Writers for Conservatives, 61: A Man of the West
Bernard De Voto (1897-1955) was an unusual figure in the literary landscape of the 1930s and 40s. A strong-minded Westerner (born in Utah), he was contemptuous of Eastern snobbishness and the leftist propensities of the literary crowd. He had taught at Northwestern and Harvard, and latterly he edited the Saturday Review of Literature and wrote the “Easy Chair” column at Harper’s (1935-55), a position long held by William Dean Howells, a literary pulpit of some significance in those days. He famously did battle with the reigning intellectuals in Mark Twain’s America (1932) an “essay in correction” as he called it, an answer to Van Wyck Brooks’ Ordeal of Mark Twain (1915), an early salvo in the intellectual’s war against America that reached its first crest in the 1920s. Brooks claimed that Twain was an artist crippled by the barren crudity of his frontier background (Missouri, California, Nevada) and then by the suppressions of Eastern genteel culture. I won’t go into De Voto’s answer at length (the book is too long and confusing) but one point should be stressed: he showed by extensive research that Twain’s humor, always his primary mode of expression, grew directly out of the frontier storytelling tradition revealed in the newspapers of the 1830s, ’40s, and ’50s (remember that Twain was a typesetter and then a newspaperman), a rich and pervasive tradition. The Eastern idea of the crudity and barrenness of frontier culture, later extended to an indictment of American culture in general (see H. L. Mencken) is blown away by Mark Twain’s America.
To leftist mandarins of literary culture then, writers for The New Republic and Partisan Review, magazines like Harper’s or Saturday Review were middlebrow venues of little weight, and De Voto was dismissed as a belligerent ignoramus, a conception that colored my perception of him in the 1950s. The books we are about to consider, his historical works, make that notion of the man absurd.
The books are The Year of Decision: 1846 (1943), Across the Wide Missouri (1947), and The Course of Empire (1952), and their subject is the lure of the West in the American imagination. Their publication is in inverse historical order. Year of Decision is about the culmination of the Western drive, the annexation of California and the settlement of the Oregon country; Across the Wide Missouri is about the climax of the fur trade from 1832 to ’38; and The Course of Empire traces the travels of Eastern explorers from the 16th century to the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804-6. We shall consider them in their proper historical order.
In the preface to The Course of Empire De Voto says:
“Nothing in history is more visible than the transformation, in response to the continent, of Europeans into Americans.”
What does that mean? The slightest acquaintance with the early Spanish and French explorers tells us that they regarded the continent as a repository of lootable treasure, as Peru and Mexico had been, and all their travels were based on that premise. For the French (after their abortive Florida adventure) it was furs. After the British conquered Canada they declared the Proclamation Line of 1763 marking all the land beyond the Alleghenies as an Indian preserve just for the fur trade. It was only the colonists who became Americans after living 150 years on the eastern frontier, who pushed into Kentucky and saw the settling and development of the West as their goal — that’s when Europeans became Americans.
The Spanish travelled north from Mexico into what is now the United States in search of seven cities of gold and similar will-o’-the-wisps, and De Voto tells the truly amazing stories of Cabeza de Vaca, Coronado, De Soto, and others, along with the delusions about the West which persisted even into the 19th century. Then the narrative shifts northward to the French fur traders who had begun the trade in the early 1500s.
About this De Voto makes this profound point:
“The impact of European goods produced a change in Neolithic America far more concentrated and rapid than anything in the history of white civilization . . . from 1500 on they were cultural prisoners.”
We learn of coureurs de bois, “an Indian with a white man’s mind and he lived free,” and we follow the travels and intrigues of Joliet, Marquette, Frontenac, La Salle, and intrepid traders and adventurers like Radisson and Nicolet. It is one of the book’s virtues that, because it is about the discovery of the West, De Voto tells us about travelers, explorers, and traders we never heard of before, men who were constantly pushing farther into the unknown. A large part of the story, of course, is the struggle between France and Britain. The story of explorations Westward in connection with the fur trade, and efforts to find a river flowing from the interior to the Pacific, are other parts of the continental story the author tells so well.
The last part of the book is a detailed, perhaps too detailed, account of the Lewis and Clark expedition, a fitting climax to the book: “For they had crossed the continent and came back, the first of all.”
Across the Wide Missouri had an unusual genesis when a publisher, planning an edition of Alfred Miller’s watercolors painted in the West on an expedition with fur traders, asked De Voto to write about the fur trade as an accompaniment to the pictures. As De Voto saw it:
“I have tried to describe the mountain fur trade as a business and a way of life: what its characteristic experiences were, what conditions governed them, how it helped to shape our heritage, what its relation was to the Western expansion of the United Sates, most of all how the mountain men lived.”
Meanwhile always keeping in mind his conviction
“. . . of the growth among the American people of the feeling that they were properly a single nation between two oceans . . . the continental mind.”
From 1835 to ’38 Sir William Stewart travelled with the traders who brought goods from St. Louis up the Missouri River and on into the Rockies to the annual rendezvous with the trappers who had been in the mountains since the previous fall, and there the furs (mainly beaver) were exchanged for supplies, and in 1837 he took with him a Baltimore artist, Alfred Miller, to record the trip in watercolor sketches to be used later as studies for large oils to be painted at Stewart’s castle in Scotland. The book is illustrated with these sketches and also some by George Catlin and Charles Bodmer. Although the artists are mentioned in the text, De Voto reserves his penetrating analysis of their work for a very interesting Appendix. Most of the text focused on the years from 1832 to ’38, and is about the mountain men and the incredible lives they led.
“They are important historically . . . as a trade group, small and short-lived, who had a maker’s part in extending the national boundaries and the national consciousness to continental completion.”
Telling the stories of the mountain men, he does not neglect other people and forces moving in the area at the time, like the first missionaries to the Western Indians. This volume has more immediate interest than the Course of Empire because it is about just a few years and a more limited, concentrated subject. If you take up the book, be sure to read the Appendix about the painters.
The Year of Decision is about the climax of the westering impulse, and because it weaves together several movements occurring in 1846 it tells a much more complicated story than the other volumes. President James K. Polk is a major figure, Senator Thomas H. Benton plays a role, as does his son-in-law John C Frémont. Francis Parkman, living the experience that will become The Oregon Trail, is present, and so are emigrants heading for Oregon and California, including the ill-fated Donner party. Chester Wilmot of the Proviso is considered, and Stephen W. Kearney, the soldier who secures California with the aid of the Mormon Battalion, is prominent. De Voto’s understanding of the Mormons is profound, and he is very good describing their trek to Utah under the guidance of Brigham Young. Synthesizing all these characters and movements into a coherent, interesting, even exciting narrative was a feat of conception and accomplishment that is very impressive. I advise readers to start with this volume.
At the time of America’s Founding in the 1780s no one thought the new republic would stretch from sea to sea (no one really knew anything about it), and the British, French, and Spanish, along with some American plotters like Aaron Burr, did what they could to prevent it, but by the time of the Louisiana Purchase the West had grown in the American mind to become our destiny. No one has told this story better than Bernard De Voto. *