Nearly 40 years after his death, Bernard DeVoto is remembered as a brilliant historian, pungent social critic and one of the West's earliest and most outspoken conservationists.
The Federal Bureau of
Investigation, however, knew him differently.
the FBI, DeVoto was an "intellectual revolutionary," "the son of a
fallen away priest of the Roman Catholic Church" and a shabbily
dressed author "known to have associations with questionable or
The agency's file on
DeVoto, obtained recently through the U.S. Freedom of Information
Act, is peppered with derogatory comments, hearsay and political
gossip - just the sort of bureaucratic snooping DeVoto
The FBI took note of DeVoto's reading
habits, the company he kept and his "frontier childhood" in Utah.
The agency was so suspicious it granted DeVoto special status - a
place on its infamous "Do Not Contact" list, made up of people
considered especially threatening. J. Edgar Hoover, the legendary
former FBI director, also was involved. He monitored DeVoto's file
closely and exhorted agents to round up more
Even today, much remains untold.
The FBI, in releasing 197 pages on DeVoto, has also censored
portions of many documents - by blacking them out with a marking
pen. One page is so sensitive the agency won't release it at
Why the secrecy? Most of the information,
after all, is more than 40 years old. What is hiding behind all the
black ink? Is there a wiretap, break-in or embarrassing incident?
Or is it more routine - the names and addresses, perhaps, of
undercover agents and confidential informants? Only the FBI
Starting in the 1920s, DeVoto's
typewriter scarcely stopped clacking. His career, in fact, had much
in common with the West he loved. It was broad. And there was a lot
DeVoto's biographer, Wallace Stegner,
called him a literary department store. The description fits.
DeVoto wrote aisles of fiction, shelves of history, bins of
criticism and an entire warehouse of contemporary essays,
conservation polemics and political musings.
his pen thundered. "He had a gift for indignation," Stegner wrote.
"He believed some things passionately and could not contain himself
when he saw them endangered by knaves or fools."
His work seemed to appear everywhere.
Collier's, the Saturday Review, Redbook, Atlantic, Woman's Day,
Fortune and many others published DeVoto. But his most famous forum
was Harper's, where for 20 years - from 1935 to 1955 - he published
essays and a controversial monthly column called "The Easy Chair."
Conservation was a familiar theme - especially
when it involved the public lands of the West. "Mining is
liquidation," he boomed in one famous Harper's essay in 1947. "You
clean out the deposit, exhaust the lode and move on ... and you
don't give a damn, especially if you are a stockholder in the
He taught English, too, first at
Northwestern and then Harvard. But universities couldn't contain
him. DeVoto's world was the world at large - not the narrow niche
of academia. The bigger the issue, the better. He blazed his own
trails. Sometimes he bulldozed them.
legacy is history. There he produced something incredible - three
epic histories of the American frontier that are as remarkable
today as when they were published. One of the volumes - Across the
Wide Missouri - earned him a Pulitzer Prize in
With the three volumes, DeVoto "brought
off something monumental, massive, grandly conceived and
beautifully controlled," Stegner wrote. "In every way, they were
the climax of Benny DeVoto's career."
writing one of the histories in 1949 - The Course of Empire -
DeVoto was also pursuing another passion: the defense of civil
liberties. And that is how he tangled with the
It started with a single Easy Chair essay.
But what an essay - Stegner called it "perhaps the most famous of
all." Titled "Due Notice to the FBI," it was a stinging attack on
the government spying, Red-baiting, blacklisting and Communist
witch hunts that swept across America after World War
DeVoto, then living in Cambridge, Mass., had
been interviewed by the FBI himself about someone who is not
identified in the files. Many of his colleagues had also been
"How many are
having their reading, their recreation, their personal associations
secretly investigated?" DeVoto wrote in the column. "I say it has
gone too far. We are dividing into the hunted and the hunters."
Near the end of the essay, he drew a line in
the FBI ... have questioned me, in the past, about a number of
people and I have answered their questions. That's over. From now
on any representative of the government, properly identified, can
count on a drink and perhaps informed talk about the Red (but
non-Communist) Sox at my house. But if he wants information from me
about anyone whatsoever, no
"I like a country where
it's nobody's damn business what magazines anyone reads, what he
thinks, whom he has cocktails with. I like a country where we do
not have to stuff the chimney against listening ears and where what
we say does not go into the FBI files along with a note from S-17
that I may have another wife in California."
The FBI was mortified. Hoover launched a public counterattack,
denouncing DeVoto in newspaper articles across the country. He
wrote an angry letter to the editor of Harper's, which the magazine
Privately, Hoover responded the way
he always did with critics - by investigating them. A few minor
items already lay in DeVoto's file. But his Harper's column worked
like fertilizer: It made his file grow and grow.
