Thursday, March 31, 2016

Novelist & Newspaper Columnist Vardis Fisher [otd 3/31]

Vardis Fisher.
Bonneville County Historical Society.
Vardis Alvero Fisher, best known for his Western-themed novels, was born March 31, 1895 in Annis, Idaho. (Annis is about 4 miles north of Rigby.) He grew up in that area before going off to school at the University of Utah. After receiving his Bachelor's and Master’s degrees there, he earned a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1925.

From 1925 to 1931, Fisher worked as an English professor at the University of Utah and then New York University (NYU). While at NYU, he met Thomas Wolfe, who was an Instructor there. (Wolfe's literary fame, for Look Homeward Angel, would come later.) They remained friends until Wolfe's untimely death in 1938. Fisher taught some at Montana State University before becoming Director of the Idaho Writer's Project. He stayed with the Work Projects Administration effort from 1935 to 1939. After that, he devoted his full time to writing.

Fisher’s first published novel, Toilers of the Hills, appeared in 1928, about the time he took his position at NYU. His second, Dark Bridwell, followed in 1931. Set in pioneer Idaho, a milieu Vardis knew well from personal experience, these books present their settings with a level a verisimilitude that stamped all of Fisher’s work. Yet the power of these novels lies in his examination of how the hard, primitive environment shaped the character of the people who tried to make a life there.

Considering the magnitude of his typical themes, Fisher was an extraordinarily productive writer. He published thirty-seven or thirty-eight (bibliographies disagree) novels, most of them of considerable heft – many run over 400 pages. Besides those, Vardis published a half-dozen non-fiction volumes, some short stories and poems, numerous essays, and – for about thirty years – regular newspaper columns. As is often the case with highly prolific writers, critics consider his novels "uneven" – a judgement I would have to agree with. (Few writers hit a home run every time.)
Warner Bros. publicity image.

At his best, he received favorable comparison with such literary giants as William Faulkner, Thomas Hardy, and Thomas Wolfe. Personally, I think such views fail to give Vardis due credit. Fisher’s best material is every bit as powerful and insightful as the best of the “giants” – and far more readable. (I’m not a big fan of episodic, "stream of consciousness," or "inner turmoil" novels that have little or no plot.)

His popular legacy lies in the now-common western history and fiction style that features "naturalistic" or "nitty-gritty" detail buttressed by historical fidelity. At its best, the style neither glosses over the pain and violence of frontier life, nor exaggerates it for shock value. Thus, Fisher’s western-themed books are still both very readable, and instructive.

Ironically, Vardis may have succeeded too well. Some current reader/reviewers, not understanding the context, fault his themes as having been “done to death,” and seem to expect even more blood and feces. But the situations have been done to death because Fisher popularized them. In fact, Fisher's novel Mountain Man (1965) provided much of the script material for the hit movie Jeremiah Johnson. As for the “realism,” I’m not sure the recent “extreme-nature” approach is that much of an improvement over Fisher’s treatment.

For the last thirty years of his life, Fisher lived in a home he built himself near Hagerman, Idaho. He died in July 1968. Unfortunately, few of Fisher’s works are available today, except as now-costly volumes from the original print runs. And that’s a shame.
                                                                                                                                     
References: Richard J. Beck, Famous Idahoans, Williams Printing, (© Richard J. Beck, 1989).
Tim Woodward, Tiger on the Road: The Life of Vardis Fisher, Caxton Printers, Caldwell, Idaho(1989).
Guila Ford, Elizabeth Jacox, "Vardis Fisher, 1895-1968," Reference Series No. 1138, Idaho State Historical Society (January 1996).

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