Fisher, Vardis (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)
Vardis Fisher 1895-1968
American novelist, poet, historian, essayist, short story writer, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry provides criticism on Fisher's works through 1987. For further information on his life and works, see CLC Volume 7.
Fisher is best known as a historical novelist of the Western frontier. His major works include the semi-autobiographical “Vridar Hunter” tetralogy, the twelve-volume “Testament of Man” series, and several works of historical fiction concerning such subjects as the development of Mormonism, the Donner party expedition, and the explorers Lewis and Clark. Fisher achieved the height of his popularity during the 1930s and has since fallen into relative obscurity, although he continued to write and publish prolifically until his death in 1968. During the Great Depression Fisher was assigned to several posts with the Federal Writers Project. His novel Mountain Man (1965) was adapted to the screen in the popular film Jeremiah Johnson (1972) starring Robert Redford.
Vardis Alvero Fisher was born March 31, 1895, in Annis, Idaho, a Mormon pioneer settlement. When Fisher was six the family moved to an isolated homestead in the foothills of the Big Hole Mountains, near the Snake River. Fisher's early education was through the tutorship of his mother. When he was twelve years old, Fisher and his sister moved out of the family home in order to live in the nearest town where they could attend high school. Fisher enrolled in the University of Utah in 1916 and graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1920. In 1918 he married Leona McMurtrey, with whom he had two children. After graduating from college Fisher moved to Chicago to pursue his graduate education, leaving his wife behind in Idaho. In 1922 he completed a M.A. in literature from the University of Chicago. Fisher then moved his family to Chicago where he continued his graduate education, receiving a Ph.D. in 1925. In 1924, his wife Leona committed suicide. Filled with guilt, Fisher wrote the poems of Sonnets to an Imaginary Madonna (1927) as an expression of these feelings. His first novel, Toilers of the Hills (1928) was published the following year. In 1928 Fisher married Margaret Trusler, with whom he had one child before they divorced. Fisher taught literature courses as an assistant professor of English at the University of Utah at Salt Lake City from 1925 to 1928 and at New York University in New York City from 1928 to 1931. While in New York Fisher befriended his colleague and fellow novelist Thomas Wolfe, about whom who wrote in the essay collection Thomas Wolfe as I Knew Him, and Other Essays (1963). During the Great Depression Fisher was assigned to the posts of Idaho state director of the Federal Writers Project (1935-1939) and general editor for Rocky Mountain States (1938-1939). Under these auspices, Fisher edited and co-wrote the volumes Idaho: A Guide in Word and Picture (1937), The Idaho Encyclopedia (1938), and Idaho Lore (1939). In 1940 Fisher married Opal Laurel Holmes, with whom he remained until his death. From 1941 to 1968 he worked as a newspaper columnist. Fisher died in 1968 at the age of seventy-three, under conditions some believed to be a suicide. Fisher's last book, Gold Rushes and Mining Camps of the Early American West (1968), co-written with his third wife, was published posthumously.
Several of Fisher's early novels relate fictional stories of homesteaders on the Western frontier. Toilers of the Hills, Fisher's first novel, concerns a homesteading couple in the Antelope hill country of Idaho. Dark Bridwell (1931), his second novel, also concerns a pioneer couple in Idaho. The novel April: A Fable of Love (1937) focuses on a homely girl living on the Western frontier who eventually finds love. Fisher's “Vridar Hunter” tetralogy is a semi-autobiographical novel series. The name of the protagonist of the tetralogy, Vridar Hunter, resembles that of the author in that Vridar and Vardis share all but one of the same letters and Hunter is an obvious substitute for Fisher. The four titles of the “Vridar Hunter” tetralogy are each taken from lines of George Meredith's Sonnet XLIII in the volume Modern Love. In Tragic Life (1932), the first novel of the tetralogy, describes Fisher's isolated childhood among Western pioneers. Passions Spin the Plot (1934), the second novel of the tetralogy, ends with Vridar's marriage to Neloa (an anagram for Fisher's first wife Leona). We Are Betrayed (1935), the third novel of the tetralogy, ends with the suicide of Neloa, based on the suicide of Fisher's own wife in 1924. No Villain Need Be (1936), the final novel of the tetralogy, concerns Vridar's struggles with inner guilt in the aftermath of his wife's suicide. In Fisher's ambitious twelve-volume “Testament of Man” series, he aimed to trace the historical development of human society, particularly its religious aspects, from prehistory to the present day. In the first fifty pages of the first novel in the “Testament of Man” series, Darkness