Sunday, December 21, 2014

Open Letter to Tom Hanks: About that Lewis and Clark Miniseries...

Dear Tom Hanks:

I see that  your are producing a miniseries about Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery. As a historian who spends a lot of time trying to communicate with the public on exactly this and other closely-related topics, I am worried. Here is what the Hollywood Reporter has to say about the project:

HBO is moving full steam ahead with its long-gestating Lewis and Clark miniseries. The premium cable network has tapped Casey Affleck to star in the six-hour mini, The Hollywood Reporter has learned. Based on Stephen E. Ambrose's book Undaunted Courage, Affleck will star as Meriwether Lewis in the story of America's first contact with the land and the native tribes of the country west of the Mississippi River. The drama tells the epic journey of the Corps of Discovery and its captains, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, as they traverse uncharted territory on a mission to deliver President Jefferson's message of sovereignty and search for the fabled all-water route to the Pacific.

Mr. Hanks, you can understand my concern. Your Lewis and Clark miniseries will likely be a huge hit, and the young people who watch it will turn up in my college classroom. I want you to get this right. Your source material, Undaunted Courage, is not good. It is the work of a plagiarist and fairly toxic with Manifest Destiny. (I know he was a friend of yours, but it is the truth.) Indeed the book has already been filmed once and it wasn't very good. Still, it is early in the project and maybe not too late to include some more accurate and interesting information. Here are eight things you ought to know, correctives to the usual Lewis and Clark story, that might be helpful--along with some suggestions of how a more historically-correct story would also be better entertainment.

1) This is an Indian story. The majority of the people involved in the story of the Corps of Discovery were the thousands of native people the expedition encountered. Indian societies were in tremendous transition in 1804-06, having experienced disease epidemics, the arrival of horses, and other extraordinary events in the generations immediately before Lewis and Clark. The Indians who welcomed the Corps of Discovery into their villages were emphatically not living the way their grandfathers had done. They were caught up in a New World of opportunities and perils, they were improvising and expanding and figuring it out as they went along. Trying to capture this changing native world (and among very different native groups) will dilute the imperialist cant that usually goes with the story. The great James Ronda, author of Lewis and Clark Among the Indians, would challenge his students and readers to view the expedition "from the bank, instead of the boat." Try and do that.

Lewis and Clark navigated a sometimes crowded Indian world,
as imagined here in Captain William Clark Meeting the
Northwest Indians, by Charles M. Russell (1897)

How will this make for better entertainment? White people love Indians right now. Take the time to delve into the different native cultural groups and contrast them with one another. Show us the buffalo hunts of the Lakota, the Mandans in their corn fields, the Nez Perces traveling back and forth over the Rocky Mountains, the coastal Chinooks, led by the clever Chief Comcomly, already caught up in the global fur trade. There are marvelous personalities, textures and subplots at work here. Make it more Marco Polo exploring China and less boy scouts hiking in the mountains.

Oh yeah, you guys.
2) The Indians were not surprised to see Lewis and Clark. There is no more tired cliche than that of the dumb-struck savage who just caught his first sight of the radiant white man and his "big medicine" technology. The native peoples of the far West were enmeshed in continental networks of trade and information. They had been hearing about white men for a century before Lewis and Clark dipped an oar into the Missouri River. In every village visited by the Corps were natives who had already met white men, on visits to British fur trading forts or trading trips to the Pacific coast. Indians did gather round to watch the Corps of Discovery, as they would any visitor, but that was about it. Lewis and Clark themselves were often disappointed that they were not held more in awe. They had a sort of magic show they would do upon entering a village--haul out the air rifle, a compass, even move around an iron object with a magnet hidden under a sheet of paper. One time Clark surreptitiously threw a piece a cannon fuse in an Indian campfire to try and convince them he was powerful.

How will this make for better entertainment? The blase reaction of the natives, and the corresponding frustration of the captains, add a comic dimension to the story while emphasizing how Lewis and Clark were exploring an Indian world that was already changing and historically aware.

3) Lewis killed a kid. In July of 1806, on the journey home, a party led by Lewis (who always was a terrible diplomat) met a Blackfoot Indian group consisting mostly of teenage boys, near present-day Browning, Montana. The two groups camped together and spent an evening gambling and sharing stories. During the night, there was a scuffle over some property and two of the Blackfoots were shot, including a teenaged boy who Lewis chased after and killed with his pistol.
Lewis killed a Blackfoot boy with a gun like this one. He later
committed suicide with a pistol, likely the same weapon.

White historians tend to gloss over the incident, describing the boy as an Indian "brave," i.e. an enemy combatant. Native sources tell the story differently. In one version of the story the Americans lost heavily while gambling and refused to pay up, killing the Indians who tried to collect. In another version the Blackfoot youths were told to try to steal the horses of the Americans, but were not prepared for the violence of Lewis and his men when they were caught. "These were boys who were horse herders," according to Darrell Robes Kipp, director of the Piegan Institute in Browning, Montana. "They weren't warriors." In either case, Lewis shot a 13-year-old boy, and then decorated the body with a Jefferson peace medal as a mocking calling card. Then he and his men ran like hell to get away from the Blackfeet before the shit hit the fan.  Lewis killed a kid.

