Why Lewis and Clark Matter

I don’t mean to interrupt the wonderful conversation here about British print culture and McKeon, but I did want to respond to this Slate article condemning the current interest in Lewis and Clark.

David Plotz is absolutely right to say that Lewis and Clark’s travels are mythologized, wrongly, as a narrative of the great American expansion project. Anyone who has read the journals has felt the deep sense of dread and unmitigated failure. (As my friend Brooks Hefner is fond of saying, “All early American narratives are about unmitigated failure.”) But why is that a reason to turn away from them?

As Jim Chevallier mentioned in his first post here, there is an exhilarating pleasure to be had in examining the early modern, that of “tugging at Santa Claus’ beard to see if it is real.” I fear that while conservative mythologies of the Founding Fathers and expansion narratives seek to canonize these narratives for the purpose of erasing the failures of the birth of the Republic, the response of those who resist the mythologies is to forget them altogether.

As a scholar, I’ve been increasingly drawn to Lewis and Clark, Franklin, and Jefferson, because to read them is to find those mythologies erased before your eyes. Tugging at the beard of the early Republic reveals a very human and conflicted face. As much as Jefferson is celebrated as a historical figure, reading Notes on the State of Virginia uncovers the conflicts between his devotion to American freedom and his racism, between his desire for expansion and his deeply troubled view of the Indian nations.

Shouldn’t the United States be looking at these narratives for what they are? Is it not important for us to know our history of failure and internal ideological conflict? I am shocked by how few Americans, conservatives and liberals alike, have actually read the words of the people they idolize or attack in the name of current political argument. Is it that we are afraid to find that those who constructed our nation were, like all human beings, great and terrible at once, and that this is our legacy?

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