Bernard DeVoto

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Bernard DeVoto
Bernard DeVoto.jpg
Born Bernard Augustine DeVoto
(1897-01-11)January 11, 1897
Ogden, Utah
Died November 13, 1955(1955-11-13) (aged 58)
New York City
Occupation Writer
Nationality American
Period 1932–1955
Genre History
Subject Western United States
Notable awards Pulitzer Prize for History (1948)
National Book Award for Nonfiction (1953)
Spouse Avis DeVoto
Children Gordon DeVoto, Mark DeVoto

Bernard Augustine DeVoto (January 11, 1897 – November 13, 1955), American historian, essayist, columnist, teacher, editor, and reviewer, was a lifelong champion of American Public lands and the conservation of public resources as well as an outspoken defender of civil liberties. He was the author of a series of Pulitzer-Prize-winning popular histories of the American West and for many years wrote The Easy Chair, an influential column in Harper's Magazine. DeVoto also wrote several well-regarded novels and during the 1950s served as a speech-writer for Adlai Stevenson. His friend and biographer, Wallace Stegner described Devoto as "flawed, brilliant, provocative, outrageous, ... often wrong, often spectacularly right, always stimulating, sometimes infuriating, and never, never dull."[1]


He was born in Ogden, Utah. He attended the University of Utah for one year, then transferred to Harvard University, entering as a member of the class of 1918. He interrupted his education to serve in the Army in World War I, then returned to school and graduated in 1920.


He began his career in 1922 as an English instructor at Northwestern University. He also began publishing articles and novels (under the pseudonyms "John August" and "Cady Hewes"). In 1927 he resigned from Northwestern. He and his wife Avis moved to Massachusetts in order to attempt to earn his living from writing along with part-time instructing at Harvard University. (His ambition of attaining a permanent position at Harvard was never realized.) A series of articles he published in Harper's Magazine is credited with bringing the influential work of Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto to wide audiences.[2] This led to a regular Harper's column, "The Easy Chair," which DeVoto wrote from 1935 until his death.

DeVoto was also an authority on Mark Twain and served as a curator and editor for Twain's papers; this work culminated in several publications, including the best-selling Letters From the Earth, which appeared only in 1962. From 1936 to 1938 he worked in New York City, where he was editor of the Saturday Review of Literature, after which he returned to Massachusetts.

It was during his tenure as editor of the Saturday Review that DeVoto produced one of his most controversial pieces, "Genius is Not Enough," a scathing review of Thomas Wolfe's The Story of a Novel, in which the novelist recounted his method of writing his autobiographical Of Time and the River, as essentially submitting undigested first drafts to be transformed into finished work by others.[3] According to DeVoto, Wolfe's writing was "hacked and shaped and compressed into something resembling a novel by [his editor] Mr. Perkins and the assembly-line at Scribners."[4] Although in passing acknowledging Wolfe's genius, DeVoto excoriated his lack of artistry, "Mr. Wolfe ... has written some of the finest fiction in our day. But a great part of what he writes is not fiction at all: it is only material with which he has struggled but which has defeated him." "Until Mr. Wolfe develops more craftsmanship, he will not be the important novelist he is now widely accepted as being." DeVoto's essay was a decisive factor in Wolfe's subsequent cutting ties with Scribners and editor Maxwell Perkins shortly before his death in 1938[5] and had a devastating effect on Wolfe's posthumous literary reputation.

The decade between 1943 and 53 saw the completion of what John L. Thomas called Devoto's "magnificent trilogy of the discovery, settling, and exploitation of the West":[6] The Year of Decision: 1846 (1943); Across the Wide Missouri (1947); The Course of Empire (1952). Across the Wide Missouri was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for History[7] (1948) and The Course of Empire received National Book Award for Nonfiction (1953).[8] He also edited a selection of The Journals of Lewis and Clark (1953). A book on the history, geography, and ecology of the American West remained unfinished at his death in 1955; in 2001, an edited version was published as Western Paradox.