and the Deep (1943), Fisher describes the origins of life on earth. The rest of the novel concerns the development of primitive man from its earliest beginnings. In the second novel of the “Testament of Man” series, The Golden Rooms (1944), man has learned to use fire to his advantage, and begun to develop primitive societal organization. The third novel, Intimations of Eve (1946), portrays man's early attempts to explain the world around him through the invention of primitive gods. At this point, humans develop a matriarchal society based on the association of women with reproduction. In Adam and the Serpent (1947), the fourth novel, a struggle for male dominance begins to emerge as the concept of a male sun-god takes precedence over the female moon-goddess. By the fifth novel, The Divine Passion (1948), human society has developed greater degrees of complexity with power-struggles emerging between religious factions as well as between men and women. The sixth novel of the series, The Valley of Vision (1951), takes place in biblical times and presents Fisher's unconventional perspective on the figure of King Solomon of Israel. The seventh novel, Island of the Innocent (1952), is set in the second or third century b.c. and focuses on a power struggle between Jewish and Greek societies for cultural dominance. A Goat for Azazel (1956), the eighth novel, continues to trace the development of Christianity. In Jesus Came Again (1956), the ninth novel, Fisher retells the story of Jesus Christ from his own unique perspective. The tenth novel, Peace Like a River (1957; reprinted as The Passion Within in 1960), concerns the development of the Christian concept of original sin. My Holy Satan (1958), the eleventh novel of the series, is set in thirteenth-century medieval times and focuses on the increasing political power wielded by the Christian church in Europe. Orphans in Gethsemane (1960) constitutes the twelfth and final volume of the “Testament of Man” series, but is also considered to be a sequel to the “Vridar Hunter” tetralogy. Orphans in Gethsemane was reprinted in two volumes as For Passion, For Heaven and The Great Confession in 1962. Orphans in Gethsemane begins with a condensed and revised version of the “Vridar Hunter” tetralogy. In the second half of Orphans in Gethsemane, Fisher discusses the process of research and writing he underwent in producing the “Testament of Man” series. In addition to these two major multi-volume series, Fisher is known for his historical novels of the American West. Children of God (1939) traces the history of the Mormon religion as it took root in the West. The Mothers: An American Saga of Courage (1943) is based on the famous incident of the Donner party, a group of would-be pioneers who resorted to cannibalism when they were trapped by snow in the high Sierras en route to California. Tale of Valor (1958) is based on the factual events of the Lewis and Clark expedition to explore the American West, and Mountain Man (1965) is based on a legendary figure of the Western frontier.
Fisher reached the height of his popularity and critical acclaim during the 1930s. The crest of his reputation was capped by the award of the 1939 Harper Prize for fiction for Children of God. By the mid-1940s he had fallen into relative obscurity, although he continued to write and publish prolifically. The popular film adaptation of Mountain Man in the early 1970s brought him renewed critical attention but only briefly. Fisher's lasting significance lies primarily with his novels of the Western frontier, which were his most popular and well-received. He was praised for his stark realism in depicting life on the frontier in such works as Toilers in the Hills and Dark Bridwell. Critics lauded Fisher for his historical accuracy and meticulous research in the historical novels, Children of God, The Mothers: An American Saga of Courage, and Tale of Valor. Both critics and readers of the 1930s responded enthusiastically to Fisher's harsh psychological realism and the unflinching self-revelation of his autobiographical works of the “Vridar Hunter” tetralogy. Fisher's ambitious “Testament of Man” series, however, garnered little critical attention. Critics who did make note of the series found the novels to be over-written and over-burdened by didacticism. Due to the tepid response of readers and critics alike, Fisher was dropped by his publisher halfway through the “Testament of Man” series. The series was then picked up by another publisher who regarded the project with enthusiasm. Fisher himself, however, was ultimately disappointed with the “Testament of Man” series, feeling he had not successfully achieved his aims. Though he has fallen into obscurity since the 1930s, Fisher remains an important regional writer of the American West. Ronald W. Taber has argued that Fisher is also an important influence on the development of historical fiction. Taber asserted that Fisher was highly influential for bringing the element of well-researched historical accuracy to the genre of historical fiction previously associated with Romanticism.
