IT AT the end of the eighteenth century any one of the great European empires had had its hands free, what would have become of this infant country with the vast wilderness at its back door? The British, The Spanish, and the French all had their own designs for partition, and each was using the best scouts available for the purpose of infiltration. The British fur traders crossed the Canadian border with impunity; and with troops to back them up, maintained forts in our country as late as 1796. The Spanish at St. Louis and in their outer cordon of Missions pushing up into California had the new land. And when, under Napoleon, the French took back New Orleans, and with it Louisiana, we seemed really boxed indeed.
No one was more aware of this danger than Thomas Jefferson. How bold and how early were his designs for our Western expansion is still a question. John Bakeless writes that as early as 1792 “he had dreams of taking the entire fur trade away from the British, securing it to America by diverting it down the Missouri to St. Louis. To be sure, the Missouri River was not American — not yet; and neither was St. Louis or any of the other territory that he wanted to explore. But Mr. Jefferson had ideas of his own how that might be adj listed.”
Bernard DeVoto, one of our best historians of the West and Northwest, tells me that it was the quest of the sea otter, whose pell brought the highest premium, which gave decisive incentive to the design for sending Lewis and Clark to the Pacific. If an inland waterway could be found—and conjecture had it running up the Columbia River, then by a single portage to the Missouri, down the Missouri, and so home — we should secure the market in sea otter, and our ships would no longer have to hazard the run round the Horn and the risk of British raiders. This short cut for trade, a trade which built many a splendid Beacon Street house here in Boston, advanced Jefferson’s designs for t he West with irresistible consequences.
Dr. Bakeless, who as a younger man worked under the Atlantic aegis, has given us a most invigorating dual biography in his book, Lewis and Clark, Partners in Discovery (Morrow, $5.00). A scholar to whom research is bread and meat, his preparation of this material was interrupted by the war. His work with the Southern European Branch of G-4 from 1940 to 1944, from which he eventually emerged as a Colonel, his access to Army files and his Army experience, his service as an Intelligence Officer in Greece and with the Allied Control Commission in Bulgaria, enlivened his appreciation of Clark’s work as an intelligence officer, and of Lewis as the leader and spokesman of the little force of thirty-three souls.
With fascinating and meticulous detail Dr. Bakeless traces the origins of the expedition. He shows us how Thomas Jefferson took young Meriwether Lewis under his wing; he shows us what Lewis owed to his remarkable mother, “Grandma Marks”; how resourceful he was in the woods, and how at the age of twenty-one he had his first experience in Indian fighting when he served as an Ensign under William Clark in the Wayne Expedition. Dr. Bakeless gives us a charming sketch of President Jefferson at work in the raw, unfinished White House, with his young secretary, Lewis, ever at his elbow.
Then our attention turns to William Clark, the younger brother of George Rogers Clark; four of the brothers were generals in the Revolution and young William was in his turn an Indian fighter and regular officer who had been penetrating deeper and deeper into the Spanish territory in quest of intelligence, a resourceful, warmhearted, highly observant youngster who was never happy unless he was in love, and whose diaries are a marvel of misspelling, swift detail, and terse humor. Dr. Bakeless is at his best as a biographer and planner, and the pages in which he writes of the outfitting of the expedition (it, cost about $4500), of the false starts and lingering farewells, are a delight.
Once the Corps of Discovery is in motion in May of 1803 the adventures and hazards begin. On their second day out Lewis pitches over a three-hundredfoot cliff, but his fall is broken after twenty feet, — a shrub or a root saves him, and up he bobs. Their passing through the treacherous wall of Sioux in August is, according to Mr. DeVoto, the most crucial danger of the entire three years. The party was alerted: there was friction but no large-scale attempt at massacre. Yet curiously in none of their diaries does the danger seem as desperately close to them as it must have been. And there were other, if lesser, hazards, — the assaults of the Mandan “maidens” in which Clark’s big, black slave, York, seems to have borne the brunt, the run-ins with the grizzlies, the ever present danger of snags, rapids, and malaria. But the men were hardy, they were magnificently disciplined, and their defense against winter was early prepared. So they went their way with Private Cruzat’s violin to play their square dances and with scenes as unforgettable as when they heard the continuous roar of ten thousand buffaloes milling around within a two-mile circle. It is a tribute to the leadership that in three years in the wilderness only one man was lost — and he by disease.
Dr. Bakcless writes with a salty seasoning of humor, and with that raillery against red tape and that respect for Army usage which he acquired during his own service.
