Sunday, February 19, 2012

DeVoto on 1846

More than once lately I have undergone the depressing experience of rereading a book that enchanted me when I was young only to find I had outgrown it.   But here is buoying counterexample: Bernard DeVoto's Year of Decision: 1846, about the drang nach westen that carried Americans to Texas, to Oregon, to Utah, to California.  It's a superbly told tale with the added fillip that I am perhaps better able to appreciate it now when I was then.

I first read it about 1969, just after I had moved to California from the East.  I was a grownup: you'd think I understood how the world worked by that time. But in fact my experience was limited. I never set foot in California until I came out here for my job interview; I still hadn't set foot in Oregon, or Texas, or Utah.  I don't suppose I fully grasped the bitter urgency of the culture war between Anglos and Hispanics along the Rio Grande, nor the dark engine of slavery behind it.  I can't say that I understood the potent mix of energy, enterprise and sheer desperation that impelled men (mostly) to spill out past the Mississippi--sweeping,inter alia, the Indians into their wake.

And so many extraordinary characters: James Knox Polk, still perhaps an underrated president; Brigham Young, who took the lead of the Mormon migration not a moment before he should have; John C. Frémont, who came way closer than we remember to being president of the United States.  And Stephen Kearny, whom I had pretty much forgotten: perhaps the most competent of them all, yet so little full of himself that we have almost nothing left of him besides a street in San Francisco and a town in Nebraska.

DeVoto's Year is not a perfect book.  DeVoto's prose is vigorous and expressive but he will stretch for an effect and his style is not quite as bang-on as he perhaps hoped it would be.  But his imaginative engagement was his subject is complete.  He understands all their aspirations, their follies and their self-delusions. Through his eyes you can see--even if they, perhaps, did not have the time and reflective capacity to see for themselves--how they are shaping a continent.  Here's DeVoto on on Kearney:

In the vaudeville show of swollen egoism, vanity, treachery, incompetence, rhetoric, stupidity and electioneering which the general officers during the Mexican War displayed to the pensive mind, Kearny stands out as a gentleman, a soldier, a commander, a diplomat, a statesman, and a master of his job, whose only superior was Winfield Scott.  He did the jobs assigned to him.  Since one of them involved reducing John C. Frémont's heroic dislocations, he aroused the enmity of a fiery hater, Thomas Hart Benton, and so has had less than his due from history.But he wrote no letters to the papers and he could even address his superiors in respectful prose.
Less than  his due: perhaps, but a figure in history could hardly have a better friend than Bernard DeVoto.  

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