Vardis Fisher:

The Real Idaho Writer, Mountain Man

Movie Poster: Jeremiah Johnson Brigham Young, a film derived from Vardis Fisher's Children of God

Idaho writer Vardis Fisher is remembered, if at all, for his novel Mountain Man, which was the inspiration for the superb Sydney Pollack film Jeremiah Johnson, starring Robert Redford. Fisher's novel romanticized the folklore surrounding John "Liver-eatin'" Johnston and created a lyrical but gritty picture of the life of the Free Trappers of the fur trade era. The book was his love song to the West that nurtured him and was his lifetime home.

Fisher was a child of the frontier, born 1895 in Idaho, son of a Mormon bishop and a member of a Mormon splinter sect. He grew up in virtual isolation, on the Snake River bottoms, where he spent most of his childhood. He escaped this rural poverty to secure a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and began a Quixotic career as the champion of self-knowledge and Reason. At a time when Hemingway was identified as "the Idaho writer" because he had a cabin in Sun Valley, this authentic, cranky, and powerful voice of the region was writing a few hundred miles away, in his Hagerman hermitage on the Malad River. (For a complete brief bio, see my entry on Fisher in the Utah History Encyclopedia.)

He began his career as a Naturalist, writing well-received semi-autobiographical fiction that critics compared favorably to the work of Erskine Caldwell, James T. Farrell, and Thomas Wolfe. Then in 1939 he won the Harper Prize for his historical novel on Brigham Young and the Mormons, Children of God, a book alternately praised and vilified by Latter-Day Saints. The remaining thirty years of his career were devoted to Western Americana and to an ambitious project called The Testament of Man, a series of twelve historical novels set in periods from the Pleistocene to the modern era and tracing the "psychohistory" of Western mankind.

Vardis Fisher, from the jacket of Rediscovering Vardis Fisher, Centennial Essays, ed. Joseph M. Flora

He was by no means a great writer or even, I'm afraid, a great thinker. I encountered his work in high school, at a time when I needed an intellectual mentor, and his fierce, scathing honesty about his own character, his relentless pursuit of historical truth, his strangely bipolar voice (alternately that of a preaching mystic and sneering sceptic), and his lyrical naturalism were precisely what I needed. I studied my character in his pages, everything from the fiction to his strange book on the writer's craft, God or Caesar? And when, as a precocious teenager, I wrote a fan letter, shyly asking if we could correspond, his response ("Stop looking for fathers.") was predictable and appropriate. My affection for his work is that of a child for his admirable parent. I love him in spite of his flaws; I respect the strength and integrity of his mind; and I make no more apologies.

Unfortunately, very little is in print regarding Fisher, either of his own books or books about him. The list below is selective and subjective rather than complete.

Dancing Badger

Many of his best books were printed in multiple paperback editions, and they often turn up in used bookstores. If you are looking for a particular title and cannot find it locally, I recommend Powells Bookstore in Portland. Powell's is one of the great bookstores of America, and deserves your trade. They almost always have a few Fisher titles on hand, from old trade paperbacks of Mountain Man to the occasional gem like a Dark Bridwell first edition.

Note: Highlighted book titles are linked to Amazon.com and can be purchased. The "open book" icon [Not this one...] is a link to a review of the neighboring title.

Fisher's Writing

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Western Americana

   Children of God

Fisher won the Harper Prize for Fiction in 1939 for his historical novel that traces the beginnings of Mormonism from New England to 1890. Mormon historian Leonard Arrington praises the book highly, but it has generally been criticized by Mormons for being irreverent and by non-Mormons for being too sympathetic. As you might expect, the reason is that Fisher's view is so balanced and unbiased that it irritates everybody. There is no more painless way to gain a thorough understanding of the meaning of the Mormon experience. Fisher's picture of Brigham Young is especially sharp. It's almost certainly a primary source for Henry Hathaway's peculiar Mormon film, Brigham Young, Frontiersman. Hardcover copies of the Opal Laurel Holmes/University of Idaho reprint are fairly easy to locate. Try Powells. Here is a link to my own essay on Children of God: "Vardis Fisher's Objective Epic."

