Friday, April 2, 2010

Boone by Robert Morgan - Book Review

Robert Morgan is a poet, a novelist, and a biographer. In depicting Daniel Boone, an American hero about whose inner life nothing is known, he manages to find poetry in a soul who may not have experienced such himself, or recognized it if he had it within him. “He wanted to be known across the reaches of geography, across the boundaries of time. But it was more than that, something sacred, almost like religion. It was something he shared with the Indians more than with white people It was about his contemplation of the clouds over the grasslands and the wooded ridge, and the sunset over the hurrying river. It was about how time would seem to stop even as the stars came out. He must play his part in the great curve of time. It was about the lay of the new land just waiting for him to see and walk over it.” In seeking to turn Daniel Boone's life into a mystical, spiritual quest, Morgan creates a man who may never have existed.

I've been reading a lot of American history over the past few years with special attention to biographies of the nation's founders and explorations into the many era's of our country's history as I seek to understand how the unique American character has emerged and been nurtured through the 500 years of our history in this land.  I understood Daniel Boone to be one of the prototypes for the American frontiersman, always questing westward seeking the untrod wilderness where he could hunt and trap to his heart's content, free from the contraints of civilized society.  Morgan succeeds in picturing this character for me, but somehow he fails to give him the charisma or strength of character he asserts for Boone throughout his life.

Born in Oley, Pennsylvania in 1734, Boone early on established that his zone of comfort was primarily in the woods and forests where he could learn the ways of animals, hunt to his heart's content, and explore wherever he wished.  His lust for solitude and wilderness took him south and west, first to the Yadkin Valley of western North Carolina and then blazing a trail across the Cumberland Gap into what is now Kentucky, where he supported himself by hunting for skins and meat as well as collecting Ginseng for sale.  He was often hired by wealthy Virginians to stake out claims and work as a surveyor.  He became renowned for his personal heroism, willing guile in befriending Indians, and charm in being able to convince family and friends to follow him into the wilderness.  He was generally seen as most successful when functioning independently as an explorer and hunter.  Whenever faced with responsibilities for family, business, or command, he often failed at the cost of lives and treasure for others as well as himself.  Despite these failures, which often damaged his reputation during his lifetime, he became an iconic American figure representing the quest for freedom and personal independence.

Robert Morgan

It's rare that I don't finish a book once I start it, so I struggled through 383 of the 457 pages of Morgan's seemingly endless and tortured prose looking for elements in his account I could attach significant meaning to.  The further I journeyed into this book, the less attractive Boone became.  Whenever faced with having to behave in a responsible person in a civil society, Boone seems to have chosen to return to the wilderness, leaving his responsibilities behind.  Family, debt, businesses, farming, land all were frequently abandoned as he returned to the woods, seemingly the only place where he was truly happy.  Morgan seeks several times to attach a meaningful connection between Boone and Freemasonry in America, but fails to do so.  Connections to Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin are, at best, insubstantial and not sustained in the text.  Meanwhile, lists of angry former partners, failed land deals, and military lapses in judgment leading to the death of people he seemed to care about dominate his life. If Boone's approach to life has become part of the DNA of the American self-concept, he did few people any real favors in the long run.  Robert Morgan is more a poet than an historian, but Boone's life and character are not the stuff of poetry and myth, but the progenitor of a mistaken view of self-delusion.

Boone by Robert Morgan is published in trade paperback by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, a division of Workman Publishing.  It is available at all the usual book outlets.  Support your local independent book store.