Sonnets to an Imaginary Madonna (poetry) 1927
Toilers of the Hills (novel) 1928; also published as The Wild One, 1952
Dark Bridwell (novel) 1931
In Tragic Life [first book of the “Vridar Hunter” tetralogy] (novel) 1932
Passions Spin the Plot [second book of the “Vridar Hunter” tetralogy] (novel) 1934
We Are Betrayed [third book of the “Vridar Hunter” tetralogy] (novel) 1935
No Villain Need Be [fourth book of the “Vridar Hunter” tetralogy] (novel) 1936
April: A Fable of Love (novel) 1937
Forgive Us Our Virtues: A Comedy of Evasions (novel) 1938
Children of God (novel) 1939
Idaho Lore [editor] (nonfiction) 1939
City of Illusion (novel) 1941
Darkness and the Deep [first book of the “Testament of Man” series] (novel) 1943
The Mothers: An American Saga of Courage (novel) 1943
The Caxton Printers in Idaho, a Short History (history) 1944
The Golden Rooms [second book of the “Testament of Man” series] (novel) 1944
Intimations of Eve [third book of the “Testament of Man” series] (novel) 1946
Adam and the...
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SOURCE: Walton, Eda Lou. “Honesty and Fiction.” Nation 138, no. 3577 (24 January 1934): 107.
[In the following review, Walton observes that Passions Spin the Plot straddles the categories of fiction and autobiography, loosing “dramatic power” as a result. Walton asserts the novel is otherwise interesting, and honest, and that the central character is developed with depth and complexity.]
This second novel [Passions Spin the Plot] in Mr. Fisher's tetralogy, which began with In Tragic Life, continues the story of Vridar Hunter through his college years. Both books are rather like case histories, both seem to be rather thinly disguised autobiography, and as autobiography they are very interesting and quite powerful. Mr. Fisher tells us that his purpose above all others is to write an “honest” book, and this he has done. His ability to describe a strange and primitive country like the Antelope Hill territory, and to interpret the effect of such a background on his characters, is unusual. But honesty in fiction and honesty in biography may be two different things. Honesty in fiction implies selection in order to achieve structure. To describe every experience in a young man's life and its effect upon his character, to document with letters and with diaries the inner struggle of youth, is not necessarily to write a novel. Passions Spin the Plot loses dramatic power...
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SOURCE: Van Doren, Mark. “A Twelve-Cylinder Idyl.” Nation 144, no. 8 (20 February 1937): 214, 216.
[In the following review, Van Doren praises April for its power, energy, and humor.]
Vardis Fisher's narrative muse is like one of those racing cars that cannot go less than sixty miles an hour and are therefore useless on an ordinary highway. Merely to crank them is to create thunder; low speed for them is the speed of a hurricane; they are not to be thought of, as indeed they are never seen, save on Daytona Beach or the salt flats of Utah. There of course they may be magnificent, but it is scarcely proper to inquire whether they are real automobiles. To the extent that they cannot turn a corner and convey passengers and stop for gas they are of course preposterous; though on their native stretches they may suggest all that an automobile can be in terms of strength and speed.
Any novel by Mr. Fisher is incapable of slow motion or plain statement. He writes every sentence with all the might he possesses, for he is never calmer than his characters, all of whom are constantly excited to the point of explosion. The result is that he cannot be called a reviewer of life, or even a critic of it, since we have never been where he has been. But at the same time the experience of reading him can be very exhilarating, and can remind us that there is such a thing as pure literary power, as...
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SOURCE: Sugrue, Thomas. “The Phenomena of the Beginning.” Saturday Review of Literature 26 (27 March 1943): 22.
[In the following review of Darkness and the Deep, Sugrue observes that Fisher successfully employs the medium of fiction to popularize scientific theories about the evolution of humanity.]
Vardis Fisher has chosen for his very considerable literary talents a very considerable fictional task. He has decided to write a family saga encompassing the history of man, beginning with prehistoric nomads and ending with whatever is left of contemporary humanity after the present military engagement. He doesn't know whether he will have the time and energy to finish the epic, but he's going to go as far as he can. In this first volume he gets the earth created and cooled, brings life out of the sea, gets our ancestor down from the trees, and gives him a club.