   The Mothers

The Mothers, by Vardis Fisher [First Ed.]

This is Fisher's best Western novel, the story of the Donner Party. Highly recommended. Fisher finds the perfect mix of heroism and horror in his telling of this nightmarish incident of the Oregon Trail era. Bernard de Voto included the Donners in his The Year of Decision, an extremely readable history of the American West focused on the five years immediately after the Mexican War (1846-1850), and California novelist George R. Stewart wrote a historical account of the Donner Party, Ordeal by Hunger. Of all the Donner literature, Fisher is the place to begin. (My essay about The Mothers, "Survival of the Blood," is posted.)

   Tale of Valor

Fisher's novel on the Lewis and Clark expedition was extraordinarily controversial for its time because it focused on the grimy, bloody, Naturalistic reality of the trip rather than the high-minded aspirations and mythology. While its authenticity is unquestionable, the racist attitudes toward the Indians will be offensive to many readers. Fisher's ambiguous relationship with the Indian peoples is the subject of my contribution to a collection of essays on Fisher from the University of Idaho (Rediscovering Vardis Fisher: Centennial Essays, edited by Joseph M. Flora). Available in a hard-to-find reprint edition, today Tale of Valor offers an interesting contrast with Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage and Bernard de Voto's The Course of Empire. Note: If you are interested in the Lewis & CLark Expedition, you might also want to see Fisher's book on the death of Lewis which is, of all things, currently in print: Suicide or Murder?: The Strange Death of Governor Meriwether Lewis. Ambrose cites Fisher's scholarship in his own book, but disagrees with some of Fisher's conclusions.

   Pemmican

Fisher's novel on the fur trade that anticipates many of the themes in Mountain Man. Set in northern Canada during the early years of the Hudson's Bay Company, it tells the story of a young Scots trapper and his love of a white girl raised as an Indian. It is essentially a good yarn rather than an powerful novel.

   City of Illusion

Set in Virginia City, Nevada, during the mining rushes, the story of the Comstock Lode. Not a typical Fisher book, and far less engaging than a half dozen others, but it mysteriously gets reprinted in paperback fairly regularly. Similarly, his huge book on the mining industry, Gold Rushes and Mining Camps of the Early American West, comes in and out of print regularly. (It is currently available at Amazon.com.)

   Mountain Man

Fisher's hymn to the rugged individualist,Mountain Man, is much beloved of the Rendezvous crowd (a sort of SCA for the West). This is certainly his best-known, if not his best novel. I find it likeable and readable, but not the best introduction to the topic and very oddly Romantic for a writer who seemed to specialize in reducing the Romantic notion to its sweat-soaked reality. Although Mountain Man is a grim and violent story by the standards of its publication time, compared to the new 'realism' of writers like Larry McMurtry and the eyeball-sucker school of post-modern fiction, the violence seems less extreme. For example, Fisher backs away from the alleged cannibalism in the historical record. Fisher's Sam Minard (who would become Redford's Jeremiah Johnson) is based on elements of the story of John "Liver-Eatin'" Johnston. Sam takes trophies from his Indian fights (ears), but he doesn't eat the losers' livers raw. Nor does he, as Johnston claimed to have done, cut off the leg of a Blackfeet captor for food on a cross-Wyoming trek.

Far more memorable in the novel than the violence is the lyrical mysticism/delusion of Kate Morgan, the "crazy woman" dug in by her children's graves. For a rationalist, Fisher had enormous empathy with the mystic mind. His pictures of Kate communing with her dead children are so of the most touching moments in all his fiction. The novel is the record of Fisher's own love affair with his home country, and one last sonnet for his "imaginary Madonna," Leona McMurtrey. Mountain Man was the inspiration for Robert Redford and Sydney Pollack's excellent western, Jeremiah Johnson. They credit the "historical" account of Johnston's life as a source, but that is more a matter of copyrights than debts. Possibly John Milius' original script ddrew more on Raymond Thorp's Crow Killer. Edward Anhalt revised the script extensively, and he says that one thing he took out was the cannibalism. It's hard to imagine Redford and Pollack's essential humanism yoked with Milius' testosterone-laden machismo. I think of Anhalt (author of such screenplays as Becket, Hour of the Gun, The Young Lions, and The Man in the Glass Booth) as the influence that saved this film, and Jeremiah Johnson as one of the best Westerns ever made.

