A review of Exploring Lewis and Clark: Reflections on Men and Wilderness, by Thomas P. Slaughter

Thomas Slaughter stalks Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in his engaging romp through the expedition's journals, now available in a massive 13-volume edition edited by Gary Moulton and recently published in time for the expedition's bicentennial by University of Nebraska Press. Slaughter's "close reading" of journal texts—chiefly entries by the intrepid leaders—is buttressed by his expertise as a cultural historian and historical ethnographer. Emphasizing the cultural divide between the "corps of discovery" and the native peoples they thought they were discovering, Slaughter offers a series of meditations, or "reflections;" on what the explorers learned—or, more often, failed to learn—as they encountered incomprehensible "Others" and their equally incomprehensible selves on their way westward. Sometimes the results are illuminating, both of their subjects and of our own contemporary preoccupations; sometimes they are over the top. But Exploring Lewis and Clark is never less than entertaining.

Though Slaughter writes against the grain of the celebratory, mythologizing literature on the expedition, he never fully extricates himself from its grip. Instead, he simply turns the mythology upside down and inside out. You may have thought that the expedition was a great success, testimony to its heroic leaders' "undaunted courage." But Slaughter tells us that Lewis and Clark were great failures in what should have been a voyage of self-discovery, or even, had they followed the lead of Plains Indians, a "vision quest." 

Slaughter's argument for the expedition's failure will not persuade very many readers, but it may breathe some fresh life into a tired old narrative. His first move is to construct the ideal type "explorer," who aspires to be "the first white man to claim a discovery and to report it in print in a European language." The explorer may be sent off by his king—or, in this case, president—for various political, economic, and scientific reasons, but he acts according to more deeply embedded cultural and psychological imperatives: his manhood, his whiteness, and his civility are always on the line. The explorer moves forward—"'civilized' time is linear"—collecting specimens (including the people he encounters), "constantly triangulating his insecure sense of self against all comers," and "frequently" asserting "his superiority by killing what he finds." Explorers thus discover "themselves through contacts with such Others as mountains, deserts, rivers, weather, animals, women, and other men."

This all may be true of the "explorer." But what about Lewis and Clark? Were they obsessed with being first? Were their expectations so disappointed that they felt like failures? Slaughter says Lewis and Clark were desperate to be "first," self-consciously modeling themselves on Christopher Columbus and James Cook. Lewis's obsession was extreme: "his ambition for a gendered and racial achievement superseded any mere national, linguistic, or cultural 'first.'" But the textual evidence for these conclusions is problematic at best.

Of course, Lewis and Clark were preoccupied with mapping their travels and locating themselves in a terrain that was entirely unfamiliar to European visitors. Along the upper reaches of the Missouri and on across the Rocky Mountains (at this latitude), they knew themselves to be the "first" explorers, naming mountains and rivers after themselves, other expedition members (even Sacajawea), President Jefferson, and other prominent Americans. At the same time, they knew they would not be the first across the continent—Alexander Mackenzie had crossed to the north more than 10 years earlier—nor, needless to say, would they be the "first" white men along the Northwest coast, where a busy trade was already well underway. In other words, they knew, more or less accurately, where they would be first and where they wouldn't, well before they set off. 

Slaughter needs to minimize the explorers' knowledge of prior discoveries, however, in order to make the failure-to-be-first argument plausible. Thus he says, "they aimed to be the first to connect Christopher Columbus's 'discovery' of the East Coast with James Cook's West Coast landfalls." We don't learn until a few pages later that Mackenzie had already been there and done that, making the Americans "at best, second." It was "devastating news" to the explorers that they did not get to the Coast first; they 

would have to suppress, deny, or ignore evidence that they were not first by even the narrowest measure of their accomplishment. They were not the first white men, the first "civilized" men, the first English-speaking men, or even the first white, English-speaking Americans to reach the West Coast.

Lewis and Clark may have wished they had been first to the coast—though there's no evidence of this—but it certainly wasn't "news" to them that they weren't, nor did they "suppress, deny, or ignore the evidence." Why does Slaughter make such a big deal about this? As he himself acknowledges, Clark "eventually made a list of thirteen English and American traders who had beaten them to the Northwest Coast." "Eventually" suggests some otherwise inexplicable delay in recording the list, but the journal citation is to January 1806, during the dreary winter at Fort Clatsop, precisely when Clark was collecting such information from Indian informants.

Slaughter concludes that "the journals would languish" unpublished "until after Lewis's death because they revealed the explorers' failure." But this doesn't make any sense if the explorers already knew they had been beaten to the punch, as they surely did. Instead, they kept journals and planned to publish them because they did in fact "discover" a vast interior region, and there was plenty of glory in that. The "failure" was not in the journals, for they amply authenticated the explorers' achievement, but rather in not publishing them in a timely fashion. From Slaughter's perspective, this is a niggling point, for Lewis and Clark failed most profoundly in never finding themselves, not in their supposed delusions about chronology and geography: this is the failure the journals "reveal" to the close reader. But Lewis and Clark had no reason to fear such a reading in their own day.

* * *

Yet the journals did "languish," with the unhappy result that the explorers did not get their due for many decades. Lewis's disordered mental state explained the failure to publish, and Slaughter is at his best in plumbing its sources. His psychological profiles of both leaders are plausible and suggestive. Because the differences between Lewis and Clark are so conspicuous in the style and content of their journal entries, they provide ideal subjects for Slaughter's mode of literary-psychological analysis.