It is his contention that the great discoveries which modern science has made concerning the origin and early experiences of man are locked away from the average citizen in text books and technical studies. Pondering this, he concluded that if such knowledge were put into the most popular form of literature, i.e., the novel, it would reach a general audience, and be absorbed into the national consciousness, where it might do some good by giving the voters in a democracy a better knowledge of themselves and their...
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SOURCE: Wagenknecht, Edward. “Stimulating Treatment of Bible Story.” Chicago Tribune (24 June 1951): 2.
[In the following review of The Valley of Vision, Wagenknecht comments that Fisher offers an engaging fictional story based on solid historical knowledge in “a fresh and stimulating interpretation of biblical history.”]
Vardis Fisher, the Idaho novelist, first challenged fame with the possibly autobiographical “Vridar Hunter” tetralogy—In Tragic Life and its successors—titled from Meredith's Modern Love. Perhaps his best known novel is the one about the Mormons, Children of God, which won a Harper prize. He is now engaged upon a series of twelve novels known collectively as “Testament of Man,” in which the book in hand, [The Valley of Vision] subtitled A Novel of King Solomon and His Time, is Number Six.
Like the Thomas Mann tetralogy, The Valley of Vision rests on solid historical knowledge. Mr. Fisher seems to have read all the great Old Testament scholars, and his summary of their findings, in his appendix, is I think fair and able [though he states the Kenite hypothesis of the origin of Israelitish religion as fact]. He admits frankly that the scholars do not support his conception of Solomon as a wise, able, and humane king, centuries ahead of his time, who tried to bring tolerance, civilization, and humanity...
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SOURCE: Review of Pemmican, by Vardis Fisher. Kirkus Review 24 (15 April 1956): 286.
[In the following review, Pemmican is considered an exciting story, although the reading experience is made unpleasant by Fisher's obsessive focus on sexual and bodily functions.]
Not since The Children of God has Vardis Fisher contributed so vital an exploration of a segment of the growth of the American scene as this brutal, violent story of the war between the Hudson's Bay Company and the new North Westers. His central figure [in Pemmican] is David MacDonald, a fictional character whose concern is the welfare of the HBC of which he is a factor, responsible for the securing of the pemmican for the trappers and the traders and for the trade with the Indians at one of the forts. A new interest slashes across his dedicated life. He sees and falls in love with Sunday, a savage white girl brought up from babyhood as an Indian and promised to a Blackfoot chief. These two threads of plot create exaggerated menaces in David's life, as the buffalo hunt and butchering, the terror of a stampede, the eternal threat of storm become magnified by the hatred of the Indian chief, the suspicion of betrayal—and the growing factor of war to the death with the North Westers. Massacre of settlements, systematic creation of unrest between the tribes, bribery and corruption and theft, and finally a bitter march...
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SOURCE: Havighurst, Walter. “Vivid Novel of Lewis and Clark Expedition.” Chicago Tribune (22 June 1958): 1.
[In the following review of Tale of Valor, Havighurst observes that Fisher sticks to the historical facts of his story while rounding out individual characters and adding dramatic action.]
The Lewis and Clark expedition, one of the great adventures of all history, was so thoroughly documented that later generations can follow every step of the epic journey. Now, after the northwest wilderness has become a civilization, we can know what it was like to be the first travelers in that vast and virgin country. We can experience its grandeur and loneliness, its promise and danger.
In Tale of Valor Vardis Fisher has written a vivid and dramatic novel of the expedition. He follows the record, often quoting from the journals of Lewis and Clark and sometimes citing lesser documents. He invents nothing; in this action-packed adventure the novelist's problem is to select rather than to fabricate. He changes nothing; the record itself contains clashes of character, conflict of cultures, a seemingly endless series of crises, and a woman interest that recurs every time the robust young explorers encounter a new Indian tribe. What he does as a novelist is to fill out the individual characters, to reveal relationships, and to develop briefly recorded incidents into dramatic...
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SOURCE: Daniels, Jonathan. “Death of a Hero.” Nation 195, no. 6 (8 September 1962): 118.
