distrust each other, and though self-defense forces me to take them with much humor, nothing forces them so to take me." He never changed his mind.

    Ogden's social system, in all events, was sufficiently open to allow a budding intellectual the freedom to try on various identities as intellectual tough, cultural snob, literary aspirant, and—more realistically---ambitious poor boy. The homes of wealthy and pious Mormons remained closed to the interloper, and young DeVoto earned his pocket money for tobacco and books by working on the interurban line between Ogden and Salt Lake and serving a brief stint as a stringer reporting for the Ogden Evening Standard.

    As an older DeVoto looked back on his own postfrontier upbringing he realized that he had been a "laboratory specimen," the unknowing recipient of an endless variety of influences and forces shaping his idiosyncratic view of the world, connections and relationships that escaped all attempts at categorizing. One of his grandfathers had been an early industrial mechanic from England drawn to Utah by Mormon missionary zeal into a life of hardscrabble farming. His other grandfather was a onetime Italian cavalry officer turned commission agent. "I played with sons and grandsons of Hawaiian princes, Scandinavian murderers, German geologists with dueling scars, French gamblers, Virginian slave owners, Yankee metaphysicians," he boasted with pardonable exaggeration, "of men who came from everywhere, who had every conceivable tradition, education, and canon of taste and behavior." There was, in short, none of the deadly uniformity imputed to Western life by Eastern "best minds." "I grew up in a culture more various than I have found anywhere else."

    DeVoto began his search for the Mountain West's true past as an adolescent, collecting bits and pieces of regional lore and family history in hopes of discovering a meaning that would satisfy. Affronted as he was all his professional life by the interpretive intrusion of Eastern observers bent on teaching him the significance of his legacy, DeVoto early on countered with his region's acceptance of a Darwinian truth that no wishful thinking of liberals and would-be reformers could alter. "To that people [of the Mountain West] the struggle for existence is not something that can be repealed by Act of Congress or demolished by rainmakers, philosophers, or community meetings in prayer." Here announced with authority and not a little arrogance, was DeVoto's version of insiders history based on close personal scrutiny of a province of meaning closed to outsiders. Ogden—indeed the entire state of Utah—he could see only after leaving it in the early twenties, had been the "damndest place." "We were really fin de siecle, we were the frontier's afterglow. We saw that glow fade out, we stood, as it were, on a divide, and also went down the other side."

    The image of the watershed—the great divide between epochs and stages of development—was more than a metaphorical adornment for DeVoto. The chain of mountains stretching up the continent from New Mexico to Montana, Idaho, Washington, and beyond, dominated as towering geological fact the cities and their inhabitants in the valleys and plains below. In between lay the middle ground of his childhood years—uplands, rising layers of benches and empty desert leading up gulches and canyons from stands of alder, aspens, and cottonwoods near water to groves of oak, walnut, and fruit trees along the high line planted there by determined farmers like DeVoto's Mormon grandfather, Samuel Dye, who briefly made the wilderness bloom.

    The foothill ridges above Ogden also marked a temporal divide for the fledgling historian—a sundering of stages of development into three discrete segments which could be identified and classified as frontier, postfrontier, and industrial. From this vantage point in the center of the middle ground a whole epoch unfolded—for DeVoto, Willa Cather, Walter Prescott Webb, Wallace Stegner and a whole host of chroniclers of the Arid Region and the Mountain West—the meaning of which he read as declension from the short-lived achievements of the pioneer generation to the civic disintegration and spiritual barrenness of the industrial age. Insofar as the aspiring writer out of Ogden admitted to possessing a philosophy it rested on the observed signs of decline combined with the challenge of renewal.

    DeVoto's education was a migratory one, as though the young provincial already sensed that the cultural wind blew from the East however much he disliked the huffing and puffing of its intellectual purveyors. In 1914 at the urging of a motherly teacher "who lived for literature," he enrolled in the nearby University of Utah just in time to witness a battle over academic freedom. In the spring of 1915 two young English instructors, one of them DeVoto's teacher, were fired, presumably at the behest of a disgruntled Mormon Church, whereupon fifteen faculty members resigned in protest, the American Association of University Professors investigated and blacklisted the institution, and the president ultimately resigned. By this time DeVoto was long gone. having been accepted by Harvard and having scraped up the money to attend. At Harvard the study of history interested the would-be writer from Ogden less than courses in literature and composition offered by the genial Barrett Wendell who, DeVoto recalled, taught American literature "as a now abandoned folkway of the Bostonians," and by the more imaginative Charles T. "Copey" Copeland and Dean LeBaron Russell Briggs. One of the pieces of personal luggage the ambitious writer carried from Ogden to Cambridge was a strong provincial pride which sat oddly beside his curt dismissal of Mormon money-grubbing. Arriving on the Harvard scene as an outlander, moreover, provided a greater range for self-advertisement, this time as the rough-and-ready Westerner, tough-minded and no-nonsense, coarse-grained but the genuine article. Ogden may have been the cultural wasteland he pronounced it, but it was also the gateway into the mountains and the shards of memory waiting to be assembled into an intensely personal history.

