I spent a long time being told to read Bernard DeVoto before I got around to it. People who loved him often seemed surprised I hadn’t already read his histories. There’s a very specific type of person who tends to read these books, and in general you could say I’m one of them.
The makeshift labels these people give themselves often have an implicit note of self-satisfaction: “4Runner Environmentalists”, “Green-necks” or “literary Westerners”. The terms denote a mix of cultural and political tendencies that cut across some of America’s great divides. They tend to be pro-gun but pro-environmental regulation, to have deep faith in the American experiment but a deep awareness of its flaws, to be suspicious of both big government and big corporations, and, above all, to hate the twinned power of government and business, which is the force that mostly shapes the West as we know it.
DeVoto is the high priest of this sect. Born in 1897 in Ogden, Utah, he spent most of his adulthood in the East, writing for Harper’s, teaching at Harvard, and occupying a tenuous middle ground in the political wars of his time: he was called a fascist in the pages of The Nation and the Daily Worker, and a communist by the Wyoming Cattlemen’s Association. He was a hunter and an outdoorsman, but he was also urbane and unabashedly sophisticated. His monumental 1947 Harper’s essay, “The West Against Itself”, may be the single most significant piece of periodical writing in the history of the American conservation movement. It exposed and almost singlehandedly blocked a vast scheme to sell off hundreds of millions of acres of public land. It also elaborated DeVoto’s thesis of the West as a “plundered province”, a story retold in Nate Schweber’s recent This America of Ours, a long-overdue first biography of DeVoto.
“He described how the wealth of the West’s natural resources had been systematically siphoned to the East,” Schweber writes, about DeVoto’s first use of this term. “And how — contrary to popular myth — it was Western settlers who learned to work together who halted the liquidation.”
This is the difficult and illuminating thing about reading DeVoto today, because in all of his writings he is resistant to the idea that settlers and small-time workers of the West were the engines of the genocide and despoliation that came to the region in their wake. In DeVoto’s telling, these people were complicated moral agents and often victims themselves, caught up in a churning machine of capital and government that, by the 20th century, had created a Western system defined by “laissez-faire capitalism with socialism, ownership rights without responsibility, investment but not regulation”. It was a picture of the corporatism that now colours every single part of American life, and DeVoto saw it as emerging in its first clear form in the government protection of powerful extractive industries in the Mountain West.