[In the following review, Daniels describes Murder or Suicide? as a “fascinating work of historical detection,” but observes that Fisher fails to address broader questions raised by the story.]
The news did not come rapidly in those days from such a Far West as Tennessee. Much time passed before the young country which had properly made him a national hero knew that Meriwether Lewis had died a violent death at Grinder's Stand on the old dangerous trail called the Natchez Trace. Even today, more than 150 years later, the clear straight story has not come into the history books as to whether Lewis was murdered or committed suicide that October night in 1809.
Thomas Jefferson, who had sent Lewis with William Clark on the great Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific, gave his verdict confidently four years after the death that it was suicide due to inherited “hypochrondriac affections.” Others since then have not been so sure and in recent years historical argument has grown about the question, “murder or suicide?” which Vardis Fisher has made the title of this book [Murder or Suicide?].
Nowhere at such length and in such detail has the evidence been so arrayed as in this fascinating work of historical detection. Mr. Fisher has not only studied the...
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SOURCE: Flora, Joseph M. “The Early Power of Vardis Fisher.” American Book Collector 14, no. 1 (September 1963): 15, 17-19.
[In the following essay, Flora discusses Toilers of the Hills as an example of the high quality of Fisher's early novels.]
Vardis Fisher's advent as a novelist was an auspicious one. His first two published novels did not make him famous, but they received very favorable reviews. Fisher was quickly marked as a novelist to be watched. When the third novel, In Tragic Life, appeared, many critics felt convinced that a major novelist was at hand.
For various reasons, however, Fisher has not been given his laurels, and even at the height of his reputation with Children of God few bothered to look back at those early novels. In the past few years Fisher is again widely available in print, and a new generation of readers is discovering his power. As readers explore his “Testament” and American historical novels, a reminder of the first rich vein is in order. A look at the first novel, Toilers of the Hills (1928), will demonstrate that these early novels also have their treasures.
Fisher says that his first published novel was in fact his sixth novel. No publisher wanted the others, and Fisher destroyed them as inferior work. Therefore when one considers Toilers of the Hills as a first novel, it is well to...
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SOURCE: Margarick, P. “Vardis Fisher and His Testament of Man.” American Book Collector 14, no. 1 (September 1963): 20-4.
[In the following essay, Margaret provides a brief overview of each of the twelve novels of Fisher's “Testament of Man” series.]
In 1940, when I was 33, a fellow book collector who specialized in Modern American Firsts introduced me to Vardis Fisher's tetralogy. I say “introduced,” a bland word that utterly fails to convey the enthusiasm of the Vardis Fisher fan.
I read In Tragic Life, the first volume of Fisher's tetralogy and the effect was stunning. This was a brutally honest picture of the life of an extremely sensitive, pioneer boy. It was one of the most intensely interesting books that I had ever read.
The next couple of months were spent in a frantic effort to acquire first editions of the other three volumes. I found Passions Spin The Plot and We Are Betrayed and read them both in four days. I was never so absorbed in a story or so identified myself with a character in a novel. I felt deeply the anguish of Neloa, for weeks.
It was another two weeks before I located the final volume No Villain Need Be and spent most of two nights reading it. This one was an anticlimax! The story was carried to a logical conclusion, despite some fairly long-winded theorizing. My reaction to the...
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SOURCE: Donahugh, Robert H. Review of Mountain Man, by Vardis Fisher. Library Journal 90, no. 18 (15 October 1965): 4358-59.
[In the following review, Donahugh describes Mountain Man as “a stirring piece of Americana” and recommends it as appropriate reading material for teenaged boys.]
[In Mountain Man,] Sam Minard, fur-trapper and mountain man, witnesses a massacre in which a frenzied woman kills the Indians who have slaughtered her children. Sam builds the woman a cabin, and she subsequently lives a dream-like existence neither straying from her children's graves nor communicating with anyone. After bargaining for an Indian bride Sam goes off to trap, returning to find his wife and unborn child slain. Declaring a one-man war against the Indians, Sam stalks and is stalked, drifting in and out of the life of the strange woman in the cabin. Superb backgrounds, fascinating detail, and consistency of tone elevate this beyond the adventure story; as a picture of a mountain man, his love of nature and struggle to survive, it is a stirring piece of Americana. Plenty of blood and guts but virtually no sex. Suitable for older teen-age boys and recommended to public libraries generally.
