Monday, July 31, 2006

Historical Lies

I have been comissioned to write a book about Lewis and Clark for children. The initial research for the project has been interesting and revelatory. Everything you know about Lewis and Clark is a whitewash. This is all a way of saying that everything I write about Lewis and Clark and submit to my publisher will be a whitewash. A whitewash is a species of lie, perhaps the worst kind and so it's proper for me to confess it here. It will also allow me to give the publisher the desired product while alleviating my desire to hang myself from a waterpipe in the basement.

I've not yet begun reading Undaunted Courage, Stephen Ambrose's account of the journey. I'm not looking forward to it, but given that it's such a popular book on the same subject, I'm professionally obliged to read it. Ambrose is famous for his heroic accounts of heroic people who live in heroic times and all that crap. I've no doubt that he bestows the same treatment on Lewis and Clark because, well that's what everyone wants. When we were in school we were told that they were brave and smart. All that.

But this is where historical whitewashes get fucked up. Lewis and Clark kept journals through the course of their journey. Each man made his own entries, and so there's a certain degree of corroboration or comparision that a student can make with these first-hand accounts. Since the journals are public domain, you can buy cheap paperbacks of the journals at any bookstore. Each edition of the journals comes with a foreword by Mr. Owl Phd who inscribes some nonsense about the American Spirit and Merriwether Lewis and Bill Clarks Indominable Spirits. Yet even a cursory reading of the journals reveals that, first and foremost, Lewis and Clark were dumb.

They could not spell. At all. I don't mean they sometimes misspelled a word here or there. I'm not the copyeditor type who condemns a man for writing "to" when he meant to write "too." I mean if a word has more than three letters, there's a fair chance Lewis and Clark misspell it. Not only will they misspell it, they will misspell the word in an innovative way, every time they write it. I cannot count the variations on the words "mosquitoes" and "fatiguing" these two men discovered. For this accomplishment they have gone unlauded until now.

Now I know, they were explorers, not grammarians. Dictionaries and standardized spelling were not established in 1804. But Lewis's last job was Personal Secretary to the President, Thomas fucking Jefferson. You would hope that a guy who served as the personal secretary to the Mayor of Idiot town would at least settle on a single spelling of mosquitoes, no?

It runs much deeper than that though. In an early entry, before the beginning of the trip, Clark wonders in print, whether or not the religious rituals of Native Americans bear any relationship to those of "the Jews." This is one of the primary questions ole Bill sought to answer on his trip. There's no clear implication that Clark had anti-semitism on his mind when he wrote this. I think he moronically equated all cultures different from his own with "the Jews."

Once underway the journey unfolded with all the scientific and military precision of a cat race. While almost every account you read will describe the 40 odd men on the trip as "carefully chosen" for their skill, discipline and courage, there's little evidence of any of these traits in the journals. They are more like the Dirty Dozen than the A Team, but less competent. Men fall asleep on watch and get beaten for it. (Clark loves running a Court Martial.) By the end of the first summer Lewis writes that everyone is in good health "except for venereal concerns." This is his polite way of saying that all the boys caught the clap from fucking Indian women.

It should come as no surprise that they kill nearly every animal that crosses their path. Deer, mule deer, buffalo, black bear, grizzly bears, none of them stand a chance. (Though one grizzly bear very nearly makes a lunch of a few members of the expedition). They have no practical way to store the meat they kill, but that doesn't stop them from the slaughter. The one act of mercy I've found so far comes when a few guys nap a live ibis and bring it to Lewis. He turns all Francis of Assisi and lets it free, then he breaks his own arm patting himself on the back for his decency.

When they come upon a new Indian tribe the two intrepid explorers always set about diplomatically wooing the chief. In order to do this, Lewis demonstrates his bb gun (he calls it an "air rifle," but a bb gun is a bb gun) with pride that would shame Ralphie from A Christmas Story. In Lewis's accounting, the chiefs are always much impressed. Clark, not to be out done, commands his slave York, a gigantic black man, to dance for the Indians. Most of the chiefs have never seen a black man before, and the sight of a 6'5'' giant busting a move by the campfire is certainly impressive to them. At least according to Clark it is. (The knowledge that York had been Clark's personal slave since childhood makes this all the more creepy.)

Now to bring it all back home, it nearly shocks me that no one else seems to be aware of all this, despite the fact that unexpurgated editions of the journals have been in print for most of the last hundred years. Am I the only person who's read these things?