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Chapter 7 “We are not dealing entirely with the past” Americans Remember Lewis & Clark John Spencer Are we getting too much of Lewis and Clark? The Germans are said to have complained because the Goethe admirers have edited the very shaving-papers of their idol and even the contents of his waste baskets. . . . For our part we are not so minded. In the coming of these heroes the eyes of intelligent men first beheld the nobler features of the beautiful land that is our mother when at last the veil of mystery began to depart from them. From no achievement of our history have flowed consequences more important. Book review, The Nation, 1904 While we propose that this exposition shall be primarily for the purpose of commemorating the Lewis and Clark exploration expedition, we are not dealing entirely with the past. Charles Fulton, U.S. senator from Oregon, 1903 The importance the Nation’s reviewer attached to Lewis and Clark is striking, considering that books by or about “these heroes” had been hard to come by for most of the nineteenth century. Their route remained obscure to most Americans, and public celebrations of their expedition were apparently unknown. But all of that had changed by the time the reviewer wrote in 1904, a year of centennial celebration of Lewis and Clark. Americans had not completely forgotten the explorers before 1900, but they now remembered them in new ways and new media, including popular literature, reprints of the original expedition journals, and a world’s fair. Lewis and Clark have been American icons ever since, with the bicentennial of the expedition providing yet another spike in their visibility. In recent years the historian Stephen Ambrose has written a best-seller about them, the filmmaker Ken Burns has produced a popular documentary film about them, and politicians, historical societies, and history buffs have planned a multitude of public events to celebrate them.1 Some of the themes of these commemorations have held constant for 159 more than a century. One is a fascination with the details of the journey itself and with the endurance and heroism of Lewis and Clark—their “undaunted courage,” to take the title of Ambrose’s book as the most familiar recent example. Another is the didactic importance of the expedition, which enthusiasts have seen as containing larger meanings and a wealth of “lessons,” especially for young people. It is striking, however, amid the ongoing fixation on legacies and lessons in Lewis and Clark, how wildly those meanings have fluctuated over time. At the turn of the twentieth century, publishers, writers, historians, artists, and promoters of world’s fairs made Lewis and Clark into standard-bearers for the industrialism, imperialism, and racism that permeated late nineteenthcentury society. These centennial images were not entirely new—Thomas Jefferson’s expansionism and ethnocentrism were at the heart of the expedition from the first—but they did reflect the special concerns of the moment.2 A new social order—more hierarchical, more dominated by corporate power, and more focused on the spread of white, Anglo-Saxon supremacy on a world scale—had taken shape after the Civil War, and proponents of that new order invoked Lewis and Clark to justify it. Commemorations of the expedition offered a chance to link the new society to a more fluid, democratic past. In the same way, the social and political upheavals of the 1960s have reverberated into our own time to give us a bicentennial Lewis and Clark who symbolize exactly the opposite of what they stood for a hundred years ago: environmentalism and respect for nature instead of industrial development, multiculturalism instead of racism and imperial conquest. What remains constant is the way in which ideas about the past exploits of Lewis and Clark are shaped by present conflicts over economic growth and inequality, cultural diversity, and the proper role of the United States in the world. Historians have noted that a golden age of Lewis and Clark scholarship since 1962 has resulted in more varied and thoughtful images of the expedition . These scholars argue that while “popular” or “folk” images of Lewis and Clark were long plagued by distortions and a neglect of such stories as the scientific achievements of the expedition, the gap between those images and a more sober, “literate-elite” tradition is closing.3 This characterization is certainly accurate to a point, but it must be qualified. Popular and scholarly views of Lewis and Clark were not...


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