CATHERINE DRINKER BOWEN
BERNARD DE VOTO was my valued friend. I am among the host of writers who came to him for advice, for criticism, and for general renewal or spirit. In letters and by word of mouth De Voto and I shouted at each other. But always, in the end, I sat still and listened to what he had to say. And after each encounter, I came away rejoicing in the existence of that vivid, generous, and diabolically intelligent presence.
Mr. De Voto had much influence on me as a writer. He still has. Very often, when I have composed a page on which I look with favor, I hear a voice within. “What,” it asks, “would De Voto think of that?” He is looking over my shoulder, his big spectacles level with my eye. I go back, rewrite the passage — an exercise known to De Voto as “just running it through your typewriter again.” Out come the adjectives, the passive verb turns active, the sentences tighten and compress. As we grow older, De Voto told me. our style becomes simpler, or it should. Age, he said, reduces us to the ultimate simplicities. There is not time left for frill and ornament. When he died he was only fifty-eight, and when he spoke to me of age he could not have been more than fifty-five.
What a handsome shelf of histories De Voto has given us! Mark Twain’s America — which surely must be counted as history; The Year of Decision; Across the Wide Missouri; The Course of Empire. And finally, his superb edition of The Journals of Lewis and Clark. Critics have grouped the three central books as a trilogy; De Voto himself referred to them that way. For my part I cannot separate them from the others. I see the five books as composing the wide arc and panorama of De Vote’s thesis: the westward movement of a people, the settling and seeding of a continent, the culture that flowered therefrom, and the slow, episodic acceptance of the federal idea. From the Atlantic to the Pacific, a iederal union impossible, romantic, necessitous conception which today we know as the United States of America. Nobody thought we could do it; in Europe it had not been achieved on anything approaching such a scale. Even Thomas Jefferson supposed that, following the Louisiana Purchase, we might be needing two republics, one east of the Rocky Mountains and one west. “As a historian, wrote De Voto, “I have interested myself in the growth among the American people of the feeling that they were properly a single nation between two oceans; in the development of what I have called the continental mind.”
Bernard De Voto was haunted by that idea and by his vision of how it came to pass, geographically, culturally, agriculturally, anthropologically. The continental reality, he called it. He thought an wrote of this reality in terms of history, biography, fiction, poetry (written when he was very young). He even composed a play about the Mormons. And there is, it may be said, another word for the condition of a haunted man. Some people call it inspiration.
As FOR De Voto’s “place among American historians,” let me say at once that he is not to be placed, classified, or categorized. There is no historian like him and no histories like his. His thinking was direct, ruthless, wholly his own, and because of it, less original men feared him. He was a fighter for public causes, for conservation of our natural resources, for freedom of the press and freedom of thought. The world knew him better in that guise, perhaps, than as a historian. I shall make it my business to speak of De Voto the fighter. For this trait — call it pugnacity, call it passion, hot blood, or a highbeating heart — this trait it is which informs and animates De Voto’s historical writing, from his early essays on the Mormons to his last words about the great captains, Lewis and Clark.
When De Voto said the word “west,” he meant the desert west, the arid, thin-soiled Rocky Mountain west which begins, he said, “at that place where the average annual rainfall drops below twenty inches.” Most of his books are concerned with the movement west. Mark Twain’s America announced his lifelong theme. It opens in 1835 with “The New Jerusalem,” as De Voto called it — that western Zion envisioned by men of piety and men whose god was gold. Mark Twain’s parents left their eastern home to settle there. “The migration,” wrote De Voto, “was under way. Its great days were just around the turn of spring — and an April restlessness, a stirring in the blood, a wind from beyond the oak’s openings, spoke of the prairies, the great desert, and the western sea. The common man fled westward. A thirsty land swallowed him insatiably. There is no comprehending the frenzy of the American folk-migration. God’s gadfly had stung us mad.”
