Vardis Fisher Essay - Critical Essays

Fisher, Vardis (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Fisher, Vardis 1895–1968

Fisher, best known for his Vridar Hunter tetralogy, was an American novelist, poet, essayist, and short story writer. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)

Mr. Fisher has the energies and the admirably steady work habits of a nineteenth-century man of letters, and his output shows the sort of unevenness that commonly accompanies incessant production. One would hate to be set the task of reading every word he has published, but would hate even worse to be without the half-dozen books that show him at his best. (p. 33)

Fisher has a strong desire to be the scholar-artist, but his gift for narrative has not always been compatible with his yen for scholarship. His talent and his subjects are sometimes not congruent.

In an essay written in 1963 Fisher remarks that the Testament of Man series was probably too much for him, the difficulty being that he started on the series so late in life that he simply could not read enough or learn enough. It is unlikely, however, that the Testament would have been much improved if Fisher had started on it the day he was weaned; if the series fails it is not through lack of knowledge or historical insight, not because of any inability to understand history, but because Mr. Fisher could not animate that many periods in fiction. In a few of the Testament novels, particularly in My Holy Satan, he has managed to do so, but in most of the others the ideas are made quite clear while the characters remain vague. (pp. 33-4)

One would venture that he … has been most successful, both as scholar and artist, not in writing about Western Man, but in writing about man in the American West.

The pre-Christian era pricks the scholar in Fisher; the early West pricks the novelist. (p. 34)

Larry McMurtry, "Icy Grief and a Fire of Vengeance," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1965 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), November 6, 1965, pp. 33-4.

Fisher had made a rather propitious beginning as a novelist. His first two novels, though not best sellers, were highly praised; and critics expected a rich new regionalist contribution to American literature. When Fisher started his autobiographical tetralogy, he still seemed in the regionalist tradition, but it was soon evident that the modern Rousseau had other things in mind. The tetralogy [In Tragic Life (1932), Passions Spin the Plot (1934), We Are Betrayed (1935), and No Villain Need Be (1936)] shot Fisher into fame with the litterati, even if they did not always approve him. When Children of God won the Harper prize in 1939, Fisher was, from all indications, in the forefront of American letters. Before he had finished his tetralogy and while he was writing Children of God, Fisher conceived the scheme for a long series of novels which would show the development of man's mind and spirit. While reviewers and the public were praising the Mormon saga, Fisher was trying to talk up his scheme with publishers, with very little success. When the first few books of the new series appeared, a few critics noticed them with interest. However, they received nothing like the attention Fisher got in the depression decade. Even his first two novels received more notice. But midway through the series, Fisher was receiving almost no attention. He had become a historical curiosity; he was dismissed as a writer whose interest belonged essentially to the troubled decade of the 1930's. Indeed, it seemed for a time that The Testament of Man would not even be published. (pp. 7-8)

Alan Swallow suggests that Vardis Fisher has not received his due because he is an intellectual novelist, a novelist in the tradition of Johnson's Rasselas and of Meredith—a tradition concerned primarily with idea and not presently popular. The term "novel of ideas" had little currency before Aldous Huxley's Point Counter Point (1928)…. In fact, Fisher's tetralogy, like Huxley's novel, aspires to the condition of music. The four books follow the pattern of the conventional symphony…. The narrative technique of the tetralogy is more elaborate than the criticism which first labeled Fisher a Naturalist would indicate. The discourses of the last volume are anticipated in the musical structure of the whole, and they are also a logical result of the Naturalistic approach to the material defined in the novels' point of view. (pp. 27-9)

Fisher's tetralogy understandably made him a known writer in the 1930's. But by writing a Bildungsroman in which the reader was not invited to identify with the hero, Fisher assumed great risks, and many critics turned from him in anger as the tetralogy concluded. Most of them admitted, however, that there was great power in much of Vridar's story; and, indeed, the whole has much more artistic integrity than many of the critics were able to see as they read the books volume by volume rather than as a single work. The books were certainly not a staple of Naturalistic fiction. (p. 49)

One of the most monumental fictional projects ever undertaken in America is Vardis Fisher's Testament of Man…. That this series, Fisher's labor of love, met for a time with almost complete neglect is almost surprising—given the general positive response the first volumes received…. The project is, of course, frighteningly ambitious. Fisher aimed at presenting as imaginative experience the evolution of man's "soul" from its first stirrings to the present day—so far as modern scholarship would enable him to trace human strivings and hungers. He realized the immensity of the project, but he thought of his novels as pioneering in a fruitful direction. The novels, Fisher hoped, would help the general reading public to be aware of the causes of its painful heritage, a heritage which Fisher's experience would not let him deny…. Fisher has frequently been called a propagandist, and the Testament, to be frank, is didactic. Fisher has a message, and he does not wish anyone to misunderstand him. He regrets the modern prejudice against authorial intrusions, which he considers to be the cream of many of the great Victorian novels. Some readers will be greatly annoyed at the didactic in Fisher. Anyone reading the Testament straight through may be irritated by repetitions; though some are unnecessary within a work, Fisher rightly repeats the central themes of a previous novel. (pp. 73-4)

