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  • Wrighting the WestLeaving Marks in Frank X Walker's York Poems
  • Jimmy Dean Smith (bio)

On September 26, 1806, Captain Meriwether Lewis, back in civilization and a guest in the home of Jean Pierre Choteau of St. Louis, composed one final entry for the journals in which he and William Clark recorded the three-year expedition of the Corps of Discovery.1 "A fine morning," he wrote, "we commenced wrighting &c" (Journals).2 Gary E. Moulton, who edited Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition for the University of Nebraska Press, calls this entry "anticlimactic" (lxii). In fact, Moulton omits the entry altogether from his single volume abridgement of Lewis and Clark, a notable decision since these are, after all, the Journals' last words. Scholars preparing the digital edition of the Journals for the University of Nebraska believe that this day's "wrighting" involved completing mostly ceremonial letters to the president and other political figures (n2), a falling of that concludes what Moulton calls "An American Epic of Discovery" in bureaucratic necessity. Regarding a metaliterary reading of "wrighting"—i.e., that Lewis was, in fact, adding content to the journals themselves or even beginning the process of creating "the red notebook journals . . . after the return" (Journals, Introduction)—the same scholars are not entirely dismissive but still drily doubtful: "It is possible that Clark still had some of his journals to complete, although there are objections to this supposition" (n2).

Yet, in making their physical journey, Lewis and Clark also made a rhetorical journey that equipped them with a vocabulary suitable to their writerly task. The serendipitous wrighting clarifies the rhetorical situation of the expedition. There was once a verb to wright, which meant "to build or construct"—to make—that is no [End Page 435] longer used, though its ghost lingers in still-familiar nouns: cart-wright, wheelwright, and playwright ("artificer or handicraftsman; esp. a constructive workman" ["wright"]). Meriwether Lewis's accidental but significant pun joins together making-wrighting with word-writing. The inadvertent wordplay foregrounds how the authors of The Journals of Lewis and Clark rhetorically constructed—wrote to wright—an exploitable western wilderness. Writing/wrighting thus exemplifies a tactic for fashioning the duality Val Plumwood deems necessary for constructing the "master identity" (4), wherein the civilized, civilizing principle of reason positions itself against nature:

Reason in the western tradition has been constructed as the privileged domain of the master, who has conceived nature as a wife or subordinate other. . . .

To be defined as "nature" in this context is to be defined as passive, . . . as the "environment" or invisible background conditions against which the "foreground" achievements of reason or culture (provided typically by the white, western, male expert or entrepreneur) take place. It is to be defined as a terra nullius, a resource empty of its own purposes and meanings, and hence available to be annexed for the purposes of those supposedly identified with reason or intellect, and to be conceived and moulded in relation to those purposes.


In their journals, Lewis and Clark drafted the national epic of exploration, their words not only describing but also creating the landscape they passed through. What had been terra incognita, a virtually unknown vastness to them, was charted, with comprehensible names filling in what had only recently been blank spaces on the Euro-American map. They wrote and wrought, crafting a rational identity for the environment that objectified the "virgin" land and thus bestowed meaning upon it. They named the land and therefore made it useful—or exploitable. As John F. Sears remarks about the white rechristening of places in the West, "naming is claiming, an act of asserting cultural hegemony" (152). Once named (and claimed), the landscape becomes historically significant—though that significance is based on settling the question what history, or, [End Page 436] perhaps more accurately, whose. Ursula K. Le Guin emphasizes the egoism—the I am-ness—of Master rhetoric that turns land into an exploitable Other: "Civilized Man says: I am Self, I am Master, all the rest is Other—outside, below, underneath, subservient. I own, I use, I explore, I exploit, I control. What I do is what matters. What I...


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