After Mark Twain’s America, eleven crowded years went by before De Voto wrote his second volume of social history. The Year of Decision is perhaps the most absorbing of De Voto’s books, with its account of the Donner Party’s fearful march across the desert and Rocky Mountains, a story of starvation, courage, bestiality, faith, and almost incredible endurance. Across the Wide Missouri came next. Magnificently illustrated with colored reproductions of contemporary paintings by Alfred Jacob Miller, it won both the Pulitzer and the Bancroft prizes. Across the Wide Missouri sets out to tell of the early fur trade — “how it helped to shape our heritage,” writes De Voto, “what its relation was to the western expansion of the United States, most of all how the mountain men lived.”
This “most of all” is what brings the book alive. And it is an extraordinary reconstruction. Mountain men, free trappers, the long hunter and the hapless tenderfoot — we see them, hear them talk, share their camp, their appalling meals of buffalo guts raw or roasted, their dangers and their hero-sized sprees when the trail ends in safety. We learn more about Indians than we thought we cared to know. Warriors and their squaws confront us, not as Uncas or Hiawatha or Minnehaha, Laughing Water, but as they were actually seen, heard, and smelled by travelers in the wagon trains. Trappers traded furs with the tribes, killed them skulking at night beyond the campfire, or bought the favors of the young squaws. De Voto hated romanticism about Indians, “the squash blossom in the hair and talk about the plumed serpent.” It did not help, he said, “to be precious about the rain dance and the mystical awareness that neolithic savages are supposed to have.” He hated also the overintellectual approach and declared that “anyone who thinks of Indians as the Amerinds is not going to add much to our literature.”
These are gorgeous books, all three. No less a word will do. They are rich, strong, filled with color and movement. Also they are long books, jammed with fact. Not infrequently there is repetition, a page or two or three which the reader is inclined to skip. This is a fault of all long books; I am not even sure that it is a fault. De Voto, going over a lengthy book manuscript of mine, told me not to worry about including a dull page now and then, of connective matter or exposition or suchlike. “Give the reader time to breathe,” he said. Actually, De Voto’s method achieved an even more subtle purpose. His books of history have — as Alfred Knopf once pointed out — an interwoven architecture, a deliberate movement from theme to theme. The narrative could have proceeded in a straight line, direct from start to finish. But De Voto chose the more difficult and far more effectual method of taking several stories or themes and carrying them along, parallel. This does not make for careless reading. He who wishes to travel with De Voto will have to keep his head; the journey will not be easy. In one of his prefaces, De Voto confesses the purpose of his books: “to tell the story in such a way that the reader may realize the far western experience — which is part of our cultural experience — as personal experience.”
Let readers say if he succeeded. I know one reader who has had to put these books aside at times when the terror and the suffering needed surcease There is small doubt about this being a shared experience. From Massachusetts, from Virginia, we travel with these humble men an women as they launch their wagon trams over the Alleghenies, through the forests and grasslands to where the trails run west from Council Bluffs or Independence-across the Blue, across the Nishnabotna, across the wide Missouri.
THROUGHOUT the books I have discussed, De Voto’s history has been frankly episodic, sectional, a string of vivid anecdotes comprising in space a continent and in time a generation or two. But in his next and fourth volume, The Course of Empire, Dc Voto swings far backward in chronology and ties the long threads together. Boldly his narrative opens in the eighth century wit a missionary archbishop who set out over the lantic — the Sea of Darkness — and founded, on the legendary island of Antilia, the seven radiant cities of God. The narrative ends in t e year 1806, with a line from the diary of Captain Clark, Meriwether Lewis’ partner. On a rainy November morning, Captain Clark looks westward from his mountain camp and writes, in his own phonetic spelling, “Ocian in sight. the joy.”
After this book, De Voto was bound to edit The Journals of Lewis and Clark. And by now, he knew these journal writers and these journeys as he knew the back of his hand or the Wasatch Mountains and Weber Canyon, where he roamed as a boy. In the summer of 1946 he had even followed, in person, the actual trails taken by Lewis and Clark. His edition of the journals is authoritative and final. And it is the best kind of historical reading, notes and all. An introduction vigorous, thick-packed, explains Jefferson’s purpose in dispatching the expedition and the political and social urgencies involved. Published in 1955 the book’s final chapter is called “The Home Stretch.” One could wish that the title had not proved, for De Voto himself, so tragically symbolie.
