Utah History Encyclopedia


By Ann W. Engar
Bernard De Voto was a historian, critic, novelist, educator, conservationist. Born in Ogden, Utah, in 1897, Bernard Augustine De Voto was the product of two different strains of the American West, a Catholic father and a Mormon mother. He attended Sacred Heart Academy in Ogden and then Ogden High School. During his high school years he wrote about sports for the Ogden Evening Standard. He attended the University of Utah in 1914-1915 but left when a favorite teacher was fired. Transferring to Harvard, he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1920 after a two-year interruption while he served as a lieutenant in World War I. After graduation he returned to Utah where he taught history at Ogden Junior High and spent a summer working on a ranch in the Raft River Valley in Idaho.

In 1922 his career began in earnest as he became an English instructor at Northwestern University, where he remained until 1927. There he married Helen Avis MacVicar, one of his brightest students, in 1923. Also at Norwestern, he wrote articles for the American Mercury, including a controversial one on Utah (March 1926), as well as three novels, two of which were published. As a novelist he sought to portray the West accurately, not sentimentally or romantically, for his readers. During his lifetime he published five novels under his own names as well as four popular thrillers under the pseudonym "John August" and articles and the book Women and Children First under the pseudonym "Cady Hewes." He also co-authored a composition text. Convinced he could support himself as a writer, he resigned his position at Northwestern and moved to Massachusetts in 1927. There he edited the Harvard Graduates' Magazine and the "Americana Deserta" series and taught part-time at Harvard. He became an authority on the life and works of Mark Twain and, according to Orlan Sawey, "probably did more than anyone else to focus attention on Mark Twain as a representative American writer." De Voto wrote Mark Twain's America (1932) and Mark Twain at Work (1942), edited Mark Twain in Eruption (1940) and The Portable Mark Twain (1946), and served as curator of the Mark Twain papers from 1938 to 1946.

In 1936 De Voto moved to New York for two years where he was editor of the Saturday Review of Literature. His longest and most fruitful association with a periodical was with Harper's: for twenty years (1935-1955) he wrote of contemporary issues. He insisted that "no manifestation of American life is trivial to the critic of culture."

Another important work is De Voto's historical trilogy about the Western expansion: The Year of Decision: 1846 (1942), Across the Wide Missouri (1947; Pulitzer Prize, Bancroft Prize) and The Course of Empire (1952; National Book Award). He also edited The Journals of Lewis and Clark (1953).

Bernard De Voto has not received the critical attention he deserves, perhaps because he was so multi talented and often polemical. Some literary critics dismiss his literary achievement because he was a "historian," while historians dismiss his historical achievement because they consider him a literary dilettante. However, De Voto's importance lies in his attempts in both fictional and historical writing to interpret the importance of the West in the development of American culture.

See: Catherine Bowen, Edith Mirrielees, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Wallace Stegner, Four Portraits and One Subject: Bernard De Voto (1963); Orlan Sawey, Bernard De Voto (1969); and Wallace Stegner, The Uneasy Chair (1974).