Personal life and death

Bernard DeVoto's wife Avis DeVoto (1904-1989) was a book reviewer, editor, and avid cook. She became friends with Julia Child, the future author of cookbooks and host of television cooking demonstrations. Child had written a fan letter to Bernard DeVoto regarding an article of his in Harper's Magazine; he had said that he detested stainless steel knives, which she thought "100% right". Avis' response began a long correspondence and friendship between the two women during Child's work on her groundbreaking Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961). Child acknowledged Avis as "wet nurse" and "mentor" to the undertaking. Their correspondence is held in the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, and selections appeared in the book, As Always, Julia (2010)[9]

The DeVotos' son Mark (b. 1940) is a music theorist, composer, and retired professor at Tufts University. Their older son, Gordon, a writer, died in 2009.


  • The Crooked Mile (1924) novel
  • The Chariot of Fire (1926) novel
  • The House of Sun-Goes-Down. New York: Macmillan. OCLC 613154969.  (1928) novel
  • Mark Twain's America (1932)
  • We Accept With Pleasure (1934) novel
  • Genius is not Enough (1936) criticism
  • Forays and Rebuttals (1936) essays
  • Troubled Star, by John August (1939) novel
  • Rain Before Seven, by John August (1940) novel
  • Mark Twain in Eruption (1940), editor
  • Minority Report (1940) essays
  • Mark Twain at Work (1942), editor
  • Advance Agent, by John August (1942) novel
  • The Year of Decision, 1846. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. OCLC 490177177.  (1942)
  • The Literary Fallacy (1944), criticism
  • The Portable Mark Twain (1946, editor)
  • Across the Wide Missouri, With an Account of the Discovery of the Miller Collection (1947) [Pulitzer Prize winner]
  • Mountain Time (1946) novel
  • The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto (1951)[10]
  • The World of Fiction (1950)
  • The Course of Empire (1952) [National Book Award]
  • The Journals of Lewis and Clark (1953, editor)
  • The Easy Chair (1955) essays
  • Women and Children First by Cady Hewes (1956) essays
  • The Letters of Bernard DeVoto (1975, edited by Wallace Stegner)
  • The Western Paradox (2001, edited by Douglas Brinkley and Patricia Nelson Limerick)
  • DeVoto's West: History, Conservation, and the Public Good (2002, edited by Edward K. Muller)
  • The Selected Letters of Bernard DeVoto and Katharine Sterne (2012, edited by Mark DeVoto)


  1. ^ Wallace Stegner, The Uneasy Chair: A Biography of Bernard DeVoto." (New York, Vintage Books,[1974] reprint 1988) pp. ix—x.
  2. ^ Joseph V. Femia & Alasdair J. Marshall, eds., Vilfredo Pareto: Beyond Disciplinary Boundaries (Surrey, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2012). Lawrence Henderson, George Homans, and Henry Seidel Canby also played important roles in promoting interest in Pareto's work.
  3. ^ "Genius is Not Enough", Saturday Review of Literature April 25, 1936)
  4. ^ Donald, David H. (1987). Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe. New York: Fawcett Columbine. pp. 376–377. ISBN 0449902862. 
  5. ^ Berg, A. Scott (1978). Maxwell Perkins: Editor of Genius. Berkley. 
  6. ^ John L. Thomas, A Country of the Mind: Wallace Stegner, Bernard DeVoto, History, and the American Land(Routledge: 2013), p. 6.
  7. ^ "History". Past winners & finalists by category. The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved 2012-03-17.
  8. ^ "National Book Awards – 1953". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-19.
    (With acceptance speech by DeVoto.)
  9. ^ Edited by Joan Reardon, and published by Houghton Mifflin which originally rejected Child's cookbook.
  10. ^ Republished in 2010 by Tin House Books


  • Stegner, Wallace E., The Uneasy Chair: A Biography of Bernard DeVoto (1974)
  • Stegner, Wallace E., ed., The Letters of Bernard DeVoto (1975)
  • Topping, Gary. Utah Historians and the Reconstruction of Western History (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003), ISBN 0-8061-3561-1
  • Saveur Magazine, #134, December 2010, p. 41.

External links

  • Works by or about Bernard DeVoto in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
  • "Utah History: Bernard DeVoto". Archived from the original on December 13, 2004. 
  • "FBI was out to get freethinking DeVoto", from High Country News
  • Bernard DeVoto
  • ‘The Hour,’ Famous Cocktail Guide, Is Reissued William Grimes for the New York Times June 8, 2010
  • Bernard DeVoto at Find a Grave
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