The importance of being Lewis
A local author exposes the humanity of a famous explorer
The American palate is ever ready to consume super-sized portions of adventure, of conquest—to boldly go where no man has gone before. The Wild West is the heart that pumps the blood into our explorative nature, and our fascination with it seems endless.
Perhaps no figure in the history of the American West embodies this idea more than Meriwether Lewis, of the immortal Lewis and Clark expedition. Clay Jenkinson, famous for his emphatic radio sketches of Thomas Jefferson on The Thomas Jefferson Hour, puts pen to paper to do his own brand of exploration in what he describes as a “humanities essay” titled The Character of Meriwether Lewis. The reader should treat this essay as he or she would a fine bottle of wine, allowing time for the text’s intricacies to breathe, with overtones of Homer, a bouquet of Shakespeare and a spicy finish of Freud.
Jenkinson plays psychologist, historian and, at times, clairvoyant in order to demystify the man responsible for embarking on what is surely seen as one of the most important geopolitical journeys of the young United States: the exploration of Jefferson’s newly acquired Louisiana Purchase. Jenkinson appropriately dubs Lewis the “American Columbus,” and this essay embodies the explorers’ journey into “terra incognita,” and more importantly, Lewis’ journey into his own mind.
Jenkinson’s “plan is to set aside the perception of Lewis as ‘epic explorer’ and attempt to view him through a fresh lens,” and that he does. The focal point of the essay is to delve deep into the psyche of a man who (it is argued) suffered from a horde of mental ailments, ranging from manic depression to acute psychosis. Jenkinson sends his readers on an epic Twain-esque adventure with a tragic hero; we’re along for the ride, floating with him down the Missouri River and witnessing his transformation from the mighty and confident Captain of the Dakotas to the tragic Prince Hamlet in his post-journey demise.
Jenkinson paints the picture of Lewis as one of deep dichotomy: a man simultaneously awkward, overtly self-critical and uncomfortable in his own skin, juxtaposed with the mighty man of American lore, filled with the vision of a brave new world, brimming with the fire of Narcissus and nurturing an obese ego. Jenkinson attempts to get inside the heads of both these archrival personas, and he does so with a deep passion for his subject, as well as a dark humor regarding the human condition.
We travel on a barge with Lewis’ company, smelling of buckskin and spent powder, into the heart of the Missouri country and directly into Lewis’ long dark night of the soul. Jenkinson guides the reader systematically through Lewis’ neuro-passageways with such deliciously tempting headlines as: “The Riddle of Human Sexuality,” “The Problem of Alcohol,” “Deadly Sins” and “The Dark Despair That Round Him Blew,” which leads into Lewis’ apparent suicide.
The voice of Lewis is strong and enjoyable throughout the essay. However, at times, Jenkinson’s is louder. I, as the reader, enjoy being somewhat of an amateur psychologist and super-sleuth, and I found that the strength of the author’s narrative was a bit overpowering at times. I respect Jenkinson’s expertise and the plethora of research he has dedicated to the subject (Jenkinson has literally walked a mile in Lewis’ moccasins), yet his narrative was occasionally repetitive and distracting.
In the end, however, the "tragic hero" of Meriwether Lewis was presented in his most raw and human form, his strengths and flaws open-ended, to be dissected through the readers’ microscopes. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go change my shoes, as these moccasins are killing me …