But I find him at his second best as a geographer. I have no quarrel with his maps, nor with his piecing together of the journals kept by the men of the Corps. But I wish he might have given us a stronger feeling of the country, of the river banks, the forests and the heights, the weather, and the bugs. The contemporary drawings by Charles Bodmer which are reproduced through the volume are excellent, but not as realistic as words. Dr. Bakeless has been over almost every mile of the route, and occasionally I wished I could see what he saw, and what he believes that Lewis and Clark saw. The scenery is too incidental and so is the daily contention against nature. So too is the treat ment of the Indian tribes, both in their relation to the fur traders and in their relation to each other. What makes his book memorable is, as I have said, its thorough and devoted biography, its manly and stirring picture of one of the great partnerships in American history.
1939 by Kay Boyle (Simon and Schuster, $2.50) is a tone poem which is suddenly muted. It is laid in the country which she knows with intimacy and affection, the French Alps, with their little skiing chalets, the edelweiss and the gentians — those heights where came the holiday skiers, wishing to forget the war clouds which in the late thirties were piling up over Paris and London, Warsaw and Munich. Here, after the Anschluss, settled Ferdinand Eder—“Ferdl Eder” the villagers call him — a young Austrian who could not stomach Hitler. He rented a cattle refuge from the peasants, cleaned and quicklimed the interior, let in windows, and built the porch where one could stretch out in the sun. Ferdl is a Greek god on skis; a good teacher, he is naturally the target of all women, until one, more unorthodox than the rest, did what others had imagined; deserted her husband and moved into the chalet with the instructor.
This is the beginning of the idyl and Miss Boyle tells it with an intensity of phrase which captures the beauty of the Savoie in winter and summer, the jealous dedication of Corinne Audal, and the effortless magnetism of Ferdl. Then war comes. Ferdl, who is no great shakes above the ears, begins making vague noises about enlisting, never suspecting that the French will hold him as an enemy alien; whereas Corinne, child of a French military family and with a mind extraordinarily versed in the sentiments of French patriots, has to struggle with herself to let him go.
Miss Boyle writes a charged prose; with Rumer Godden, Rebecca West, and Katherine Anne Porter she is one of the fine stylists of our day, and it seems to me disappointing craftsmanship that in a novelette of such brevity she has not been able to sustain either the characterization or the emotional conflict which engages her readers at the outset. Ferdl, so resourceful on the upper slopes, proves to be a man of pathetic indecision at sea level. The author has not prepared us for this, and his behavior seems blundering but not tragic. We are left with too little knowledge to conjecture what will become of him in the concentration camp, or of Corinne in his absence. The story simply sits down.
The silent company
The true stuff heroism is made of has been ironically, matter-of-factly, and touchingly revealed in this, the first of several volumes by a diffident man turned leader of the French Resistance. The books will be published under the running title Memoirs of a Secret, Agent, of Free France (Whittlesey House, $4.00), and this first volume shows us the transformation which occurred in the author, Rémy (also known as Gilbert Renault, or Raymond, or Roulier), between June, 1940, and June, 1942. It is fascinating stuff— the more fascinating because of the author’s candor.
Rémy had the courage to leave France and follow De Gaulle; and then in the midst of one of his broadcasts over the BBC, he realized with a sob that he could not do without his family. So back he goes wilh natural timidity, and after slowly imbuing himself with the Resistance spirit, he enters the Occupied Zone to become one of the strongest links with the Free French. The tone of his book is straightforward and serious, the feeling for his associates in the hidden life (most of them known to him only by initials) is deep and clear. And the author’s innocent, surprise at his own success and the steel-like resilience which you feel develop within him make this chronicle as admirable as it is true.
There’s a fairy at the bottom of my garden
That, as you may recognize, is the first line of one of those ballads made immortal by Beatrice Lillie, and it might serve as a clue on the title page of Josephine Pinckney’s new tour de force, Great Mischief (Viking, $2.7.5). Miss Pinckney’s story, a Charleston concoction of Poe, with the rum left out, has for its hero a little pharmacist, a pepperand-salt druggist of the 1880’s who was completely cowed by his sister and bored to death by the invalid “guest,” Mr. Dombie, who has been living with them ever since he came home wounded from the Civil War. It is a drear household, and I could hardly blame a reader for walking out of it any more than I can blame Timothy, our alchemist, for falling in love with the fay Lucy when she distracts him from his drugs.
At night when she wants to get off the ground and sail above the roof tops, Lucy rubs some ointments on herself and is transformed into Sinkinda, a very speedy hag indeed. In one form or another she bedevils friend Timothy until he burns up his sister and lodger, and having collected the insurance money, invests in a hideaway where he too can divest himself of his clothes, rub on the magic ointments, and then sail through the air. Together, hand in hand, they visit Satan, who lives in a kind of Radio City M usic Hall, and then fifty pages after that they get tired of each other. And so do I.