How will this make for better entertainment? Imagine what a dramatic scene this would make--the confused fighting in the half-light, Lewis charging at and shooting a fleeing figure, and then turning over the body and looking into the face of a dead boy. His men are horrified and an awkward Lewis tries to compensate, making a joke by putting a Jefferson peace medal around the dead child's neck. Fresh blood wells up over the medal as Lewis sets the boy back down into the prairie grass. After a moment of horrified silence, Lewis looks up at his men. "Men, we need to get out of here. Now." Later Lewis tells Clark a self-serving version of what happened, while the men who accompanied Lewis give each other significant glances over the fire.

4) Lewis was gay. Really. Blogger Frances Hunter lays out the admittedly-circumstantial case here. Lewis was a dandy, Hunter points out, was uncomfortable around women and squeamish about sex, he never so much as had a serious girlfriend, women who he did try to court went "screaming in the other direction." I would add to these that Lewis was particularly horrified by female anatomy, his descriptions of men were sometimes charged with homo eroticism, he never seems to have taken advantage of the plentiful opportunities for sex with native women on the two-year expedition, and after the journey he went to extreme lengths to try and reignite his former closeness with newly-married Clark, even trying to move in with the couple in a tiny house in Saint Louis.
Absolutely fabulous.

Meriwether Lewis' sexual orientation is a source of regular private  speculation among historians of the expedition, though very little of the discussion has seen print. At a history conference dedicated to the Corps of Discovery a few years ago I broached the subject to a panel of three historians who were experts on William Clark. All three readily agreed--explaining that they could not write about it after all because there was no absolute proof. Non-academics have been more bold. Bryan Hall's novel about the expedition I Should be Extremely Happy in Your Company assumes that Lewis was gay. A 2004 piece in The Advocate by Bob Smith argues that a close reading of the letters and journals "should trigger the gaydar of open-minded readers."

How will this make for better entertainment? Are you kidding me? The longing looks across the campfire, the awkwardness when the other men pair up with native women and Lewis sits at the fire alone, the fumbling attempts of Lewis to restore his closeness to Clark after the expedition--the scenes write themselves. A gay Lewis will also give the story a contemporary relevance. Bonus points, Mr. Hanks, if you get Lewis to say "I wish I knew how to quit you" to Clark.

5) Clark left at least one child behind. Though Lewis did not get any, there was tons of sex on the expedition. This was entirely expected and planned for--the Corps of Discovery's gear included "Penis syringes, salves, and other items were taken to treat syphilis and other sexually-transmitted diseases." The sexual exchanges left some of the men with syphilis (an Old World disease which had been introduced on the Northwest coast by European sailors a generation before) and a few native women with child. There are any number of native oral histories describing children of the expedition. Best known and documented is the life of Tzi-kal-tza, or Daytime Smoker, Clark's son with a Nez Perce woman. Tzi-kal-tza never learned English beyond the two-word phrase he used to introduce himself when he met white people: "Me Clark!" In 1877 Tzi-kal-tza joined with Chief Joseph's resistance fighters in the Nez Perce War. He was among those captured at Bear Paw and he died in captivity in Oklahoma.

Nez Perce infant
How will this make for better entertainment? Penis syringes, Mr. Hanks, penis syringes. Also, the story is a great opportunity to contrast the attitudes towards sex between American and different native societies. Clark wrote of the Chinook, "those people appear to view sensuality as a necessary evil, and do not appear to abhor it as a crime in the unmarried state." There are many great potential scenes here--the Mandan women offering themselves to capture the spirit power of the strangers, the forced prostitution of the slave girls of the Northwest coast (with the obvious parallels to modern trafficking and sex slavery), the genial pairing up that took place during the two extended periods when the Corps were guests in Nez Perce villages. And though it is nowhere described in the journals that I can remember, the expedition very likely would have been shown some mixed-race babies on the return journey, which would make for a great scene. Clark, meet Little Clark.

6) York got screwed. His story is tragic. During the expedition York seemed to have enjoyed comparative equality with the rest of the Corps, such as he had never experienced before in his life. He was treated with respect, he had a voice in the decision-making process, and the Indian women loved him. As they came back down the Missouri in 1806, however, York was abandoning freedom and returning to slavery. When the other members were rewarded with money and land, York got nothing. He was not permitted even to return to Virginia where he had left behind a wife and children. And when York protested against his treatment, Clark had him whipped. The usual story of York's demise is that Clark gave him his freedom and he later died of smallpox--but that story does not wash. The only evidence is an account that Clark gave to Washington Irving in the 1830, and even then only after Irving repeatedly pushed the question. A more likely explanation is that York met the fate traditional to disobedient slaves in Missouri--he was sold "down the river" to one of the new plantations opening up in Mississippi or thereabouts, where he died alongside thousands of his race digging ditches to drain the swamps for cotton.