Clark emerges as a much more sympathetic, much less disturbed character: he was not only "more closely connected" to the folk culture and "belief systems of the expedition's enlisted men," but was also "more spiritually attuned to the cultures of the Indians." Clark, the map-maker, was "better centered, the clearest imaginer of their enterprise," though, Slaughter adds, "his peace of mind," like his maps, "was constructed of illusions embedded in 'facts.'" Lewis, by contrast, aspired to enlightened gentility, fashioning himself a man of science. He was acutely conscious of the opposition of "civilization" and "savagery," and his growing distaste for the Indians—their "primitive" customs and ways of knowing the world, their lack of respect for property rights (as Lewis defined them)—made him "the most nervous, least patient, and most bellicose of the explorers."

On April 21, 1806, Lewis lost control completely, killing a Blackfoot Indian (this was one of two killings that day, the only of the entire expedition). It was not clear then or now what exactly was wrong with Lewis. Slaughter suggests, not implausibly, that he "was the skeptic, trained well—too well by Jefferson—for his mental health"; he was, I would add, painfully self-conscious about the discrepancy between his aspirations as an enlightened gentleman and his limited social and scientific attainments. If, as he floated home down the Missouri (incapacitated by a painful gunshot wound in his rear end), Lewis "knew" that he—and, so he may have imagined, the expedition—had "failed," it was because inner-demons that antedated the expedition finally gained the upper hand. Back in the United States, he could never bring himself to prepare his journal for publication, despite pestering from the president himself; finally, instead, he committed suicide.

Slaughter gets good marks for his reading of Lewis and Clark. He succeeds even more admirably in puncturing prevalent mythology about the expedition's two other contemporary stars, Sacajawea, the Shoshone wife (or slave) of translator Toussaint Charbonneau, and York, Clark's black slave. Little is known about either, though both play key roles in the modern fantasy of "the Lewis and Clark Expedition as a multicultural, multiracial, gender-integrated success." The absurd notion that the ethos of the expedition was in some sense "democratic," supposedly justified by the "vote" of expedition members–including Sacajawea and York–on where to spend the winter of 1806, suppresses the realities of military hierarchy and racial subordination. "Finding democracy within slavery is not history," Slaughter admonishes; "it is racist romance."

The journals nonetheless offer tantalizing glimpses of both Sacajawea and York as individuals capable of growth and change. Clark treated Sacajawea and her infant child, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, with extraordinary solicitude, and his kindness was reciprocated: "she had an emotional freedom with Clark that transcended the military camaraderie he enjoyed with the men." On a few occasions at least, she served as translator and cultural intermediary, and her very presence warranted the expedition's peaceful intentions. York, on the other hand, "was the first black man" the Indians had ever seen, and they treated him "as a great man and sometimes as the great man of the expedition." His appeal, the powerful "medicine" he supposedly embodied, translated into sexual opportunity: "recreational and spiritually motivated sexual intercourse were a significant part of York's experience during the expedition." York's celebrity left his master Clark nonplused, calling his mastery into question and unsettling their relationship in future years.

The ultimate fate of Sacajawea and York has been a matter of some controversy. Slaughter challenges the conventional accounts, traceable back to Clark, that Sacajawea died in 1812 and that York, unhappy in slavery and freedom, simply disappeared, perhaps dying in 1832. According to alternative testimony and tradition, both may have found their way back west, Sacajawea—or, rather, "Porivo," her Comanche name—to live to a ripe old age among the Wind River Shoshone, York to become a great man and war leader among the Crow. Slaughter's discussion of these competing narratives is generally balanced and circumspect, though he ultimately embraces the view that both escaped west. "We should want York and Sacajawea to escape slavery," he concludes, "and we must admit that their very presence on the expedition reflected slavery's cruelty." But we are reluctant "to let them go," because this would require "us to face the interracial cruelties of our nation, and to admit that our origin myth is a lie"; "it would be "tantamount to admitting that Lewis and Clark failed." I'm not sure I follow the logic here. My guess is that Americans would have no trouble embracing Slaughter's counter-narratives—they're certainly appealing to me—just as they have so eagerly embraced the Jefferson-Hemings liaison. Indeed, the emphasis on these individuals' "undaunted courage" tends to draw attention away from "interracial cruelties" and reinforce contemporary complacency about race relations. 

There's a great deal more to enjoy, and to enjoy quarreling with, in Exploring Lewis and Clark. Slaughter's chapters on hunting and possessions are characteristically overdrawn—white hunters were in fact hunting themselves; the explorers were more guilty of promiscuous thievery than the "beggarly" Indians who loom so large in their journals—but offer a useful antidote to the equally overblown accounts of the explorers' advocates. Throughout the book, Slaughter exaggerates differences—between his interpretations and the conventional wisdom, between whites and Indians—for rhetorical, even mythological effect. I have no doubt that he does so intentionally and is having great fun in the process.

* * *

But these dialectics, however edifying and entertaining they might be, come at an interpretive price. What's completely missing from his book is the sphere of intercultural interaction, the moving "middle ground" that James Ronda charts so brilliantly in Lewis and Clark among the Indians (1984). Beyond the countless transactions that kept the explorers alive and made their ultimate success possible lay the larger domain within which the expedition's story was enacted: a contested continent, within which great and not-so-great-powers jockeyed for position through alliances and trading connections with the Indians of the Plains and the Northwest Coast. Lewis and Clark were constantly, intensely aware of what was at stake in this larger geopolitical drama; they were at best dimly aware that they were also, as Slaughter claims, making "war" against savage Indians, snakes, grizzly bears, and other "Others," including the land itself. Instead, they saw themselves playing an important role in a great struggle for the future of the continent. In fact, their expedition was only a minor episode in the new nation's westward thrust, its potential impact diminished by Lewis's failure to publish. This historical dimension is missing in Exploring Lewis and Clark, as it is in the modern mythologizing of brave men in the wilderness that Slaughter at once counters and reaffirms.