By Philip Marchand
Random House Philip Marchand
All right reserved. ISBN: 077105677X
La Salle was born in November 1643 to the rich bourgeois family Cavelier, merchants in the old city of Rouen, on the banks of the Seine. The family owned a country manor called La Salle and awarded the title of this estate to their second oldest son -- hence the honorific Sieur de la Salle. Just before he turned fifteen, La Salle, who had studied at a local Jesuit school and was uncommonly bright, with an aptitude for mathematics, joined the Jesuit novitiate in Paris. Perhaps he was lured by the promise of adventure as a missionary -- the Jesuit Relations, the extraordinary collection of narratives of the Jesuit priests in the North American wilderness, was a bestseller at the time. The only certain thing is that La Salle was receiving the best education in the world, superior to anything offered to adolescents today. Ancient and modern languages, the exact sciences, with an emphasis on physics and geography -- the Jesuits were mad about cartography and the use of navigational devices such as the astrolabe -- mathematics, logic, rhetoric, theology, it was an education calculated to turn a boy into a man at ease with both the rigors of science and the arts of persuasion. The Jesuits wanted their members to be capable of taking care of themselves without help in any situation.
Just before his seventeenth birthday La Salle took his religious vows and entered the Jesuit school in La Fleche, the same school Descartes attended forty years earlier. After two years at La Fleche, he alternated between his own studies and teaching in various Jesuit grammar schools. The latter was torture for La Salle, a restless soul stuck in a classroom all day supervising a bunch of boys. He was full of energy, tall (just under six feet), with an athlete's arms and legs. While capable, it seems, of controlling his sexual drives, he had less success controlling his temper and urge to dominate others. My own suspicion is that La Salle was favored by his parents over his older brother (he got the title of the family-owned farm). Perhaps they knew that the younger was more gifted than the elder. That brother, Jean Cavelier, who was seven years older than La Salle and became a priest in the Sulpician Order, and was indeed a man of mediocre talents, later displayed both resentment of and subservience to his younger sibling. So it must have been from the start. It is easy to imagine the drama in the Cavelier home -- the eleven-year-old trying to thwart the four-year-old, the beloved of the mother, but always yielding in the end. (The beloved of the mother, Freud reminds us, feels like a conqueror.)
La Salle's superiors noted that he lacked prudence and judgment. He was also "scrupulous"; that is, morbidly anxious about the state of his soul and easily convinced that he had sinned mortally. It is not a state, pastoral theologians emphasize, that is invariably connected to mental illness, but when it does indicate neurosis, it seems to be symptomatic of obsessive-compulsive disorders or of depression and anxiety. The latter would explain certain aspects of La Salle's later behavior. He was often castigated by observers for withdrawing into himself at various moments in his explorations, of being secretive and refusing to take counsel or reveal his plans. But if he was depressed and anxious, then he was too busy listening to the voices in his own head, the gloomy interior conclave that would not be stilled, to pay attention to his flesh-and-blood companions.
In 1666 the twenty-two-year-old La Salle did a most un-Jesuit thing -- he wrote to the general of the society in Rome begging to be sent to China as a missionary. Jesuits don't plead for assignments. They wait to be given orders. The inner pressure on La Salle must have been intense for him to resort to this appeal, which, predictably, was turned down. "A restless urge drove La Salle from one place to another, a peculiar impulse made him think that wherever he was his presence was necessary elsewhere," wrote the Jesuit scholar Jean Delanglez in a summary verdict on La Salle's career. Nothing more acute has ever been said about the man. He always wanted to be in a different place.
The following year he asked his superiors to release him from his vows and his membership in the Society of Jesus. By this time his superiors had ample evidence that La Salle was not cut out to be a Jesuit -- their pet name for him was Inquietus. One of them had described the young man as possessing ingenium bonum, judicium tenue, prudentia parva -- good parts, questionable judgment, very little prudence. A looser translation of the Latin would be "The lad's smart enough, but he doesn't have the sense God gave a flea." La Salle's request was granted. The Father General wrote to him, "Try to live ever in union of heart with us and with Jesus." Some part of La Salle, however, could never forgive the Jesuits.
La Salle now found himself without money or prospects. His father was dead, and his initial religious vows of poverty had legally deprived him of any share of the family inheritance. Nevertheless his family staked him to a voyage across the sea to Canada and sent him off with a few coins in his pocket. A lot of people in Rouen, including some of his relatives, had made money out of Canada, dealing in its fish and furs. Not that you'd want to live there. Founded by Samuel Champlain in 1608, a year after the first permanent English settlement in North America at Jamestown, French Canada was for the first half-century of its existence a string of tiny settlements along the St. Lawrence River, hemmed in by rock and forest, under constant siege by the dreaded Iroquois, gripped half the year by a bone-chilling winter. Jack Kerouac, who never escaped the spell of his own Quebecois ancestors, called it "the utterly hopeless place to which the French came when they came to the New World." Walt Whitman, visiting the province in 1880, called its landscape "an extreme of grimness" and one of the scariest places he had ever seen. This is a point always to be remembered about French Canadians.
Things had begun to improve, actually, in the years just prior to La Salle's arrival. Louis xiv, then commencing his long, splendid, tragic reign, took an interest in this outpost of France. It would become, he decided, a province of France, and therefore he took control of its affairs away from the trading monopoly that had hitherto ruled and exploited the colony. Jean Colbert, the king's great minister, would henceforth be responsible for its fortunes, while Canada would be directly administered by a royal governor, an intendant, and a bishop. An army regiment was sent to teach the Iroquois a lesson. The soldiers burned a few abandoned Mohawk villages -- not a great military coup -- but it was enough to persuade the Five Nations to make peace. More immigrants were sent in an attempt to create a genuine, self-sustaining agricultural community, like the English settlements along the seaboard. The fur trade would continue, for its revenues were indispensable, but now at least not every Frenchman in Canada would be roaming the wilderness like a sauvage. By the time La Salle took ship for Montreal, the colony was beginning to flourish, with real farms, real industries, real towns taking root.
This was the base from which La Salle, for the next two decades, conducted his journeys into the unknown heart of the continent. It was as an emissary from the court of Versailles and stone and wood farmhouses of Quebec that he followed the course of the Mississippi to its terminus in the Gulf of Mexico and made a name for himself in history.
Excerpted from Ghost Empire by Philip Marchand Excerpted by permission.
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