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Bernard Augustine De Voto

Bernard DeVoto wrote the Easy Chair column for Harper’s Magazine from 1935 until his death in 1955. He was the fifth to commit to the oldest column in American journalism and the third to die while holding the position, but, according to Lewis H. Lapham, who would assume the Chair several decades on and rename it Notebook, it was DeVoto who “found the clearest expression of its purpose.”

The Easy Chair—“a column always grotesquely misnamed,” Lapham lamented—was born into low expectations. “After our more severe Editorial work is done,” Donald Grant Mitchell wrote in the first Easy Chair, “we have a way of throwing ourselves back into an old red-backed EASY CHAIR, that has long been an ornament of our dingy office, and indulging in an easy, and careless overlook of the gossiping papers of the day.” The column soon looked beyond the gossiping papers of the day, and by the time it was offered to DeVoto, the 2,650-word institution had been the site of attacks on Tammany Hall, Prohibition, and modernity, among other ills. DeVoto continued in the tradition of his prior Chair-holders, launching broadsides against the Third Reich, dust storms, communism, and Western stock growers’ associations. He lauded conservation efforts of public lands and well-blended cocktails, and his essays earned the wrath of J. Edgar Hoover and Senator Joseph McCarthy.

DeVoto was born in 1897 in Ogden, Utah, one of the last strongholds against Brigham Young’s expanding Utah empire. His mother was a nonpracticing Latter-day Saint, his father a Catholic apostate. DeVoto moved East to attend Harvard and spent much of the remainder of his life in Boston and New York. Several returns West were recounted in Easy Chairs and Harper’s articles in the 1940s, and Across the Wide Missouri (1947), the second volume in a trilogy on the West, earned him the Pulitzer Prize for history and the inaugural Bancroft Prize. “I find the indignity singularly easy to bear,” he responded to both.

His last Easy Chair was published posthumously: a brief, italicized note by the magazine’s editors said, “On November 14, the day after he died, this copy came in—on time, as always, as we had known it would.” In December 2010, Lapham’s Notebook was rechristened the Easy Chair, and so it remains to this day.

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August 1955