Why is Clark -- of Lewis & Clark -- Neglected?

Roundup: Talking About History

Landon Y. Jones, in the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscribers) (May 10, 2004):

My friend Bud Clark is a direct descendant of William Clark, the explorer. During the current bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition -- May 14 is the 200th anniversary of the departure of the explorers up the Missouri River -- Bud has been enacting the part of his famous ancestor. Not long ago he was at a public event, resplendently dressed in his period military uniform, when two little girls approached him."Are you Clark?" one of them asked."Yes, indeed I am," Bud proudly replied. The little girl fixed him with a cold eye."You are a mean man," she said."Why did you beat York?"

Good question. Thomas Jefferson is not the only founder whose reputation has recently been challenged over slavery. Many Americans today are uncomfortable with the attitudes and behavior of the most significant figures in our early history. In the case of William Clark, however, the issue has been not only whether he beat his African-American personal slave, York, but whether we would ever hear his entire life story at all.

Before I became a biographer, I spent most of the decade of the 1990s committing celebrity journalism as the editor of People magazine. During that time I got used to the idea that the reputations of contemporary people could rise and fall in a twinkling, like mayflies. When I began to think about a life of William Clark, I expected to find that the natural sifting processes of time and memory had stabilized his reputation. Instead I learned that the ways we have -- and have not -- remembered Clark tell us about what we expect from the life of a hero.

Over the years there have been scores of books published on the Lewis and Clark expedition. They include many biographies of its best-known members, ranging from the co-captain, Meriwether Lewis, to the future mountain man John Colter. More recently, modern biographers have turned to Sacagawea and York to draw our attention to a multiethnic Corps of Discovery. There has even been a floodlet of children's books about Seaman, the expedition's dog.

But, oddly, in the middle of these frontier sagas, there has been no full-length biography of Clark himself. It is a striking omission. Unlike Lewis, whose life ended in suicide just three years after he returned from the Pacific, Clark not only had an active military career before the expedition -- his older brother was the Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark -- but also went on to serve for 30 years as governor of Missouri Territory, militia general during the War of 1812, and superintendent of Indians at St. Louis.

Why has Clark's story not been told, at least until now? (In addition to my book, another biography will be published this spring, by the historian William E. Foley.)

A primary reason for Clark's neglect is that he was initially overshadowed by Lewis in the partnership universally known by a single fused word:"Lewisandclark." For historians preoccupied with history made by Great Men, the entry points to the Louisiana Purchase and the Voyage of Discovery were limited to two Virginia planters: Thomas Jefferson and his private secretary, Meriwether Lewis.

If the Lewis and Clark expedition is an American Odyssey, there is not room for two Odysseuses. The universal hero of the"monomyth" described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949) endures his travails alone. If there is a partner, as other well-known sidekicks like Sancho Panza and Dr. Watson could well testify, we often celebrate one partner at the expense of the other....

comments powered by Disqus