Fallibility. After reading from Richard Wheeler’s lengthy list of historical western novels, I’m thinking fallibility is a special interest of this award-winning author. And it’s a difficult subject in a field of fiction that traditionally wants to pay tribute to the men who opened the West. In this story of Lewis and Clark, however, we are given a portrayal of exceptional men, who are also only human.
Eclipse, published in 2002, tackles the story of the suicide of Meriwether Lewis, only a few short years after the triumphant return of his expedition to the Pacific with Will Clark. As Wheeler notes in a Postscript, his death had long been a mystery, some historians advancing evidence of foul play. As a close associate of Jefferson and the political camp opposed to Aaron Burr, he would have had his enemies.
But opinion has shifted to a belief that at the time of his death, Lewis was in fact dying of syphilis, contracted while consorting with an Indian woman. Wheeler’s novel begins with the return of the Corps of Discovery and follows Lewis as the disease eventually ravages his body and mind. The novel’s considerable achievement is that it makes of this unlikely material a wholehearted and compelling tragedy.
|Meriwether Lewis, c1807
In Wheeler’s hands, it is also a personal tragedy. What destroys him as much as the disease is the abject shame of being the host of a venereal infection. Lewis sees his hopes and dreams torn from him, leaving him unfit for marriage and unable even to confide in his closest friends. He is an exile, a prisoner suffering solitary confinement. One is reminded of the stigma and the moral panic unleashed with the first victims of the AIDS virus.
Plot. After their return to the States, Lewis and Clark are given administrative duties over upper Louisiana. Both are based in the former French colonial city of St. Louis. Lewis is appointed governor, and Clark is superintendent of Indian Affairs. Both have immediate and pressing responsibilities. Chief among them is the winning of allegiance from the many Indian tribes even as the British, Spaniards, and others contend for control of the vast tract of land.
|William Clark, 1810
Meanwhile, he sets himself unsuccessfully to winning a wife, someone not only arrestingly lovely, but serious as he. But the few who qualify find him strangely off putting. He exhibits a social awkwardness that may be related to his anxieties over his unsettled health. He attributes his symptoms to “ague,” while believing himself cured of “the pox.”
Arriving in St. Louis, he is greeted by his second in command, a secretary named Bates, who wants Lewis to be no more than a figurehead. A man with aspirations of his own, Bates has intentions for the government of the territory that are in direct opposition to Lewis’s. In time, his open hostility to Lewis produces a state of siege between the two men. It’s a situation that mystifies Clark, who remembers how Lewis was unreservedly loved by the men of the Corps.
Then there is the matter of the expedition’s journals, which Lewis has promised Jefferson and the scientific community to rush into print. His job is to edit the daily notes taken by Clark and himself, a formidable task given the three years of the journey. But despite Jefferson’s continued urging, he finds himself strangely unable to even start the task.
|The levee, St. Louis, 1857
As a man of achievement, he is also not without ego. He has been encouraged by others to regard himself as having potential for high office, even one day being asked to run for president. At one point, he considers a potential wife as being worthy of joining him some day in the White House. And he dresses for success, spending his scant earnings as a government employee on fancy duds.
More devastating for him financially are his impulsive investments in real estate and other ventures. When the fur trade suddenly goes into recession and a stingy War Department stops paying for expenses he has incurred as an agent of the government, he acquires a mountain of debts. To his credit, he determines to honor them to the last dollar, but financial ruin becomes the mirror reflection of the ruin of his mind and body.
Clark comes across as more sensible and even-tempered, his judgment more measured. He is lucky in marriage and more grounded professionally. His respect for Lewis as colleague and friend never falters. When he slowly learns the truth of the man’s condition, including his dependence on alcohol and opiates, he remains loyal and supportive.
|Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia, 1905
While York believes he has proved himself a man, worthy of his freedom, Clark regards him as no more than a child. Now that he’s married and has increasing responsibilities, Clark needs him more than ever, and he refuses him conjugal visits with his wife on the home plantation. It becomes a battle of wills that parallels the plotline between Lewis and Bates.
Structure and style. Wheeler’s special narrative gift is the ability to immerse us in a story about fallible men and to make it hard to put down. One of his choices is to tell the story in the first person, alternating between the points of view of both men. Thus, for Lewis, we swing between his emotional highs and lows as he struggles between fear and denial.
Also effective is how the men narrate the story, as if reporting what has just happened, so that events unfold for us only a beat or two after their occurrence. That has a subtle effect, producing an uncommon sense of immediacy.
|Missouri River near Omaha Indian Agency, 1869
Wrapping up. There is so much more packed into this novel, it’s hard to stop writing about it. Let it be said that it’s an absorbing account of a troubled chapter in the lives of two men who are remembered as national heroes. It’s a reminder of how historical fact defies myth, while demonstrating that behind the myth are living, breathing human beings with much to praise in them despite their faults.
