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Notes and Reflections on Books and Media

by Hannah Leitheiser

Why did Lewis suicide?

The Character of Merriweather Lewis

Clay Jenkinson




Well, I have finished essentially a 391 page essay on why Lewis committed suicide, and as I expect few if any of you will ever read the book, I can try to summarize the argument.

Background: Lewis and Clark trekked into the American west in 1804-1806 to explore and lay claim to the Louisiana Territory the US Government bought from Napoleon. Three years after returning, Lewis shot himself.

Why? (In order of increasing importance/likelihood.)

1) He was murdered! -- The best case for murder is that no one actually saw and suicide and, you know, murdering happens. Not convincing. Often this is just people "protecting" Lewis from claims that he killed himself.

2) Lonely -- No friends or family nearby except Clark and Clark had gotten married so the friendship was weakened. Lewis tried but failed to find a girlfriend. Also, the lack of progress on the book had upset his friend Thomas Jefferson.

3) Writer's Block -- Lewis had to write a book about his exploration, but he knew exploration narrative was suppose to be "man vs. nature," not "men vs. nature." If he wrote Clark out of the picture, his best friend would be disappointed. Also, Lewis had not been great at keeping his field journal during the expedition.

4) Mental Illness -- bi-polar, maybe. Depression, probably. Asperges, probably not. He also was suffering from malaria.

5) Drinking/Laudanum -- didn't help, but lots of people drank, especially during that time.

6) Affair of Honor -- The War Department of the Federal Government had accused Lewis of unprofessionalism, violating the terms of the constitution for limited power of his office, and conflict of interest. In private business this would have been reason for a duel, but Lewis could not duel the Secretary of State or President (while they were in office, anyway).

7) Buzz Alden Syndrome -- Once you do something great, the rest of your life will always be a shadow. You'll be washed up.

8) The Return -- Lewis experienced life or death, trekked thousands of miles of undiscovered territory, made contact with Native peoples, lived with them. Transcended the savage/civilized divide. True, Clark made the same journey and was fine afterward, but Lewis had a special consciousness. No one back home could understand what he'd been through. Some part of Lewis died in the wilderness. The author did not use this term, but I think what he's getting at is that Lewis had an identity crisis returning to the "civilized" world.