A Letter from America XX: Louisiana Purchase Bicentennial (December/Jan.)

From the Antiquarian Book Review

One of the best things England has ever done for the United States is Christopher Guest. Spinal Tap, of course, is an ageless masterpiece full of philosophy applicable to the rare book business ("It’s a thin line between clever and stupid"). But his other works of gentle parody are equally enthralling. I just rewatched Waiting for Guffman, which centers around the celebration of the 150th anniversary of a small town in Missouri. As one of the town fathers observes, it’s important to do sesquicentennials right. Guest proceeds to lampoon the American obsession with barely observable dates (it’s the 175th anniversary of Andrew Jackson’s election this year!).

So, when it comes to an important date, we really get cranked up. The old style was to have an Exposition. In 1893 the 400th anniversary of Columbus was done in grand form in Chicago, and St. Louis in 1904 covered the centenary of the Louisiana Purchase. Such events are no longer fashionable; the last so-called World’s Fair in New Orleans sank without even a whimper, and today the thought of such a concentration of national pride might seem more like a terrorist target than a moment of innocent celebration. Nor is such innocence possible anymore. The Columbian 500th became a massive parade of political correctness; it was, it turns out, all a horrible half-millennium of dead white males beating up (or infecting) nice ethnic minorities.

As the world knows, the United States has recovered its national pride and willingness to beat up other people. This has happened just in time for two major bicentennial events which have the advantage of being the kind of history generally agreed to be what 1066 And All That would call A Good Thing. That is, the bicentennials of the Louisiana Purchase, which was consummated on December 31, 1803, and of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which will start in the spring of 2004 and continue without surcease until the fall of 2006. If by that point we aren’t sick of it all, we can move on the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary in 2007.

These days such moments are celebrated not with Expositions but travelling exhibitions (although I am happy to see, in the spirit of Waiting for Guffman, that there are a few amateur theatricals out there as well). The Louisiana Purchase shows have largely run their course. Monticello put on a nice one about Jefferson and the West, and various museums in Louisiana launched exhibits about the Purchase itself. If you get on the ball you can still make the reenactment of the turnover, which may feature President Bush, the President of France, and the King of Spain- at least they are listed as "invitees". This seems like an ideal opportunity to humiliate Chirac, but I’m guessing he won’t show. Otherwise, the reader can do that po-boy sandwich New Orleans lunch research I recommended in a previous column (July 2002 ABR).

The main events, from the bibliographical point of view are the upcoming Lewis and Clark shows. There has already been a tremendous build-up of popular interest which has had a huge impact on the price of related books. Stephen Ambrose’s biography of Meriwether Lewis, Undaunted Courage, was a best-seller for years after its 1997 publication. At the same time, a Ken Burns documentary celebrated the expedition for the PBS viewer. Add to this a bunch of rich people from the coasts buying trophy ranches along the route up in Idaho and Montana, and the price of the 1814 Philadelphia first edition and ancillary texts skyrocketed. To this was added another phenomenon, market scarcity. Up to the spring of 1997 there had never been a point in my career when the book, while expensive, was not readily obtainable. At that point, the market scales tipped, and there were no copies in the trade when the Pflaumer copy came up at Sotheby’s that June and realized a then record price (to me). For all Lewis and Clark books its been straight up ever since.

Actually, there is surprisingly little contemporary literature on Lewis and Clark beyond the various editions of the narrative. The field is very ably surveyed in The Literature of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, published this year by Lewis and Clark College in Portland. Here three bibliographers led by Doug Erickson describe not only contemporary editions but also the more recent scholarly editions of the original journals and the published narratives, the accounts of Patrick Gass and others, and such connected items as the books Lewis took with him on the voyage. This new bibliography is essential for anyone who wants to make a specialty of the expedition. Lewis and Clark College also put together an excellent traveling show entitled The Journey Continues….(see their web site, www.thejourneycontinues.org).

The main event among shows is the Missouri Historical Society’s Lewis & Clark: The National Bicentennial Exhibition. This will open in St Louis in January, 2004, and travel to Philadelphia, Denver, and Portland before finishing at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. in the summer of 2006. Although built around a core of holdings from Missouri Historical, the show will draw material from all of the major institutional holders of archives; some fifty lenders both public and private are taking part. If there is a show for the book and manuscript enthusiast to catch, this is clearly the one. Many extra events go with it (including a History to Go! Show that "will be staged right in your classroom or auditorium," Lord Hadden-Guest will be happy to know). See their website, www.lewisandclarkexhibit.org. Also interesting, especially for cartography, is the show from the Library of Congress, Lewis & Clark and the Revealing Of America. Built around LC’s magnificent map holdings, with loans, this is also not to be missed. See their website, www.loc.gov.

But enough of all this – who wants to help me organize a little play? It starts with a guy in a canoe with a lot of books….

– William S. Reese