Richard Wheeler has generously agreed to spend some time here at BITS to talk about writing and the writing of his novel Eclipse. Here are his comments on the imaginative task of telling the story of Lewis and Clark and bringing the two men to life on the page.
|Richard S. Wheeler
Richard, talk about how the idea for Eclipse suggested itself to you.
In the 90s, a doctor who lectured on the medicine of the Lewis and Clark expedition told me he had read that Lewis had contracted syphilis, and it affected Lewis the rest of his brief life. The doctor couldn’t remember where he had seen it. I sensed a novel, and began a feverish hunt for the source, and after some serious looking over several months, I found it.
An epidemiologist named Reimert T. Ravenholt had examined the journals and concluded that Lewis had contracted syphilis when the corps was staying with the Shoshones. Syphilis is a New World disease, and Europeans were more vulnerable to it than native people. (Columbus took it back to Europe, where it eventually killed a third of the people. It was called the pox.)
Did the story come to you all at once or was that a more complex part of the process?
I was fascinated by the swift decline of Lewis, and the steady ascent of Clark after they got back. I envisioned a novel that would be nothing more than the dramatizing of all that. The expedition itself had been covered exhaustively in fiction and nonfiction, and more was being prepared for the bicentennial by gifted historians, but it seemed likely that a novel about the aftermath would have legs, and it did. I was helped by the enormous literature. There was so much I finally tapered off the research; I was writing a novel, not a new history.
Did anything about the story or characters surprise you as you were writing?
When an historical novelist is very lucky, he is overwhelmed with a sense of getting it right. That’s how this evolved. As I wrote, I was occasionally filled with that euphoric sense of capturing the period. Getting it down more or less as it happened. This was especially true when I thought I had caught an attitude or prejudice that lay deep within the character.
What parts of the novel gave you the most pleasure to write?
Medicine of the period became a fascinating subtext, crucial to the telling of the story. I immersed myself in it, got help from doctors, learned as much as I could about diagnosis, remedies, and also attitudes and nonscientific beliefs. (Such as the idea that malaria rose from the “miasma” found in swamps.) Medicine governed my novel. I learned what remedies got the expedition through three years of wilderness travel. Native American medicine played a crucial role, too.
Did any parts of the writing present a particular challenge?
The relationship of Clark and his slave York was painful and difficult to depict. York was William Clark’s boyhood playmate—and then slave. And then virtual freeman on the expedition, and then slave again, with both men deeply antagonized. I wrote and rewrote all that.
How much consideration did you give to recreating the vernacular of the day?
The entire novel was narrated in the language of the landed gentry of Virginia in the Federal period. I immersed myself in it, both the formal and informal. The public documents of the Founders were readily available, but the everyday speech, along with its unspoken assumptions and habits of mind, was elusive.
There was also a need to depict frontier and fur trade vernacular, which I absorbed through research. Once I mastered Virginia’s way of speaking, I even began to think in it, to fashion sentences as if they were wrought by Jefferson or Madison.
What went into the decision to tell the story in the first person?
I depicted two very different men, each with a lively private sensibility that didn’t always match his public utterances. First-person is a novelist’s delight because it permits us to follow the character’s inner convictions, motives, and secrets—and to depict the darker and more hostile thoughts that would not otherwise see daylight.
Lewis was a very bright light, and disease eclipsed it. The light of the foremost national hero of the time was extinguished only three years later. It needed a subtitle, though, to make it clear to readers.
What have been the most interesting reactions of readers of the novel?
There was, maybe still is, a sort of Lewis and Clark Establishment, with its own journal. It is devoted to polishing the escutcheon of its heroes. Its magazine reviewed my book dourly, plainly unhappy with my depiction of Lewis and his fate. But an odd thing happened in the succeeding years. That Lewis contracted syphilis on the trip is now the established version of events, as far as I can tell. Historians who scorned the idea are now open to it.
There has always been controversy about Lewis’s death—murder or suicide? Recently two young historians published a work flatly stating that it was murder, done by the family that ran Grinder’s Stand, where it all played out. They make a compelling case, according to the reviews.
The descendents of Lewis are open to exhuming his bones, which would give us multiple clues, but the National Park Service forbids it. If the bones were loaded with mercury, for instance, that would be evidence of dosing for syphilis. The trajectory of the ball that entered Lewis’s skull might reveal much.
What are you reading now?
I just finished Loren Estleman’s splendid historical novel, The Confessions of Al Capone.
What can your readers expect from you next?
I’m starting on an historical novel about an early vaudeville troupe touring 1880s Montana mining towns, such as Helena and Butte.
Anything we didn’t cover you’d like to comment on?
I want to thank you for your truly remarkable and penetrating review of
the novel. You went straight to the heart of my work, and I marveled as
I read it.
Thanks, Richard. Every success.
Further reading: BITS reviews of other novels by Richard Wheeler
Image credits: Wikimedia Commons
Coming up: Guy Vanderhaeghe, The Last Crossing