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Personal Fiction

Fisher spent his childhood on a homestead in Swan Valley, now on the inaccessible northern edge of Palisades Reservoir. He went to school in Rigby, Annis, and Driggs, and left the region to attend school at the University of Utah and then the University of Chicago. He married his childhood sweetheart, Leona McMurtrey, and after a few tempestuous years she committed suicide. He subsequently married twice more, and he began his writing career after her death, a personal tragedy that may well have been the single most powerful influence on his work. To grasp the scale of Fisher's lifetime of spiritual struggle, consider that having written with horror and loathing of the nightmare isolation of his childhood, he chose, when the Harper Prize gave him some financial independence in 1939, to settle for the next thirty years in the isolated Malad River Valley, recreating the exact environment where he grew up and suffered.

Vridar Hunter

Fisher's autobiographical fiction, The Vridar Hunter Tetralogy, was published in the 1930's as a series of four books: In Tragic Life, Passions Spin the Plot, No Villain Need Be, and We Are Betrayed. In the early 1960's, he revised these books and brought them up to date as a single volume called Orphans in Gethsemane (which, to complicate things further, Pyramid Publications then reprinted as two paperback volumes called For Passion, For Heaven and The Great Confession.) Of the printings, revisions, and reprintings of the narrative, the one volume worth reading is In Tragic Life, which depicts childhood in the American wilderness as something rather different from A Little House on the Prairie.

Dark Bridwell

In addition to these books, he published two notable novels set during his lifetime in the Idaho wilderness. Dark Bridwell I consider Fisher's best novel (followed closely by The Mothers and In Tragic Life). It covers the same time and setting as In Tragic Life, but it is about the family that lived across the river from the 'Hunters'. You can often find used copies of a mass market paperback with the title The Wild Ones. This is Dark Bridwell; there is only one, fairly trivial difference from the original book aside from the title change. The original has a rather lyrical prologue which was left out of the mass market edition. The other oft-reprinted Fisher novel set in twentieth-century Idaho is Toilers of the Hills, a novel about farming in the Driggs area, based on the life of one of Fisher's uncles.

For Dark Bridwell (aka The Wild Ones, try Powells Bookstore.

The Testament of Man

In the late forties, Fisher began a series of 12 books with which he was able, eventually, to offend everybody. The series began with a novel about Neanderthal man (Darkness and the Deep) comparable to William Golding's The Inheritors, followed by a novel on the rise of the Cro-Magnon homo sapiens (The Golden Rooms), in which Fisher dramatizes the "holy war" that John Darnton takes as the historical basis for his recent novel, Neanderthal. Two more novels are set in prehistoric Stone Age cultures (Intimations of Eve and Adam and the Serpent), then a novel each in roughly the historical period of Abraham (The Divine Passion), Solomon (The Valley of Vision), and the Maccabees (The Island of the Innocent). The next two novels (Jesus Came Again and A Goat for Azazel) are set in the era of the New Testament, prior to the writing of the Gospels. They are followed by one for the Council of Nicea and the Desert Fathers (Peace Like a River, in paperback The Passion Within). The last "historical" novel (My Holy Satan is set in the Middle Ages contemporary with St. Francis, and then the series leaps forward, rather abruptly, to the revision of Fisher's autobiographical tetralogy, brought up to date for the 1960's, as Orphans in Gethsemane.

The idea was to trace the neuroses of modern humankind back to their biological beginnings and to the key psycho/social moments of our cultural history. It was an ambitious project flawed by some discredited theories about anthropology. With that agenda, the closer you get to the present, the less there is to write about, hence the jump for 300 CE to the 20th Century. There is a terrible personal truth in the fact that this devotee of "Reason" skipped, in his gigantic exposition of the history of our emotional development as a culture, all of our history from the beginnings of the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution and the closing of the frontier. Looking back on the books, one wishes he had had the foresight to write about the Age of Reason, that period of over-reaching intellectual optimism.

