The Character of Meriwether Lewis: Explorer in the Wilderness

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The Character of Meriwether Lewis: Explorer in the Wilderness. By Clay S. Jenkinson. (Washburn, ND: Dakota Institute Press of the Lewis & Clark Fort Mandan Foundation; distributed by the University of Oklahoma Press, 2011. Pp. xxxiv, 456. $19.95.)

The internal life of Meriwether Lewis is all the more bewildering because of the central achievement of his external life. Three years after he and William Clark led their Corps of Discovery across the wild continent and back, demonstrating that he did indeed possess what Jefferson called "courage undaunted," Meriwether Lewis killed himself. It is hard for the imagination to cross the divide from the intrepid explorer exuberantly drinking the cold water at the source of the Missouri River to the broken man bedeviled by self-doubt, malaria, and alcohol. With this volume, Clay S. Jenkinson provides an indispensable guide through the tumultuous inner life of Lewis in his later years.

Jenkinson admits to the speculative quicksand that hides around the bushes in such a study. Indeed, when he introduces his thesis with an observation by the nature essayist Barry Lopez that Lewis may have "ventured too far and he was unable to come back," one wonders if the subsequent analysis will support the poetic conjecture (xxiii). What is especially masterful about Jenkinson's study is that it does; the cumulative effect of his many dissections is a compelling framework for understanding Lewis's inner turmoil. This is due in part to the author's careful explication of the expedition journals and subsequent correspondence with Clark, Jefferson, and others. Far from the popular notion that the two cocaptains were nearly interchangeable, this reading of the text demonstrates that Lewis was "high-strung, excitable, romantic, and self-dramatizing," as opposed to "the able, affable, and straightforward William Clark" (45). …