A new biography revives a Western conservation writer

Here is the situation in brief: The public areas of the West are under attack. National monuments are at perpetual risk of being diminished or abolished; development threatens our wildest places; and powerful ranchers seek to neutralize land management agencies. Some conservatives yearn to transfer public lands entirely outside of federal jurisdiction.

This is both our West and the West of Bernard DeVoto, the mid-20th-century historian and conservationist whom Wallace Stegner once called “the nation’s environmental consciousness.” Compared to conservation’s other luminaries, DeVoto—more rank than Stegner, less poetic than Rachel Carson, not quite as quotable as Aldo Leopold—has largely fallen into obscurity. Although his western stories won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, his most widely read work today is The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto, a tongue-in-cheek celebration of American whiskey. Yet, as journalist Nate Schweber demonstrates in his timely new biography, This America of Ours, DeVoto was a legend in his own time whose influence endures today — “as important to conservation as Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot.”

DeVoto grew up in Ogden, Utah. A pugnacious outdoorsman, he escaped his domineering father by heading east to study literature. While teaching at Northwestern University in 1922, DeVoto fell for Avis MacVicar, a superlative student who “had a way of speaking like the first lines of novels.” DeVoto dreamed of writing the great American novel himself, but environmental journalism beckoned, especially after a visit to Utah in 1925, when the DeVotos narrowly escaped a flash flood triggered by clearing, overgrazing and erosion in the Wasatch Mountains. Outraged, DeVoto began writing magazine stories, edited by his brilliant wife, exposing the predatory cattle, lumber and dam builders who were pillaging the “plundered province” of the West. By 1952, his reputation was such that Adlai Stevenson consulted him on the natural resources plank of the Democratic national platform.

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DeVoto’s enemies were as powerful as his allies. He attacked both Joseph McCarthy, the crooked prosecutor of the Red Scare, and Patrick McCarran, a shamelessly corrupt Nevada senator who wanted to seize federal lands and sell them to private interests. DeVoto cleverly connected their seemingly unrelated activities. Any conservationist concerned about public lands, he noted, soon found himself under FBI investigation, including DeVoto himself, who warned in 1949, “We divide ourselves into the hunted and the hunters.”

Schweber’s skillful reporting here matches that of his subject. Drawing on letters, FBI files and his own interviews, he uncovers the horrific saga of Roald Peterson, a forestry specialist and DeVoto ally who was falsely accused of communism and fired. Peterson’s family was devastated and two of his children committed suicide. Although DeVoto was eager to cover the case, Peterson, fearing further retaliation, begged him not to, leaving the author “haunted by a sense of guilt that he had not done enough to stop a tragedy.”

Not that DeVoto often censored himself. Much of the pleasure of This America is watching him swing his megaphone. Our modern news landscape is so atomized and polarized that the media often appear powerless; when Facebook’s algorithms funnel readers into news silos, it’s hard for any story to gain traction. (Consider, for example, all the investigative reporting on Donald Trump’s bogus charities in 2016 and how little impact it had on the election.) DeVoto, on the other hand, was writing at a time when a Harper’s columnist could kill legislation with a few clicks of the typewriter. When McCarthy gives an election night speech in 1952 “concentrated mainly on DeVoto,” it’s a reminder of how much politicians once feared reporters.

DeVoto achieved her influence with a lot of help from her spouse. Avis DeVoto’s role in her husband’s career has been largely overlooked, in part because of her own reticence; when she recruited Stegner to write DeVoto’s biography, she insisted she did not want “publicity of any kind.” Schweber describes a power couple who were equal in intellect, if not fame. Bernard may have won the Pulitzer, but it’s Avis’ witty, irreverent correspondence that provides much of This America’s texture. (“The cattlemen are screaming blue murder over this drop in the market,” she wrote, after a collapse in beef prices fired Bernard’s detractors, “and I can’t think of a time when I’ve been more pleased.”) An astute talent scout, she discovered Julia Child; after Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published, Child wrote that Avis was “worth its weight in fresh truffles.”

Like many historians blessed with a wealth of primary sources, Schweber occasionally overfills his biography. As the DeVoto family retraces Lewis and Clark’s journey, we learn that they ate potato pancakes, stayed in a modern art hotel, and visited a historic steamboat stop.

Bernard reports on a McCarran’s land grab as they travel, yet his revealing research sometimes gets lost in a blizzard of road trip play-by-play.

Bernard DeVoto. Photo: Wikipedia

This America works best when it places the DeVots in their broader context. Bernard and Avis spent much of their lives crusading against the proposed Echo Park Dam, an ill-conceived water storage project that would have submerged Dinosaur National Monument and eroded the protection of public lands. Although DeVoto did not live to see it, the anti-dam campaign he galvanized ultimately helped inspire the Wilderness Act of 1964. “Any national park with a canyon that is not bound by a dam, a forest that is not filled with clearings or mines, and grizzly bears or buffalo or peregrine falcons not replaced with cows and oil pumps and power lines,” writes Schweber, “recalling the DeVotos’ 1950s fight against Echo Park Dam.”

If the couple’s legacy lives on, so do the forces they fought. In 2017, their younger son, Mark, sent a copy of “The West Against Itself,” one of his father’s sharpest essays, to Ryan Zinke, Donald Trump’s interior secretary, whose cleanup of Bears Ears National Monument would have pleased McCarran. There is no indication that Zinke ever read it, but if he had, even he might have stopped at these lines: “It is the ever-recurring desire to liquidate the West that is so great a part of Western history. … The future of the West depends on whether it can defend itself against itself.”

This post was originally published at High Country News and is shown here with permission. Top photo: Matthew Dillon/CC via Flickr

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