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SOURCE: Review of Mountain Man, by Vardis Fisher. Library Journal 91 (15 February 1966): 93.
[In the following review, the reviewer describes Mountain Man as powerful and intense reading.]
[Mountain Man] is a stark novel of the western frontier by an author who knows the period well. Based in part on the real life story of a man and a woman, the narrative tells of Sam Minard and the cold, bloody vengeance he took against the Crows who had killed his Indian wife and child, and of Kate Bowden who went insane after losing her family to Indian tomahawks. Written with power and intensity, there is a certain beauty in the simple acceptance of the harsh laws of nature. For the mature reader who enjoyed Guthrie's The Big Sky.
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SOURCE: Taber, Ronald W. “Vardis Fisher: New Directions for the Historical Novel.” Western American Literature 1, no. 4 (winter 1967): 285-96.
[In the following essay, Taber asserts that the works of Fisher were at the forefront of efforts to free the historical novel from its ties to romantic literature, paving the way for greater realism and historical accuracy.]
The terms “romance” and “historical novel” were, for a long time, practically synonymous, as novelist MacKinlay Kantor has noted.1 There had long been murmurs of protest against the romantic and prudish historical novel, but nineteenth century tradition continued to influence the historical novel until the 1930's produced novelists, such as Kantor and Vardis Fisher, who were determined to portray the past realistically. American historical novelists began to feel the need to tell the truth about history, convinced that the novel could elucidate and extend man's knowledge better than the works of professional historians. No one was more in the forefront of this new movement to demand truth and historical accuracy in the American historical novel than Vardis Fisher.
To understand Fisher's illumination of historical truth through fiction, it is necessary to investigate two aspects of his approach to historical fiction: his philosophy and his methodology. Fisher's philosophy of literature, although by no...
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SOURCE: Thorne, Marco. Review of Gold Rushes and Mining Camps of the Early American West, by Vardis Fisher and Opal Laurel Holmes. Library Journal 93, no. 14 (August 1968): 2867.
[In the following review, Thorne describes Gold Rushes and Mining Camps of the Early American West as refreshing, accurate, readable, and entertaining.]
Quarto-sized, printed in double columns and profusely illustrated with fresh, but old photographs and drawings, this gathering of facts on the West [Gold Rushes and Mining Camps of the Early American West] exhibits a new collective viewpoint of Western gold rushes. The authors, who have drawn on their wide acquaintance with the West to form a solid narrative, have divided the book into sections dealing with life in mining camps, crime and justice, and special characters and situations. Many appropriate quotations, some a bit forced, from original and other sources, garnish the text. The authors' comments on today's society which is not oriented to a “Western” style of life occasionally punctuate the story. Fortunately, gold rushes other than California's get a deserved share of attention. Public library and college collections with an interest in Western history will find this large, handsome work a refreshing, accurate, readable, and entertaining addition to their shelves.
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SOURCE: Grover, Dorys C. “Vardis Fisher: The Antelope People Sonnets.” Texas Quarterly 16, no. 1 (spring 1974): 97-102.
[In the following essay, Grover discusses Fisher's “The Antelope People” sonnets, concluding that this series represents the best of Fisher's poetry.]
In the late 1920s Vardis Fisher, the Idaho novelist, essayist, and poet, wrote what he called “The Antelope People” sonnets. Ten in all, they were published in poetry magazines and anthologies, as follows: Voices: An Open Forum for the Poets, VII (March, 1928), pp. 203-204, “Antelope People,” and XLIX (April, 1929), pp. 134-36, poems on “The North Family.” The anthologies are Harold G. Merriam (ed.), Northwest Verse: An Anthology (Caldwell, Idaho: The Caxton Printers, Ltd., 1931), pp. 137-39, “Antelope People,” poems “Slim Scott,” “Susan Hemp,” “Konrad Myrdton,” “Perg Jasper,” and “Joe Hunter.” William Stanley Braithwaite (ed.), Anthology of Magazine Verse for 1928 and Yearbook of American Poetry (New York: Harold Vinal, Ltd., 1928), pp. 113-17, poems “Slim Scott,” “Susan Hemp,” and “Konrad Myrdton.” The complete sonnets are appended to this article. Fisher also wrote and published a small book entitled Sonnets to an Imaginary Madonna (1927). Except for a few verses scattered throughout the “Vridar Hunter” tetralogy, this was the extent of his...
