Published: Nov. 13, 2015

Original article can be found at The Denver Post  
Originally published on November 13, 2015 By Patty Limerick 

The University of Colorado at Boulder has given an honorary Ph.D. to a contentious public figure with a habit of using words like “stupidity,” “idiocy,” and “imbecility” to characterize his opponents’ positions. 

Before you get braced for another ill-tempered squabble over free expression in higher education, note this important matter of timing: This honorary degree was awarded to Bernard DeVoto, one of the West’s great public intellectuals, in 1948. 

We can be certain that the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association did not celebrate the awarding of this degree. Not long before the ceremony, DeVoto had taken to expressing well-publicized outrage when Western cattlemen demanded greater access to public lands. 

“If you listen late at night,” DeVoto wrote to an ally in March 1948, “you will hear an odd, steady sound. That is me boiling. … I seem to have got mad.” In a cascade of pieces appearing in “The Easy Chair,” his column in Harpers Magazine, DeVoto denounced the cattle industry and its congressional representatives. 

Expressing disagreement, DeVoto wasted no time on diplomatic persuasion. “My opinions may be wrong,” DeVoto once wrote to an opponent, “but they are based on experience and prolonged study, and I doubt that yours are.” 

So what should we make of the University of Colorado ‘s decision to give an honorary degree to a pre-eminent practitioner of the take-no-prisoners style of argument? Is it imaginable that DeVoto should serve as a role model for CU students? 

Here are five features of DeVoto’s life that suggest such a possibility. 

• DeVoto had a breathtaking work ethic and an impressive ease with language. He wrote novels, histories, literary criticism, columns, book reviews, and an unending stream of letters. As he once told his wife, “I am a literary department store.” 

• When he chose to, DeVoto could and did turn antagonists into friends. 

• His kindness to the young was legendary. If you know college students who are struggling, please give them DeVoto’s 1929 letter to Raleigh Blake, one of humanity’s highest achievements in cross-generational advice. 

• DeVoto charted his course in life by thinking long-term. “What we want posterity to do for us,” he wrote, “is to value us as ancestors and predecessors.” 

• DeVoto over time took up a more forgiving and hopeful way of dealing with human self-contradiction. As a young man, he was quick to denounce inconsistency in his fellow humans. His peak performance in this vein appeared in his classic summation of the stance of the Westerner toward the federal government: “Get out and give us more money.” And yet, at the time of his death at age 58, the manuscript he left unfinished was titled not “Western Hypocrisy” but, rather, “Western Paradox.” 

In a moment of perfect phrasing, DeVoto declared that Westerners were “children of paradox and begetters of paradox.” 

It took one to know one. 

That capacity for self-recognition is one big reason to be glad that my university gave DeVoto his honorary degree. 

Read Bernard DeVoto’s letter to Raleigh Blake. 

Patty Limerick is faculty director and chair of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado. She and Douglas Brinkley are co-editors of the posthumous publication of “Western Paradox.” Devotees of Bernard DeVoto are encouraged to write to