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Alms for oblivion.

Time hast, my lord, a wallet at his back, Wherein he puts alms for oblivion, A great-sized monster of ingratitudes: Those scraps are good deeds past; which are devour'd As fast as they are made, forgot as soon As done: perseverance, dear my lord, Keeps honour bright . . .

When I agreed late last summer to go to New Orleans in early January for the celebration of what would have been the late Barnard DeVoto's one hundredth birthday, I made the mistake of thinking that I could meet the rhetorical demands of the occasion with a few words of well-turned praise. What I knew of DeVoto, I knew from reading his more famous books--1846: The Year of Decision, Across the Wide Missouri, The Course of Empire, Mark Twain's America. I knew him as a first-rate historian, passionate in his feeling for the nine' teenth-century American West, and as a fine writer whose accounts of the long line of ox-drawn wagons lumbering across the plains from the Missouri River to Fort Laramie and South Pass had shaped much of my own imagining of the Oregon Trail.

But the program called for me to speak about DeVoto in his character as a journalist, specifically as the author of the monthly column appearing in Harper's Magazine between 1935 and 1955 under the rubric "The Easy Chair," and these writings I knew only by hearsay. From time to time at a New York literary assembly I would run across a senior member of the city's publishing faculty, who would say that if I took the trouble to read DeVoto in "The Easy Chair" I might learn something useful about American politics and the English language. But although I invariably assured the gentleman in question that I would turn to the lesson at once, invariably I postponed doing so, probably because I didn't want to be reminded of my own shortcomings as DeVoto's successor.

The present "Notebook" is the continuation of "The Easy Chair," which is the oldest column in American journalism. First published in Harper's Magazine in 1851, it has been written in the years since by only seven men, among them William Dean Howells, who wrote the column between 1900 and 1920, at the zenith of his reputation as the acknowledged dean of American letters. A successful novelist (A Hazard of New Fortunes, The Rise of Silas Lapham, etc.) and a former editor of The Atlantic, Howells was a man so famous in his day that his portrait was to be seen on cigar-box labels.

DeVoto took up the column in 1935, well aware of its historical precedents and in the midst of one of his long-standing arguments with the New York book crowd about the life and art of Mark Twain. Eastern tea-table opinion at the time held that Twain had been ruined by his travels west of the Mississippi (a good mind gone to rot in the brothels of San Francisco and the deserts of Nevada), and DeVoto delighted in wrecking the dainty misperceptions cherished by critics who never had been west of the Algonquin Hotel.

Born in Ogden, Utah, under the western slope of the Wasatch Mountains, the son of a Mormon father and a Catholic mother (both apostate), DeVoto attended public high school and Harvard University before settling, in 1921, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His presence in the East strengthened his fierce affection for the West, and his writing is everywhere marked by poignant remembrance of western landscapes, western grasses, western animals and birds.

The composition of "The Easy Chair," a column always grotesquely misnamed, he looked upon as the first of what he called his "private assignments," and as I read through back is' sues of Harper's Magazine prior to going to New Orleans, l encountered a writer whom I came increasingly to admire, and one whose like no longer appears in the arenas of American journalism. Free of ideological cant and capable of keeping straight the different tenses and declensions of time, DeVoto addressed his remarks to a literate society that constructed its thought with words instead of images.

He died suddenly of a ruptured heart in 1955, a year when I was still in college, but from his photographs and from people who knew him well, I gathered that he was somewhat similar in appearance to H. L. Mencken, a heavy smoker (cigarettes, not cigars) who didn't mince his words and wore his convictions on his sleeve. By nature contrarian, he undertook the writing of"The Easy Chair" in the spirit of dissent and as a matter of civic obligation. The American democracy he understood as an idea in motion and a set of principles constantly in need of further experiment and revision. Against the impulse to declare the experiment complete (an impulse easily confused by the wellborn and comfortably placed with the will of Divine Providence), DeVoto construed "The Easy Chair" as a relentless questioning of whatever temporary wisdom chanced to have been elected to political or literary office.

What was remarkahle was not only DeVoto's broad canvas of topics--the fascist components of McCarthyism, the improper manufacture of kitchen knives and the proper manufacture of a martini, the feckless destruction of the public land and the national forest (by rapacious timber and mining interests that enjoyed, then as now, the blessings of a compliant Congress), the Mexican and Civil wars, detective novels, Marxism, the Union Pacific Railroad, sagebrush, and the FBI--but also his many tones of voice--sardonic, whimsical, poetic, angry, puckish, romantic, mocking, philosophical.