How did De Voto come to write these books? What conditions of birth, background, and experience shaped his style and caused him to be a man thus haunted? In truth one felt behind this man a compulsion so strong that, but for an essential health and integrity — and a wife like Helen Avis MacVicar De Voto his talent might have torn him wide apart.
De Voto’s father, Florian Bernard De Voto, ot Ogden, Utah, was the son of an Italian cavalry officer; his mother was the daughter of a Mormon pioneer. (De Voto liked to say that he was born of an apostate Mormon and an apostate Roman Catholic.) At high school he had a job as a reporter for the Ogden Evening Standard. When he was sixteen the paper published his first printed piece which bore no less a title than “The Reasonableness of World-Wide Conciliation.” De Voto entered the University of Utah, but when four members of the faculty were dismissed for unorthodox opinions, the young sophomore left and finished his education at Harvard. He came west again to teach in Illinois, but in his late twenties picked up and migrated eastward to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he spent the rest of his life, except for two years in New York as editor of the Saturday Review of Literature. To my best knowledge and belief he never went farther from the bordeia of the U.S.A. than a few miles into Canada.
For me, the significant facts of this brief biography are, first, that De Voto was born and raised in Utah; and, second, that he was a novelist before he was a historian. De Voto was consciou of his debt to this literary apprenticeship. The fore matter to The Year of Decision carries a page and a half of thanks to those men and women who helped with its preparation-scholars librarians, critical readers of manuscript. Finally, savs De Voto, “I acknowledge that I could not asys have written the book if I hadnot had periodic assistance from Mr. John Augus.
John August was the pen name signed by Voto to four novels, all of them serialized in Collier’s magazine. Perhaps De Voto meant financial assistance. John August he used to say paid the rent. But I prefer to read further into that wry little statement. Four novels signed by John August, five signed by De Voto. I have read them all, from The Crooked Mile (1924) to Mountain Time (1947) I do not care for them, Mountain Time (.194/). I do not care for them, except as their writing taught De Voto to write Sstory, gave him facility, cut the bonds imposed by ,he academic training and tradition and allowed him to move freely and exuberantly within the prescribed circle of historic fact, De Voto is not the first historian nor the last to come craft by way of fiction writing.
He was early aware of his confessed literary aim -to make America realize the western pioneer experience. Very likely he thought at the outset, that it could best be done by fiction De Voto wrote novels periodically from 1924 to 1947, meanwhile casting about for other ways to express his theme. When he was engaged in a novel, De Voto never talked to me about it; our conversations concerned historical writing. Therefore I am only guessing when I say that suffered during the composition of these novels. When he fell short of aim De Voto knew it; he did not spare self-criticism. In 1934, I was trying to buy his early novels and he wrote me “Be warned, my juvenilia are ungodly lousy, and The Crooked Mile is the most terrible and amusing of them all.” Twenty years later, De Voto told a friend that he had solved his life once he gave up fiction writing.
YET it was his novels, I believe, which taught De Voto how to lead his readers through the wilderness of historical fact. The writing of fiction is a relentless discipline, and in its exercise an author learns techniques which can serve the historian well. He learns, for instance, to manipulate scene and time, learns how to move his characters about, get them from the back porch into the kitchen. He learns how to arrange his material into a pattern or “plot,” so that the reader can follow. History also has its patterns, implicit in the material and only awaiting the artist s eye to perceive and bring them out. In the management of historical time, De Voto was especially skillful. Let me recommend to you page fifty-four of The Course of Empire, where De Voto ranges freely across four hundred years, philosophically as well as chronologically — a difficult thing to do without throwing the reader into hopeless confusion. The page in itself is material for a Chapter’ almost for a book. We travel from 1540 to 1605, back to the medieval mind and forward to the twentieth century. Yet we emerge exhilarated by the journey and quite clear as to where we have been.
