Of Heroes and Hype
Exploring the nature, and industry, of discovery
It's still a year before the 200th anniversary of when you-know-who pushed up the Missouri River, and two years before the bicentennial of their reaching the Pacific at the mouth of the Columbia River. And I, a lover of history, am already sick of them.
Who can blame me? An online browse through Barnes & Noble listed 935 book titles related to the pair's journey. A recent search of newspaper articles turned up 582 written in just two months. L&C became best sellers via Bernard DeVoto in 1953 and Stephen Ambrose in 1996, and went public on TV thanks to Ken Burns in 1997. In Clark County, Vancouver organizers have bowed to the inevitable and kicked off their observances two years early.
It's not just that entire books are devoted to the expedition's Sacagawea, York the black servant, the tribes encountered, the animals encountered, and the plants unearthed. There are also Lewis-and-Clark novels, Lewis-and-Clark cookbooks, Lewis-and-Clark coloring books, and at least three volumes (I'm not kidding) on Lewis and Clark's dog. What more needs to be said?
Just wait. The onslaught of hype is bound to slog on.
Don't get me wrong. Lewis and Clark were great and important explorers whose judgment, humanity, courage and meticulous recording of 300 unknown species of plants and animals put them in an entirely different league from today's narcissistic adrenaline junkies who charge through the wilderness in search of "personal fulfillment" and come out utterly ignorant and incoherent about where they've been.
Clark and Lewis make funny Horizon Air commercials, too. But they were not the first white men to cross North America north of Mexico. That was Alexander MacKenzie, who reached the coast of British Columbia in 1793, some 12 years before Lewis and Clark. Remember his bicentennial? I don't either.
They did not discover the Columbia River. That was Robert Gray, in 1792. By the time our heroes came down the Columbia, there had been so much trading at its mouth that they found European goods as far upriver as The Dalles.
They did not discover the major immigrant route across the Rockies to the West, South Pass. That was Robert Stuart, in 1812. Ever hear of him?
Or the uncomfortable fact that in one important aspect Lewis and Clark failed, because their Way West turned out to be pretty much unusable?
The British explored Puget Sound and the Spanish first mapped the San Juan and Gulf islands. How much recognition of Spanish exploration do you find in this state? It was David Thompson who sorted out the upper reaches of the Columbia; David Douglas who gave his name to a rather famous tree. And on, and on.
So why do we have room in our cultural consciousness, seemingly, for just one set of explorers at a time? In a word, money.
DeVoto popularized the pair's 16 volumes of journals, and Ambrose retold their telling so effectively that it created an industry. Lewis and Clark didn't just explore, they wrote and drew copiously. History lives and dies on source material, and our heroes gave legions of later authors, journalists, curators and tourist bureaus a cash cow to endlessly milk.
L&C were American. They wrote in English. Compared to Columbus or Cortez, they were New Age, sensitive-type guys. They were, in a word, Hollywood.
But they were not the only important explorers out there.
We've gone through this before, of course. There was the 1992 politically-correct thumping of Columbus, ad nauseum. There was Y2K (an acronym that in itself was a monstrosity) that managed to be prehyped, anticlimactic and flat wrong all at the same time: The real millennial turning point was New Year's of 2001, not 2000, but it was too complicated to explain to the masses, and by that time, who cared?
The entire idea of centennials and millennials, taken from our somewhat arbitrary base-10 numerical system, is silly, of course. Lewis and Clark are no more important 200 years after the fact than 193 years, or 226.
The Washington Post was savvy enough to write its millennial stories about four years before the real anniversary. They predicted that by the time the real thing rolled around, no one would read a word.
I'm surprised you've even gotten this far.
William Dietrich is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Paul Schmid is a Seattle Times staff artist.
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