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SOURCE: Milton, John R. “The Primitive World of Vardis Fisher: The Idaho Novels.” Midwest Quarterly 16, no. 4 (July 1976): 369-84.
[In the following essay, Milton discusses Fisher's theme of primitive humanity in the “Testament of Man” novel series.]
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. This may be the result of his Idaho environment and of the primitive conditions under which he lived as a boy; but there is more to it than that. Fisher seems to think that man is still an animal in many ways, subject to non-reasonable pressures and to fears and prejudices which keep him from being a truly civilized creature. This is perhaps a rather obvious condition in man, one which need not be stressed. Nevertheless, there is considerable difference in the contemporary treatments of this condition in fiction. The eastern, or metropolitan, writer of recent times has tended to gloss over the historical reasons for this condition, even ignoring more than he should the deep moral responsibilities in which man has failed. It is too easy to blame a person's immediate social environment for his development, and to excuse his actions on the grounds of pressures brought...
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SOURCE: Meldrum, Barbara. “Vardis Fisher's Antelope People: Pursuing an Elusive Dream.” In Northwest Perspectives: Essays on the Culture of the Pacific Northwest, edited by Edwin R. Bingham and Glen A. Love, pp. 152-66. Eugene: University of Oregon Press, 1979.
[In the following essay, Meldrum explores Fisher's portrayal of the Western frontier experience in Toilers of the Hills, Dark Bridwell, and April.]
From the earliest days of our country we have had an ambivalent attitude toward the West and what the West means. In 1782 Crèvecoeur expressed this ambivalence in his Letters from an American Farmer; the new American was a westward pilgrim best embodied in the class of freeholders, people “respectable for their industry, their happy independence, the great share of freedom they possess, the good regulation of their families, and for extending the trade and the dominion of our mother country.” Crèvecoeur's happy farmers promoted material progress while achieving individual fulfillment through worthwhile labor, family affection, and a sense of independence and freedom. But Crèvecoeur also acknowledged the essential role played by the pioneers who were directly influenced by the rugged environment they sought to tame in the name of advancing agriculture—the “back settlers” who “appear to be no better than carnivorous animals. … They are a kind of forlorn hope” who...
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SOURCE: Attebery, Louie W. “Vardis Fisher.” In A Literary History of the American West, sponsored by The Western Literature Association, pp. 862-86. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1987.
[In the following essay, Attebery discusses Fisher's works from five distinct periods of his life and literary development.]
Any serious study of the literature of the American West, wrote Wallace Stegner, will have to include the works of Vardis Fisher.1 The assertion is proper. From 1927 with Sonnets to an Imaginary Madonna to 1968 with the massive Gold Rushes and Mining Camps of the Early American West, Fisher explored his region, his cultural heritage, and his own past, creating a legacy that is an invitation to progress with him from the particulars of time and place to the universal.
In the course of a fretful, productive life, Fisher wrote more than thirty books, the exact number a quiddity since he co-authored one book, completed most of another, and edited two more. Thirty-five is a reasonable total. In addition, he wrote short stories, countless newspaper columns, and articles for journals. In the quality, quantity, and diversity of such disjecta membra is suggested some justification for his mother's conviction that her caulborn son was destined for greatness.
Although there is a degree of artificiality in compartmentalizing...
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Kellog, George. “Vardis Fisher: A Bibliography.” Western American Literature 5, no. 1 (spring 1970): 45-64.
A bibliography of works by and about Fisher.
“Buckskin Fever.” Washington Post Book Week (12 December 1965): 18.
Describes Mountain Man as “a dramatic showpiece” that is bogged down by repetition, melodrama, and digression.
Strong, Lester. “Vardis Fisher Revisited.” South Dakota Review 24, no. 3 (autumn 1986): 25-37.
Discusses the influence of Fisher's writing, particularly the “Testament of Man” series, on his own intellectual development.
Additional coverage of Fisher's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, 25-28; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 68; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 9; Literature Resource Center; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; and Twentieth-Century Western Writers, Ed. 2.
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