Vardis Fisher's fiction has always revealed a strong sympathy for the female view, and Peace Like a River takes as its central narrative thread a defense of the female in a world men have made. It is, consequently, the one novel of the Testament shown almost exclusively from the heroine's point of view…. On the story level, Apollo is [here] as overwhelmingly a villain as Fisher has ever shown; but, rather than serving primarily as a melodramatic device, Apollo symbolizes the neurotic male ego which corrupts womankind. (pp. 93-4)

Since the historian cannot make the past come alive as the novelist can, the historical novelist can most memorably present the real heroes of history, as well as the villains. Fisher's basic rule, however, is that the writer must not distort the past…. In his Americana, Fisher explored the possibilities for a new kind of historical novel, a method which enabled him to escape the peculiar distortion that increasingly comes into play in the Testament, where he also tried to present the past as it was but in part succumbed to the dangers of the didactic approach. (pp. 118-19)

Some readers have found Fisher morbid and grim. They have felt that he has focused on the unpleasant side of life—and in a sense he has because he felt we do not understand this part of ourselves. We need to remember, also, that Fisher was from the frontier West where human behavior was frequently savage, and where passions of hate and greed were more dominant than we like to think…. Fisher has exposed the baseness of human nature; but that quality is not his emphasis. (p. 121)

Fisher has had as his goal the creation of lasting books; and he has tirelessly run that hard course—even though he was a thousand times besieged by neglect and scorn and seldom given more than a pittance. He has been a Lewis and Clark, a Stendhal, and a Dock Hunter. Though the toll on Fisher has sometimes been heavy, American literature has had something of decided value added to it. The gold has not been refined of all its impurities; but, on several counts, our literary ledgers should place high value on Fisher's works. Of special significance for Americans, he has brought to the novel an authentic pioneer view and vigor. He is not only man on the frontier; he is the civilized writer schooled in great literature. His novels and stories of the Antelope country of Idaho not only make that region come alive, but—more forcefully than our pioneer stories can usually even intimate—portrays pioneer life in many phases, both its tragedy and its comedy, what day-by-day life means for adult and child. His first works, which indicated a genuine talent for characterizations, gave American letters vital characters in an area in which their lack in fiction had been so evident—convincing pioneers of the West. (pp. 140-41)

In a prolific career, Fisher has not been a static writer, and he cannot, therefore, be easily labeled. His work has more complexity than summary treatments of him have usually indicated. If he is a hard-boiled Naturalist, he is also a humanitarian—and though many critics missed it—a humorist. If he sometimes is overly didactic … he has [also] written novels in which he has been quite detached…. He has not only written novels on many subjects, but he has experimented with form; he has unfortunately, however, never developed the technical excellence of most of our major figures. Though he has not always written with grace, he is sometimes a poet and his style is usually clean. He has written a few finely chiseled short stories—especially those set in Antelope, and if he has not done more with the genre, it is not from lack of ability. As poet, essayist, and novelist, Fisher is a writer of range, imagination, and mind…. Clearly Fisher is not every man's writer, and it is quite conceivable that readers will approve him in one kind of novel—or genre—and not in another, in itself a tribute to his range. And of course, Fisher is a masculine writer, one for the tough-minded. His works are not for the squeamish, nor on the other hand would some do at all for readers with no interest in more intellectual matters. Fisher has never tried to titillate the glands, but he does suggest that in all of life the mind could be better used. Though modern prejudice is against the intruding author and the didactic and though Fisher's Naturalism is sometimes harsh—even overdone—the power of his vision and his ability to portray human character should mean a continuous and growing number of readers. (pp. 143-44)

Joseph M. Flora, in his Vardis Fisher (copyright 1965 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1965.

With the subjects and themes of advanced society (at least in the last two or even three volumes of the Vridar Hunter tetralogy), Vardis Fisher is not at home. He is more vivid and more significant and more understanding when he deals with the primitive world, the "animal" world…. Fisher probes back into man's psychological history, into his very origins, to find not excuses but reasons for his behavior. That man is still an animal, subject to primitive urges and irrational reactions, is one of the suggestions we are left with at the end of Fisher's monumental work, The Testament of Man.

