Consider, for a moment, Lewis and Clark as they stand in the early-morning dew of American history. The image that comes to mind for many of us is that of two buckskin-clad men standing ramrod straight, facing to the left (westward, of course), one holding a long rifle like a staff, the other stretching forth his arm and pointing toward the Pacific Ocean. They’re two profiles in courage, but as more time passes and fewer schoolchildren study their significance, they threaten to fade into the bland vanilla of American history (i.e., “all the stuff that happened before the Vietnam War”).
Now pick up Michael Pritchett’s debut novel, The Melancholy Fate of Capt. Lewis, and discover a radical interpretation of the Corps of Discovery expedition of 1804-6. Here you’ll find that Meriwether Lewis was a hypersensitive soul who was tortured by inner demons, haunted by a family history of depression and failed romance. As the novel opens, we meet a man whose “mind was a tangle” and for whom “night now came crashing and breaking in pieces, shards and motes of black.” Less than three years after returning home from the expedition, he committed suicide. This is the titular destiny of the book’s central character: He shot himself once in the head, then the chest; and when that didn’t work, he cut himself “from head to foot” with a straight razor.
You won’t find that in many textbooks — except maybe those in Bill Lewis’s classroom. This modern-day Lewis, a high school history teacher, is the other major character in The Melancholy Fate of Capt. Lewis. He is obsessed with the Lewis and Clark expedition and is writing a book on the subject. Meanwhile, he’s busy dealing with his own problems: his 14-year-old son has anorexia, his marriage is falling apart, and his mind is wracked by anxiety.
Pritchett weaves the fabric of the novel out of these the two stories, drawing some too-obvious parallels between the 19th- and 21st-century Lewises. Both are strangled by the grip of depression (Bill Lewis also feels “a creeping sadness and constant crying feeling in the back of his throat”); both are obsessed with women they can’t have (Meriwether by Sacagawea, Bill by Joaney, a pregnant student with “tight curls of lemony permed hair”); and both sense the world has little use for introspective males.
Intriguing as the dual narrative is, Pritchett dampens its impact by rarely missing an opportunity to state the obvious, banging a gong to signal the moments of comparison between the two worlds. Through his mouthpiece Bill Lewis, Pritchett unnecessarily repeats, nearly verbatim, events from the expedition in the modern chapter interludes. These summaries add little to the character or narrative and only bog down the book, keeping us from the more vivid world of white men trekking through the New World west of the Mississippi.
In these sections, Pritchett nicely captures the atmosphere of anticipation and apprehension as the 33-man party sets out on its journey in 1804. In addition to finding an all-water route to the Pacific, Lewis and Clark were commissioned by Thomas Jefferson to bring back reports of any sightings of woolly mammoths, saber-toothed lions and giant sloths, cannibalism and polygamy, a light-skinned race of “Welsh Indians,” a mountain of pure salt, and the ten Lost Tribes of Israel. The west of the continent was unexplored territory to the Anglos, so anything was possible. The results — at least by these fantastical standards — were disappointing.
Of course, from another perspective, such discoveries were beside the point. With every Indian tribe encountered, every buffalo felled by a rifle, Lewis and Clark are helping to ensure the triumph of what would later be termed Manifest Destiny. Lewis, a bad fit for the age he helped usher in, had constant doubts about what they were doing: “As for me, I want to trust in the Enlightenment, but it often seems so much philosophy,” he says.
Clark, presented by Pritchett as a steadfast and comparatively bland counterpart to his vacillating companion, rebukes his friend for these mood swings and tries constantly to bolster his spirit:
Clark’s eyes grew remote and worried. “Lewis! I know you are a rational creature and — “
“I know you can take this — this wild mania of yours — in hand.”
“Sometimes, Clark,” he said, looking down and arranging the locks, “I am in its grip, nearly, and only stay safe by being perfectly still and not breathing so it does not know where I am.” Tears rose to his eyes and a whole apple filled his throat.
The only thing that seems able to lift Lewis’s morose mood is Sacagawea, who joins the party when her husband, Charbonneau, is hired as an interpreter. The effect on the manic-depressive is life altering:
His dingy, ragged spirit had ceased to move until she’d looked on ‘t. Now, he grew sensible, most sensible, to feeling. The cormorants were suddenly jet-black as any in Dante’s verse. And the light at sunset shredded his nerves like the pealing of iron bells. He praised the meat, and was able to smile and laugh, while his other part jerked in hell.
Love quickly turns to obsession and obsession leads inevitably to mania. That, unfortunately, leads to some manic prose: Pritchett feverishly writes of a love triangle between Lewis, Sacagawea ,and fellow explorer William Clark that literally climaxes with this unforgivable sentence: “Gripped tightly in that velvet muscle, his milk pod cracked, burst, and its seed was jerked out of him like a cord with thirteen knots.”
Given the overwhelming quality of his emotional life, it’s no wonder that Lewis’s character dominates the novel, his melancholia an internal correspondence for the monster he sees himself helping to create. That monster is the rape of the West, which Lewis foretells long before strip mining, deforestation, and Las Vegas. “The world we are finding, we are destroying,” he says. “One sees a thing for the first time only once.”
This is the spirit of discovery that Pritchett captures — pessimistic, but also visionary in its awe at what is yielded by the attempt to forge into the unknown. For all its dark moments in the hell of a man’s soul, The Melancholy Fate of Capt. Lewis is an illuminating interpretation of a time in our nation’s short history when saber-toothed cats and the Lost Tribes of Israel still roamed the Great Plains of our imaginations.