Vardis Alvero Fisher (March 31, 1895 – July 9, 1968) was a writer best known for his popular historical novels of the Old West. He also wrote the monumental 12-volume Testament of Man (1943–1960) series of novels, depicting the history of humans from cave to civilization. It was considered controversial because of his portrayal of religion, especially the Judeo-Christian tradition, emphasis on sexuality, and conclusions about anthropology.
Life and works
Vardis Fisher was born in Annis, Idaho, near present-day Rigby, of a Mormon family and descent. After graduating from the University of Utah in 1920, Fisher earned a Master of Arts degree (1922) and a Ph.D. (1925) at the University of Chicago.
Fisher was an assistant professor of English at the University of Utah (1925–1928) while there he was a teacher of the great American West historian Wallace Stegner and at New York University (1928–1931), where he became friends with Thomas Wolfe. Fisher also taught as a summer professor at Montana State University (1932–1933) in Bozeman. Academic jobs were sharply reduced during the Great Depression.
Between 1935 and 1939, he worked as the director of the Idaho Writer's Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. He wrote several books about Idaho. He was also a newspaper columnist for the Idaho Statesman and Idaho Statewide (which later became the Intermountain Observer).
One of his hobbies was house construction, and he built his own home in the Thousand Springs area near Hagerman, Idaho. Fisher did the wiring, masonry, carpentry and plumbing himself.
Marriage and family
Vardis Fisher married in 1917 after his second year in college, to Leona McMurtrey, whom he had courted since their childhood. They had difficulties in their marriage; he enlisted in the army in 1918. Later he became involved with another woman, Margaret Trusler, who was a fellow graduate student. Leona committed suicide on September 8, 1924.
He married Trusler in 1928. They had two sons, Grant and T. Roberts Fisher. They divorced in 1937, at her insistence.
He married his third wife, Opal Laurel Holmes, in 1940. She was his co-author on Gold Rushes and Mining Camps of the Early American West (1968). Opal Fisher died in 1995, leaving $237,000 from her estate to the University of Idaho for the creation of a humanities professorship.
Fisher died in 1968, at the age of 73, in Hagerman, Idaho.
To write the Testament of Man (1943–1960) series, Vardis Fisher read more than 2,000 books on anthropology, history, psychology, theology and comparative religion. When the series was reprinted by Pyramid Books as mass-market paperbacks in 1960, it inspired the DC Comics editor Joe Orlando and the comic book Anthro, written and drawn by Howard Post and edited by Orlando.
His historical novel, Children of God, tracing the history of the Mormons, won the 1939 Harper Prize in Fiction. His novel Mountain Man (1965) was adapted for Sydney Pollack's film, Jeremiah Johnson (1972). The Mothers: An American Saga of Courage told the story of the Donner Party tragedy. Tale of Valor is a novel recounting the Lewis and Clark Expedition. God or Caesar? is his non-fiction book on how to write.
Fisher was, perhaps, the most significant twentieth century novelist who was both a native and longtime resident of Idaho. He chafed at being compared with such better-known writers associated with the state as Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound. When appointed to head the Idaho branch of the Federal Writers Project under the WPA, Fisher quipped that he had been chosen because there were only three writers in Idaho, and he was the only one who was unemployed. Frederick Manfred, who was among Fisher's staunchest literary champions, declared that Dark Bridwell (1931) was Fisher's best novel and that Hemingway never wrote anything so good.
His twelve-volume Testament of Man series, to which Fisher devoted several decades of his life was, by and large, negatively received by the public as well as critics. As demonstrated by the collection of critical essays, Rediscovering Vardis Fisher (2000), the author still draws praise as well as criticism for his work. (The anthropologist Marilyn Trent Grunkemeyer, who read the Testament of Man series, was most critical of his work.)
His newspaper columns, written for various local and regional publications over three decades and often dealing with then-topical national and local issues, still make for lively reading. Fisher did not praise any U.S. president who served during his lifetime, regardless of political party. (Although he did not live beyond the primary season of 1968, Fisher had already made his low opinion of Richard M. Nixon clear during Nixon's vice-presidency.)
Fisher has been described as a "cranky Idaho Old Rightist." He was suspicious of all politicians and favored smaller, less-intrusive government. Grateful for work during the Depression, his opinion of the New Deal soured and he became a staunch critic of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, he favored an America First stance, hoping to keep the U.S. out of World War II. Following the attack, he accepted the inevitability of war. He generally criticized U.S. foreign policy and opposed U.S. involvement in Vietnam as early as the administration of John F. Kennedy.
Vardis Fisher bibliography
Vardis Fisher novels
- The Mothers: An American Saga of Courage (1943)
- Pemmican: A Novel of the Hudson's Bay Company (1956)
- Children of God (1939)
- Mountain Man: A Novel of Male and Female in the Early American West (1965)
- Toilers of the Hills (1928)
- Dark Bridwell (aka The Wild Ones) (1931)
- April: A Fable of Love
- Forgive Us Our Virtues (1938)
- City of Illusion (1941)
- Tale of Valor (1960)
- Vridar Hunter tetralogy:
- In Tragic Life (1932)
- Passions Spin the Plot (1934)
- We Are Betrayed (1935)
- No Villain Need Be (1936)
- Testament of Man series:
- Darkness and the Deep (1943)
- The Golden Rooms (1944)
- Intimations of Eve (1946)
- Adam and the Serpent (1947)
- The Divine Passion (1948)
- The Valley of Vision (1951)
- The Island of the Innocent (1952)
- Jesus Came Again: A Parable (1956)
- A Goat for Azazel (1956)
- Peace Like a River (pb title: The Passion Within) (1957)
- My Holy Satan (1958)
- Orphans in Gethsemane (pb two vols: The Great Confession and For Passion, for Heaven) (1960)
- Love and Death (1959)
- The Neurotic Nightingale (1935) [essays]
- God or Caesar? The Writing of Fiction for Beginners (1953)
- Suicide or Murder: The Strange Death of Meriwether Lewis (1961)
- Thomas Wolfe As I Knew Him and Other Essays (1963)
- Idaho Encyclopedia, as Federal Writers’ Project, state director.
- Challenge to Evasion
- Sonnets to an Imaginary Madonna (1927)