Dance of the Tiger

The best books in The Testament of Man, in terms of readability and sustained interest, are Darkness and the Deep, which handles the Neanderthal/Cro Magnon theme as effectively as William Golding's The Inheritors and Bjorn Kurten's Dance of the Tiger, and the book that speculates on the historical basis for the life of Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus Came Again. The Desert Fathers book (variously reprinted as Peace Like a River and The Passion Within) has a wiry, ferocious strength about it, and the others will appeal if you are interested in the period they cover.

I recently re-read Darkness and the Deep and The Island of the Innocent, and both books held up as fiction, although Fisher's research is sadly dated. An interesting subject for serious study would be the relationship between Fisher's Western Americana and his anthropological researches for the Testament. For example, there is no question that Fisher's depiction of the Donner Party was greatly influenced by the research into the roots of the human species, and his very limited understanding of American Indians was profoundly colored by anthropological theory not merely dated but discredited.

I have made some detailed comments on a few of the books in my essay on Fisher's "Mormon Heritage."

Biography and Scholarship

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Tim Woodward, Tiger in the Road, Caxton Press

Caxton Printers in Idaho was one of Fisher's great advocates during some turbulent years of publishing. Thirty years after Fisher's death, they published an excellent biography of Fisher by Boise newspaper columnist Tim Woodward. The book has remained in print in hardcover and paperback, suggesting that Fisher is not a dead issue in American letters.

Woodward relies a too heavily on Fisher's "autobiographical fiction"' sometimes, which is an extremely dangerous practice. Fiction, after all, is "made up," whatever the factual basis, and an author making up a story in which he is the protagonist is hardly an unbiased reporter. As Woodward himself points out after learning the biographical facts about Fisher's first wife, Leona McMurtrey, Fisher's Vridar Hunter novels are not merely fiction built on biography, but also biography filtered by ego. Even though Woodward sometimes falls into the very trap he warns about, on the whole his picture of Fisher's life is accurate and complete.

Joseph Flora, Vardis Fisher, Twayne Series

The Twayne Series often provides the only scholarly treatment of obscure American writers. Professor Flora's is an excellent discussion of Fisher's life and work, marred only by the fact that it was originally published more than thirty years ago, while Fisher was still alive, and it is therefore a bit dated and biographically thin.

Rediscovering Vardis Fisher: Centennial Essays, Joseph Flora, ed. University of Idaho Press

The University of Idaho Press flirts now and then with adopting Fisher as one of their own, and this collection of essays on his work is the fruit of an "on" time. It is an excellent starting point for anyone wanting to study Fisher's life and work. Idaho, meanwhile, has gone back to fawning over Papa Ernie, who became an official Idaho writer when he re-decorated his cabin in Sun Valley. Having spent the better part of thirty years trying to convince various Idaho powers that be, including the University of Idaho Press, to reprint Fisher's best novel, Dark Bridwell, my cynicism merely simmers. Fisher is not a great American author, but when other writers of merely historical interest, such as Thomas Hornsby Ferrill, John Neihardt, and George Stewart are accorded reprint, Fisher is unjustly ignored. Many of his novels are deservedly forgotten, but at least two, Dark Bridwell and The Mothers, should be available to readers of regional literature.

Wayne Chatterton, Vardis Fisher, Boise State Western Writers Series

The now-defunct Boise State Western Writers Series, like the Twayne books, often are the first or only recourse for the student researcher on a lesser-known literary figure. They vary in value, though not in quality. Wayne Chatterton's 50-page pamphlet on Fisher's frontier and regional works offers an excellent overview of Fisher's Idaho fiction by someone who knew him. It is likely to turn up in used book stores in the western states.