Or let us observe a still different manipulation and effect, from Mark Twain’s America. The narrative begins and ends with Halley’s comet. For De Voto it was sheer luck that Samuel Clemens was born with the comet in 1835 and died with its return in 1910. But it was the kind of luck which comes only to the initiated, to an artist who is so absorbed in his subject that everything eeds it. Everything such a man sees, reads, hears 18 “efer,red to th*t subject — rejected if immaterial, and if pertinent, retained with almost insane tenacity until the moment for its proper
use Beginning and ending Mark Twain’s America with the comet had nothing to do with historiography or scholarship. It had to do with the art of writing; it was a writer’s device. Good art and art of such devices — circus turns eights of hand which invariably succeed. They come off: five rabbits emerge from the hat when we looked for only one; the colored balls fly through the air and land, each in its cup. It requires technique as well as talent to break the barriers between ourselves and the past. By the time I met him in 1934, Benny De Voto was an old pro and proud of it. By no means a professional historian, but a professional writer who referred to himself in print as “a historian, riding on the commuter’s local.” Not, De Voto implied, a dweller in the sacred city, in the pure temple of the guild historian. And indeed De Voto wandered far beyond the historian’s conventional territory. For twenty years he supplied Harper’s magazine with monthly pieces for its department called “The Easy Chair.” The Leland Stanford Library has a list of his published articles and editorials that covers fifty-one sheets of typewriter-sized paper. De Voto taught at Harvard and it was not history he taught, but writing; he taught also at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont. “I am,” he told his wife once, “a literary department store.”
He had learned how to write by writing and his experience in the field was wider than most men’s. Novelists are commonly more skillful than historians in describing individuals. It is a novelist’s nature to be interested in people. And his descriptions have to start from scratch. His characters are created out of air, with no contemporary portraits to help, such as the historian has — no descriptions in diaries or family correspondence. The novelist simply sits down and sweats it out until his man comes alive on the page.
De Voto knew this. When he had a historical character to describe he assembled the documents absorbed them thoroughly, and then started again from the beginning, ab ovo, as it were. Read his description of “that gnarled grizzly-hunter, joe Meek.”Or Of Jim, Bridger, mountain man, called Old Gabe, whose habit it was to wake in the night throw buffalo ribs on the fire, eat hearty, and “sin^ Injun to himself with a tin pan accompaniment.” (Captain Humfreville read Hiawatha aloud by the campfire and Old Gabe hated it; he never seen no Indians like them, he said.) Read De Voto’s description of the Reverend Samuel Parker, gentle scholar bound west by pack train from Middleheld, Massachusetts. Or his paragraph about the two first white women ever to cross America. Eliza Spaulding, “in heavy boots and swathed by yards of skirt,” riding sidesaddle on the South Pass when trappers and Indians galloped whooping down to greet the caravan. “Eliza,” writes De Voto, “tall, naturally thin and emaciated by travel and illness, dark-haired, sallow under tan frightened and appalled by the uproar of hospitality. And Narcissa Whitman who was neither fightened nor appalled — she was delighted. A smaller woman than Eliza but by no means emaciated, the period’s ideal in womanly curves blue-eyed, tanned now but memorably blond.’ Men always remembered red her face and red-gold hair. Men in fact rembered Narcissa, and though she was dedic ated to God’s service she was charged with a m ignetisin whose nature no one could mistake.”
