Book Review: The Journals Of Lewis And Clark

The Journals Of Lewis And Clark, edited by Bernard DeVoto

For readers who by virtue of scholarly inclination or location of residence find it important to read or listen to the role of Lewis and Clark in opening up the Pacific Northwest to American influence and eventually control [1], this is a good book, even though the editor notes that it is mainly for the ordinary reader who enjoys reading books of about 500 pages in length and is not a scholarly edition, which contains a great deal of detail that is less interesting.  For those readers who wish to know what Lewis & Clark thought about the native people of the Pacific Northwest, especially in Oregon and Washington, the results are less than flattering.  The two explorers criticized the thievery of the native peoples, and were also hostile to the rainy weather in the winter, which greatly dispirited them.  The explorers also had much to say about the loose and promiscuous ways of the natives and the venereal diseases that they passed on to some of the young men under their command.  It seems that Portland and its surrounding areas were sufficiently weird since before the city of Portland was actually founded, so there’s that.

This book is not one that most casual readers would take a look at, but it presents a straightforward excerpting of the most important and noteworthy entries from the diaries of Lewis and Clark as well as Biddle, and some other supporting documentation like the letter from Jefferson that authorized the trip and the list of the specimens that the exploring party sent back east for the young country’s scientists to subject to scientific scrutiny.  As one of the seminal travelogues of American, if not world, literature, the book is organized by the locations the party is traveling through. The book is about halfway done by the time the group gets to Oregon, making its way along the rapids of the Columbia River, and the trip back is much faster than the trip out, even if there were horse thieves and an accidental shooting of Lewis by one of the other members of the party.  It is a shock given the nature of the expedition, but the only death was from appendicitis and was soon after the journey got underway. Everyone else survived the trip despite its dangers and despite the unfamiliarity of the country.

This is an immensely important book.  For one, Lewis and Clark were nearly perfect as the emissaries of the United States to the nations of the Pacific Northwest who, before too long, would fall under American influence and control.  While America was only just beginning to test its strength, having such fair-minded and compassionate emissaries and explorers was of immense benefit, particularly since Lewis and Clark were skilled and observant with regards to geography (although they made some errors and listened to some mistaken rumors that ended up causing trouble for later explorers), and particularly useful as ethnographers of tribes whose doom was almost upon them. There is a sense of tragedy about this book, in that while Lewis and Clark were very thoughtful towards the indigenous people, and particularly solicitous about the natives in their own party, not all of the Americans who would follow the path that they blazed would be equally solicitous and the results would be tragic. Even so, the book itself manages to stand as a reminder of the sort of nobility that American civilization in the early 19th century could possess, even if it was more noble than the general standard of the American people of that time or any time.  If it is too large a book to strike the interest of casual readers, the book is rewarding to those who are willing to take the time to follow the trail of Lewis and Clark along the map and to read the fascinating account of their journeys of exploration into the heart of the West along the Missouri and Yellowstone and Columbia River basins.  If someone lives along those areas or cares about the expansion of the scientific knowledge, economic dominance, or political control of the United States from the Mississippi to the Pacific, this is an essential book, well worth a few days of reading.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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5 Responses to Book Review: The Journals Of Lewis And Clark

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