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.