- Publisher: The Dakota Institute
- Available in: Hardcover, Paperback
- ISBN: ISBN-10: 0982559739, ISBN-13: 978-0982559734
- Published: December 10, 2011
This is my most important book. If I had to put one piece of scholarship in a time capsule, as representing what I am capable of, I would select this book. Not everyone agrees with my conclusions about gifted, troubled Meriwether Lewis, but I believe I ask all the right questions and have provided what I hope is an indispensable foundation for future Lewis studies.
It has long seemed to me probable and it now seems to me irrefutable that Meriwether Lewis committed suicide on October 11, 1809. The Lewis & Clark community spends far too much time debating “whether” and not nearly enough exploring “why?” I believe Lewis killed himself because:
-He could not complete his book, which Jefferson assumed would be the closing triumph of the expedition.
-He was so angry at the petty bureaucrats of President Madison’s War Department that he took his own life, as he put it, to deny them the triumph of ruining him over his silences and irregular financial dealings out in St. Louis.
-He could not find a way to re-enter American life after his extraordinary sojourn into the heart of the heart of the continent.
-His “partner in discover” William Clark moved on with his own life (marriage, children, property, success) and Lewis was left a “musty, fusty, rusty old bachelor.” Though Lewis and Clark were never lovers, they were partners in deeply intimate ways, and their “breakup” in 1807 left Lewis alone and deeply depressed.
-He was desperately ill with malaria and other physical maladies; over-medicating with laudanum and alcohol and a variety of toxic nostrums; and he was unable in the last weeks of his life to maintain any steady rationality.
My book explores Lewis’s great difficulties in the three years following his successful exploration of the Missouri and Columbia river systems. My thinking about Lewis was shaped by the Oregon writer and philosopher Barry Lopez, who asks, “How far can you go out and still come back?”
I loved writing this book. It was the greatest sustained literary achievement of my life (so far), and it enabled me to bring together a range of humanities disciplines to focus on one truly remarkable but troubled American hero. I greatly admire Meriwether Lewis. I do not think less of him, or of the expedition he led, because he took his own life in 1809. In fact, I think that Lewis’s troubles give him an authenticity that he would not otherwise have. Many explorers have difficult last days and re-entries: Columbus, Mungo Park, Magellan, Sir Walter Raleigh, Captain Cook, and Buzz Aldrin.
In spite of the “gloomy aspect” of Lewis’s premature death, The Character of Meriwether Lewis is a happy and joyful book about someone who found a way to thrive in today’s Montana. My goal was to try to understand the highs and lows of Lewis’s life, to study him as he actually was not as we might like him to have been, and to engage in the closest reading yet of the journals Lewis wrote and his colleagues wrote about him. In the chapter entitled “Why?” I try to give a full account of what I believe were the happiest days of Lewis’s life, between June 13 and August 28, 1805, between the Great Falls and the end of the Shoshone Indian interlude.
To read the chapter “Getting There First” from The Character of Meriwether Lewis, click here.
To view the illustrations for the book, commissioned by the Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation, and superbly created by Michael Haynes, click here.
“A careful examination of the expedition’s journals reveals the Corps of Discovery’s slow-motion striptease. First their boots gave out and were replaced by moccasins, which were a highly imperfect footwear for young men pushing thirty tons of baggage up the Missouri River. Then their cloth shirts and trousers gave out. Late in the journey, Lewis petulantly reported the loss of his dress uniform coat. ‘I think the U’ States are indebted to me another Uniform coat, for that of which I have disposed on this occasion was but little woarn.’ On July 4, 1805, the last of the whiskey was distributed to celebrate the American republic’s twenty-ninth birthday. The flour ran out, and the smoked pork. At some point at Fort Clatsop the tobacco supply had been fully consumed.”