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The Lewis and Clark expedition, like the adventures in the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Odyssey, was a trek into an unfamiliar and often frightening wilderness —the first, longest, and largest of nineteenth-century United States government expeditions into terra incognita. Launched from St. Louis in 1804 in a 55-foot masted keelboat and two pirogues carrying more than 8,000 pounds of food and equipment, the Voyage of Discovery, as it was called, lasted two years, four months, and ten days. Round-trip, it covered 7,689 miles between the mouth of the Missouri River and the Pacific outlet of the Columbia River. To a young nation—the United States was barely seventeen years old at the time—Lewis and Clark brought back maps of previously uncharted rivers and mountains, specimens of previously unknown plants and animals, amazing artifacts, and even representatives of previously unseen peoples of the West. But the explorers’ most valuable contribution came in an elkskin-bound field book and red morocco-bound journals, stored in tin boxes. Written in an odd, fragmented style that vacillated between the languages of art and science in accordance with the aesthetic expectations of the day, these remarkable journals offered a new natural history of the West. More significant—and surprising—is that the strange, vacillating style of the journals came to characterize the entire genre of American nature writing in the nineteenth century. Beginning in 1983, The Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition have been appearing piecemeal from the University of Nebraska Press in a standard edition of thirteen volumes, including an oversize atlas, a volume of natural history materials, the diaries of four enlisted men, and the complete journals of the expedition leaders, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, once dubbed “the writingest explorers of their time.”1 More than a million words of journal entries in over five thousand pages of text and annotation 37 Chapter 2 Wilderness Aesthetics Frank Bergon culminated this twenty-year project. Edited by Gary E. Moulton, professor of history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, this joint venture of several institutions and numerous scholars, the product of both private and government funding, came to completion just shy of the bicentennial of the 1804–06 expedition. According to a reviewer’s puff quoted on a publisher’s brochure, “These journals of exploits and courage in a pristine West have a simplicity and timelessness about them—never failing to capture the imagination of the ordinary reader or to interest the historian, scientist, or geographer.” But what about students and teachers of American literature? Do these expeditionary materials stimulate their interest with the same intensity as that of historians, scientists, and geographers? If for an answer we turn to current canon-forming literary histories and college anthologies, the response would be no. The journals are absent from major commercial anthologies of American literature published by Norton (1994), Heath (1994), HarperCollins (1994), Macmillan (1993), and Prentice Hall (1991), while the recent Columbia Literary History of the United States (1988) advises readers to forego the complete journals and explore a modern abridgment because “[t]edious detail so clutters their narrative.”2 Perhaps a change is imminent. The more recent Cambridge History of American Literature (1994) discusses the journals at length, and the new scholarly Nebraska edition now provides an opportunity to see that these writings—with their logs of temperature and weather, astronomical observations, tabulations of longitude and latitude, descriptions of flora and fauna, anthropological data, misspellings, and neologisms—do indeed constitute a classic “literary pursuit”—a natural history of the lands, animals, and native peoples of the West that rises to the level of an American epic. “Epic” is a word frequently and loosely applied to the expedition itself— the historic act of exploration—with respect to its magnitude, but the term might also characterize the journals as literary texts.3 In 1989, when asked to produce a popular abridgment of the journals not unlike those recommended by theColumbia Literary History of the United States, I found myself arguing in the introduction that “no abridgment can fully convey the dazzling epic quality of the complete journals or their splendid achievement in the literature of natural history, for their effect is monumental and cumulative.” I organized the abridgment into the paradigmatic twelve-book epic scheme, and with the freewheeling hyperbole welcome to such editions, I argued that from the hindsight of almost two centuries, these uneven, fragmented , and unpolished journals offer the equivalent of a national poem...


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