Book Review: Uncovering the Truth about Meriwether Lewis
Prometheus Books, 2012
Three years after authoring (with John C. Jackson) the definitive life of valorous and slightly enigmatic early American giant Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Danisi has returned to the subject of Lewis’ life – but as its charmingly Edwardian title will immediately suggest, Uncovering the Truth about Meriwether Lewis isn’t quite a biography. Nor is it strictly an investigation into that most vexed of all Lewis subjects, his sudden and somewhat mysterious death in 1809. Rather, it’s basically an extended monograph on a handful of issues and turning points in Lewis’s extremely eventful life. Had the book been published in 1912 instead of 2012, it would probably have been called something like Meriwether Lewis: Addenda – such a title might even have been an improvement over the present one, but each loudly announces that the book in question isn’t for newcomers to the subject.
That’s a shame, because Danisi is very much writing for a general audience, despite the fractured narrative necessitated by the monograph pattern he adopts here. Or perhaps he really does have fellow specialists in mind and is simply too good a natural storyteller to allow any part of the proceedings to be boring. In either case, UTTAML, with its charts, its disjointed chapters (on subjects ranging from Lewis’ court martial at age 21, at which he successfully defended himself, to the day-to-day details of his governorship of Louisiana – “a third the size of the modern continental United States” – as Danisi rightly reminds us), and it’s nearly 150 pages of appendices, is entertaining despite its own best efforts, invaluably helped by two facts: Meriwether Lewis was always interesting, and Thomas Danisi is always interested in him.
This book represents a huge amount of document-sniffing. Danisi has uncovered stores of previously unknown or unrecognized records bearing on Lewis and displayed the results here for generations of future scholars to consult. He includes a large number of Lewis’ letters, from short and irate complaints to the capital about unpaid receipts to more rambling and infinitely more personable letters to friends, including several to his boon companion in immortality, William Clark, who’s frequently teased for his stuffy disposition and bloodless prose style, as in the letter of May 29 when Lewis seizes on one particular item Clark thoughtlessly listed under his ‘goods’ needing transport:
… one of the keel boats which I have employed is extremely well calculated for the accommodation of your goods (as you are pleased to denominate them) but I must halt here in the middle of my communication and ask you if the matrimonial dictionary affords no term more appropriate then that of goods, alias merchandize, for that dear and interesting part of the creation? It is very well, Genl.,I shall tell madam of your want of Gallantry; and the triumph too of detection will be more compleat when it is recollected what a musty, fusty, rusty old bachelor I am.
Danisi also presents a block of new or more fully documented information on the apparently appalling state of Lewis’ health, which was plagued his whole life by the ‘ague’ – malaria, for which there was no treatment. Beginning in April of 1908, Lewis was in the care of Dr. Antoine Saugrain, whose care of the governor’s many health problems sounds more horrifying the more we know about it:
Lewis was illness-free for the next six weeks, although on June 15 he received a dose of Glauber’s salt and on June 18 a vial of “saturne white vitriol,” which was a by-product of sulfuric acid, a substance to “check diarrhea.” For almost two months following, Lewis was healthy again, until August 30, when Saugrain gave him tartar emetic and two ounces of Glauber salts: it is evident that Lewis had already been ill for a time. Tartar emetic, a combination of antimony and potassium dissolved in water with Glauber’s salts, was “an all-purpose depletive,” which in “small amounts … produced disabling vomiting.” This therapy regimen of purging the digestive tract was thought at the time to alleviate the symptoms of malaria, but of course it only made Lewis more sick.
Danisi aptly refers to his subject’s “Quixotic disposition” but cannot escape the conclusion that Lewis killed himself on the Natchez Trace in 1809 – although as in his earlier book, he fleshes out that mysterious evening with detail after fascinating detail.
The epigraph to UTTAML comes from an unlikely source – Alexander Wilson, writing in the 1814 completed version of his mammoth American Ornithology:
That brave soldier, that amiable and excellent man, over whose solitary grave in the wilderness I have since shed tears of affliction, having been cut off in the prime of his life, I hope I shall be pardoned for consecrating this humble note to his memory, until a more able pen shall do better justice to the subject.
Beyond any question, that more able pen is Danisi’s, and although UTTAML can be whole-heartedly recommended as a richly researched and engagingly presented book in its own right, nevertheless: it is itself basically one terrifically engorged appendix, and that won’t do. What’s needed now from Danisi is not a scholarly co-authored study and not an extended monograph but a full-dress popular narrative biography of Meriwether Lewis – military man, confidant of Thomas Jefferson, spearhead of the great Lewis & Clark expedition, tempestuous governor, magnetic and conflicted American. It should be roughly 600 pages long. It should cover all aspects of Lewis’ life and times. It should have no graphs. It should be subjected to an expert appendectomy. It should have a catchy title. And it should be ready for bookstores just in time for Father’s Day. There comes a time, as Dumas Malone and James Thomas Flexner (and a dozen others) can attest, when the expert must stop amassing mastery and write that book. Danisi has demonstrated irrefutably that Meriwether Lewis deserves such a book; if readers are lucky, maybe they’ll see it in the book-season of 2015.