"Expertise and modesty. Not a bad combination."
Grand Forks Herald, 2013
read the full review
The Character of Meriwether Lewis: Explorer in the Wilderness takes a fresh look at Meriwether Lewis, the commander of the most important exploration mission in the early history of the United States. Jenkinson’s Lewis is not a paper cutout hero, but a hyper-serious young man of great complexity, who found the wilderness of upper Louisiana as burdensome as it was exhilarating.
Jenkinson sees Lewis as a man who had a fissure in his soul before he left St. Charles, Missouri, in May 1804, whose experiences in lands “upon which the foot of civilized man had never trodden” further fractured his sense of himself. Jenkinson sees Lewis’s 1809 suicide not as an inexplicable mystery, but the culmination of a series of pressures that extend back into the expedition and perhaps beyond.
Jenkinson’s argument is that Lewis’s hiring of William Clark as his “partner in discovery” was the most intelligent decision he ever made. When Clark is nearby Lewis manages to maintain a stable and productive leadership. When Clark is absent, when he is unable to provide a calming influence on his mercurial friend, Lewis tends to get into trouble. Jenkinson argues that if Clark had been with Lewis on the Natchez Trace, the Governor of Upper Louisiana would not have killed himself.
The Character of Meriwether Lewis features chapters on Lewis’s sense of humor, his oft-stated fear that the expedition he was leading might collapse, his propensity for employing his learnedness in a self-conscious manner, and his inability to re-enter “polite society” after his return.
Jenkinson attempts to reconstruct Lewis’s rich, troubled, and self-consciously heroic personality from his journal entries and letters. When the encrustations of American mythology are removed and Lewis is allowed to reveal himself, he emerges as a fuller, more human, and endlessly fascinating explorer.
Clay's Recommended Reading
Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation
by Merrill D. Peterson
American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson
by Joseph Ellis
The Sage of Monticello
by Dumas Malone
Thomas Jefferson: The Strange Case of Mistaken Identity
by Alf J. Mapp
by Albert J. Nock
Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History
by Fawn Brodie
On Lewis & Clark
Meriwether Lewis: A Biography
by Richard Dillon. New York: Coward-McCann, 1965.
Lewis and Clark: Partners in Discovery
by John Bakeless. New York: William Morrow, 1947.
The Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, with Related Documents: 1783-1854
edited by Donald Jackson. 2nd edition, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978.
Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West
by Stephen Ambrose. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
Passage Through the Garden: Lewis and Clark and the Image of the American Northwest
by John Logan Allen. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975.
by Charles Dickens
The thing about classics is that they are always newly great. I reread Great Expectations at the end of the summer, and I was amazed at how much was fresh to me and how powerful the book is.
by Daniel Defoe
This summer I hiked 173 miles on the Little Missouri River between Marmarth, North Dakota, to the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The trip made me think about the basic rhythms of life. So, when I returned, much dehydrated and leaned up, I read Robinson Crusoe. It was a wonderful read. Jefferson believed that in civilizing (not Christianizing) Indians, the first two English texts should be Aesop's Fables and Robinson Crusoe. Of course, we now know that American Indians did not need Jefferson to teach them civilization.
by Henry David Thoreau
If there were only one American book, it would have to be Walden. I read this on the Little Missouri River. It's the only book I have read twenty times. Note: Don't blame Thoreau for not being John Muir. He was not trying to live in the wilderness. He was engaged in a simplicity experiment. If you read this book the way it demands to be read, it will change your life.
The Sorrows of Empire
by Chalmers Johnson
This is one of the most sobering books you will read this year. Johnson's view is that we are an empire, we want to be an empire, and that we do everything that is required to maintain our empire. The book doesn't have anything to do with spreading freedom and self-government around the world.
The Re-Enchantment of the World
by Morris Berman
This is a really fabulous book about how western civilization cut itself off from the life of the spirit, the life of the planet, and the soul's work. Thoreau wrote, "how many a man has dated a new era of his life from the reading of a book?" That's what happened to me with Berman's book.
When Trumpets Call
by Patricia O'Toole
This is a marvelous study of the post-Presidential life of Theodore Roosevelt. During the ten years following his retirement from the Presidency, Roosevelt went on safari on Africa, and he explored one of the last uncharted rivers in South America. He also ran for a third term, wrote one of the best Presidential autobiographies, and crusaded for progressive reforms in the United States. This is a very well written study of Roosevelt's "retirement" years. It does not necessarily put him in a wholly favorable light.
His Excellency: George Washington
by Joseph Ellis
I think Joseph Ellis has written some of the best analysis of the Founding Fathers. His American Sphinx is a quirky study of Jefferson, but marvelous in its wit and thoughtfulness, and his Passionate Sage (John Adams) is one of the best books I have read about that era. His Excellency is a fresh look at George Washington. Ellis reminds us of two parts of Washington's achievement that have not received enough attention: his commitment to do something about slavery, and his interest in seeing to it that justice was done to the Indian tribes of the West. For new reasons, Washington emerges as the greatest of the Founding Fathers, much greater in character than Jefferson.