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Guest op-ed: Community invited to celebrate Ogden author Bernard DeVoto

By Scott Greenwell - Special to the Standard-Examiner | Jan 8, 2022

Photo supplied

This photo circa 1954 shows Bernard DeVoto.

Jan. 11, 2022, marks an important date here in Ogden and in Utah. It’s the 125th anniversary of the birth of Bernard Augustine DeVoto.

Born and raised in Ogden, DeVoto graduated from Ogden High School in 1914, served honorably as a Second Lieutenant during World War I and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard University in 1920. He left Ogden in 1922 at the age of 25 and moved east, first to teach at Northwestern University, and eventually to settle in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to pursue a career in writing. That career spanned just over 30 years, cut short by his untimely death at the age of 58. But over the course of those three decades, DeVoto worked feverishly, earning a reputation as one of America’s most prolific and accomplished writers.

In fact, DeVoto is arguably Utah’s greatest literary figure. None other than adopted Utahn Wallace Stegner called him the state’s “most prominent writer.” Why? For starters, he was the first Utahn to win a Pulitzer Prize (“Across the Wide Missouri,” in 1948). The book also earned him a Bancroft Prize for distinguished writing in American history. He likewise received a coveted National Book Award for “The Course of Empire” (in 1953) which, along with “The Year of Decision: 1846” (1942), forms a sweeping and popular historical trilogy, the contents of which reveal the compelling story of westward-moving Americans — explorers, fur trappers and traders, overland migrants, miners and pioneer settlers.

Add to these prize-winning histories DeVoto’s “Mark Twain’s America” (1932) and his superbly edited “The Journals of Lewis and Clark” (1953), which made the account of that courageous expedition readily available to readers for the first time, and turned the journals into an American classic. In DeVoto’s histories we have an informative body of historical literature about our region, its vast spaces, geographic diversity, aridity and its people. It’s a body of work that would have resulted in a lifetime achievement for any first-rate historian.

However, DeVoto accomplished even more. Much more. In addition to his award-winning histories, he penned 10 novels, four books of literary criticism, four collections of essays, edited over a dozen works, and wrote and published well over 800 articles, essays and short works of fiction, many of which appeared in the nation’s leading magazines and journals. Nearly all of his serious works, including several of his novels, focus on the Intermountain West, and all were deeply influenced by his experiences growing up here, along the Wasatch Front.

Photo supplied

Scott Greenwell

Like every generation of writers and historians, DeVoto had his prejudices, and many of his ideas and historical interpretations have fallen out of favor. Nevertheless, his skill at character development, acquired during his early efforts to become a literary artist, and the broad strokes with which he paints the unique story of America’s westward migration are still relevant and make frontier and Western American history come alive as only DeVoto could.

Over the course of his illustrious writing career, DeVoto also became one of the nation’s most important and influential conservationists, inspiring a whole generation of what we call today environmentalists. And yet, for reasons that are as complicated as the man himself, he became a controversial and enigmatic figure back home — despised in some quarters, largely forgotten in others. How one of the nation’s most important writers and historians could be thus forgotten in his hometown is unfortunate, but hopefully that will change.

A grassroots organization known as the Bernard DeVoto Commemoration Committee was formed a little over two years ago to honor the life and legacy of this distinguished literary native son. The goal of the organization is to help ensure that DeVoto and his legacy are remembered in his hometown of Ogden and in his home state of Utah, that he receives the recognition he deserves for his literary and historical achievements and that he secures a proper place of honor alongside Ogden’s other notables.

To help achieve these goals, the Commemoration Committee has worked alongside other individuals and organizations to plan a series of events throughout 2022 to celebrate the author, and the committee invites others to join the effort.

To kick things off, a series of articles and essays about DeVoto were published in a special “sub-focus” to the fall 2021 issue of Weber State University’s award-winning literary and cultural journal, Weber: The Contemporary West. Next, the mayor and the Ogden City Council passed and adopted a joint proclamation on Tuesday declaring Jan. 11, 2022, “Bernard Augustine DeVoto Day” here in Ogden (Jan. 11 marks the 125th anniversary of his birth).

On Jan. 24, the Commemoration Committee and the Weber Historical Society have teamed up to host a lecture, “Three Portraits and One Subject: Ogden’s Bernard DeVoto.” The lecture will feature three outstanding DeVoto scholars, each of whom will focus on an important aspect of the author’s life and career. The event is part of the Weber Historical Society’s ongoing lecture series and is free to the public.

The January lecture is followed by a community book discussion based on DeVoto’s “The Western Paradox: A Conservation Reader.” That discussion will take place on March 24 at Weber County’s Main Library. Beginning in April, Special Collections at WSU and The Museums at Union Station combine resources to create a special exhibit titled “Conservation and Preservation of Ogden’s Natural Environment.” The exhibit will highlight DeVoto’s influential role in public lands and resource conservation.

Rounding out the celebration, the Trails Foundation of Northern Utah has invited New York journalist Nate Schweber to be their featured speaker at the annual Author Dinner to be held on Sept. 23 at The Monarch. Schweber is the author of a new book, “This America of Ours: Bernard and Avis DeVoto and the Forgotten Fight to Save the Wild,” scheduled for release on July 5.

In the meantime, the Commemoration Committee is hoping to generate community support for several long-term projects, including a documentary film on the life of the man Stegner described as “flawed, brilliant, provocative, outrageous … often wrong, often spectacularly right, always stimulating, sometimes infuriating, and never, never dull.” Along with the film, the committee hopes to set in motion the establishment of a permanent memorial to our most distinguished literary native son somewhere here in Ogden. So, on behalf of the entire committee, I invite readers to join us in this long-overdue celebration of the life and legacy of one of ours, Ogden’s own “Benny” DeVoto.

Scott L. Greenwell is a retired Weber and Davis school district administrator. He also spent the better part of three decades teaching American history as an adjunct at Weber State, and is past president of the WSU Alumni Association. He resides in Ogden with his wife, Deborah, and their rescue dog Rainey and ill-tempered cat Fitzgerald. He welcomes your comments and suggestions at sgreenwell1@mail.weber.edu.

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