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) was an American historian and author who specialized in the history of the American West.

Life and work[edit]

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, graduating in 1920.

He began his career in 1922 as an English instructor at Northwestern University and began to write articles and novels, which often provoked controversy for their liberal viewpoint. Sometimes he used the pseudonyms "John August" and "Cady Hewes." In 1927, DeVoto resigned from Northwestern and moved to Massachusetts with his wife Avis. He began to dedicate himself to serious writing along with part-time instructing at Harvard University. (His ambition of attaining a permanent position at Harvard was never realized.) DeVoto wrote influential articles for periodicals, succeeding, for example, in promoting the Vilfredo Pareto vogue with a number of articles in Harper's Magazine in 1933.[1] This led to a regular Harper's column, "The Easy Chair," which DeVoto wrote from 1935 until his death.

DeVoto became 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.

In 1936, DeVoto published "Genius is Not Enough," a review of Thomas Wolfe's The Story of a Novel (1936), in which he wrote that Wolfe's work was "hacked and shaped and compressed into something resembling a novel by Mr. Perkins and the assembly-line at Scribners."[2] The effect of this essay on Wolfe's self-confidence was perhaps the greatest influence on his cutting ties with Scribners and editor Maxwell Perkins shortly before his death in 1938.[3]

In DeVoto's later years, he gained fame for his popular histories of the West: The Year of Decision: 1846 (1943), Across the Wide Missouri (1947), The Course of Empire (1952), and a popular abridged edition of The Journals of Lewis and Clark (1953). Across the Wide Missouri won the Pulitzer Prize for History[4] (1948) and The Course of Empire won the National Book Award for Nonfiction (1953).[5] From the 1940s to the end of his life, he was renowned for his championing of public lands and of conservation of natural resources, and for his pugnacious defense of civil liberties. 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.

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)[6]

The DeVotos' son Mark (b. 1940) is a music theorist, composer, and retired professor at Tufts University. Their older son, Gordon, an amateur 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
  • 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 Woman in the Picture, by John August (1944)
  • 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 (1947) novel
  • The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto (1951)[7]
  • 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. ^ 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.
  2. ^ Donald, David H. (1987). Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe. New York: Fawcett Columbine. pp. 376–377. ISBN 0449902862. 
  3. ^ Berg, A. Scott (1978). Maxwell Perkins: Editor of Genius. Berkley. 
  4. ^ "History". Past winners & finalists by category. The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved 2012-03-17.
  5. ^ "National Book Awards – 1953". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-19.
    (With acceptance speech by DeVoto.)
  6. ^ Edited by Joan Reardon, and published by Houghton Mifflin which originally rejected Child's cookbook.
  7. ^ 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[edit]