THROUGH A CONTINENT DARKLY: LEWIS AND CLARK REVISITED

The current edition of the Great American Dream is home ownership, closely rivaled in popularity by some form of education beyond high school. The Great American Novel is widely thought to be “Huckleberry Finn” (but Steve Cook at Westmont votes for “The Great Gatsby”). As for the Great American opera, “Porgy and Bess” often gets the nod, although Jerome Kern’s “Show Boat” merits increasingly high regard.

There are some strong candidates for Great American Myth – George Washington and the cherry tree, for example, or Johnny Appleseed – but the most enduring image in the national psyche emerges as an event dating from 1803, in a venture brought into play by Thomas Jefferson, shortly after the acquisition by the U.S. of the Louisiana Territory.

The personified spirit of those times had already begun to speak to the notion of a Manifest Destiny, which was to say that there was a lot of real estate “out West.” Indeed, some historians have argued that a scant 50 years after the Jeffersonian era, when gold was discovered in Sutter’s Mill near Sacramento, word of the discovery was leaked, first in San Francisco, then to the eastern states, precisely to make property west of the Mississippi seem attractive and valuable.

OK, you’ve surely guessed; the 1803 venture was to send Lewis and Clark forth to find the so-called Northwest Passage, and to put our emerging nation into competition with the spice, silk, and trapping trades. As Lewis and Clark eventually discovered, there was no such thing as a Northwest Passage. What they discovered instead, recorded in the memorable and highly readable “The Journals of Lewis and Clark” (I like the Steven Ambrose edits with introduction by Bernard DeVoto) has become the Great American Metaphor, our archetypal and defining vision. You set your sights on a remarkable goal, almost assuredly impossible to obtain, fail, and from the failure retrieve stunning discovery.

“The Journals of Lewis and Clark” captures the panorama of a shaggy, emerging continent, the new kid on the block, challenging all comers, with a special nyah, nyah to Europe. In some, arguable ways, these journals, along with Mark Twain’s “The Innocents Abroad,” Thoreau’s “On Walden Pond,” and Emerson’s essays gave us our national identity and more – our national psyche.

OK, once again; you’ve surely spotted the catch here. There is more than one national identity, certainly more than one national psyche, not the least of which is the Native American. All of which brings us to a compelling new look at the causes and effects of the Lewis and Clark expedition from Knopf, compiled and edited by the late historian, Alvin Josephy, Jr., ”Lewis and Clark: through Indian Eyes.”

Within these pages, we get the “other” side of the Great American Archetype, nine essays written by descendants of the peoples who were traversed – going and coming –by the Lewis and Clark expedition. Vine Deloria, Jr. (“Custer Died for Your Sins”) and N. Scott Momaday, both respected writers and academics, are best known of the group of contributing essayists, but Debra Magpie Earling carries the cachet and credentials as well. Her 2003 suspense novel, “Perma Red” won the American Book Award (I thought enough of it to include it on my list of 100 Exemplary Novels, which I give to students as examples of the supple breadth of the longform medium. There is a heavy irony in the attraction of her protagonist, a Native American woman, for a white man.) “You were young,” she writes, “full of your own battle stories, when your grandfather crouched low in the brittle weeds to tell you things he thought you should know.”

Indeed, things. Manifest Destiny may trample as surely as the herds of buffalo do.

“Strange men will soon haunt the land,” she relates. “They cannot hide from you and they do not wish to. Their footsteps will sound loudly on the worn paths we have walked. If you happen to see them in the forest, you can recognize them for they are white-fleshed and the trees cannot hide them. Do not mistake them for spirits. They are white men, solid in body…”

Allen V. Pinkham, Sr., a respected executive in the Nez Perce tribe (that more than any other established favorable contacts with the Lewis-Clark group), is a skilled taker of oral history. He recounts stories of those of his tribe who greeted the explorers. Mark Truant, of the Shoshone-Bannock People, now edits and writes for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, bringing a wry sense of observation reminiscent of the Floridian newspaperman-novelist, Carl Hiaasen.

These worthies all speak of this defining event in a perspective that makes our understanding of the past, the present, and ourselves as a growing, monumental force all the more valuable.

Vine Deloria, Jr. sets the tone with his observation, “Exaggeration of the importance of the expedition of Lewis and Clark is a typical American response to mythology. We prefer our fantasies in opposition to the facts of life.” He goes on to demonstrate how the French, the English, and those truly mythic mountain men were well in place before Lewis and Clark thought to set forth, giving us a new set of historical perspectives by which to judge their accomplishments, and reasons long buried in detail to celebrate their legacy.

Inevitable as our westward movement was, it was no different than many of the mass migrations of hunters and gathers across one continent after another, propelled by drought, famine, overgrazing and the whims of nature. This remarkable project was undertaken as Alvin Josephy’s final work in a lifelong historical interest in chronicling the movement and culture of those who were here before us. By reading these nine essays, then turning (or returning) to the journals kept by Lewis and Clark, we transcend the tired wrangling over how the White Man did the Indian dirt, and begin to understand the political realities of where we are now as we venture an equally important journey of discovery into the 21st century.

Looking at the perspectives of these Native Americans, we see how our own historical perspectives may have short-changed us from a truer, more nuanced vision of how difficult it was to make a go of life with so many people coming into the territory.

We will have some new heroes and a more enduring national mythology, one sounding less like a parody of Wagnerian excess and more a composite of the true American Dream.