Fisher finds barbarisms in modern society, as any perceptive sociologist or anthropologist can. From the autobiographical materials in the Idaho novels it is evident that the young Vardis Fisher was shocked and disturbed by the cruelties of men as well as by the harshness and indifference in the natural world. His later research for the twelve-volume Testament was undertaken in order to explain those cruelties and to provide some kind of answer to the questions raised in the Vridar Hunter tetralogy. Fisher also used the method of relating in vivid detail the barbaric nature of man, presumably to shock the reader into an awareness of the problem. (pp. 369-70)

Fisher is not in favor of … primitive behavior, and yet he almost seems to enjoy describing it. His extensive use of animalism in the Testament series is designed to show that man has not been able to free himself entirely of his primitive origins, that even in the twentieth century he is socially and morally crude. The intention is to teach, to show that man need not be captive to his origins, that he has the ability and the power and often the will to be something higher and better than mere creature. It is obvious that certain parts of the history of the American West lend themselves easily to this particular theme. What goes wrong … is the tone; Fisher goes beyond a literal description of the animalism and adds either irony or humor. Irony would work if it did not seem to be so purposive, as it often does in Fisher; humor could be employed as a relieving device, but it is not always used in that way in Fisher's novels. Perhaps Fisher exaggerates to the point of humor because this is the only way in which he can endure the barbarisms of which he writes; or perhaps he gives in to the impulse to shock his readers, partly for his own enjoyment. Sometimes it is hard to tell. We know that, as a person, he was sensitive enough (although he wore a cynical surface) to be terrified, even while fascinated, by the cruelties which man commits upon his fellow men.

Cruelty is a major theme throughout Fisher's work, appearing in such variations as the results of animalism and emotionalism, in men preying upon other men, and in a fear of the unknown which gives rise to inhuman behavior in the name of religion. Fisher believes that man has the intelligence to overcome his animalism and emotionalism, and his superstitions, but that he has refused to take this step forward; therefore, Fisher is often bitter and antagonistic against the human race, adopting the role of the village atheist in order to prod, to criticize, and to condemn. He attacks stupidity and callousness, and he revels in the gore of barbarism, all the while trying to protect and nourish his own sensitive soul. One sympathizes with the man (and cries out for all men) after reading his Idaho novels, especially the Vridar Hunter story. (pp. 370-71)

In the first volume [of the Vridar Hunter tetralogy] Fisher was a novelist; he produced a powerful and effective piece of fiction with the action, characterization, scene, and strong sense of conflict which we expect from fiction. Gradually, through the next three volumes, fiction gives way to a kind of loosely-dramatized exposition. In the last volume [No Villain Need Be] there is almost no action. Through endless conversations, Fisher presents all of his ideas in encyclopedic fashion, thinking them through as he goes along. The novel is tedious, and it resolves nothing…. Fisher was not a politician; he might have liked to be a psychologist; he probably was more than anything else a moralist. But he too was dissatisfied with the conclusion of Vridar's story, and he wrote the entire Testament series in an effort to resolve Vridar's problems. (pp. 375-76)

Dark Bridwell is, I am convinced, not only Fisher's best novel (although it was only his second out of twenty-six) but one of the masterpieces of the American novel. It is a true tragedy of the end of the American frontier; it achieves the status of myth, although firmly anchored in the Idaho soil; and Charley Bridwell, through his peculiar strengths and weaknesses, becomes an American Lear. Fisher's own weaknesses as a writer are held in check more successfully in Bridwell than anywhere else, and although the people and the incidents are similar to (in many cases the same as) those in the early part of the Vridar Hunter story, they take on a deeper significance in Bridwell and are shaped more artistically and more powerfully. (pp. 379-80)

The shadows and the potential light, the barbarisms and the struggle toward rationality, the cruelties and the occasional hope through the beauties and the mysteries of nature—these permeate all of Fisher's fiction. Some of his later work is heavy with exposition and autobiography, presumably the result of his increasing impatience with superstition, ignorance, and fear, all of which he tried valiantly to overcome. While his life work rarely swerved from its predetermined course, established by his youthful reaction to the Idaho wilderness, the early and archetypical Dark Bridwell remains his most artistic blending of the literally real and the mythical. (p. 384)

John R. Milton, "The Primitive World of Vardis Fisher: The Idaho Novels," in The Midwest Quarterly (copyright, 1976, by The Midwest Quarterly, Kansas State College of Pittsburg), July, 1976, pp. 369-84.