There are no portraits of York from life,this
Louisville statue is an artist's rendering.
How will this make for better entertainment? Imagine the scene. On the trip back down the Missouri the expedition members are paddling hard, living off whiskey and paw paws and making as many miles a day as possible in their eagerness to reach Saint Louis. Only one guys does not seem so happy. Over the campfire  York asks his owner what is to become of him when they return home? "You will serve me," Clark replies curtly, "as you have ever done." It is a powerful counterpoint to the triumphalist narrative.

7). There is humor in the story. The primary item in the Corps' medicine chest was Rush's thunderbolts--gigantic horse pills that caused explosive diarrhea. On the journey back down the Missouri the near-sighted French hunter Pierre Cruzatte accidentally shot Lewis in the ass, and the captain made the rest of journey lying face-down in one of the canoes. (Cruzatte, by the way is a great character--an exuberant fiddler, and half-French half-Indian child of the fur trade, a linguist with geographic knowledge, and a hunter who could not see very well). On the Great Plains the men of the expedition gained a taste for the native dish of roasted dog. When they got to the Columbia Plateau, where the Indians did not eat dog, a Nez Perce man made fun of Lewis--well, let's let Lewis tell the story: "while at dinner an indian fellow verry impertinently threw a poor half starved puppy nearly into my plait by way of derision for our eating dogs and laughed very heartily at his own impertinence; I was so provoked at his insolence that I caught the puppy and thew it with great violence at him and struk him in the breast and face, siezed my tomahawk and shewed him by signs if he repeated his insolence I would tommahawk him, ther fellow withdrew apparently much mortifyed and I continued my repast on dog without further molestation."

How will this make for better entertainment? Humor is another way to overcome the forced solemnity that smothers so many iconic historical moments. Give us a Corps of Discovery that laughs, plays practical jokes, and is laughed at by the Indians. These were high-spirited young men having the adventure of their lives, and they knew it.

8). Lewis and Clark don't matter. This is a great story, and worth telling, However, we should remember that Lewis and Clark had little to no impact on the course of American history. Their contemporaries did not seem to consider the expedition particularly important. The course of American empire had already been tracing its way up the Missouri. British Explorer Alexander MacKenzie had crossed the continent in 1793, twenty-one years before Clark wrote "Ocian in view!" in his journal. The expedition failed in their primary mission to find a practical water route to the Pacific (because no such route existed). They missed South Pass, and their route over the Rocky Mountains was so impractical it is a dirt road to this day. They did not make a strong American claim to the northwest, it was American settlement in the 1840s that did that. Their "scientific" contributions were mere 19th century cataloging. And Americans were surging west anyway. (David Plotz laid this all out in a 2002 piece in Slate: Lewis and Clark: Stop Celebrating. They didn't matter.)

Think of it this way--if the tense standoff between Lewis and Clark and a group of Lakota in 1804 had gone the other way, and the expedition had been wiped out on the banks of Missouri, how would American history have been different? We do not have to speculate too hard, because that is exactly what most Americans, and even President Jefferson, thought had happened when they did not return in 1805. And yet when the presumed-dead explorers finally descended the Missouri late in the summer of 1806, who did they meet but a steady stream of trappers, traders, and others coming up the river to open up the western lands? The Corps of Discovery had no perceptible impact on American history.

All of this is not say you should not make your mini series, Mr. Hanks. When you strip away the myths, you still have a fantastic story, one of the best in American history. I would argue you have an even better story without the myths, one with more moral ambiguity, conflicted personalities, and emotional depth and richness. And you have an unequaled opportunity to honestly present American Indians at what really was a key time in their history. This could be great.

Good luck, Mr. Hanks, and call me if you'd like to chat.




Snowbrush said...

Well, the series has long been out, and I wonder how the writer viewed it. BTW, Lewis killed himself with two guns, one to the heart and one to the head. I know there is still speculation that he was murdered, but I don't know why.

Larry Cebula said...

Snowbrush, the Tom Hanks-produced miniseries has not been made yet, they are still casting the last I heard. You are thinking of the Ken Burns documentary.

Snowbrush said...

Oh, but of course, I was thinking Ken Burns.

Clayton Hanson said...

We do know that Edmund Clark (William's brother) sold York's wife while he was still in St. Louis and that York spent time "hired out" to a slave-breaker in Kentucky. That's all good dramatic betrayal and horrifying enough on its own.

But I thought that the evidence for York's final fate was (generously) equivocal since Edmund Clark's records don't indicate his sale (or manumission) before the latter's death. Further, William Clark's narrative is the sort of self-serving, paternalist claptrap that fits any fate. End with York being whipped in Kentucky then sent back to St. Louis. That would be sufficiently creepy and ambiguous without needing to counter-mythologize.