Utah History Encyclopedia


By Mick McAllister
Vardis Alvero Fisher was born in Annis, Idaho, in 1895, the son of fundamentalist Mormons. He spent his formative years in northeastern Idaho, in a frontier cabin along the Snake River. He and his brother Vivian Ezra were sent to school in Annis, Poplar, and Rigby. He was not baptized in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day-Saints until after he graduated from high school. In 1917 he rejected a call to fulfill a mission for that church. He then married his childhood sweetheart, Leona McMurtrey, a devout Mormon whose suicide seven years later would haunt Fisher's work for forty years. Fisher graduated from the University of Utah in 1920, then took his M.A. and, in 1925, his Ph.D. (magna cum laude), from the University of Chicago.

Fisher's career as a novelist began in 1928 with regional fiction, notably Toilers of the Hills (1928) and Dark Bridwell (1931). After brief stints as an English professor in Utah, New York, and Montana, Fisher returned to Idaho. During this period he was married to Margaret Trusler and working on a four-volume confessional novel, the Vridar Hunter tetralogy, completed in 1936. From 1935 to 1939 Fisher headed the Idaho Writers Project, producing books about Idaho history, folklore, and geography that remained essential resources for many years. In 1939 his fictional history of the Mormons (Children of God) won the Harper Prize for Fiction. Divorced from Margaret Trusler, he married Opal Holmes and built a secluded home in Hagerman, Idaho, on wild land similar to that of the Snake River Valley he had loathed as a child. He died there in 1968 of an overdose of sleeping pills mixed with alcohol.

Fisher's work divides, not very neatly, into four categories. The excellent regional work with which he began his career was compared favorably with that of William Faulkner, Thomas Hardy, and Fisher's friend Thomas Wolfe. The sources he drew upon for these novels soon would take him down two divergent paths. One led to the frontier Americana for which Fisher is now remembered: definitive novels on the Mormons, the Donner Party (The Mothers), and the Lewis and Clark Expedition (Tale of Valor). A novel on the fur trade (Mountain Man) was the primary source for the film Jeremiah Johnson. These novels, with their naturalistic insistence on the sordid details and commonplace violence of frontier life, set a standard for verisimilitude now commonplace among historians and novelists of the West.

His other path nearly destroyed Fisher's career. In 1939, unsatisfied by the tetralogy, Fisher determined to find the human character in the history of the species and began a series of novels that would culminate in a revision of the tetralogy. The twelve-volume "Testament of Man," which began with some promise, soon degenerated into didactic polemics. The early novels on prehistoric man, Darkness and the Deep and The Golden Rooms, compare favorably to other attempts in the genre. Others, such as three on the evolution of Judaism, are less successful. A superb retelling of the death of Jesus (Jesus Came Again) is the literary highpoint of the remaining books.

By the time the "Testament" had reached the early Christian era, Fisher was established in his fourth literary role, as state curmudgeon, through weekly columns in various Idaho papers. He had found a kindred spirit in J.H. Gipson of the Caxton Press, but even Gipson refused to publish books with the Testament's negative view of Christianity. Fisher and Gipson shared vehement atheism and vehement anticommunism; ironically, as Fisher's biographer Tim Woodward points out, Gipson's objection came not from a desire to promote religion but from the belief that books so destructive of Christian values would promote communism.

Through the patronage of publisher Alan Swallow, Fisher was able to complete the Testament in 1960 with a single-volume revision of the tetralogy that brought Hunter's story up to the late 1950s. Eight years later, a few days before his death, he told a Salt Lake City reporter that he had begun his autobiography. Had he completed that book, it is possible that the relationship between the fictional Hunter's life and the life of Vardis Fisher would have been further confused, though it might also have been clarified.

The continuing theme throughout Fisher's work is an obsessive dedication to learning and promulgating the truth, the Socratic need to know thyself. His historical fiction is notable for its foundation in meticulous research and its rigorous objectivity. Despite his vehement and unwavering dislike for Mormonism, his novel on the beginnings of the church is admired by believer and non-believer alike. The Testament's greatest power is its ability to describe sympathetically the visionary element of the Judeo-Christian worldview to which Fisher traces most of the cultural neuroses of modern America.

The voice of the novelist is an essentially tragic voice, in that his rationalist philosophy aligned him with the reductionism of the sociobiologist who is convinced that behavior can be explained by the accumulation of detail, but his emotional upbringing promoted a nearly pathological mysticism. The hero of The Golden Rooms is haunted by the imagined ghosts of the Neanderthals he has killed. The last happy figure in Fisher's work, mad Kate Bowden of Mountain Man, lives in the wilderness of northern Wyoming where she tends the graves of her massacred children and sings lullabies to their envisioned spirits in the empty dark.

It is not overly psychoanalytical to say that Fisher was haunted all his life by the deaths of his wife and brother. Vridar Hunter drives his first wife to despair and a hideous death, and Hunter's paternalism makes his younger brother's personal achievements ashen fruit. The two characters return again and again--now in Roman togas, now in medieval costume, now in frontier homespun--teaching the questing rationalist the limits of his philosophy, defying explanation. Fisher was dedicated to an elusive intellectual task: the attempt to step outside his life and describe it. His work, three dozen published volumes and a huge body of uncollected essays and occasional pieces, is a monument to his grand and futile heroism.