All sorts of things ended up in the file - a newspaper clipping
from Fresno, an agent's report in Boston, handwritten notes from
Hoover, letters from DeVoto's enemies and internal FBI memos filled
with vague suggestions of pro-Communist sentiments. DeVoto, the
agency observed, "had among his collection of books a copy of Das
Kapital, which he prized very highly." One of his friends was
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. - now a well known historian - whose "father
... has been associated with several Communist front groups in the
past." DeVoto once attended a reception "sponsored by ... a
But the FBI
didn't limit itself to political matters. DeVoto "is the son of a
fallen away priest of the Roman Catholic Church (and) is himself a
fallen away Catholic," one memo noted. Another document surveyed
DeVoto's educational history and came up with this nugget: At the
University of Utah in 1915, DeVoto "quickly established himself as
an intellectual revolutionary."
enemies cheered. "More power to you in your attack on De Veto
(sic)," wrote Wyoming rancher J. Elmer Brock in a letter to Hoover.
"As far as the sentiments of the stockmen in the West, we would
like to see Bernard hanging from a cottonwood limb rather than
reclining in his "easy chair." "
trickled in from Fresno - a column in an Armenian newspaper called
Asbarez. The columnist, James Mandalian, wrote that DeVoto and
other professors "would be the first to lose their heads if, God
forbid, this country should have the misfortune of falling into the
clutches of the Communists."
re-ceived gracious replies. "I did want to write and thank you for
your support," Hoover wrote to Mandalian. "Your penetratingly
truthful remarks most certainly have placed the falsifications of
Bernard DeVoto in perspective."
The FBI was
even suspicious of DeVoto's appearance. The agent who interviewed
DeVoto in July 1948 made the following observation in a report:
"DeVoto greeted (me) at the door and I can clearly recall that he
was unshaven, wearing a loose and somewhat soiled sport shirt and a
pair of baggy summer slacks of dark hue."
DeVoto's article also earned him - and Harper's - special infamy
within the FBI. The writer and the magazine were placed on the
bureau's "Do Not Contact" list. "Listees - whether individual
reporters or entire newspapers, magazines or radio networks - were
denied FBI cooperation in the researching and verification of news
stories," says Curt Gentry in his biography of Hoover. "This also
meant, of course, that they were denied tips on forthcoming arrests
and the like."
The FBI didn't stop there. Memos
went out to 52 FBI field offices from Anchorage to Puerto Rico -
warning agents about DeVoto's allegations and advising: "This
article reflects the necessity of constantly being on the alert."
Few stones were unturned, few "facts'
overlooked. When Hoover heard that another government agency - the
Office of Naval Intelligence - had a file on DeVoto, he was
excited. "Let us get what ONI has on DeVoto," he scribbled on one
When Harper's published five letters
about DeVoto's column in December 1949, the FBI had more fodder for
its files. Three letter-writers were pro-DeVoto. Each was
DeVoto died of a heart attack in
1955. Earlier this year, his son Mark, a professor of music at
Tufts University in Massachusetts, was shown a copy of his father's
"It just staggers
the imagination they spent all this time writing these reports," he
said. "How could they get into a dither over this stuff? Hoover was
The allegations of
leftist sympathies produced little surprise. After all, said Mark
DeVoto, his father was a frequent target of right-wing Red-baiters,
including Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin. The charges never
"My father stated
repeatedly that he thought there was far greater danger to the U.S.
in the suppression of free political thought than there was in any
school of political thought," Mark DeVoto said.
But what about that prized copy of Das
Mark DeVoto. "Pappy would have said those writings of Marx are
impossible to read because they're so dull."
hindsight, it all seems a little silly. DeVoto was no closet
Communist. He served in the Army in World War I - as a musketry
instructor. From 1948 to 1954, he was a member of the Secretary of
Interior's Advisory Board for National Parks, Historical Sites and
Monuments. When other writers drifted to the left in the 1930s,
DeVoto stayed put.
neither a fascist or a Communist, but something perhaps even more
disliked by the Inquisition - a bona fide liberal, a small-d
Democrat who truly believed in the Bill of Rights even when it
protected and was abused by his antagonists," Stegner wrote in
DeVoto's biography, The Uneasy Chair.
transgression wasn't politics. It was something more simple - and,
to the publicity-hungry Hoover, more serious. He publicly ridiculed
Just what - if anything - the agency
did with DeVoto's file is unclear because of all the black ink. Was
there a smear campaign? Were "facts' leaked to a hostile
congressman? We don't know. Mark DeVoto said his father seemed to
suffer no ill effects from the incident - or the
In fact, he rather seemed to
enjoy it. To one friend, DeVoto wrote: "I am glad you liked my
piece and I will destroy your letter lest the Gestapo find it when
they come to ship me to Indiana." And to another, he said: "Sure, I
expect to be roused at 2:00 a.m. and marched to the salt mines."
Forty-five years later, the FBI's censorship of
DeVoto's file seems out of whack. At the Justice Department - the
FBI's parent agency - Attorney General Janet Reno has called for
more openness in government. Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary
recently stirred national news by releasing long-secret files about
radiation tests and other matters.
But at the
FBI, old secrets have long lives.
century ago, a librarian at Stanford University - where DeVoto's
papers are housed - wrote to the Justice Department asking for the
release of DeVoto's FBI file. The FBI said no. "Regulations ...
require that data in FBI files not be disclosed for other than
official purposes," one document says. n
Tom Knudson is a Pulitzer-Prize winning
reporter in Truckee, California, who covers environmental issues
for the Sacramento Bee.