- The Character of Meriwether Lewis: Explorer in the Wilderness by Clay S. Jenkinson
Clay Jenkinson’s recent work The Character of Meriwether Lewis enumerates the personal qualities that led Lewis to take his own life a mere three years after his return from the famed transcontinental expedition. Jenkinson relies on a close reading of the expedition’s journals and Lewis’s letters to reveal a character whose ambitions extended beyond his abilities and whose personal contradictions complicated his life to the point that social pressure and the threat of defamation by the War Department impelled him to commit suicide.
Jenkinson identifies key moments throughout the journals that flesh out details regarding Lewis’s character. Rather than make a chronological study of the expedition and the three years following its return, the author groups similar incidents from Lewis’s life to reveal complexities of a man still not fully understood. Jenkinson divides the book into two basic sections: pre- and post-expeditionary life. The first section uses the journals as the foundational text to demonstrate Lewis’s difficulty affiliating with the men; his need to explore an area, whether consciously or subconsciously, before the other members of the Corps of Discovery; how the challenges of the wilderness contended with his desire to return to city life; and how his immersion into the wilderness inhibited his ability to reenter American society.
In the post-expeditionary section, Jenkinson draws on his assertions from the book’s first section to demonstrate how Lewis’s character facilitated his descent into depression and suicide. This section addresses issues frequently debated by scholars and history enthusiasts: why Lewis did not write his book, his failure to acquire a wife, his inebriation and possible drug problem, and the social tension between his secretary, Fredrick Bates, and the War Department Secretary, William Eustis. The author’s ultimate goal is to address the mystery surrounding Lewis’s death and to explain why the famous explorer, as Jenkinson believes, took his own life. The book acknowledges various theories proposed over the last fifty years, from the murder theory Vardis Fisher promoted in 1962 to the more recent theory proposed by Thomas C. Danisi and John C. Jackson which claims Lewis killed himself due to advanced stages of malaria rather than mental illness. Though Jenkinson never conclusively states whether Lewis suffered from a chemical imbalance [End Page 419] or a malarial infection, he clearly believes that mental stress and the official government reprimand he received from Eustis led the Jeffersonian protégé to shoot himself in the head and chest.
The Character of Meriwether Lewis provides strong arguments through the use of literary analysis in his evaluation of historical facts. Jenkinson’s ability to see minor incidents in primary documents as indicative of major influences lends credibility to his arguments and speaks volumes for his aptitude as a researcher. The book’s claims generally stand up to scrutiny and enable the reader to access the multiple theories presented on Lewis’s demise, particularly those proposed during the 2009 bicentennial of Lewis’s death. However, the book’s larger assertion of Captain Lewis’s character does not deviate much from the assertions made by scholars such as Stephen Ambrose; that Lewis was moody, socially awkward, and a brilliant scientist rather than a leader of men is common knowledge among Lewis and Clark scholars. While Jenkinson provides some new details about Lewis’s life and death, the book does not offer revolutionary insight into his character. The book ultimately presents solid scholarship and a multitude of facts for the reader, enlivening the study of the Lewis and Clark expedition.