For a historian, this is emancipated language, De Voto is riding the commuter’s local. We see these young women, we knew them alter a few sentences. De Voto could do it more subtly when he chose, and when the occasion called for subtlety. Hear him on the flaming orator of the 1890s, William Jennings Bryan. Many historians had already described Bryan, who therefore could be disposed of with our hand. “Six years earlier,” writes De Voto does not matter in what connection); “Six yearlier the sonorous, fraud ulent voice of an trr of wild honey in the hills had quieted a Chicago convention hall . . . ‘You shall not crucify Mankind upon a cross ol gold.’ ”
7hat is all, and is enough. It assumes a certain amount historical knowledge on the reader’s part. But even without such knowledge, one catches De Vots meaning. “An cater of wild honey in the De Voto’s early training in the Bible served him well. Years ago, I wrote him, “ Those black-haired people who brought you up must have read Scripture to you, Benny, What else would put such a roll, such a punch into your sentences.^”
It is when De Voto writes of the Mormons that his Biblical phrascology serves him best. Joseph Smith he called a ma drunk on God and glory”; Brigham Young, “an organizer of the kingdom on this earth ... the one Mormon of history who knew how to laugh.”When finally the Mormons triumphed over hardship and over continued hostility, and their city was secure and their credit good. “ The Saints,”wrote De Voto, “had come into the in inheritance promised them, their rivals had fallen away, their enemies had been trodden under foot or converted into business partners, their wars were ended forever, Israel was secure, the stake of
The De Voto vocabulary was wide and he liked to use it; the tools of his trade felt good to his hand. The word “parallax" was a favorite, the word “eidolon,”and terms like “mitosis” from the biologist’s lexicon. Mark twain he spoke of as “a maculate and episodic genius,” and a certain phrase which De Voto disliked carried, he said, “a slight taxonomic emphasis on the adjective.” Yet De Voto carried away by his own virtuosity, He did m succumb to the temptation to be abstruse, to skip three arguments and confuse his readers with the clever man’s ellipses. Dc Voto wrote history in a conversational style, always colorful, often polemical, very difficult to achieve, and wonderfully adapted to what he had to say. There was no room for pompousness. De Voto addressed his readers as if they were his equals — even when he was blasting off at the enemy, which was not infrequent. When occasionally he did slip into one of those large, neophilosophical statements that make for pomposity, De Voto recognized his error and pulled up short. “The genius of the American people. . . .” Thus, in “The Easy Chair,” he began a paragraph — and quickly corrected himself. “No,” he wrote, “start that one over. The vigor of our democratic system and the size and richness of our continental empire. . . .”
The writing of history needs humor, and humility. And it needs affection, a fellow-feeling for mankind, a perception of motivation in human beings. It needs, in short, the novelist’s eternal preoccupation with the whys and wherefores of men’s actions. De Voto had this preoccupation. Catch him any time when he was not working and he was ready to talk for hours about why a woman had said a certain thing to her child, or why a young man had not defended himself against attack. His books speak often and lovingly of “the damned human race” — a phrase he got from Mark Twain. And it was a phrase neither comic nor ironic. Man’s fate is hopeless, he is doomed, and he endures his fate with valor. This is De Voto’s belief, the point of his departure and of his return. And it is the point where his fever rises when he sees this belief questioned, as with Sinclair Lewis, “who spent his talents,” said De Voto, “in writing fiction that was conceived to show the contemptibility of American life.” Mark Twain’s America is a fighting book, a book with a thesis. De Voto has an ax to grind and he grinds it till the wheel screams. His pugnacity has been deplored by his admirers as well as by his detractors. He himself admitted in print that one day he might rewrite Mark Twain’s America and leave out the blasts against Mr. Van Wyck Brooks. I am glad he never did, because I believe that without anger, this hook would have fallen short of greatness. Anger drives these pages forward. Anger brings the book to life.
WHAT was Bernard De Voto mad at? His critics protested that they did not know, they could not find out. De Voto, they implied, was just plain born angry, and arrogant, and insulting. What, they demanded, was his thesis? What was he defending and why did it need defense? “Has he a secret?” Edmund Wilson asked, in the New Republic. “If so, let him stand and unfold himself. What does he want?”
De Voto made plain enough what he wanted. I fail to see why Edmund Wilson didn’t recognize it, and Sinclair Lewis, when he wrote, in the Saturday Review of Literature, the diatribe entitled “Fools, Liars and Mr. De Voto.” Bernard Augustine De Voto of Ogden, Utah, born January the eleventh, 1897, wanted the facts of history told upon the printed page. He wanted to see history written from fact, not from intuition or from deduction or from the argument a priori and the flowery heights of what he castigated as “the literary mind.”