Often at odds with his peers in the literary trades, he detested flag-waving patriots, thought Harry Truman too conservative in his politics and Thomas Wolfe too liberal with his adjectives, never tired of emptying the slops of ridicule on the heads of imbecile novelists and crooked politicians. Many of his columns read as if they had been written last week, and following their progress through the pages of Harper's Magazine, I marked enough passages to teach a semester's course in what DeVoto would have called "the technic" of declamatory prose.

On government surveillance: Announcing in 1949 (i.e., long before it was safe to do so) that henceforth he would refuse to cooperate with government investigations loosed upon the citizenry by the House Un-American Activities Committee or the FBI--"I like a country where it's nobody's damned business what magazines anyone reads, what he thinks, whom he has cocktails with. I like a country where we do not have to stuff the chimney against listening ears.... We had that kind of country a little while ago, and I'm for getting it back. It was a lot less scared than the one we've got now."

On bad writing: With specific reference to Miss Gertrude Stein, "whose art had no connection whatever with life or death, love or hate, rejoicing or grief, success or failure, belief or doubt, any other emotion of mankind, any experience of anyone, or any of the values that enable people to live together--an art which floated freely in a medium of pure caprice sustained by nothing except its awareness of its own inner wondrousness."

On democaracy: Relieving Walter Lippmann in 1939 of the delicate impression that democratic government is a stately exchange of high-minded, nonpartisan views among the senior members of the Century Club, that it somehow can be washed clean of envy, jealousy, or greed, that it is ever anything other than the work of ordinary men, bewildered, groping, at cross purposes, verbose--"The Senate had not forgotten, as Mr. Lippmann had, that this is a democracy. The Senators are politicians, much less clever than you or I, much more steeped in partisanship than Mr. Lippmann. They are certain to befog its issues with deplorable ignorance, certain to distort them with partisan interests of political parties, personal candidacies, business interests and pressure groups.... Thank God!"

On radical chic: Speaking in 1940 of a doe-eyed leftist intellectual who had supported the "brave and wholly literary rebellion" of Marxism with the enthusiasm of an inherited fortune and abruptly finds himself betrayed by Stalin's pact with Hitler--"You can say something, if uselessly, to a friend whose child has died, whose wife has left him, whose ambition has been wrecked. But what can you say to a friend whose god has died?"

No matter what the topic at hand, DeVoto's strength as a writer springs from his understanding that history is a continuous narrative, as closely bound to time future as to time past. His Mormon grandfather climbed the grade of the Platte River in company with Brigham Young, and, once arrived in the Utah Valley under the auspices of the angel Moroni, he resurrected the dead land with apple orchards, and where he found the earth poisoned with volcanic ash he made it sweet with cottonwood trees.

Two of DeVoto's most somber columns draw the lines of historical perspective on the blackboard of the Second World War. The German armies invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, but the printing schedule of Harper's Magazine delayed DeVoto's response until the November issue and a column entitled "The Oncoming." He begins with his listening to the news of the invasion on a car radio in the hills of northern Vermont. The far-off voices, urgent and broken by static, remind him of a bright after' noon in August 1914, in the Rocky Mountains. The German armies have marched into Belgium, and DeVoto is seventeen years old, at work in a newspaper office, copying the bulletins from the Associated Press wire onto long strips of cheap paper and hanging the news in the windows from lengths of twine. The pictures in his head are those of a storybook war--Uhlans sitting astride their horses against the Belgian sky at twilight, British destroyers putting hurriedly to sea, columns of dust-gray troops marching through fields of ripening wheat--all pretty pictures, as romantic as Sir Lancelot and as far away as Saturn. The nostalgic sentiment doesn't last as long as the next sentence. Correcting it at once with the counterweight of history (the sum of the dead at Chateau-Thierry and Verdun, what happened to President Wilson's useless Fourteen Points) and knowing that "this time the war will be neither distant nor romantic, even to boys," DeVoto wonders what will become of America and what he will say to his nine-year-old son. He measures the likely cost of the war by the loss of individual liberty, even among the victors, and by the probable transformation of "a nation that never quite existed" into something a good deal closer in character and tone to an authoritarian bureaucracy.

