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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 character that we find described in heroic poetry. It was a group whose large freedom of behavior was restrained and shaped by the dominant personalities of Lewis and Clark rather than by the rigorous imposition of military discipline. We are told repeatedly how the young men of the expedition entertained visiting Indians and their chiefs by dancing for them—a charming inversion of the usual roles; and York. Clark’s negro slave, mimed for the savages. “He…made himself more turribal than he wished him to doe.” Clark writes, Curiously enough, Clark’s sensitively inventive spelling ends up by enhancing rather than diminishing the natural elevation and dignity of his style. In representative notes like the following. Clark’s peculiar orthography not only underlines his warm human tolerance, but conjures up a native village and its customs more vividly than he could have managed with orthodox spelling:

Those people are Durtey, Kind, pore, & extravigent, pursessing national pride, not beggarley recive what is given with great pleasure, Live in warm houses, large and built in oxigon form forming a cone at top….a curious custom with the Souix as well as the rickeres is to give handsom squars to those whome they wish to Show some acknowledgements to…2 handsom young Squars were sent by a man to follow us, they came up this evening, and pursisted in their civilities.

Despite the exuberant spirits that buoyed the expedition up under so many difficulties. Clark was ready at a moment’s notice, to confront a moral crisis with archaic simplicity and resolution:

I was allarmed about 10 oClock by the Sentinal, who informed that an Indian was about to kill his wife in the interpeter’s [interpreter’s] fire about 60 yards below the works, I went down and Spoke to the fellow about the rash act which he was like to commit and forbid any act of the kind near the fort.

The prevailing spirit of the expedition was not romantic and reckless bravery, but a combination of courage, intelligence, and dignity that filtered down from the peculiar qualities of the two leaders, and herein particularly lies the explanation of that “heroic” quality that has been noted. This becomes especially evident in the skill, diplomacy, and fearlessness with which the party outfaced the Teton Sioux, whose terrorism and exacted tributes had virtually destroyed Spanish and French fur trading on the Missouri. The admirable account in the Journals of the tact and resolution with which the expedition called the bluff of the extortionists might be used as a model of foreign policy, even today, in dealing with small, unpleasantly truculent nations.

It is necessary to remember that the Lewis and Clark expedition was not merely the physical conquest of a new world by brave but unlettered men. Jefferson intended it to be a conquest in knowledge also, and towards this end he had seen to it that Lewis, during his two years as the President’s secretary, should be specially trained and instructed by America’s leading scientists. Jefferson’s letter of instructions to Lewis, June 20, 1803, reprinted in Jackson’s edition of the Letters, gives a remarkable insight into the amplitude of Jefferson’s vision. It also makes clear, as little else can, the intellectual and moral as well as physical stature that would be required of the men who should lead and complete the mission. Lewis turned out to be a veritable Odysseus in the wilderness, and although he lacked Lewis’s education and scientific training. Clark’s intelligence made him a worthy partner in the enterprise.

The capacity of both men for coping with the most difficult problems of the exploration is illustrated in their triumphant solution of the puzzle that confronted them when, in the course of the upper Missouri, they came to the embouchure of a north fork (the Milk River) of such size and current that it was impossible to determine (as they must do to complete their mission) which of the two streams was the true Missouri. No historian has shown a more sensitive appreciation of the achievement of Lewis and Clark than the late Bernard DeVoto. In The Course of Empire he makes this rather surprising evaluation of the intelligence and ingenuity that the two men brought to the solution of their problem:

The commanders of a momentous exploration thus answered the question that must be answered right if the expedition was not to fail. At this critical turning point, with immediate failure hanging in the balance, the answer is co-operative and joint. It is Lewis who writes down the reasoning in the Journals, but this analysis is as clearly Clark’s as his, for it was Clark who had formulated the winter’s data, had checked and rechecked and tabulated it, and must now check it again for unperceived possibilities of error in calculation or in reasoning. And this joint effort is a remarkable act of the mind. Considering all that went into it and all that depended on it, it must be conceded a distinguished place in the history of thought.

It would be absurd to pretend that the achievement of Lewis and Clark has been scanted, but apart from a very few writers like Bernard DeVoto, its essentially creative and imaginative character has been missed, its essentially “heroic” quality sacrificed in the interests of Western Romanticism. It was no doubt his sense of this “heroic” quality, possibly unique in American annals, that led Mr. Robert Penn Warren at the close of that odd, often exasperating, poem, Brother to Dragons, to bring the ghost of Lewis back to confront Jefferson with the charge of betrayal. The great vision that is implicit in Jefferson’s letter of instructions to Lewis could scarcely, in the nature of things, be realized. The extraordinary thing is that for a moment it seemed to be incarnated in heroic action. But it was bound to end (and this I take it is Warren’s point) in petty commerce, avarice, cruelty, ambition, and the falsifications that man is heir to.