It all began, of course, with De Voto’s defense of the frontier and the frontiersman. Various writers, Van Wyck Brooks among them, had intimated that life on the American frontier possessed a certain aridity. To live there would stifle artistic talent in anybody, let alone in Samuel Clemens. The frontiersman was said to be crude, subsisting at a rudimentary animal level; his life lacked every good thing which civilization possesses. From Mormon to mountain trapper, the westerners were nothing more than transplanted Puritans, with the Puritan’s hatred of beauty, art, and love.
It was enough to make a Utah man shrink in his bones, or burst the boundaries of Rocky Mountain profanity. “The frontier is not a person,” De Voto retorted indignantly. “A historian does not speak of the frontier’s tastes and preferences. The historian sees the frontier as many different places, in many different stages of development, inhabited by many people with many different kinds and degrees of culture, intelligence, racial tradition, family training, and individual capacity. He cannot speak of the life of the frontier, for he knows many kinds of frontiers and many kinds of people living many kinds of lives.” If these literary historians would examine the facts, they would discover, for one thing, that the American people were “incurably musical. Working westward they carried fiddles and a folk art. Catgut strings were an article of commerce in the fur trade. . . . And there might be music near the three Tetons in the country of the Blackfeet.”
“We must be accurate,” he said further. “We must make our descriptions exact, verify our conclusions, we must avoid certainty and the loaded dice. Metaphysics is not experience and the philosophy of history is not history.”
It infuriated De Voto to have a so-called historian prefer the must be and the ought to be to the cold fact. History is not made by “thinking it out.” Writers “mistake the quirks of their own emotions for the contours of objective fact.” They write about the American mind, about Puritans or the frontier without having studied America, Puritans, or the frontiersman. “Authority is not born full grown,” he wrote, “in any mind, nor can any one come to it by staring into his own soul, or at his navel, or into the high priest’s emerald breast-plate.” De Voto could not endure manmade utopias, gospels, prophecies. He said he had had his fill of them in his youth. “Absolutes,” he wrote, “are a mirage. And in my desert country, mirages are a commonplace.” De Voto, an expert on the religious sects that blossomed in the American forties of the last century, was at his ironic best when describing them. Always, when he says the word “Mormon,” the pressure rises. “The Underwriters of Salvation,” he called them. Mormonism was “the most colorless of American heresies,” and Zion, city of the Saints, in the end “became a successful business venture, blended with the map and joined hands with the damned.”
Small wonder that Ogden, Utah, did not welcome its native son on the few occasions when he returned there. In boyhood, Benny must have been a difficult child, precocious, disconcertingly quick, disconcertingly inquisitive and critical. In 1943, on my way east from Oregon, I stopped off at Ogden to see what I could find about that boy and that young man. (Even then, I wanted to write about him.) De Voto’s Aunt Martha — Mrs. Grey — told me that, as a child, Benny was aloof. Not a country boy by nature, but studious. His brilliant father, Florian, insisted that he study. Florian De Voto, by the way, read Latin and Greek for his entertainment until he died. When Benny was four he could read Hiawatha. As a young man he was bored, his aunt said, if people talked about ordinary things. “Come down to earth,” she used to tell him. “Just listen and be interested.”
Before I went to Ogden I had read an early article of De Voto’s, published in the American Mercury when its author had not yet gone east to live. The piece opens with a discouraged tourist, descending from the Overland Limited at Ogden. I, too, stepped from that train and walked out of a station which De Voto had called “hideous.” I was confronted, as his tourist had been, with a wide flat street between ugly houses. And then I, too, looked up and saw, at either end of the street, the mountains, red, pink, yellow, and dusted with snow—mountains, De Voto had written, “on which the gods of the Utes walked in the cool of the day.”
