By Robert Morgan
Algonquin. 538 pp. $29.95
The story of Daniel Boone, Robert Morgan writes in this comprehensive and deeply sympathetic biography, "is the story of America," and he's right. He argues, further, that by the time Boone was in his mid-50s, his great pioneering exploits well in his past, staggering under self-inflicted debt and repeatedly failing in business ventures, he may have sensed as much himself:
"By 1788 the irony could not have been lost on Boone that he, as much as any other single human being, had helped create the world that was now repugnant to him, so raging and relentless in growth and greed. And he must have seen, perhaps for the first time, the contradiction and conflict at the heart of so much of his effort: to lead white people into the wilderness and make it safe for them was to destroy the very object of his quest. The paradox had been present in almost everything he had done, and yet he had ignored or misunderstood it. Whenever the recognition came to him, it must have been sobering, for he had to see that his genius and his talents virtually canceled each other out. Wherever he went, many others would follow. He wanted to enjoy and keep the object of his desire at the same time. For all his achievements and fame, his kindness and compassion, cunning and knowledge, Boone had made a fool of himself, too. He had acted the fool, and he must have come to that hard view of his life."
Obviously, this interpretation is shaped to some measure by present-day attitudes toward the environment and also by Morgan's own writing about his beloved North Carolina mountains, but it is rooted in Boone himself. It was, after all, Boone who was happiest when he was alone in the unspoiled and previously unknown (to whites) wilderness, who was forever driven to move westward, who famously said that he left Kentucky because he needed elbow room -- this when the territory was populated by no more than a few thousand settlers. The irony of Boone's story is indeed the irony (though scarcely the only one) of the American story: that we flocked to the newfound land because of its wide open spaces, astonishing beauty and immense natural riches, but in so doing we assured their exploitation and, too often, their despoilment.
None of that is what Boone sought, and one can only shudder to think what he would say about what has since become of the land he so exuberantly explored; Morgan is right to see his life as colored by ambiguity as well as by triumph. Morgan knows, though, that nearly two centuries after his death, Boone remains a central figure in American legend and that his "story and character stand up remarkably well under critical scrutiny." He actually was what legend says he was: "Boone's character has some of the resilience shown in history by his contemporaries Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, and Hamilton. They seem to be figures that we need in our history and in our image of ourselves, and no amount of quibbling and skepticism diminishes their stature very much." But, unlike these contemporaries, Boone is as much "a figure of American folklore" as of American history: "Boone has been thought by many to be virtually a fictional character, subject of tall tales like Mike Fink the Keelboatman, or even Paul Bunyan," and it is "hard to rescue figures like Daniel Boone and Johnny Appleseed from the distortions of television and Walt Disney."
Morgan's biography is just such a rescue job, and a wholly successful one. It is a trifle too long, and its occasional lapses into repetitiousness (the point about the irony of Boone's story, for example, is made at least a half-dozen times) suggest an inattentive editor, but the thoroughness and authority of Boone: A Biography are beyond dispute. Though there have been many biographies of Boone -- most recently, Michael A. Lofaro's well-received Daniel Boone: An American Life (2003) -- this one strikes me as ideally suited to today's reader with its vivid descriptive passages (Morgan is, after all, a novelist and poet), its persuasive portrait of Boone and its firm sense of his place in American history:
"Fifty years after Boone explored Kentucky and relished its wilderness for two years [1769-71] without returning to the settlements, the Hudson River painters captured something of his transcendental view of the mountains and rivers in their art. Boone saw nature as both fact and fable, and every cloud and sunset, tree and blade of grass, as instance of both the real and the ideal, physical and spiritual. Everyone who ever interviewed him mentioned his calm and his poise. The sense of the spiritual was something he shared with the Indians and likely learned, in part, from them. . . . Like Washington, like Lincoln later, Boone inspired the craving for an ideal self, with Quaker tolerance for others, reliant and integrious, with a large capacity for wonder and reaching out toward the new and mysterious, brave but cautious, sociable, diplomatic, calm in the face of danger. A lover of song and reading, a notoriously erratic speller."
He was born in 1734 in Pennsylvania, moved a decade and a half later with his large family to Virginia and then to the Yadkin Valley of North Carolina, which remained his home base for many years. By his late teens, Boone "became widely known in the Yadkin area as an expert trapper and hunter, a deadly marksman," and these became the pursuits he most loved. In 1756 he married Rebecca Bryan -- he was 19, she 15 -- who "must have been one of the hardiest and most resilient and resourceful women in American history." Their marriage was fruitful and deeply happy. Though there is reason to suspect that each of them may have strayed during his long absences, the depth of their love cannot be overestimated, nor can her importance to him: "Boone's life cannot be imagined without Rebecca."
In the spring of 1769, Boone secured his place in American history by leading a party of six through a defile "sharp as a gunsight cut into the mountains." It was the Cumberland Gap (now a national historical park), and the moment rapidly became legend: "the image of a man finding his way through a narrow gap into the Eden of Kentucky and leading others there, guaranteeing that the new nation about to be born would extend over the mountains and encompass the West. Whatever other deeds he did or did not do, this is the image that has stuck." Eventually, he returned with a larger band of settlers, Rebecca included. In George Caleb Bingham's great painting, "Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers Through the Cumberland Gap," she sits serenely on a white horse while Daniel grips the reins and a stalwart dog points the way.
In the years to come, he led numerous other parties, founded the settlement called Boonesborough, served as a representative of the Kentucky territory in the Virginia legislature, and spent a great deal of time in the company of Indians. In 1778 he was captured by the Shawnees and adopted as a son of the chief -- he was given the name Sheltowee, "Big Turtle" -- and stayed peaceably among them for four months before escaping. Over the years he had his difficulties with Indians, but he claimed to have killed only one. "His aplomb and steadiness, ease and gracefulness, as well as his marksmanship and skill, gave him an extraordinary rapport with the Indians," Morgan writes. "Of famous white Americans, only Sam Houston appears to have had a comparable knack for fitting in with Native peoples."
By the late 1770s, he was "a patriarch, one of the best-known men on the frontier." Then, in 1783, a schoolteacher named John Filson came West, intending "to write a book about Kentucky and make a map of the region that would sell well and bring even more investors and settlers to the West." That book, The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke, published in 1784, included a chapter entitled "The Adventures of Col. Daniel Boon," with which Boone enthusiastically cooperated. It made him famous nationally and internationally, established the framework of the Boone legend and "has been a classic of frontier literature ever since."
The remaining 36 years of Boone's life saw him beset by debt and litigation -- "the old woodsman seemed constitutionally unable to stay out of debt" -- but he remained serene. Accompanied by several members of their family, he and Rebecca moved to Missouri in 1799. He became "a wise and resigned old man" who "seemed to wax more romantic and affectionate than ever toward Native Americans, remembering them as a people of honor and compassion," recalling "mostly the good things from his many encounters, transactions, and captivities with Native Americans" while not speaking about the violence to which he had been witness. It cannot be said that at his death in 1820 he passed into American legend, because he was already there. *
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.