Thursday, January 11, 2018

"Pessimism is only the name that men of weak nerves give to wisdom," Bernard DeVoto maintained through a life writing, and making, history.

DeVoto, Bernard, The Course of Empire (Houghton Mifflin, 1st ed. 1952). LOC 52-5261. The settlement of America, from the Spanish to Lewis & Clark, by one of the most prominent public intellectuals of the mid-20th century. Winner of the 1953 National Book Award for Nonfiction. Hardcover, price-clipped dust jacket, chipped in spots, otherwise very good condition. HBB price: $35 obo. 


Today is Bernard DeVoto’s birthday. Today the grandchildren of the corporations and men he fought are poised to pull off the great despoliation he blocked.

Born in Ogden, Utah in 1897, DeVoto attended the University of Utah before transferring to Harvard. He spent two years as a musketry instructor in World War II, returned to Cambridge, and took his degree in 1922.

He taught at Northwestern University for five years, publishing articles in local papers under pseudonyms- a wise move, as they provoked the hell out of the local gentry, in and out of the academy.

In 1927 DeVoto and his wife, Avis, moved to Boston. He found ready outlets for his endless reviews, essays, and op-eds, but never managed to get more than an adjunct teaching position at Harvard.

The president thought his prolific articles in the popular press connoted a lack of academic rigor; many of his history faculty colleagues- in the words of his biographer, Wallace Stegner- viewed DeVoto as the illegitimate child of H.L. Mencken and Annie Oakley.

He landed an appointment as curator of the Mark Twain Papers and published a series of books drawn from them in the 1930s. Mark Twain’s America was a bestseller and won DeVoto a monthly column in the influential Saturday Review from 1935 until his death.

DeVoto developed a passionate readership, pro, and con. When his ideas outran his word count at the magazine, Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post and the other quality magazines of the day took the overflow.

A trip out west after World War II dismayed DeVoto. He found his fellow Utahns as addicted as ever to the boom and bust cycle of an extractive economy, scrapping for the leavings of big companies and their ever-more efficient technologies. Congress, having starved the parks and national forests to fund the war effort, took no action to restore their decay. Miners, stockmen and farm interests launched bill after congressional bill, arguing that, since the government couldn’t run the nation’s heritage, the private sector should be given precedence.

DeVoto laid into them with a stinging 1947 Harper’s article, “The West Against Itself”, arguing, in one example,

Mining is liquidation. You clean out the deposit, exhaust the lode and move on… and you don’t give a damn, especially if you are a stockholder in the East.

A 1977 High Country news article detailed DeVoto’s fight against western congressmen and eastern extraction companies and their endless congressional lobbying to denigrate the value of public lands, starve the Forest Service, emasculate the Bureau of Land Management, chip away at the national parks, and turn over public lands to private interests for short-term gain. By 1953 DeVoto found the situation so parlous he called for the federal government to send the Army to deal with saving the national parks from ruin and overuse.

He observed in the 1940s that no rancher in his right mind wanted to own the public lands himself. That would entail responsibility and stewardship. Worse, it would mean paying property taxes.

What ranchers have always wanted, and what extractive industries in general want, is private exploitation with costs paid by the public (it was not enough, apparently that cattle grazing was already allowed all over the Malheur Refuge when the Bundys took it over last year. It offends the occupiers that while the going rate for grazing a cow and a calf on private land for a month in Oregon is $17, the equivalent fee on federal public lands is only $1.69).

It was just one of over forty articles DeVoto wrote in defense of the public lands, and it worked. Congress upped funding, and for the next few decades they were spared the attacks and budget starvation they find themselves undergoing, all over again and at the hands of the same interests, today.

When there was only a handful of small environmental groups in the nation, DeVoto became the most effective conservationist in the United States; the historian and presidential aide Arthur Schlesinger Jr credited DeVoto with single-handedly saving the national parks. From 1948 to 1954 he was a leading member of the Interior Department’s Advisory Board for National Parks, Historic Sites, and Monuments.

Utahns despised him: a native son who denied them the romantic narrative of self-made men who did it all without help or land grants. DeVoto denied the pioneers none of their glory. He just insisted on presenting them in whole, warts and all.

At the same time, DeVoto was at work on an immensely successful history of the West. The Year of Decision came out in 1943. Across the Wide Missouri (1947) won the Pulitzer Prize, and for it he shared the first Bancroft Prize in 1948.  The Course of Empire (1952) completed the series and won DeVoto the National Book Award. DeVoto published an abridged version of the Journals of Lewis & Clark in 1953.

