America’s Heroic Moment

Meriwether Lewis: A Biography

by George Dillon
Coward-McCann, 364 pp., $6.95

The Journals of Lewis and Clark

edited by Bernard DeVoto
Houghton Mifflin, 504 pp., $6.50

Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, with Related Documents 1783-1854

edited by Donald Jackson
University of Illinois, 728 pp., $

In many ways Meriwether Lewis and William Clark have fared well at the hands of scholars, editors, and biographers. In 1953 Bernard DeVoto made an excellent condensation of the costly eight volumes of the Original Journals edited by Reuben Gold Thwaites, and in 1962 the University of Illinois Press published a volume, beautifully edited by Mr. Donald Jackson, and of almost startling interest and readability, Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, With Related Documents, 1783-1854. In addition there have been several good monographs and a few biographies of more or less popular cast. Mr. Dillon’s new biography of Lewis is the best of these, based very solidly on the Original Journals and the Letters. It is a creditable performance, and no doubt it needed to be done. But life is not long enough for most readers to devote more than a modest portion of it to reading about Lewis and Clark, and in the hours or days available for this purpose it would seem better to resort to DeVoto’s condensation of the Journals and Donald Jackson’s edition of the Letters. To say this is to imply no serious criticism of Mr. Dillon’s very interesting book.

As figures both Lewis and Clark have a simplicity, even a plainness, that seems at first to contrast strangely with the romantic aura that hovers vaguely around their expedition in the minds of most readers. Most writers on Lewis and Clark fail to resolve this tension satisfactorily, and on this score Mr. Dillon is not especially successful. The Lewis and Clark expedition was a high imaginative achievement quite as much as it was a practical one; but there are many imaginative modes in which to create, to act, and to have visions, and their mode was not the romantic one that with the help of Cooper, Irving, and Parkman settled down across the American West in the generations that followed. To read the copious writings of the two explorers themselves is to discover the marks not of a romantic but of an heroic age. As far as I know, they alone among the early American explorers communicate this note in their writings. But if for a moment they did create something like an heroic age beyond the Mississippi, it was an age that passed very quickly. When we open the pages of the Journals and the Letters of Lewis and Clark, we are at once in a world of practical activities and concrete things: of boat-building, the requisitioning of horses and arms, and we are presented with long lists of Lewis’s requirements for the expedition that manage in some strange way to be richly evocative of an early world: axes, trumpets, iron spoons, copper kettles, coils of rope, bolts of scarlet cloth, adzes, tinsel tassels, mirrors, vermilion, scalping knives, and so on through many pages.

The community that existed between Lewis and Clark and the forty-three men of the first American expedition to the Pacific was precisely of the …

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