Nevin continues his American Story series (Treason, 2001, etc.) with the heroic, intensely human, altogether heartbreaking story of a legendary explorer.
Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) was noticeably different from the boys he grew up with in Albemarle County, Virginia. Bigger and stronger than most, he was also quieter, a dreamer. Ever since he could remember, he decided later, he’d had a sense of American nationhood: “of vast spaces awaiting crossing . . . of freedom to strike his mark in the world and conviction that he would do so.” Rambling, his ma told him, was a family trait, but so were those periodic bouts of inexplicable despair that swept over him, that only his indomitable will enabled him to escape. Westward exploration had long also been the dream of one of Lewis’s neighbors. He happened to be Thomas Jefferson, who recognized a kindred spirit when he saw one. While Jefferson became a statesman, Lewis became a soldier, and though their paths diverged sharply they never quite lost track of each other. Eventually, the great expedition took shape, Jefferson tapped Lewis to lead it, and together with William Clark, a former comrade in arms, he embarked on his 2,000-mile “ramble,” encountering hostile grizzlies, equally hostile Indians, uncharted rivers, strange fauna, the truly remarkable Shoshone woman Sacagawea, and other wonders on his way to the Pacific Ocean. It took two years (1804–6), and on his return Lewis was lionized. Admirers made him a territorial governor and pleaded with him to write a book, both tasks for which he was eminently unsuited and which worried him into depression. He turned first to whisky, then to drugs, hoping to confound his demons but ultimately simply surrendering to them.
A haunting portrait, just the kind of thing this author does so well.