Cataloguing Discovery

By Hallock, Thomas | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Cataloguing Discovery


Hallock, Thomas, The Virginia Quarterly Review


Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. By Stephen E. Ambrose. Simon & Schuster. $27.50.

Acts of Discovery: Visions of America in the Lewis and Clark Journals. By Albert Furtwangler. Illinois. $29.95.

In a small but telling coincidence, two very different books on the Lewis and Clark expedition begin in the same way, with the author revealing where he first read the Journals. Stephen Ambrose borrowed the Nicholas Biddle edition from his aunt in 1975, plowed through the set, and the rest is (shall we say) history: the following summer, Ambrose celebrated the Bicentennial with his family, friends, and 25 students at Lemhi Pass, where the Corps of Discovery crossed the Continental Divide; he has traced the country almost every year since that glorious Fourth of July; patriotism and a profound identification with Meriwether Lewis breathe through his biography of the explorer. Paying quieter homage, Albert Furtwangler recalls the pleasure of reading Bernard DeVoto's classic abridgement on a crosscountry train home from college, and credits-in addition to the requisite camping trips along the company's trail-the education from elementary through graduate school that made the Journals accessible to him. Something about the subject of Lewis and Clark produces deeply personal scholarship. Both of these studies are thoroughly researched and well written; their poignancy, however, derives to a large part from the authors' candidly stated involvement in the material.

This personal stake presents some risks, of course. The expedition offers notoriously unstable ground for writers, and a close identification with Lewis and Clark leaves open the same narrative pitfalls that the original journalists met. The Corps of Discovery was (among other things) a state-of-the-art gathering machine, its leaders fulfilled this aspect of their mission admirably, and collected more knowledge about the West than any one person could ever catalogue alone. The late Donald Jackson called Lewis and Clark "the writingest explorers ever," and the literature generated by the trek-not just the Journals and related documents, but countless articles, a shelf of monographs, even a quarterly publication-takes years to master. One writes in retrospect about the journey by necessity, because of the time needed to sift through the primary material and relevant scholarship. The question of time, moreover, points to a second problem: organization. How does one collate into a single, intelligible account the embarrassment of riches that the Corps of Discovery amassed?

The opening of the West offers many great and tragic stories; just figuring out how to assemble the many stories is one of them. From the beginning, the conventions of 18th-century travel literature suggested two narrative modes to Lewis and Clark, each with its own structuring basis. The first, a surveyor's log or itinerary, followed a largely chronological plan, noting the events of the day as they arose. Clark wrote this way, and his consistent-if not tedious-diary forms the bulk of the Journals. Lewis, on the other hand, thought on a much grander scale than his partner, and would supplement the daily record with the static form of a scientific or geographic essay. Although several discourses were at work, the more-schooled of the two Captains probably sought to fuse the voyage motif with a Western version of Jefferson's Notes on Virginia. A prospectus released in 1807 promised a four-volume, encyclopedic account of Louisiana: the first two installments would provide maps and a narrative of the journey, and the next two would catalogue the flora, fauna, and native inhabitants of the territory. A definitive, first-hand edition never materialized, however. For reasons partly related to this authorial burden, Lewis took his own life in 1809.

Jefferson and Clark (a military man but no author) scrambled to make alternatives, but the resulting History of the Expedition of Captains Lewis and Clark included only the daily record, and contained almost no scientific or ethnographic data. …

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