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Bill Thayer

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The Year of Decision: 1846
by
Bernard DeVoto

The Book and the Author

This is both a very good book and a very bad book.

First — let's let the book jacket speak (and provide us a photo of the author, from a newspaper it would seem):


[image ALT: A photographic portrait of an American naval officer, captioned in detail in the text on this webpage.]
Bernard DeVoto was born in Ogden, Utah. He attended the University of Utah for one year and then, in 1915, went to Harvard. He served two years as an infantry officer, between his junior and senior years, taking his degree in 1920. He taught English at Northwestern from 1922 to 1927 and at Harvard from 1929 to 1936. His first book, a novel, was published in 1924. It has been followed by three other novels, three books about Mark Twain, and two collections of essays. He has written many short stories, serials, literary essays, historical articles and editorials for the magazines. He edited the Saturday Review, 1936‑1938, and has written the Easy Chair for Harper's since 1935. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

All Mr. DeVoto's work, whether fiction, history, or literary criticism, has explored the realities of American culture. He has been a persistent, brilliant opponent of the school of American thought, dominant during the 1920's, which repudiated American life and American literature as barren and vulgar, without color or worth, a wasteland of unimaginative materialism fatal alike to individuality, talent, and hope. His Mark Twain's America is a study of nineteenth century American life centered on a great literary figure who richly embodied a rich American tradition but who had curiously been depicted as an impotent victim of puritanism and materialism. Though furiously attacked when it was published, it has made its way to universal acceptance. It was one of the earliest landmarks in the re-examination of our culture which in recent years has overturned the debunking and defeatism of the 1920's. Both its content and its methods have been widely influential.

Mr. DeVoto calls himself a social historian, and The Year of Decision: 1846 is history on the broadest possible base, calling at need on economics, politics, technology, biography, literature, military science, music. Most of all, it utilizes a native Westerner's lifelong study of the West to appraise the importance of that section in the history of the nation as a whole. It has a literary historian's understanding of the breadth and diversity of our culture. It has a novelist's ability to impart life to its characters. Finally, it is history written by a brilliant stylist, history written as literature, a kind of history which only a few Americans (foremost among them Francis Parkman, who is a character in the book) have tried to write. It is the mature expression of a versatile talent, a permanent addition to American letters.

So much for what the publishers chose to highlight. A considerable amount of additional, more general, and frankly better information can be found on Mark DeVoto's site: photographs, an assortment of his father's writings and private correspondence. Returning strictly to the book before us here, my own take follows:

DeVoto has done superlative research — to the extent that I can judge as a mere layman —, conveys an excellent atmospheric sense of conditions on the trails to Oregon and California, including his harrowing description of the Donner disaster, and has pulled together the apparently disparate strands of American history with eye-opening perceptiveness. Finally, he does not shy away from his strong opinions: negative on Taylor, Frémont, and the Mormon religion, and admiring of Kearny and Scott but also, fair-mindedly, of Santa Anna: the reader knows where the author stands. To gain a good understanding of the westward expansion of the United States, American politics leading up to the War Between the States, and the Mexican War, this is one of the books that should be read; and I'm glad to have spent a month of my life transcribing this valuable resource.

DeVoto's style, however, is atrocious and makes that reading often very unpleasant, and occasionally incomprehensible. He is arch (and intrusively so especially in his commentary on Washington politics); mannered, precious, wilfully arcane; and yet also occasionally liable to, like I'm doing here with a similar grating effect, barbarously split his infinitives. All this by way of saying that he exhales a constant air of watching very carefully how brilliantly he writes — while failing at it: the result is nasty. Add his approach to organizing his multiple stories by jumping back and forth between them, and you have hard reading ahead of you.

DeVoto also seems to have picked out the more striking and incident-laden prairie crossings. But while at that time the endeavor was always dangerous, crossings frequently were easier and more straightforward, especially on the earlier established and better-traveled Santa Fé trail. A good corrective then to DeVoto's drama-charged account is Adventures in the Santa Fé Trade, 1844‑1847, a first‑hand telling by cloth merchant James Josiah Webb of several trips to Santa Fé, including traveling deep into Mexico during the Mexican War: incidents there are, Indian attacks or threats and the venal extortions of Mexican authorities, but very little sign of unusual terrain or weather difficulties or of internal frictions in the wagon trains, and otherwise much more nearly routine than the impression we would gather from the book before you here.

In 1948, Bernard DeVoto won the Pulitzer Prize — for a different book: Across the Wide Missouri. I hope it was better written; but I'm not about to immerse myself in it to find out.

