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Review of Meriwether Lewis

Meriwether Lewis
By Thomas C. Danisi and John C. Jackson
Prometheus Books, 2009

It’s hard to believe that Thomas Danisi and John Jackson have written the first comprehensive, full-length biography of Meriwether Lewis in fifty years, but it’s true: Lewis, the brilliant, mercurial half of the greatest land-based voyage of discovery since Marco Polo, has not fared well with his biographers. There are ample records for his life, including of course that 1803-1806 voyage he made with his good friend William Clark, but they have been overshadowed by the records of his 1809 death and the rampant speculation that followed – was it murder or suicide?

Danisi and Jackson wade into that controversy with fists flying, and to my mind they explain every aspect of Lewis’ death beyond cavil or reconsideration. Young men dying violently will always engender theories, but Danisi and Jackson have done enough research on the question to satisfy anybody who’s ever going to be satisfied.

But it would be an ironic shame if that research overshadowed the rest of this splendid book, because this is exactly the kind of lively, exceedingly intelligent, accessibly-written Life & Times that every great figure in history deserves – the kind of biography steadily being supplanted in these waning days by yet more studies of Napoleon’s penis. Danisi and Jackson are authoritative and interesting on every part of Lewis’ life, not just the last part, and of course they keep their eyes always on that great voyage – and the book that was expected to come out of it:

Could Lewis write a book? Because Jefferson liked to compose his own letters, the president’s secretary had been more of an aide-de-camp than a copyist. Now he had to complete a narrative of the expedition that would recount the experience, recapture a sense of the adventure, and recover a feeling of the natural world that they had passed through like innocents in a garden. That was a daunting challenge even a practiced man of letters might take months or years to complete. But Lewis, the only man who could do the glorious subject justice, would have only a couple of months to write it.

We’ll never know what kind of a book Lewis could have written if he’d had ample time and ample health with which to do so, but we know what kind of a book Danisi and Jackson have written: meaty, entertaining, and best of all, definitive.

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