Lewis and Clark as “peculiarly American” writers

I’ve been gearing up to get some writing done now that the semester has ended, and while reviewing work on Cabeza de Vaca I’d written back in the summer, I found myself recalling some writing and thinking I’d done about the journals of Lewis and Clark from a long time ago.  Specifically, I have found myself thinking how the Journals participate in a kind of writing produced in this hemisphere from the very earliest days of the Encounter, writing initially resulting from Europeans’ completely-unanticipated encounter with the material fact of the land, flora, fauna, and peoples (not only indigenous peoples but also, within a few generations, the bewildering variety of peoples of mixed race) of this hemisphere–a manner of writing, by the way, that persists into our own times.  This is an idea I keep returning to in my work; no doubt that will continue to be the case.


A page from Meriwether Lewis’s journal for February 24, 1806.  The fish is a eulachon, or candlefish.

Way back when I was still at the University of Mobile, I once tried to teach an abridged version of the Journals as part of a course on the themes of nature and wilderness in 19th-century American writing.  At the time, I was struck by a dramatic shift in the rhetorical style of the entries: while the expedition is moving across the Plains (which, relatively speaking, was familiar territory for the expedition, even if only indirectly via the French), the entries have a staccato, just-the-facts-ma’am style to them.  However, almost immediately upon entering the Rockies–land which no white man had yet seen–the language switches to a much more narrative style: the prose becomes, in effect, another map of the journey, another record of the expedition’s movement through space and time that had not been so necessary while they were still on the already-mapped Great Plains.  In addition, the Journals have several pages like the one you see here: drawings of animals and plants and topographical features compete for space on the page with language describing it.  It is as though Lewis and Clark felt that even the material reality of the various specimens the expedition collected and sent back to Thomas Jefferson, along with language used to describe them, did not suffice to convey the experience of these items.  Frank Bergon, in his introduction to the edition I taught that class from, captures the style of the Journals well when it makes that stylistic shift:

Conventional rhetoric and cultural assumptions also break down as the facts of the actual country, animals, and native peoples of the West give shape to new forms of perception.  Language itself has to be altered to describe a new country and its native inhabitants; words coined and twisted and adapted to the occasion in the journals produced the addition of more than one thousand new words to the American language.  In gradually abandoning attempts to present their experience through conventional aesthetic forms and expressions, the explorers seem to let the wonder of the country and its incredible wildlife speak more and more through plain fact and events.  (xviii)

Reading this, I am reminded in particular of the moment in Cabeza de Vaca’s Naufragios (“Castaways”) when he pauses in his narrative to create a map of what is now the Coastal Plain of Texas–a map not of geographical features but of the different tribes of indigenous peoples in that region and their positions in relation to each other.  I am also reminded in a different way of Columbus’s forced attempts to make the facts of the landmasses in front of him correspond to Europeans’ then-accepted knowledge and beliefs about the world and, in so doing, re-shapes the world into a pear.  (For a longer discussion of this act within the context of a New World version of the Baroque, see my post Columbus, Foucault, and the New World as Keplerian Baroque Space.)  In chapters yet to be written, this same idea will arise again within the context of casta painting (a genre invented in this hemisphere) and numerous fictional and non-fictional narratives that in various ways bear witness to people in mixed-race relationships who map out space for themselves by means of language to live their lives with the one they love.

(And speaking of this last, not only is Lewis and Clark’s expedition’s journey an explicitly American one; the composition of the expedition itself could not be more American: it is “a pluralistic, fluctuating community of thirty-five to forty-five people, including soldiers, woodsmen, blacksmiths, carpenters, cooks, French engagés, a black slave, a Lemhi Shoshone woman, and a newborn baby of mixed race, all heading west” (x).  The list reads like an early note for Whitman’s Song of Myself.)

Bergon’s observation regarding Lewis and Clark’s journals is perfectly in line with Richard Poirier’s thesis regarding American literature, especially that of the 19th century, in his A World Elsewhere: The Place of Style in American Literature (which, though 50 years old this year, I still think has much to tell us about what makes American literature “American”):

That writing exists not to be clarified but as a kind of drama of the search for clarity, that symbols, myths, and summaries are themselves only stabs in the dark, are among the presuppositions of this book.  The great works of American literature are alive with the effort to stabilize certain feelings and attitudes that have, as it were, no place at all except where a writer’s style can give them one.  And the attempt to do so occurs, especially in works of the last [i.e., the 19th] century, within the context of inhospitable styles and structures.  Language is never “free”; its forms are never “new,” and it is slightly unfaithful to those who proclaim the possibilities of “freedom” or “newness.”

American literature is a struggle with already-existing literary, social, and historical organizations for power over environment and language itself[.] (xxi)

Apart from Poirier’s stiffer academic manner, the above could just as easily have been written by Alejo Carpentier or Edouard Glissant as part of their respective descriptions of New World language.  The prose of this place is every bit as much shaped by the land and by forces of nature as it is a description of those phenomena.  Those phenomena seem to exceed language’s ability to convey it well, and so New World language itself becomes excessive.  It is indeed a peculiarly (North and Central and South) American problem.

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