Other Reading: The Fur Trade

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Fiction

 Frederick Manfred, Lord Grizzly

This remains, fifty years after its publication, the best novel about the mountain men. It is one volume of a great series of six novels, The Buckskin Man Tales, which traces some themes from pre-white days to the end of the frontier. This one is the story of Hugh Glass, a hunter with the Ashley Expedition which opened the West to the American Fur Trade in 1823. Glass was mauled by a grizzly and left for dead. He came to, splinted his broken leg, and with wounds most of us would have died from he crawled two hundred miles back to the trading post Ashley had launched the expedition from. A few months later, healed and healthy, he set out for the Upper Yellowstone to deal with the men who left him. The truth is spectacular. Manfred turns it into a myth of comradeship and selfishness. The story has been retold a number of times, most recently in the film Man in the Wilderness and the novel, The Revenant. Neither tells the story as well, of with such thematic resonance. [I have posted my own essays on the Buckskin Man Tales; they are listed on the "Literary Essays" page.]

  A. B. Guthrie. The Big Sky

A> B. Guthrie's classic mountain man novel is set in the 1840s. It was made into a film by Howard Hawks. Guthrie "got there first" in a sense, a decade before Manfred and three before Fisher's Mountain Man, and the reputation of this book rests in large part on that fact. It is well-written but essentially reportorial.

  Don Berry, Traskand Moontrap

Don Berry is a Portland writer known and respected by people who are knowledgeable about the fur trade. These two novels are highly regarded by historians and literary scholars. I haven't read them. Berry also wrote a history of the fur trade called A Majority of Scoundrels.

  Harvey Fergusson, Wolf Song

Long out of print, this is a good novel on the Taos traders by a New Mexico writer. It was made into a Gary Cooper movie longer ago than I can remember. This book actually predates Guthrie's The Big Sky, and I much prefer it.

  Winfred Blevins, Charbonneau

Blevin's fictional biography of Pompey, the boy born to Sacajawea during the Lewis and Clark expedition is a very modern, somewhat New Age take, on the wilderness experience. Blevins is also the author of a popular history of the fur trade, Give Your Heart to the Hawks.

  Bill Hotchkiss, Medicine Calf

The best part of a very odd four-volume novel about the life of black mountain man Jim Beckwourth. Beckwourth's is one of the great stories of the fur trade era. There were a number of black trappers, some of them, like Beckwourth, unacknowledged children of Southern planters. Beckwourth didn't "know his place," and as a result he got a reputation as a liar and a braggart. It turned out, when historians examined the facts, that there was a lot less lying than appeared. Beckwourth lived for a while among the Crow in Wyoming, then he became a storekeeper in Denver. He was the scout for the Colorado Volunteers who massacred Black Kettle's village at Sand Creek. After returning to Denver, he disappeared into Crow country and was never seen again.

Nonfiction

  Don Berry. A Majority of Scoundrels

As mentioned, Don Berry has written a good popular history of the fur trade, in addition to his excellent Mountain Man novels. Highly recommended; more fact-focused than Blevin's Give Your Heart to the Hawks, and more readable than an academic history.

  Robert Utley, A Life Wild and Perilous

Biographies of mountain men by one of the great historians of the American West.

  Bernard de Voto. Across the Wide Missouri

An exceptionally fine book on the American Fur Trade. De Voto weaves together the Ashley expedition, which established the U.S. presence in the Rockies, and the visit of Scottish lord William Drummond Stewart, patron of painter Alfred Jacob Miller, to the Green River Rendezvous of 1824.

  Hiram Chittenden. The American Fur Trade of the Far West

This two-volume history originally published in the nineteenth century remains a basic book on the topic.

  Mari Sandoz. The Beaver Men

Popular history of the trappers by a Nebraska writer.

  Le Roy Hafen. Fur Traders, Trappers, and Mountain Men of the Upper Missouri

A multi-volume biographical dictionary of fur trade. The University of Nebraska has reprinted a selected single volume edition.

  James Maguire, ed.. A Rendezvous Reader: Tall, Tangled, And, True Tales of the Mountain Men, 1805-1850

Folklore and tales from the fur trade era. Edited by BSU Professor Jim Maguire, an authority on the fur trade literature, and Arizona poet Peter Wild.

In addition, there are numerous book-length biographies of various mountain men, notably Jim Beckwourth, Jedediah Smith, Joe Meek, Jim Bridger, Bill Williams, and Tom Fitzpatrick.


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