Mapping Literary Utah; Poet; Writer
Bernard Augustine DeVoto, born January 11, 1897 in Ogden, Utah, was a significant American historian, memoirist, columnist, teacher, and journalist. The son of a Catholic father and Mormon mother, Devoto grew up with an appreciation for the Utah culture that surrounded him, focusing much of his literary efforts in writing about the Mormon tradition and the land that gave birth to it. He left his home state after attending the University of Utah for one year, transferring to Harvard University as a member of the Class of 1918. Service in the Army during World War I briefly interrupted his education, and he later returned to school, graduating in 1920.
While working as an English instructor at Northwestern University, DeVoto began publishing articles, writing his novel The Crooked Mile under the nom de plume John August. He resigned from his post at Northwestern in 1927 and moved with his wife, Avis, to Massachusetts to work as a writer. In 1932 DeVoto published Mark Twain’s America, which led to his appointment as unpaid literary curator for the Mark Twain Estate, a position he held from 1938 to 1946. A series of articles he wrote for Harper’s Magazine turned into the regular column, “The Easy Chair,” which he wrote from 1935 until his death in 1955. Devoto left Massachusetts for a two-year stint in New York city as the editor of the Saturday Review of Literature from 1936 to 1938.
Considered by some to be a dedicated contrarian, DeVoto was known for his angry pushback against those who earned his ire, be it the enemies of civil liberty, those who would destroy public lands, populists, the FBI, McCarthyism, progressive colleges, and Southern revisionists. He justified his approach in a February 13, 1937 editorial for The Saturday Review, saying: “I distrust absolutes. Rather, I long ago passed from distrust of them to opposition. And with them let me include prophecy, simplification, generalization, abstract logic, and especially the habit of mind which consult theory first and experience only afterward.”
Between 1943 and 1953, DeVoto wrote a trilogy that documented the history of the West, including The Year of Decision: 1846 (1943); Across the Wide Missouri (1947), for which he won a Pulitzer Prize; and The Course of Empire (1952). In the summer of 1946 DeVoto traveled back West with his wife and two young sons to research the impact of politics on public lands. He spent the next eight years documenting his work in many articles, while also promoting natural resource conservation.
DeVoto counted among the people who admired him Wallace Stegner, who published his biography in 1974. DeVoto died of a ruptured aortic aneurysm on November 13, 1955 at the age of 58.