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)