*De Voto, Bernard
De Voto, Bernard
Bernard De Voto was a novelist and distinguished historian, critic, and journalist, whose Mark Twain’s America (1931), Mark Twain in Eruption (1940), Mark Twain at Work (1942), The Year of Dedsion: 1846 (1943), The Course of Empire (1952), and The Journals of Lewis and Clark (1953) are still standard works in American literature and historiography. But a major part of De Voto’s long career involved writing essays for a wide variety of periodicals, beginning with a little essay on world peace in the Ogden, Utah Standard in May 1913 and continuing until his death in 1955, after which about a dozen appeared posthumously.
Over these four decades, De Voto’s essays appeared in, among others, American Heritage, American Mercury, Atlantic Monthly, Fortune, Harper’s, Holiday, Reader’s Digest, Redbook, Saturday Evening Post, Saturday Review of Literature, Woman’s Day, the Writer, and other magazines. The best known of these are the 243 “Easy Chair”
essays which appeared in Harper’s from November 1935 to January 1956 and made him perhaps the most widely recognized magazine columnist of his time. De Voto’s most important and distinguished essays are to be found in three collections: Forays and Rebuttals (1936), Minority Report (1940), and The Easy Chair (1955), the latter a selection of essays written for Harper’s.
In his essays De Voto focused on many of the same topics that engaged his attention in his nonfiction books: literary criticism, Western American history, and conservation.
Much of his writing, in whatever form it took, was concerned with the American West, and his essays on the West reflect his fearlessness in attacking that region’s mistaken notions and also defending it against its Eastern exploiters.
The quality of De Voto’s essays might well be described in terms that he himself used in explaining the purpose of “The Easy Chair” as it had been carried on by his predecessors (including William Dean Howells): “to have a connotation of urbane informality, of a graceful interplay of thought and personality that used to be more highly regarded as literature than it is now…It has always had a quality it could not get in the study but only down the street, at the square, and in the city hall. If study and reflection have gone into it, so have legwork, sweat, and the opinion that is based not on research but on experience and participation.”
Forays and Rebuttals brings together 23 essays, most of them from Harper’s and the Saturday Review of Literature. They deal with a wide variety of topics: the American West as a “plundered province” of the East, Mormonism, the education of women, college faculties, New England, historiography, and works by prominent American writers—Mari Sandoz’s Old Jules, Sinclair Lewis’ Ann Vickers, Malcolm Cowley’s Exile’s Return, Ernest Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa, and Lloyd Douglas’ Green Light. The volume concludes with two addresses: “Mark Twain: The Ink of History” (delivered at the University of Missouri in December 1935) and “Mark Twain and the Limits of Criticism” (given at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association of America at Cincinnati on 1 January 1936).
Minority Report contains 36 essays reprinted from Harper’s and the Saturday Review of Literature. As with his other two volumes of essays, this book demonstrates the range of De Voto’s interests. “Passage to India” deals with the Lewis and Clark expedition, “Gettysburg” the fascination that the battlefield has held for generations of Americans. In other essays he discusses the election of 1860, the significance of Christmas in America, life in New York City, the failures of journalism, scholarly conferences, liberalism, literary criticism, semantics, Havelock Ellis, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Eugene O’Neill, the economics of writing, grammar, the cowboy story, and literary scholarship.
The final book of essays, The Easy Chair, brings together 31 pieces, all but one from Harper’s. Again, De Voto’s omnivorous mind ranges across many areas: 20th-century American life, communism and ex-communists, Don Marquis and his poetry, doctors and medicine, smoke-jumpers (fire-fighting parachutists), motels, radio and television, the television series “Victory at Sea,” the Civil War, the FBI, censorship and pornography, the American West, federal land policy, the U.S. Forest Service, and conservation.
The guiding principle behind all of De Voto’s essays is perhaps contained in a passage from Easy Chair 241: “I have assumed that there was no public demand for me to write about anything at all but that if I was interested in something, some readers would be interested in it too. But also I have written about a good many subjects not primarily because I wanted to write about them but because it seemed likely that no one else would.”
De Voto’s essays, early and late, reflect the mind of a writer who did not hesitate to take an unpopular stand on contemporary issues, to support the underdog, and to deflate hypocrisy wherever it might be found—in politics, business, education, religion, or literary criticism.
Bernard Augustine De Voto. Born 11 January 1897 in Ogden, Utah. Studied at the Sacred Heart Academy and Ogden High School; University of Utah, one year; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1915–20, B.A., 1920. Served in the U.S. Army for two years. Taught English at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, 1922–27, and Harvard University, 1929–36. Married Helen Avis MacVicar, 1923: two sons. Editor, Harvard Graduates’ Magazine, 1929–31, and Saturday Review of Literature, 1936–38; columnist of “The Easy Chair,” Harper’s, 1935–55. Regular staff member, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Middlebury College, Vermont, Summers 1939–49. Literary editor of the Mark Twain estate. Awards: Pulitzer Prize, for Across the Wide Missouri, 1948.
Died (of a heart attack) in New York City, 13 November 1955.
Essays and Related Prose
Forays and Rebuttals, 1936
Minority Report, 1940
The Literary Fallacy (lectures), 1944
The Easy Chair, 1955
Other writings: five serious novels (The Crooked Mile., 1924; The Chariot of Fire, 1926; The House of Sun-Goes-Down, 1928; We Accept with Pleasure, 1934; Mountain Time, 1947), four novels under the pseudonym John August, books about Mark Twain, and a trilogy on American history (The Year of Decision: 1846, 1943; Across the Wide Missouri, 1947; The Course of Empire, 1952 [also as Westward the Course of Empire], 1953).
Barclay, Julius P., in Four Portraits and One Subject: Bernard De Voto, edited by Wallace Stegner, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963
Sawey, Orlan, Bernard De Voto, New York: Twayne, 1969
Stegner, Wallace, editor, Four Portraits and One Subject: Bernard De Voto, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963
Stegner, Wallace, The Uneasy Chair: A Biography of Bernard De Voto, Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1974
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