The questions lead DeVoto first to the thought that his son will not grow up in the America in which he was born, and then, bearing in mind his grandfather's trees, to the further thought, "but neither did I, or anyone else who has ever lived here." America is about making the best of what can be made of circumstances usually adverse, and the cost of any life is the price asked for it, which, as often as not, comes down to a "belief in a right and truth that do not exist, conscription in a war against the uncomprehended for reasons never given."

A similarly hard-edged realism informs a column that DeVoto introduces five years later with the sentences, "You may remember the Lost Generation. It was primarily a literary phenomenon, an invention of novelists." By April 1944 the end of the Second World War was plainly in sight, and DeVoto sets out to forestall a reprise of the self-pity that became fashionable in the 1920s. The trope of the Lost Generation he attributes to Emest Hemingway and finds "sickly and unclean," a cliche much in vogue among college boys drinking iced gin under potted palms, nodding their glossy heads and tapping their glossy shoes in time to a Cole Porter tune, saying that their finer feelings had been so bruised by the ugliness of war that "they saw quite through life's hollow shams." DeVoto very much hopes that this time there will be none of that. Yes, the conditions of life are not what any of us would choose--"It is too bad that we grow old, too bad that we prove less admirable than we thought, too bad that love fails, ambition peters out, friends die, dreams come to nothing"--but the waste and failure of an individual does not mean that "God had it in for him" or that "a private pain in the bowels" proves the theorem of the world's evil.

Again it is DeVoto's sense of history (of the generations belonging to the same repertory company, succeeding one another on the same stage) that enlarges his argument. He is not talking merely about literary affectation. Simultaneously and in the same wide lens with the languid tableau of the Lost Generation posed in tuxedos and evening gowns against a Manhattan skyline, DeVoto sees the wounded armies of the Potomac and Northern Virginia, walking home from the Civil War without shoes, wearing ragged and stinking clothes, carrying with them the memories of panic, hunger, lice dysentery, and their friends blown to bloody shreds, and, whether they were going South or North, "the best years of their youth devoured by war, no fine thing done, no fine thing possible in the time remaining."

And what became of that generation, and who among them sang the sad songs of self-pity? Instead of admiring the symbolic impotence of Jake Barnes, they went out and sold the crops, repaired the farm, "broke the prairies, dug the mines, occupied the West, built the railroads, manned the industry that remade the world."

The celebration of DeVoto's centennial birthday took place on January 11, at Le Petite Theatre in the New Orleans French Quarter, across St. Peter Street from the old Spanish building in which, on December 20, 1803, the envoys of Napoleon transferred to the agents of Thomas Jefferson the deed to the Louisiana Purchase. An audience of maybe two hundred people, almost all of them over the age of fifty, listened to a series of appreciative remarks by DeVoto's son, Mark, by Stephen Ambrose, Patricia Limerick, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. The program occupied the whole of the day, and as I listened to the several scholars talk about different aspects of DeVoto's work (his editing of the Lewis and Clark journals, his efforts on behalf of the public lands), it was easy enough to think of the objections that could be raised against his telling of the American tale--overly triumphant, too many white men in the foreground and not enough women in the scene, too idealistic a faith in Manifest Destiny.

Some of the objections no doubt could be sustained, but what struck me even more forcibly were the differences between DeVoto's language rooted in fact and grounded in narrative--and our own postliterate drift of images set to the music of television. Narrative becomes a picturesque montage (like a commercial for Calvin Klein's Obsession or movies as flaccid as The English Patient), and the distinctions between time present and time past dissolve into the mirrors of the eternal present. The effects are sometimes marvelous to behold, but how do we write history in a language like Gertrude Stein's, one that floats freely "in a medium of pure caprice sustained by nothing except its awareness of its own inner wondrousness," and if we don't know how to tell ourselves our own story, then how do we know who we are? DeVoto would have thought the questions worth the trouble of an answer, and next month in this space I'll attempt, if not an answer, at least a preliminary hearing.
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Title Annotation:journalist and historian Bernard DeVoto
Author:Lapham, Lewis H.
Publication:Harper's Magazine
Article Type:Column
Date:Mar 1, 1997
Words:2611
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