DeVoto wrote as the clouds of the Cold War gathered over America. He didn’t like what he saw. As Tom Knudson wrote in High Country News in 1994,
It started with a single Easy Chair essay. But what an essay - Stegner called it "perhaps the most famous of all." Titled "Due Notice to the FBI," it was a stinging attack on the government spying, Red-baiting, blacklisting and Communist witch hunts that swept across America after World War II.
DeVoto, then living in Cambridge, Mass., had been interviewed by the FBI himself about someone who is not identified in the files. Many of his colleagues had also been contacted.
"How many are having their reading, their recreation, their personal associations secretly investigated?" DeVoto wrote in the column. "I say it has gone too far. We are dividing into the hunted and the hunters."
Near the end of the essay, he drew a line in the sand.
"Representatives of the FBI ... have questioned me, in the past, about a number of people and I have answered their questions. That's over. From now on any representative of the government, properly identified, can count on a drink and perhaps informed talk about the Red (but non-Communist) Sox at my house. But if he wants information from me about anyone whatsoever, no soap.
"I like a country where it's nobody's damn business what magazines anyone reads, what he thinks, whom he has cocktails with. I like a country where we do not have to stuff the chimney against listening ears and where what we say does not go into the FBI files along with a note from S-17 that I may have another wife in California." 
The FBI was mortified. Hoover launched a public counterattack, denouncing DeVoto in newspaper articles across the country. He wrote an angry letter to the editor of Harper's, which the magazine published.

Privately, Hoover responded the way he always did with critics - by investigating them.

Hoover already had a file on DeVoto, but provoking the Director was like fertilizing kudzu. Hoover not only spied on DeVoto but created pretexts for more spying. As Knudson reported,

DeVoto's enemies cheered. "More power to you in your attack on De Veto (sic)," wrote Wyoming rancher J. Elmer Brock in a letter to Hoover. "As far as the sentiments of the stockmen in the West, we would like to see Bernard hanging from a cottonwood limb rather than reclining in his "easy chair." "
The FBI was even suspicious of DeVoto's appearance. The agent who interviewed DeVoto in July 1948 made the following observation in a report: "DeVoto greeted (me) at the door and I can clearly recall that he was unshaven, wearing a loose and somewhat soiled sport shirt and a pair of baggy summer slacks of dark hue." 

DeVoto's article also earned him - and Harper's - special infamy within the FBI. The writer and the magazine were placed on the bureau's "Do Not Contact" list. "Listees - whether individual reporters or entire newspapers, magazines or radio networks - were denied FBI cooperation in the researching and verification of news stories," says Curt Gentry in his biography of Hoover. "This also meant, of course, that they were denied tips on forthcoming arrests and the like."

The FBI didn't stop there. Memos went out to 52 FBI field offices from Anchorage to Puerto Rico - warning agents about DeVoto's allegations and advising: "This article reflects the necessity of constantly being on the alert."

Few stones were unturned, few "facts" overlooked. When Hoover heard that another government agency - the Office of Naval Intelligence - had a file on DeVoto, he was excited. "Let us get what ONI has on DeVoto," he scribbled on one memorandum.

When Harper's published five letters about DeVoto's column in December 1949, the FBI had more fodder for its files. Three letter-writers were pro-DeVoto. Each was investigated.

Sixteen years the FBI hounded DeVoto; he just kept on taunting them. He died of a heart attack in 1955. Perhaps only Rachel Carson, who was already mortally ill when she published Silent Spring in 1962, had as great in individual impact on wilderness preservation in her life as DeVoto did in his.

Avis DeVoto survived her husband by 34 years. After he wrote an Easy Chair column decrying the postwar rage for stainless steel knives, a woman called Julia Child, wife of an American diplomat, wrote DeVoto a fan letter. Avis answered it and became Child’s mentor in the long struggle to publish Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Tracing the route of the Lewis & Clark expedition in the Forties, DeVoto fell in love with what was then known as the Big Cedar Grove in Idaho’s Nez Perce- Clearwater National Forest. After he died, his ashes were scattered, by plane, over the area. Public outrage in Idaho killed a proposal to rename the forest for him.

The renamed DeVoto Memorial Cedar Grove was dedicated in a private ceremony in 1961, and there remains- for now.

#RareBooks #HenryBemisBooks #DeVoto #MalheurRefuge  #Charlotte

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