(p. v) Dedication

Dear Kate:

While I was writing this book you sometimes asked me what it was about. Reading it now, you will see that, though it is about a good many things, one theme that recurs is the basic courage and honor in the face of adversity which we call gallantry. It is always good to remember human gallantry, and it is especially good in times like the present. So I want to dedicate a book about the American past written in a time of national danger to a very gallant woman,

to

Katharine Grant Sterne

Yours,

Benny

(p. xix) Invocation

When I go out of the house for a walk, uncertain as yet whither I will bend my steps, and submit myself to my instinct to decide for me, I find, strange and whimsical as it may seem, that I finally and inevitably settle southwest, toward some particular wood or meadow or deserted pasture or hill in that direction. My needle is slow to settle — varies a few degrees and does not always point due southwest, it is true, and it has good authority for this variation, but it always settles between west and south-southwest. The future lies that way to me, and the earth seems more unexhausted and richer on that side. The outline which would bound my walks would be, not a circle, but a parabola, or rather like one of those cometary orbits which have been thought to be non-returning curves, in this case opening westward, in which my house occupies the place of the sun. I turn round and round irresolute sometimes for a quarter of an hour, until I decide, for the thousandth time, that I will walk into the southwest or west. Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free. Thither no business leads me. It is hard for me to believe that I shall find fair landscapes or sufficient wilderness and freedom behind the eastern horizon. I am not excited by the prospect of a walk thither; but I believe that the forest which I see in the western horizon stretches uninterruptedly toward the everything sun, and there are no towns nor cities in it of enough consequence to disturb me. Let me live where I will, on this side is the city, on that the wilderness, and ever I am leaving the city more and more and withdrawing into the wilderness. I should not lay so much stress on this fact if I did not believe that something like this is the prevailing tendency of my countrymen. I must walk toward Oregon, not toward Europe.

Henry Thoreau

Acknowledgments ix
Preface xi
Calendar for the Years 1846‑1847 xiii
Invocation xix
Chapter

Build Thee More Stately Mansions

3

The Mountain Man

49

Pillar of Cloud

67

Equinox

99

Spring Freshet

113

Interlude: Doo-Dah Day

133

Oh Susanna!

137

"Cain, Where Are Thy Brothers?"

183

Interlude: World of Tomorrow

211

Solstice

218

The Image on the Sun

243

Sonorous Metal

272

Continental Divide

293

Interlude: Friday, October 16

328

Atomization

330

Trail's End

348

Anabasis in Homespun

376

Down from the Sierra

408

Whether It Be Fat or Lean: Canaan

431

Bill of Review — Dismissed

455
Notes[in this Web transcription, I've folded the endnotes in with each chapter] 485
Statement on Bibliography 509
[decorative delimiter]

Technical Details

Edition Used

Transcribed here is my own hard copy, in what may well have been the only edition, Little, Brown and Company, Chicago, 1943. The 1943 copyright was not renewed in 1970 or 1971 as then required by law in order to be maintained. The work thus rose into the public domain on January 1, 1972: details here on the copyright law involved.

Pagination and Local Links

For citation and indexing purposes, the pagination is shown in the right margin of the text at the page turns (like at the end of this line); p57  these are also local anchors. Sticklers for total accuracy will of course find the anchor at its exact place in the sourcecode.

In addition, I've inserted a number of other local anchors: whatever links might be required to accommodate the author's own cross-references, as well as a few others for my own purposes. If in turn you have a website and would like to target a link to some specific passage of the text, please let me know: I'll be glad to insert a local anchor there as well.

Maps

The book includes five black-and‑white maps in the text, which I've colorized for readability; no index is provided, but here's mine:

Free and Slave States in 1846 18
Westward Migration — 1846 51
The Oregon and California Trails 150
The Mexican Campaigns 189
Route Taken by the Donner Party 340

In addition, a sort of summary map is found in identical copies on each of the endpapers:

[image ALT: A map of the United States in 1846, showing the Mississippi River, and west of it the Missouri, the Platte, the Arkansas, the Rio Grande, the Gila, the Colorado, the Humboldt, the Snake, and the Columbia; and the paths taken by the Oregon Trail, the California Trail from Fort Hall, the Hastings Cutoff, the Applegate Road, the road taken by the Mormons from Nauvoo, the Santa Fe Trail, the route of the Mormon Battalion, and Doniphan's March.]

[A much larger version, fully readable, opens here (1.1 MB).]

Proofreading

As almost always, I retyped the text by hand rather than scanning it — not only to minimize errors prior to proofreading, but as an opportunity for me to become intimately familiar with the work, an exercise which I heartily recommend: Qui scribit, bis legit. (Well-meaning attempts to get me to scan text, if success­ful, would merely turn me into some kind of machine: gambit declined.)

My transcription has been minutely proofread. In the table of contents above, the sections are shown on blue backgrounds, indicating that I believe the text of them to be completely errorfree. As elsewhere onsite, the header bar at the top of each chapter's webpage will remind you with the same color scheme.

The printed book was very well proofread. The dozen typographical errors I found were all trivial, and are marked merely with a dotted underscore like this: as elsewhere on my site, glide your cursor over the bullet or the underscored words to read the variant. Similarly, bullets before measurements provide conversions to metric, e.g., 10 miles.

A number of odd spellings, curious turns of phrase, etc. have been marked <!‑‑ sic  in the sourcecode, just to confirm that they were checked.

Any other mistakes, please drop me a line, of course: especially if you have a copy of the printed book in front of you.



[image ALT: The words 'The Year of Decision 1846' in a scalloped vaguely sweetheart-shaped cartouche surmounted by the American eagle with shield, arrows and olive branch, and flanked by a backwoodsman on the viewer's left, with musket, knife, and powder horn; and an American soldier in 19c dress uniform, with musket, standing in front of a small cannon and a pile of cannonballs. The image serves as the icon for Bernard DeVoto's book by that name.]

The icon I use to indicate this subsite is a crop of the dust jacket.


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Page updated: 2 Jan 22