Classic review: I Should Be Extremely Happy In Your Company
Lewis and Clark discovered new lands and peoples, but their greatest challenges led inward.
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Hall's central concern throughout, though, is that mysterious leader Meriwether Lewis, who's troubled from the start by two questions: "First, what he was; and second, why Mr. J might have chosen him." Though he finds more than 300 new plants and animals and a rough passage from St. Louis to the Pacific, he never finds answers to those mysteries.Skip to next paragraph
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He's known Mr. J, the third president of the United States, since he was a boy playing on the grounds of Monticello, but he has no sense of why the great statesman should take notice of him. (One of the novel's many highlights is its witty portrayal of this idealistic president, spinning plans with the naiveté of an emperor who's used to seeing his whims realized - by slaves, minions, or the US Treasury.)
Jefferson loves bright conversation, but in his presence, Lewis "drags the words one by one out of the mud at the back of his throat." Official dinners are agony for him, locked in a dark mood that he knows makes him seem like "an intolerable prig." In this social torture, Jefferson's commission to lead 30 men up the Missouri River across an unexplored country excites Lewis as "a license, nay, a duty to run away. A miracle!" (As arduous as the plan sounds, consider that Jefferson's first idea was to send a single man to the Pacific, writing a journal on his own skin.)
The friend Lewis chooses to accompany him is the commander of his old rifle company in the US Army. William Clark had left the service to attend to family matters, but when Lewis offers him a position as captain, he readily accepts.
If only Lewis had been authorized to make that offer! Filling a strange ambiguity in the historical record, Hall creates a dark comedy of manners as Lewis sweats over a promise that the Army refuses to fulfill and Clark pretends not to notice. It's a perfect conflict to capture the spirit of this remarkable friendship between men who idolize each other, remain determined to please each other, and never understand each other.
In counterpoint narratives soaked with the language of their journals and letters, Lewis and Clark struggle to negotiate the uncharted new land of America and the equally challenging terrain of their co-captaincy. Clark strives to keep his pride hidden, while remaining thirsty for his partner's praise.
Meanwhile, Lewis is vexed by the incompatible roles thrust upon him: diplomat, warrior, scientist, historian, and propagandist. Such is the nature of his dark mental state that long periods of success are quickly toppled by a moment of failure, a doubt about his abilities, or a flash of shame about his cynicism. It's a troubling, deeply moving portrayal of a man placed on the pinnacle of fame who just wants to sit on the porch and talk with his friend.
Here's literature that saves one of the greatest American moments from the pastel palette of mythology. Hall has constructed a narrative as bracing and surprising as the journey itself.
Ron Charles is a former Monitor book editor.