The falsifications so far as the American West is concerned began early. The men of serious purpose and dedication, of whom there were very few to approach Lewis and Clark, were soon joined by a group of sophisticated Easterners and Europeans who came along for the ride, and the Heroic West that may have existed only for the duration of Lewis and Clark’s expedition gave way to the Romantic West. The newcomers were often young and charming, and they had a dramatic flair in the quality of their imagination, their behavior, and their dress. Washington Irving was already fortynine when he made his excursion described in A Tour of the Prairies, but he delighted in the graces of his young traveling companion, the Count, who represented the type more perfectly than Irving could ever have hoped to, even in youth. Irving’s admiration glows through his description:

His dress was a gay Indian hunting-frock of dressed deer-skin, setting well to the shape, dyed of a beautiful purple, and fancifully embroidered with silks of various colors; as if it had been the work of some Indian beauty, to decorate a favorite chief. With this he wore leathern pantaloons and moccasons, a foraging-cap, and a double-barralled gun slung by a bandoleer athwart his back: so that he was quite a picturesque figure as he managed gracefully his spirited steed.

To many of these young men their brief season on the frontier was a Mardi gras with no Lent to follow. A good many of them had literary backgrounds, and they tended to see the landscape, the Indians, the flora and fauna, as if they were out of Spenser or mythology. Colorful, indeed theatrical as their books occasionally are, there can be something a little disturbing about them at times. Most books in the literature of the American West tend to be sticky with the blood of slaughtered buffalo and bucks, but in the Journals of Lewis and Clark the hunting accounts are direct and simple with no intrusions of sentiment that threaten to spill over into sadism at any moment. Clark makes notations like this:

opposite to us we Saw a Gangue of Buffalow bulls which we did not think worth while to kill, our hunters killed 4 Coats [Goats] 6 Deer 4 Elk & a pelican & informs that they saw in one gang: 248 Elk.

No matter how much one dislikes hunting as a practice, it is difficult to find this offensive. But the complicated pirouettes of sentiment in which Irving indulges have something noxious about them:

There was something in this picture of the last moments of a wounded deer to touch the sympathies of one not hardened to the gentle disports of the chase; such sympathies, however, are out transient. Man is naturally an animal of prey; and, however changed by civilization, will readily relapse into his instinct for destruction. I found my ravenous and sanguinary propensities daily growing stronger upon the prairies.

By the time the two Bostonians, Francis Parkman (then twenty-three) and his friend Quincy Adams Shaw, made their western trip to Fort Laramie in 1846, the “sanguinary propensities” of visiting Easterners had acquired a rather nasty look, and the sadistic urge was not invariably confined to animals. Out of his journals kept on this expedition Parkman drew his colorfully dramatic account, The Oregon Trail. Parkman was a complicated if not complex personality. Bernard DeVoto, among others, has commented on the avidity with which he treats scenes of torture in his histories of France and England in North America. Doubtless in Parkman’s case this was partly motivated by his neurotic fear of weakness in himself, but its effect is often no more pleasant than straightforward sadism. There are probably more offensive passages in reputable American literature than the following from Chapter IX of The Oregon Trail, but none comes to mind at the moment. Having arrived at Laramie, Parkman and Shaw developed an intimacy with the Indians living near the fort, and in their visits to a neighboring village young Shaw undertook medical ministrations on the savages:

He had brought him a homeopathic medicine-chest, and was, I presume, the first who introduced that harmless system of treatment among the Ogillallah…. A hideous, emaciated old woman sat in the darkest corner of the lodge, rocking to and fro with pain, and hiding her eyes from the light by pressing the palms of both hands against her face…. She came forward very unwillingly, and exhibited a pair of eyes that had nearly disappeared from inflammation. No sooner had the doctor fastened his grip upon her, then she sat up a dismal moaning, and writhed so in his grasp that he lost all patience; but being resolved to carry his point, he succeeded at last in applying his favorite remedies.

It is strange,” he said, when the operation was finished, “that I forgot to bring my Spanish flies with me; we must have something here to answer for a counter-irritant.”

So, in the absence of better, he seized upon a red-hot brand from the fire, and clapped it against the temple of the old squaw, who sat up an unearthly howl, at which the rest of the family broke into a laugh.

It is surprising that Charles Eliot Norton, who undertook to expurgate references to sex and liquor from the manuscript before publication, saw nothing offensive here to delete, but his blindness carries a certain eloquence. From all these later products of the romantic agony of the American West, one returns for relief to the pages of Lewis and Clark. To compare their Journals with the later accounts of the West is to appreciate and measure their stature with a new recognition, and to see clearly for the first time the differences that separate the two great explorers of America’s “heroic” moment from their romantic and slightly unsavory heirs.

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