March 31

This Day in History

Old West

Mar 31, 1895:

Western novelist Vardis Fisher born

Vardis Fisher, a gifted novelist who dealt with both the myth and reality of the American West, is born in Annis, Idaho.

Fisher, educated at the University of Utah and the University of Chicago, was one of the most important forces for establishing a uniquely western voice in American literature. His greatest influence as a writer came through the many western novels he published, but he also taught English periodically throughout his career. Among the students he influenced was the great western writer Wallace Stegner.

Fisher established his distinctive style and themes with his first novel, Toilers of the Hills (1928). The hero, Dock Hunter, embraces the prevalent myth that he can successfully farm the high dry lands of Idaho without irrigation. Even after repeated failures, Hunter refuses to admit that the idea might be wrong and instead redoubles his futile efforts. Fisher's best-known novel, Children of God, garnered considerable attention for its honest depiction of Mormon bigotry, but the central theme was similar to that of his first book: the dangers of obsessively following an idea, and the human power to ignore grim reality in favor of fantasy.

Later in his career, Fisher wrote several historical novels set in the West, including a highly fictionalized but entertaining account of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Tale of Valor (1958). Fisher's research for that novel led him to write a follow-up work of non-fiction called Suicide or Murder? in which he made the controversial case that Meriwether Lewis might have been a victim of murder rather than suicide. His last novel, Mountain Man, celebrated the footloose life of the 19th century mountain men and became the primary fictional source for Robert Redford's popular 1972 film Jeremiah Johnson.

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