The stories that I heard in Ogden were diverse. Some were mere gossip, all were amusing. As a child, it seems, Benny was beautiful — blackhaired, with fine features; at the age of six he won a beauty contest. Then, said his Aunt Martha, he climbed on the roof and fell off and broke his nose. His friends and his enemies had been hospitable to me; one can have a good time in Ogden. But after three clear and pleasant days in the city and environs, I could see why it was that a man of intellect and imagination had to leave Ogden, had to climb onto the Overland Limited, head east, and shake the dust of Utah from his shoes. Yet I saw also how, for the rest of his life, no matter where that Ogden boy might travel, to the Ultima Thule or the seven radiant cities of Antilia, he could not forget those startling deep canyons, that mountain air, and the glowing peaks where walked the gods of the Utes. Born and raised among those dry hard mountains a man must live haunted, his life dedicated to recounting the story of that country and of the caravans which traveled to it from the east.
BERNARD DE VOTO lived with history, read history at night and in the morning, talked history, and was restless when other people did not want to tal history. When I began to write about John dams, I asked De Voto if I should buy the Dictionary of American Biography, known to historians as the D.A.B. There are twenty-one volumes and it is not cheap. De Voto was surprised at my question and surprised that I did not already own the volumes. “Of course, buy it,” he said. “It’s good to read in bed at night before you go to sleep.”
De Voto lived with history and he lived with maps. I never saw such a man for maps. His last four books of history have maps for end papers; maps lined is study walls when he was working. In 1947, De Voto came to stay with us in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylyania; he was to give a lecture on those doubtful historical characters, “The Welsh Indians. He arrived with a suitcase full of maps, big folded maps of the United States, mostly west ol Council Bluffs, Iowa. He spread them on the floor of our living room and we crawled from map to map, with Benny talking, until our knees were sore and our minds enlarged with names like Ogallala, Little Blue, Three Forks, Elephant Butte, the country of the Mandans, the Arikaras, and the Black feet. When he left our house De Voto gave us, as guest present, a beautiful book about maps. And he never ceased to urge upon me, to my great advantage, the study of maps — though during all those years I happened to be investigating not river, sea, and landfall but the geography of men s minds and the cosmography of their laws and constitutions.
De Voto was generous to other writers_not a common trait among members of the union When a manuscript needed editing he was ready with time and effort. And he was a believer in good editing; he knew there is more than one way to compose a sentence and that the right way may take some seeking. He did not spare those who came to him. The treatment was rough, and sensitive souls have been known to turn and flee at his approach. Yet he understood the writer’s psychology, I think, as few men have understood it, although he declared that he seldom knew the right thing to say to authors. “They bleed on,” he wrote, “from wounds healed long ago, which began by seeming mortal but turned out only to need a Band-aid or five pages of type.”
Once De Voto wrote a paragraph to me, about American history and his feeling toward it. (I have quoted this in my last book, but it’s worth repetition.) The words came, remember, from a man tough-minded, who professed to write history from the facts and the facts alone. I was working, at the time, on our revolutionary period, and I had been challenged by a scholar who declared that my view of American history was too romantic altogether. The men who composed our United States Constitution were interested not in ideals but in property — their own property and its protection. George Washington only went into the army to recover his lands along the Shenandoah, and so on. In distress I wrote De Voto, telling my chagrin because I had not made adequate rebuttal. He wrote back at once. Here is what he said:
“Sure you’re romantic about American history. What your detractor left out of account was the fact that it is the most romantic of all histories. It began in myth and has developed through centuries of iairy stories. Whatever the time is in America it is always, at every moment, the mad and wayward hour when the prince is finding the little foot that alone fits into the slipper of glass. It is a little hard to know what romantic means to those who use the word umbrageously. But if the mad impossible voyage of Columbus or Cartier or La Salle or Coronado or John Ledyard is not romantic, if the stars did not dance in the sky when our Constitutional Convention met, if Atlantis has any landscape stranger or the other side o the moon any lights or colors or shapes more unearthly than the customary homespun of Lincoln and the morning coat of Jackson, well, I don t know what romance is. Ours is a story mad with the impossible, it is by chaos out of dream, it egan as dream and it has continued as dream down to the last headlines you read in a newspaper. And of our dream there are two things above all others to be said, that only madmen could have dreamed them or would have dared to — and that we have shown a considerable faculty for making them come true. The simplest truth you can ever write about our history will be charged and surcharged with romanticism, and if you are afraid of the word you had better start practising seriously on your fiddle.”