Some of my favorite news stories are about treasures lost and rediscovered – a priceless painting found under decades of dust in someone’s attic, an unreleased Beatles song turning up in a vault, the discovery of a lost manuscript by a famous author.
A lost manuscript by Vardis Fisher recently was found after lying untouched in a folder for nearly 80 years.
“Vardis Who?” you may ask.
A fair question. All but forgotten today, Fisher was once Idaho’s best known writer. He was brilliant, iconoclastic, infuriating. He wrote 36 books, evoking comparisons with Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner. He also drove a wife to suicide and alienated both critics and readers with his acerbic observations – which earned him the nickname “Old Irascible.”
They also had a lot to do with the lost manuscript’s never being published.
Alessandro Meregaglia, a Boise State University assistant professor and archivist discovered the manuscript. Meregaglia was researching the history of Caldwell’s Caxton Printers when he learned that Fisher had written several books for the Federal Writers Project, a Depression era program that provided jobs for unemployed writers, and that some of them had never been published.
Fisher was the Idaho director of the Federal Writers Project and then the author of five novels and a book of poetry. Intrigued by a footnote that “Old Irascible” had written about the unpublished manuscripts, Meregaglia traveled to Washington, D.C. and found one of them. Gathering dust in an obscure folder in the Library of Congress was a guide to Boise, written in 1938.
“There was a carbon copy that Fisher had made, and the original that the editors had marked up,” Meregaglia said. “If it had been published that way, it would have been a lot less interesting.”
Eight decades later, the original is finally being published. “Vardis Fisher’s Boise” will be released in January. Far from being a dry historical tome, it gives us a glimpse of what Idaho’s capital city actually was like in those days, written as only Fisher would have.
Boise, he wrote, was “physically attractive, but it is the trees and not the buildings that make it so.”
He wasted neither time nor ink on buildings he found unworthy of attention:
If “the universities or other institutions or public buildings such as the state capitol are omitted, it is because they are unimpressive in comparison with corresponding features in many other states.”
He happily lampooned two of the city’s architectural gems.
“… The Idanha Hotel some thirty years ago was the edifice at which Boise pointed with greatest pride, but nobody finds it beautiful today. It has been supplanted in public esteem by the Hotel Boise,” now the Hoff Building and an example of “old-fashioned stupidity.”
“… Along any of several streets can be seen enough incongruous architectural ineptness to abash any lover of the beautiful…”
“Fisher wasn’t afraid to describe places and things as he saw them,” Meregaglia said. “He was certainly no economic booster, which was most likely the reason the book didn’t get published. The city didn’t want it published. It was too acerbic, too sarcastic.”
Parts of it, however, are complimentary:
Boise’s 85,000 trees, “more than any other city in the nation without an arboretum,” gave it the “somewhat legendary distinction of being one of the loveliest cities in the nation. … Boise today has many long, leafy avenues with ceilings arched over and dappled shadows on the concrete.”
That said, he couldn’t resist a dig. Without the trees, “the city would not inappropriately invite the metaphor of a peacock divested of its feathers.”
The book provides a snapshot of a gone era. High-tech and outdoor recreation are nowhere to be found in Fisher’s Boise. The principal industries: agriculture, dairying, mining and lumbering.
The city had 11 hotels, six downtown theaters (the Ada, Pinney, Granda, Rialto, Rio and Lyric), two newspapers (The Idaho Daily Statesman and the Boise Capital News), two radio stations (KFXD and KIDO), and two airports, one not far from where today’s airport is and another on the current site of BSU’s Albertsons Stadium. Charles Lindbergh once landed there.
Readers may learn things they never knew about Boise. I was born in Boise, have spent most of my life there and didn’t know that Zoo Boise began with one monkey that escaped from a circus.
Or that an early name of the Boise River, as shown on a Lewis and Clark map, was “the Coppoppabash, said to mean place of the cottonwoods.”
Maybe we should change it back. Coppoppabash is a lot more fun to say.
What would Fisher think of Boise today?
“I don’t know,” Meregaglia said. “Do I think he’d like the growth? I honestly don’t know.”
Having spent several years researching and writing a biography of Fisher, I have a pretty good idea. He would hate the growth. He would dismiss some of the downtown buildings as being patently hideous.
He was blunt to the point of offending people, including critics who otherwise might have furthered his reputation, and readers today would rightly take offense at the book’s brief section on race. It includes some degrading stereotypes, which the editors deplored but let stand because it was “important to the integrity as a historical text to preserve the language and attitudes of the time in which it was written.”
“Vardis Fisher’s Boise” shows its author at his best and worst. At his best, he was fiercely independent, insightful and almost never boring. And, unlike some city guides, this one is anything but boring.
“It’s not a book you’d send to your grandmother,” Bruce DeLaney, co-owner of Boise’s Rediscovered Bookshop, said. “It’s not a typical guidebook. It’s one person’s view of what Boise was like at the time.”
Priced at $19.95, it will be released at The Rediscovered Bookshop at 180 N. Eighth St. on Jan. 30.
Without Fisher there to sign copies, it should go smoothly. At one of his signings, he insulted a customer and turned over a table of books.
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday and is posted on woodwarblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.