Before I get to the book itself, I need to explain a thing or two, not least who Vardis Fisher was.
Fisher was Idaho’s best-known author for decades. If the question “What about Hemingway?” popped into your head I wouldn’t be surprised. Ernest Hemingway did some important writing while residing in Idaho, but he wasn’t born here. Vardis Fisher was, along the Snake River near Rigby.
Best known today for his 1965 novel Mountain Man: A Novel of Male and Female.* Fisher wrote 29 novels and nine nonfiction books in his long career. That 1965 novel was made into the movie Jerimiah Johnson in 1972, thus its lingering fame. Most of his other work has been forgotten by the general public.
Idaho historians know Fisher well, though. He was really Idaho’s only well-known writer in 1935 when he was named director of the Idaho Writers Project. Every state had a similar project, sponsored by the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), a program of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Works Project Administration. It was a New Deal program meant to put writers to work during the Great Depression.
In Idaho, it mostly put one writer to work, Vardis Fisher. That writer was one hard worker. Three books came out of the Writers’ Project, Idaho: A Guide in Word and Picture (1937), The Idaho Encyclopedia (1938), and Idaho Lore (1939).* Fisher was so prolific that he beat all the other states to press with the Idaho guide, much to the chagrin of FWP officials in Washington, DC, who had planned a book on the nation’s capital to be the first in the nationwide guidebook series.
All three books were produced by Caxton Printers of Caldwell, the company that had published Fisher’s five novels (at that time). Publisher James H. Gipson and Vardis Fisher were great friends. They planned on publishing at least one more book together for the Federal Writers’ Project, a guidebook to Boise.
Fisher largely wrote without a filter. That is, he wrote exactly what he thought. The manuscript for the Boise guidebook has whole section of raw Fisher commentary crossed out by editors in DC. To their credit, Rediscovered Publishing ignored most of that, sticking closely to the original manuscript.
But those crossed-out comments are probably what kept the book unpublished in its day. One of the rules of the Federal Writers’ Project was that each book had to have a sponsor. Someone in an official capacity had to put their imprimatur on each book before it could be published. In the case of the Boise book the mayor, the chamber of commerce, even the secretary of state would do. No one was willing to bless it. That’s why the manuscript got boxed up with other material from the federal project and shipped to Washington, DC where Alessandro Meregaglia would finally find it, chasing it down after reading a footnote about it in a book on the FWP.
So, why wouldn’t anyone in an official capacity in Idaho give the book their blessing? Read the first couple of sentences from the main body of the book for a clue.
“As cities go, Boise is physically attractive, but it is the trees and not the buildings that make it so. Like cities everywhere it suffers from want of congruity and planning structures, and so presents the appearance of having grown up in a burst of individualism, with no regard in any building for those around it.”
Fisher’s Boise guide had an honesty about it that those familiar with boosterism books would not recognize. His writing is generally not derogatory. It is simply viewed with a critical eye.
Fisher blamed politics for not being able to secure a sponsor for his book, finding Republicans lodged solidly in every institution he approached. FDR’s New Deal and its Federal Writers’ Project were not popular with GOP members.
Vardis Fisher’s Boise is a snapshot of history from more than 80 years ago, at last unearthed like the product of an archeological dig. Spend a few minutes with it and you’ll learn why Fisher was considered one of the great writers of his time.
Note that Idaho Press contributor Tim Woodward wrote the biography of Vardis Fisher. It is called Tiger on the Road.*
Courtesy of Boise State Special Collections and Archives