August 19, 2022

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.

DeVoto’s most disturbing, poignant, and rich account of how we got to this point can be found in Across the Wide Missouri, his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1947 history of the Rocky Mountain fur trade. It took me several tries to actually finish the book. It is long, frustrating, and at times confusing, both hard to follow and hard to put down once you get into its flow.

It is easy to see why the book is largely forgotten today. It reads like a history in the old American tradition of Francis Parkman or William H. Prescott, with dense, high-diction prose, and an implicit expectation that the reader is familiar with a set of characters — John Jacob Astor, Jim Bridger — who might have been familiar to Americans in 1947 but are much less so today. It also unfolds in a confusing set of braided personal narratives, telling the story of everyone from a wayward Scottish noble who found his calling in the West to the legendarily beautiful missionary Narcissa Whitman, one of the first two white women known to have crossed the Rocky Mountains, and who ended up living such a brutal and tragic life that it’s shocking no one has made a movie of it yet.

Across the Wide Missouri is so complex and iterative that attempting to describe its “plot” is a fools’ errand. But the book takes shape around a conflict between Astor’s American Fur Company and Bridger’s Rocky Mountain Fur Company, over the wealth of pelts that was beginning to flow from the mountain streams and valleys of the Interior West. This trade was the American West’s first great extractive industry, and it was what drove the exploration of the region. And in this story, you can see the whole blighted future of the region, and to some degree, that of America.

The fur trappers on whose labor the industry relied lived some of the most difficult lives anyone has ever lived, and almost none of them made much money. They were always hard men, often cruel. But they were also joyous, and the best parts of the book involve a series of retellings of the annual summer rendezvous, when trappers and native tribes gathered in drunken comity to trade, party, have sex and marry (intermarriage between whites and natives was the defining social structure of the mountain trade), and load up supplies for the winter.

The picture here is very different from the one we get about Western history today, one that focuses on whites as the agents of genocide and “settler-colonialism”. DeVoto is interested instead in the brief period when the whites who came into the West did so without an eye to conquest or even settlement. “May we assume that enough has been said about release and debauch at the summer rendezvous?” he writes about one of the last such gatherings. “The trappers drank as many pints of alcohol as ever at five dollars a pint, sang as many songs, held as many horse races, bought as many squaws…. Rendezvous was the mountain man’s Christmas, county fair, harvest festival, and crowned-slave carnival of Saturn — this year as always.”

But it was not to last. The rabid competition between the fur companies kept the trappers in debt and wrecked the supply of beaver pelts. And it brought the tribes they lived and traded among into a system of dependence on the manufactured goods and alcohol that the companies proffered in exchange for the furs. The smallpox epidemic of 1837 was carried up the Missouri River on an American Fur Company supply boat, and the ensuing epidemic killed 90% of some of the tribes the trappers were most intimate and friendly with, like the Mandans, and almost as many among tribes they feared and fought, like the Blackfeet. It destroyed the market structure that the freewheeling trapper culture depended on, and by destroying native populations it laid the ground for the settler conquest and extractive pillage of the West that was to come.

The enduring power of DeVoto, one that makes him vital and not a little subversive today, is in his ability to tell the story of the birth of the extractive Western machine that doesn’t admit for easy culprits: “This narrative will not be suspected of admiring the business ethics of the Company,” he writes, “but it must protest the tendency of 20th-century historians to hold the 1830s in American history to ideas which the 1830s had never heard of, which they would not have understood, and which produce confusion or nonsense when imposed on them today.”

For anyone who has the tenacity and time to finish it, Across the Wide Missouri ends up being almost inexpressibly rewarding and inexpressibly dark — a portrait of a moment in a part of America that only a few hundred or so Americans ever experienced and that very few Americans today know much about, but that did more than any other to shape our idea of a freewheeling Western frontier. It understands both the trappers and Natives who participated in the Western fur trade in the context of a system which “converted property, manipulated credit, and stripped the plundered province to the sole end of canalising eastward whatever wealth the West might produce”.

DeVoto’s purpose was not to absolve the trappers of their complicity in a system that ended up destroying the free West they inhabited and loved, but to show how the engines of capital and commerce coopted them into that destruction, against their own desires and interests. DeVoto acknowledged and even emphasised the violence between trappers and Native tribes during the fur-trading era. But he understood this violence, which caused many personal and bloody feuds but little wholesale carnage, as something different than what was to come — “the less murderous [and more state-directed] violence that was a condition of white society in the West”.

This was the state-engineered extractive regime that DeVoto spent his career railing against, and it is the force that has lead so many Americans in recent years to conclude that the settlement of the West is a single history of evil acts committed by evil men. But there is another story — one of the strange middle-ground reality that fur-trading era represented — that has hardly had any retelling since DeVoto’s difficult, annoying, brilliant magnum opus.

“This narrative calls attention to the fact that historical judgements must be peripheral or inane,” he wrote, uncannily anticipating the politico-historical debates of our current time, “until the preliminaries of historical statement have been made. And now feels free to return to its job.” We can only hope that more historians of this stripe will emerge today.

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