Lewis and Clark in American Fiction
Lewis and Clark's influence was not limited to naturalists. The most popular nineteenth century writers of fiction about the American frontier, Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, were clearly inspired by the explorers' writings.
The first of these authors, Washington Irving (1783-1859), brought the West to life with his accounts of a dramatic and adventurous landscape. Already known to the world as the author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Irving returned to America after seventeen years in Europe and undertook a three month journey into the American frontier. Irving's first stop was in St. Louis where he met with William Clark, who helped Irving procure supplies and transport through present-day Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. One can only speculate on the conversations between Irving and Clark, but two things are clear: Irving was captivated by the American West, and he repeatedly returned to Lewis and Clark's journals as inspiration for descriptions of western locales beyond his own experiences.
After returning from the West, Irving penned his first attempt to capture the spirit of the West, A Tour of the Prairies (1835). Irving followed this personal tale with a more ambitious history of the fur trade, Astoria (1836), which recounts John Jacob Astor's attempt to establish a commercial empire in the Pacific Northwest. In his introduction to the book Irving writes about the genesis of the project:
About two years ago, not long after my return from a tour upon the prairies of the far West, I had a conversation with my friend, Mr. John Jacob Astor, relative to that portion of our country, and to the adventurous traders to Santa Fe and the Columbia. This led him to advert to a great enterprise set on foot and conducted by him, between twenty and thirty years since, having for its object to carry the fur trade across the Rocky Mountains, and to sweep the shores of the Pacific.
Finding that I took an interest in the subject, he expressed a regret that the true nature and extent of his enterprise and its national character and importance had never been understood, and a wish that I would undertake to give an account of it. The suggestion struck upon the chord of early associations already vibrating in my mind. It occurred to me that a work of this kind might comprise a variety of those curious details, so interesting to me, illustrative of the fur trade; of its remote and adventurous enterprises, and of the various people, and tribes, and castes, and characters, civilized and savage, affected by its operations. The journals, and letters, also, of the adventurers by sea and land employed by Mr. Astor in his comprehensive project, might throw light upon portions of our country quite out of the track of ordinary travel, and as yet but little known. I therefore felt disposed to undertake the task.
Utilizing his nephew Pierre's researches, his relationship with Astor, and the journals of other western explorers, Irving crafted a compelling narrative to describe the early western movements of the Pacific Fur Company. He noted in the introduction, "I have . . . availed myself occasionally of collateral lights supplied by the published journals of other travellers who have visited the scenes described: such as Messrs. Lewis and Clarke." While Irving carefully disguised his uses of other such journals, it is likely that his ability to transform the experience of the Astorians into an adventure in a majestic new landscape is partly derived from the narrative structure of Lewis and Clark's journals, and their depictions of nature.
Just one year after the publication of Astoria Irving completed another western historical adventure tale, The Adventures of Captain Bonneville. Irving had met Benjamin Bonneville while doing research at Astor's, and subsequently purchased Bonneville's notes and maps of his explorations for $1,000.1 Irving never referenced Lewis and Clark, but it is clear that he relied heavily on Biddle's narrative of the Corps of Discovery in crafting the place names, geographic locations, and cultural features of the native peoples in the western part of North America.
More than any other author of the nineteenth century, Irving captured the landscape of the American West in ink. It is no coincidence that Irving is generally regarded as the first great American author, and that he was the first American to make a living solely as an author. American readers craved Irving's American West, and working from the examples provided by Lewis and Clark, Irving opened up the west with pen and ink.
Unlike Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) never traveled west of Buffalo, New York, yet he managed to write best-selling and compelling books like The Prairie (1827) that were set west of the Mississippi. Like Irving, Cooper turned to Lewis and Clark's journals for the inspiration and specifics that brought life to his landscapes.
In "The Sources of The Prairie," E. Soteris Muszynska-Wallace notes that Cooper gathered information from Lewis and Clark to craft his narrative. For example, Cooper's Weucha was the Indian name for the Bois Brulé Sioux leader who spoke at a council with Lewis and Clark on 31 August 1804, and was described in detail in Ordway's journal.2 Also, Cooper introduced the story of a boy hiding under a buffalo skin to escape a prairie fire, which, though somewhat embellished, was borrowed directly from Lewis and Clark.3 Finally, to add authenticity to his descriptions of the Indians, Cooper borrowed information on the construction of hide boats from Lewis and Clark.4 Like Irving, Cooper saw a distinctive vision of the West framed by the words of Lewis and Clark, which he translated into popular fiction. Pioneers of Western literature, Irving and Cooper codified Lewis and Clark's American West in fiction, while inspiring a new generation of writers, including the transcendentalists.5
Though he was not cut from the same literary cloth as Irving and Cooper, the powerful narrative of Lewis and Clark did not escape the attention of America's first great writer of suspense, Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). Although it is rarely mentioned as one of Poe's great works, his serialized
The serialized chapters from the journal of a "Julius Rodman" first appeared in Burton's Gentlemen's Magazine of January 1840, and continued to appear for six months, until June 1840 when they came to an abrupt stop. The journal purported to detail a 1792 expedition led by Julius Rodman up the Missouri River toward the Northwest. This 1792 expedition would have made Rodman the first European to cross the Rocky Mountains.
