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W A L L A C E S T E G N E R Los Altos Hills, California Bernard DeVoto When Bernard DeVoto died on November 13, 1955, he was one of the most visible and most controversial literary figures in America, and had been for thirty years. Though he had begun as a novelist, it was in other roles that most of his public knew him: as historian, essayist, editor, hack­ writer, pamphleteer, custodian of the Bill of Rights and the public con­ science and the public lands. “A literary department store,” he called himself, and he was vehement in every department. Readers responded to him with equal vchemcnce. Many respected and revered him and depended on him for their thinking and their courage in public issues. Some hated him with a passion. All had ample opportunity to know his opinions, for he was not only a frequent contributor to all sorts of maga­ zines, but he was for a short time (November 1936 to March 1938) editor of the Saturday Review of Literature, and for twenty years, from 1935 until his death, he wrote the Easy Chair in Harper’s Magazine, the oldest and perhaps the most influential column in American journalism. The staff at Harper’s loved him as a curmudgeon with a heart of mush; they said he collected underdogs the way a blue serge suit collects lint. John Fischer, the editor of Harper’s during DeVoto’s last years, thought of him as “a combat journalist, who charged headlong into any public controversy that got his dander up,” and who “enjoyed a fight more than any man I ever knew.” Malcolm Cowley, who had felt the DeVoto lash early, did not meet the ogre until much later, and to his surprise found him personally a pleasant man. But when he got in front of a typewriter, Cowley said ruefully, “how he did like to swing the shellalagh!” From the time in the mid-Twenties when he published his first essays in H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury, his career had been controversy. 152 Western American Literature He had broken spears against the progressive schools and the football colleges, against Van Wyck Brooks and the young intellectuals, against the literary censors of Watch and Ward, against the Communists and Popular Fronters, againstJ. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, against Senator McCarthy, the Reece Committee, and other official enemies of civil liberties, against academic historians and southern revisionists, against the “beautiful think­ ing” of the literary who hunted in pack, against western stockmen and their political backers. To some he seemed merely contrary: when the public weathervane veered Left, he veered Right; when it veered Right, he veered Left. In the 1930s the Daily Worker called him a fascist. By the 1950s, the Worker was quoting his Easy Chairs with approval, old antag­ onists such as F. O. Matthiessen and the editors of New Republic were his somewhat astonished allies, and Senator McCarthy was denouncing “one Richard DeVoto” as a communist. Early in 1937, pondering DeVoto’s aggressive editorship of the Satur­ day Review of Literature, Edmund Wilson found him difficult to label, and rather plaintively called on him to stand and declare himself in the ideological struggles of his time. Who was he? What did he believe in? What did he want? Why was he so angry? Some of the questions were rhetorical, some unanswerable. DeVoto could never have explained why he was so angry, any more than a fish could have explained why it breathed through gills. And Wilson had to know who DeVoto was—he had been around for considerably more than a decade, in postures of constant challenge. But there was every reason why Wilson could not understand DeVoto. There were enough differences of background and belief to make them incomprehensible to one another, though Wilson was probably more comprehensible to DeVoto than DeVoto was to Wilson. For DeVoto was a westerner, something easterners have seldom understood, and a belligerent westerner at that. Moreover, he was a shirtsleeve democrat, almost a populist—a Declaration-of-Independence, Bill-of-Rights, Manifest-Destiny American democrat, inhabiting intellec­ tual territory that the then-reigning arbiters of opinion...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 151-164
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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