Vardis Fisher Fisher, Vardis (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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


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Eda Lou Walton (review date 24 January 1934)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Mark Van Doren (review date 20 February 1937)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Thomas Sugrue (review date 27 March 1943)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Edward Wagenknecht (review date 24 June 1951)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Kirkus Review (review date 15 April 1956)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Walter Havighurst (review date 22 June 1958)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Jonathan Daniels (review date 8 September 1962)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Joseph M. Flora (essay date September 1963)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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,...

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P. Margarick (essay date September 1963)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert H. Donahugh (review date 15 October 1965)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Library Journal (review date 15 February 1966)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ronald W. Taber (essay date winter 1967)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Marco Thorne (review date August 1968)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Dorys C. Grover (essay date spring 1974)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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John R. Milton (essay date July 1976)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Barbara Meldrum (essay date 1979)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Louie W. Attebery (essay date 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


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...

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