Rodman, though, was a fictitious character invented by Poe. To create this deception, Poe invented the entire journal, relying heavily on Washington Irving's Astoria and Lewis and Clark's History of the Expedition to give his account a veneer of authenticity. The story was never completed in the magazine. Although no reason was ever given by Poe or his publisher, most scholars assume that Poe stopped writing because of disputes over payment with the publisher.6
In his first installment of "The Journal of Julius Rodman" Poe provides an authentic historical account, presumably to provide a sense of authenticity to his fabrication. He writes,
The memorable expedition of captains Lewis and Clarke was in progress during the years 1804, ë5, and ë6. In 1803, the act for establishing trading houses with the Indian tribes being about to expire, some modifications of it (with an extension of its views to the Indians on the Missouri) were recommended to Congress by a confidential Message from Mr. Jefferson, of January 18th. In order to prepare the way, it was proposed to send a party to trace the Missouri to its source, cross the Rocky Mountains, and follow the best water communication which offered itself thence to the Pacific ocean. This design was fully carried out; captain Lewis exploring (but not first "discovering" as Mr. Irving relates) the upper waters of the Columbia river, and following the course of that stream to its embouchure. The head waters of the Columbia were visited by Mackenzie as early as 1793.7
As he begins the main part of his story, Poe borrows from the journals of Lewis and Clark to craft a story that incorporates similar people, places, and species into his narrative. As Clark had York, Rodman had a Negro slave named Toby. Poe writes:
Our other two recruits were a negro belonging to Pierre JunÙt, named Toby, and a stranger whom we had picked up in the woods near Mills' Point, and who joined our expedition upon the instant as soon as we mentioned our design. His name was Andrew Thornton, also a Virginian, and I believe of excellent family, belonging to the Thorntons of the northern part of the State. He had been from Virginia about three years; during the whole of which time he had been rambling about the western country, with no other companion than a large dog of the Newfoundland species. He had collected no peltries, and did not seem to have any object in view, more than the gratification of a roving and adventurous propensity.
Poe's allusion to Lewis's Newfoundland dog is a bit confusing, since the only known mention of Lewis's dog being a Newfoundland is in his Ohio River journal entry of November 16, 1803, which was unpublished until 1916, well after Poe's death.8 This would appear to indicate that stories of Lewis's dog were a part of the common folklore associated with the Expedition.
Like the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the Rodman expedition also had a keelboat, which Poe describes as:
The other was a keelboat which we had made at Petite CÙte (the canoe having been purchased by Pierre from the Mississippi party.) It was thirty feet long, and, when loaded to the gunwale, drew two feet water. it had a deck for twenty feet of its length forward, forming a cuddy-cabin, with a strong door, and of sufficient dimensions to contain our whole party with close crowding, as the boat was very broad. This part of it was bulletproof, being wadded with oakum between two coatings of oak-plank; and in several positions we had small holes bored, through which we could have fired upon an enemy in case of attack, as well as observe their movements; these holes, at the same time, gave us air and light, when we closed the door; and we had secure plugs to fit them when necessary.9
While other authors including Irving and Cooper had borrowed characters and implements, Poe went so far as to borrow the most distinct natural setting described by Lewis and Clark, the White Cliffs of the Missouri. Poe writes:
The face of these remarkable cliffs, as might be supposed, is chequered with a variety of lines formed by the trickling of the rains upon the soft material, so that a fertile fancy might easily imagine them to be gigantic monuments reared by human art, and carved over with hieroglyphical devices. Sometimes there are complete niches (like those we see for statues in common temples) formed by the dropping out bodily of large fragments of the sandstone; and there are several points where staircases and long corridors appear, as accidental fractures in the freestone cornice happen to let the rain trickle down uniformly upon the softer material below. We passed these singular bluffs in a bright moonlight and their effect upon my imagination I shall never forget. They had all the air of enchanted structures, (such as I have dreamed of,) and the twittering of myriads of martins, which have built their nests in the holes that every where perforate the mass.10
The defining moment of Poe's Rodman piece was his explanation of the American grizzly bear, where he employed notions of suspense, danger, intrigue, and the macabre to write of the ferocity, majesty, and sheer power of the bear. Poe borrowed elements from Lewis and Clark's descriptions of encounters with grizzlies on May 5, 11, and 14 of 1805.
