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O R L A N S AWEY Pan Amercan College Bernard DeVoto’s Western Novels Bernard DeVoto’s place in American letters has, I suppose, been established, but I am not sure what that place is. While I was writing a book on DeVoto for the Twayne United States Authors Series I kept a record of various reactions when DeVoto’s name was mentioned. The young and enthusiastic New Critic would bridle, raise one eyebrow, and say, “But he’s the one who wrote that horrible essay on Wolfe!” The staid and respectable member of the Literary Establishment would huff, “He’s a minor writer—but a good his­ torian!” The historian would say bemusedly, “He’s a good popular writer, but a little sensational for a historian!” And there was always general admiration of his fight for the conservation of natural resources and (by those who knew of it) a puzzlement about his continual argument about and with Van Wyck Brooks. Few people, even on college campuses, are aware that DeVoto wrote novels; few of those who know about his novels have read them. In all he published five novels under his own name and four under the pen name John August. In his acknowledgements in his history The Year of Decision: 1846, DeVoto stated that he could not possibly have written the book without periodic assistance from Mr. John August. DeVoto wrote under several other pen names and defended his writing for the slicks, but he wrote his best works, even his Saturday Evening Post histories, under his own 172 Western American Literature name. In spite of the comments of his friends and enemies to the contrary, DeVoto always considered himself a novelist, though not always a popular or successful one. The dates of his novels (his last and most popular one was published in 1947) indicate his con­ tinued interest in fiction. Above all, he was a Western novelist. He continually sought to explain the West to his readers. His five published novels follow: The Crooked Mile (1924), The Chariot of Fire (1926), The House of Sun-Goes-Down (1928), We Accept with Pleasure (1934), and Mountain Time (1947). The first three deal with the Westward Movement, the influence of the frontier on American civilization. The fourth, We Accept with Pleasure, described the intellectual life in the East of some of the relatives of John Gale, DeVoto’s frontier historian, and contrasts the effete Eastern civilization with more meaningful life of the West (or at least the Middle West). The fifth, Aiountain Time, is partially set in the West. The basic theme, the redemption found in separation from the degrading forces of the East, is in keeping with DeVoto’s general attitude. It is common knowledge that in 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner read before the American Historical Association a paper entitled “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” and changed the thinking of American historians by insisting that the most profound influence on American life was not European traditions but frontier concepts. American history since that time has been influenced, either directly or indirectly, by Turner’s theories on the importance of the frontier in the development of American democracy and individual freedom. During the past sixty years Turner’s ideas have been attacked severely and defended staunchly. Historians have elaborated on and sometimes perverted his ideas with sectarian zeal and glee. Others have attacked his thesis with equal ardor. In the midst of the controversy DeVoto wrote his novels about the American frontier. Relatively unknown, the novels are significant revelations of DeVoto’s ideas. The first novel, The Crooked Mile, a careful study of the frontier town of Windsor, shows the deterioration in the third generation of a frontier family, the Abbeys, and describes the new West, a West controlled by rapacious corporations which have de­ Bernard DeVoto’s Western Novel 173 stroyed or at least emasculated the frontier ideal. The second novel, The Chariot of Fire, pursues a side issue, frontier religion, in a description of the frontier religious fanatic previously written about by William Dean Howells in The Leatherwood God. The third novel, The House of Sun-Goes-Down, describes the earlier phases...


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