    When the United States entered the First World War, DeVoto abandoned his truculent antiwar stance and enlisted in the Harvard Regiment in April 1917, serving for the duration as a stateside instructor in markmanship. At Fort Devens he found time to ponder a novel he had been considering for some time. "And what a book it is!" he rhapsodized to his parents. "It is the novel of my own country, the wide and ample theater of the hills, the peaks and valleys, the mountain streams, the railroad, above all the people. Labor amoris."

    In 1919 he returned to Ogden to nurse his mother through her final illness, a wrenching experience that tipped him into a deepening depression that marked his last year at Harvard. By 1920 he was back home again, despondent, "confronted by the terrible truth that I am doing nothing, but am wasting my time while life slips away—and the more terrible truth," he confessed to a friend melodramatically, "that my ability and even my desire are diminishing." Sunk in "self-abomination and despair," he painfully recovered his emotional balance by writing an occasional piece for the Standard, teaching American history to local junior high school students, a task to which he warmed, and exploring the surrounding canyons as he plotted his first novel, which appeared in 1924 as The Crooked Mile.

    The Crooked Mile, like its immediate fictional successors, The Chariot of Fire (1926) and The House of Sun-Goes-Down (1928), drew heavily on local, family, and regional history, sources DeVoto would mine with much greater skill in his nonfiction. For it must be said that though an extraordinarily talented historian, DeVoto was not a particularly compelling novelist. All of the qualities that made his history so authoritative—a constant personal presence, strong opinions, commanding interpretive voice, ironic distance from his actors, and a highly stylized language—combined to make his fictional characters speak aphorisms, his plots to meander, and the experience of reading his novels strenuous and, in the end, wearying. "He never persuaded you about his people," Wallace Stegner observed. "He wanted to judge, he wanted to denounce, he wanted to express his own ideas and his own feelings. He wasn't willing to suppress himself quite enough—or didn't know how." Such is the case with The Crooked Mile, a piece of juvenilia which traces the decline of the frontier from the energetic founders and builders of the first generation to the pillagers and spoilers of the third. But the novel is also the tale of the conversion of a world-weary young man suspiciously like the author himself from cynicism to belief, hopeless detachment to direct engagement with the land. The agent of young Gordon Abbey's salvation is the mordant historian Jonathan Gale, another authorial alter ego, who provides his ward with an understanding of the meaning of the frontier and the will to put it to use in reclaiming his inheritance.

    This first novel is a thematic prologue to DeVoto's major historical work: the making and unmaking of the frontier through three generations. The protagonist Gordon Abbey's grandfather, Jim Abbey, left the defeated Confederacy for a new freedom cultivating the unpromising land in the foothills above Windsor (Ogden), turning desert into gardens and orchards and refusing the main chances that might have made him rich. Instead, Jim Abbey pinned his hopes on extending the frontier beyond the mountains and building up the country. In this visionary project he lost his shirt and died a failure. His son and Gordon's father, Pemberton Abbey, now dead, was a failed Veblenian engineer, the inventor of the Abbey Process for refining copper, who had been bilked by corporate predators. Thus Gordon Abbey in the third generation inherits little in the way of a patrimony or a usable past until he returns to the remnant of his grandfather's upland orchard, brings it back to life, and carries on the old man's scheme for securing a second chance across the mountains.

    Despite his limitations in plotting action and drawing convincing characters, DeVoto's descriptive power and his use of symbolic landscape were impressive. Here are the dark satanic mills of Windsor-Ogden standing at the center of the twentieth-century purgatory:

Down where the Ophir and Windsor rivers joined, the copper mills and the Dunlap factory had spread out over the land where cottonwood stumps were still standing. Steel frames grew into long sheds and were filled with machines. Flood-lamps played on them by night, and in some of them a green leprous light illuminated a second shift.... Sixteen hours in the twenty-four the machines rocked, the men labored before them and fires of three colors poured intermittently from the portholes.... At intervals guards carrying shotguns stood in the shadows atop the stockades. A wheel that seemed half the wall of one building revolved with a methodical, herculean force. A jet of yellow fire at the porthole became a geyser of flame, picked out walls and tracks for a mile around and receded into nonentity. There was a shrill hum, almost too high to be heard; it was felt, rather, a vibratory chorus of countless belts and chains, discs, teeth, stamps, movable arms, conveyors, rollers.... Westward the Ophir river had shrunk to a trickle between cottonwoods. Eastward the night sky ended against a line of heat-parched peaks.


Excerpted from A Country in the Mind by John L. Thomas Copyright © 2002 by John L. Thomas. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

John L. Thomas is the George L. Littlefield Professor of American History at Brown University. He is the author of several works, including The Liberator: William Lloyd Garrison. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island.

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