Vardis Fisher

Vardis Alvero Fisher, often published in bylines without his middle name, was an American writer and historian best known for his works of historical fiction set in the Old West. Fisher was born in Annis, Idaho, on March 31, 1895; his parents were fundamentalist members of the LDS Church, and Fisher and his brother Vivian Ezra spent their formative years in a frontier setting by the Snake River in northeastern Idaho. The brothers often lived alone near town during the school year and survived off what they were able to trap or forage themselves. Due to such remote living situations, Fisher was only officially baptized into the LDS Church after he graduated from high school, and he left the Church for good within a few years, though its influence remained a constant presence in his work.

Fisher attended the University of Utah in 2015 for his bachelor of arts, pausing his studies to join the Air Force in 1918 before eventually graduating in 1920. He continued on to the University of Chicago, where he earned his MA in 1922 and his PhD in 1925 before coming back to teach at the University of Utah, where in 1926 one of his students was soon-to-be American novelist Wallace Stegner. Peers and instructors often recollected Fisher’s blunt communication style and his intense love of books, including a time when he read so voraciously that he lost his eyesight temporarily. Fisher would bring this love of literature to his own students, despite frequent clashes with fellow faculty members. After a few years at the University of Utah, he accepted a position teaching at Washington Square College in New York University, where he remained until leaving to work with the Federal Writers’ Project through 1939.

Fisher’s personal life was complex and often difficult. Following his isolated upbringing and brief military service, Fisher was often brusque and direct in ways that others found unsettling. He was married three times: first to Leona McMurtrey, who committed suicide in 1924 after Fisher demanded a separation to marry fellow graduate student Margaret Trusler; then to Trusler, whom Fisher divorced in 1939; and finally to Opal Laurel Holmes, a fellow researcher and writer, in 1940. Fisher built a house in Idaho with Holmes in a setting similar to the Snake River where he had grown up, and the two co-authored a nonfiction book on gold mining camps. Each of these relationships influenced Fisher’s work in different ways, from McMurtrey’s death eliciting intense guilt to Holmes’s support helping Fisher produce important nonfiction works.

Fisher’s body of work includes regional novels, historical novels, spiritual polemicals, nonfiction texts (mostly on the state of Idaho), various short stories, and several newspaper articles and columns – a diverse and prolific career that began in 1928 with his regional novel Toilers of the Hills and continued for the next forty years until his death. During this time, Fisher wrote novels about frontier life – specifically, the Donner Party, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and early LDS pioneers – and began his ambitious twelve-book project Testament of Man, which only concluded in 1960 under the direct patronage of publisher Alan Swallow. Fisher also contributed to a range of publications, from Esquire and Coronet to the Rocky Mountain Review and Western Folklore, and later became a columnist for the Idaho Statesman and Idaho Statewide, where he garnered a reputation for writing cantankerous pieces. Fisher also headed the Idaho Writers Project for four years (1935-1939), both writing and leading the production of several texts on state history, local folklore, and regional geography.

Fisher’s novel Children of God, a fictionalized history of the LDS Church, won the Harper Prize for Fiction in 1939, while his 1965 novel Mountain Man set new standards for verisimilitude in novels about the Old West and was eventually adapted for film in 1972 with Sydney Pollack as Jeremiah Johnson.

There has been much controversy over how to discuss Fisher’s work in relation to Mormonism. Though Fisher was raised in an LDS family and eventually baptized, he was disaffected with the Church and often expressed contempt for LDS beliefs during his lectures. In addition, his widow Opal Laurel Holmes denied that Fisher was LDS following the publication of a 1978 article claiming that Fisher’s works, particularly his novels, reflected his LDS heritage. Much recent scholarship has advanced more nuanced readings, often suggesting that Fisher was influenced by his religious upbringing and the culture of the LDS Church without seeking to define whether or not he and his work are definitively Mormon.

Fisher died of an overdose of sleeping pills, combined with alcohol, on July 9, 1968.

Bibliography

Fiction 

  • Mountain Man: A Novel of Male and Female in the Early American West,William Morrow, 1965
  • Tale Of Valor: A Novel of the Louis and Clark Expedition,Pocket Books, 1958
  • Pemmican: A Novel of the Hudson's Bay Company, Doubleday, 1956
  • The Mothers: An American Saga of Courage, Vanguard Press, 1943
  • Testament of Manseries, 1943-1960
    • Orphans in Gethsemane, Alan Swallow, 1960
      • two volumes (pbk): The Great Confessionand For Passion, for Heaven, 1960
    • My Holy Satan: A Novel of Christian Twilight, Alan Swallow, 1958
    • Peace Like a River: A Novel of Christian Asceticism, Alan Swallow, 1957
    • A Goat for Azazel: A Novel of Christian Origins, Alan Swallow, 1956
    • Jesus Came Again: A Parable, Alan Swallow, 1956
    • The Island of the Innocent: A Novel of Greek and Jew in the Time of the Maccabees, Abelard Press, 1952
    • The Valley of Vision: A Novel of King Solomon and His Time, Pyramid Books, 1951
    • The Divine Passion, Vanguard Press, 1948
    • Adam and the Serpent, Vanguard Press, 1947
    • Intimations of Eve, Vanguard Press, 1946
    • The Golden Rooms, Vanguard Press, 1944
    • Darkness and the Deep, Vanguard Press, 1943
  • City of Illusion, Berkeley Publishing Group, 1941
  • Children of God, Harper and Brothers, 1939
  • Forgive Us Our Virtues: A Comedy of Evasions,The Caxton Printers, 1938
  • April: A Fable of Love,Doubleday, Doran, & Co. with The Caxton Printers, 1937
  • Vridar Hunter tetralogy, The Caxton Printers, 1932-1936
    • No Villain Need Be, The Caxton Printers, 1936
    • We Are Betrayed, The Caxton Printers, 1935
    • Passions Spin the Plot, The Caxton Printers, 1934
    • In Tragic Life, The Caxton Printers, 1932
  • Dark Bridwell, Bruin Books, 1931
  • Toilers of the Hills, Houghton Mifflin, 1928

Short stories

  • Love and Death: The Complete Stories of Vardis Fisher, Doubleday, 1959

Non-fiction

  • The Boise Guide, posthumously published as Vardis Fisher's Boise, Rediscovered Books, 2019
  • Gold Rushes and Mining Camps of the Early American West, The Caxton Printers, 1968 (co-written with Opal Laurel Holmes)
  • Thomas Wolfe As I Knew Him and Other Essays, Alan Swallow, 1963
  • Suicide or Murder: The Strange Death of Meriwether Lewis, Alan Swallow, 1962
  • God or Caesar? The Writing of Fiction for Beginners, The Caxton Printers, 1953
  • The Caxton Printers in Idaho, Society of Bibliosophers, 1944
  • Idaho Lore, The Federal Writers' Project, 1939
  • The Idaho Encyclopedia, The Federal Writers' Project, 1938
  • Idaho: A Guide in Word and Picture, The Federal Writers' Project, 1937 
  • The Neurotic Nightingale, Casanova Press, 1935

Poetry

  • Sonnets to an Imaginary Madonna, Harold Vinal, 1927

Links

Vardis Fisher on The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction

CSPAN Interview

Archives West 

Yale Archives

BYU Idaho Archives

Record of Papers

Interview with Librarian Who Found Lost Book

Article on Lost Book