We had scarcely time to say a word to each other before two enormous brown bears (the first we had yet encountered during the voyage) came rushing at us open-mouthed from a clump of rose-bushes. These animals are much dreaded by the Indians, and with reason, for they are indeed formidable creatures, possessing prodigious strength, with untamable ferocity, and the most wonderful tenacity of life. There is scarcely any way of killing them by a bullet, unless the shot be through the brains, and these are defended by two large muscles covering the side of the forehead, as well as by a projection of thick frontal bone. They have been known to live for days with half a dozen balls through the lungs, and even with very severe injuries in the heart. So far we had never met with a brown bear, although often with its tracks in the mud or sand, and these we had seen nearly a foot in length, exclusive of the claws, and full eight inches in width.
What to do was now the question. To stand and fight, with such weapons as we possessed, was madness; and it was folly to think of escape by flight in the direction of the prairie; for not only were the bears running towards us from that quarter, but, at a very short distance back from the cliffs, the underwood of briar-bushes, dwarf willow, etc., was so thick that we could not have made our way through it at all, and if we kept our course along the river between the underwood and the top of the cliff, the animals would catch us in an instant; for as the ground was boggy we could make no progress upon it, while the large flat foot of the bear would enable him to travel with ease. It seemed as if these reflections (which it takes some time to embody in words) flashed all of them through the minds of all of us in an instant — for every man sprang at once to the cliffs, without sufficiently thinking of the hazard that lay there. . . .
This was the first time in all my life I had ever been brought to close quarters with a wild animal of any strength or ferocity, and I have no scruple to acknowledge that my nerves were completely unstrung. For some moments I felt as if about to swoon, but a loud scream from Greely, who had been seized by the foremost bear, had the effect of arousing me to exertion, and when once fairly aroused I experienced a kind of wild and savage pleasure form the conflict.
One of the beasts, upon reaching the narrow ledge where we stood, had made an immediate rush at Greely, and had borne him to the earth, where he stood over him, holding him with his huge teeth lodged in the breast of his overcoat — which, by greatest good fortune, he had worn, the wind being chilly. The other, rolling rather than scrambling down the cliff, was under so much headway when he reached our station that he could not stop himself until the one-half of his body hung over the precipice; he staggered in a sidelong manner, and his right legs went over while held on in an awkward way with his two left. While thus situated he seized Wormley by the heel with his mouth, and for an instant I feared the worse, for in his efforts to free himself from the grasp the terrified struggler aided the gear to regain his footing. While I stood helpless, as above described, through terror, and watching the event without ability to render the slightest aid, the shoe and moccasin of W. were torn off in the grasp of the animal, who now tumbled headlong down to the next terrace, but stopped himself, by means of his huge claws, from sliding farther. It was now that Greely screamed for aid, and the Prophet and myself rushed to his assistance. We both fired our pistols at the bear's head; and my own ball, I am sure, must have gone through some portion of his skull, for I held the weapon close to his hear. He seemed more angry, however, than hurt; the only good effect of the discharge was in his quitting his hold of Greely (who had sustained no injury) and making at us. We had nothing but our knives to depend upon, and even the refuge of the terrace below was cut off from us by the presence of another bear there. We had our backs to the cliff, and were preparing for a deadly contest, not dreaming of help from Greely (whom we supposed mortally injured) when we heard a shot, and the huge beast fell at our feat, just when we felt his hot and horribly fetid breath in our faces. Our deliverer, who had fought many a bear in his life-time, had put his pistol deliberately to the eye of the monster, and the contents had entered his brain.11
As these examples from his short serialized American western show, Poe was successful at perpetuating both the myths and the sense of adventure that permeates Lewis and Clark's writings. It is through his pen, as well as that of Irving and Cooper, that the nineteenth century literary world continued to see the West as a place of wildness, romance, danger, and independence.
1. Brian Jay Jones, Washington Irving: An American Original (New York: Arcade, 2008).
2. E. Soteris Muszynska-Wallace, "The Sources of The Prairie," American Literature, Vol. 21, No. 2 (May 1949), 195.
3. Ibid., 196. The Prairie, by James Fenimore Cooper, chap. 24. History of the Expedition. . . . 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Bradford and Inskeep, 1814), vol. 2, October 29, 1804; Moulton, Journals, October 30, 31, 1804 (Ordway).
4. Ibid., 199. The Prairie, chap. 24. Allen, History of the Expedition, 2:400 (August 8, 1806). October 9, 1804; Moulton, Journals, 27 June 1805 (Ordway).
5. See Kris Fresonke, West of Emerson: The Design of Manifest Destiny (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
6. See Scott Peeples, Edgar Allan Poe Revisited (New York: Twayne, 1998).
7. Edgar Allan Poe, "The Journal of Julius Rodman," Burton's Gentlemen's Magazine (January 1840), Chapter 1, page 5.
8. Milo Milton Quaife, The Journals of Captain Meriwether Lewis and Sergeant John Ordway (Madison: [Wisconsin Historical] Society, 1916), 48.
9. Edgar Allan Poe, "The Journal of Julius Rodman" Burton's Gentlemen's Magazine (January 1840), Chapter 2, page 3.
10. Ibid., Chapter 6, pages 2-3.
11. Ibid., Chapter 6, pages 5-6.