An author and expert on the American West, he won a Pulitzer Prize for Across the Wide Missouri, a 1947 historical work. His other works include The House of Sun-Goes-Down, The Year of Decision: 1846, and Mark Twain at Work.
He interrupted his studies at Harvard University to fight in World War I. Later, he taught English at Northwestern University.
He received a National Book Award for The Course of Empire, a 1952 non-fiction work.
He grew up in Ogden, Utah. With his wife, Avis DeVoto, he had two sons: Mark and Gordon.
He and Patti Smith were both recipients of the National Book Award for Nonfiction.