Why two history books, Boone: A Biography and now Lions of the West, after publishing fourteen books of poetry and eight volumes of fiction?
I have always been interested in history. My dad, who did not have much formal education, loved to read history and tell stories about Daniel Boone, the Civil War, the Revolution, Cherokee Indians, George Washington, David Crockett. Growing up on a farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina I found arrowheads and pieces of Indian pottery while working in the fields. The very ground seemed haunted by the Indians. I always felt that intimate connection to the frontier past.
Why did you write Lions of the West as ten linked biographies?
There are literally thousands of figures one could write about in the story of the westward expansion. My plan was to tell the story through the lives of ten representative and significant figures, implying the much greater whole story. What Bernard DeVoto called “history by synecdoche.” I like the quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “There is properly no history, only biography.”
The subtitle of Lions of the West is Heroes and Villains of the Westward Expansion. Who are the heroes and who are the villains?
As it turns out they are all both heroes and villains at different times. Except for John Chapman, Johnny Appleseed. He is mostly a saint. They all did things we are ashamed of. Even the great Thomas Jefferson recommended to William Henry Harrison that he let the Indians go deeply in debt to the government trading posts in Indiana so they would have to pay off their debts by ceding more land to the United States.
Which genre do you prefer, poetry, fiction, or nonfiction?
Whatever I am working on at the time seems the most important.
How would you compare biography writing to novel writing?
Obviously there are great similarities between biographies and novels. Both are about lives, both are prose narratives, both require some research about geography and history. Both require the use of the imagination. But fiction writing requires a different kind of sustained imagination, where the writer often lets the characters and story take over, unfolding with their own surprises and revelations, whereas the imagination in biography writing has to bring alive actual events in
already known sequence, with already known results.
Do you think your experience as a poet and fiction writer has influenced the way you
I hope my experience with poetry has influenced my use of word choice, economy, and cadence in language. Poetry teaches us that what is implied is often more effective than what is stated. Writing fiction gives a strong sense of structure, and a feeling for narrative dynamics, the way a story has to move, keep unfolding, with something wonderful about to happen around the bend, on the next page, or the next. I think all those things have influenced the way I write biography.
What is the central theme of Lions of the West?
When I started writing the book I thought the central subject was the complex combination of poetry and beauty with the brutal story of Indian removal and the Mexican War. But as I proceeded with the book I came to see several sub-themes. One was the way deeply flawed and mostly ordinary people grew into greatness at the right moment in history. For example, Sam Houston was a bully, a drunk, and a dueler, when he was young. Yet in the Texas War for Independence he sobered up and became the great military leader and statesman that history recognizes. These leaders were made by history as much as they made history.
Another theme that emerged as I wrote was the way many leaders used westward expansion as a way of avoiding the unpleasant issue of slavery. Thomas Jefferson, for example, believed that expansion of the country into the western territories would cause slavery to wither away naturally. Other politicians, instead of confronting the thorny issue, chose to divert attention by the annexation and settlement of the West. When California was acquired there was nowhere farther to go. The events of the next decade, the 1850s, culminated in the Civil War.
What was the greatest surprise to you in your research for Lions of the West?
There were lots of surprises. For example, I didn’t know before that Jefferson was an inch and half taller than George Washington. Washington is always portrayed as a physical giant of a man. I did not know that Jefferson was so shy he almost never spoke in public. He never spoke at the Continental Congress, yet he wrote the Declaration of Independence and is the voice of the Continental Congress and the American Revolution.
Perhaps the greatest surprise was Kit Carson. I did not know that he never learned to read or write. For all his fame he had to dictate his letters and have letters read to him. Yet he had a photographic mind, could remember any land or trail he’d ever seen, and knew many Indian languages as well as Spanish and Canadian French. He was physically small, but probably the greatest scout and mountain man of them all.
Are there any themes in Lions of the West that seem relevant to contemporary issues?
Many of the controversies of the first half of the nineteenth century are still with us. The battles over “internal improvements” is still being fought between those who believe the federal government is the only institution that can build infrastructure, highways, canals, railroads, harbors, airports, versus those who want less government, arguing these things will somehow take care of themselves if the federal government will not interfere. Of course this controversy is closely tied to resistance to taxation. Disputes about involvement in foreign wars then are echoed in the arguments in our time about the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
What are your future projects?
I have just finished the sequel to the novel Gap Creek, called The Road From Gap Creek. And I’m thinking of a new novel also, set on the Appalachian Trail.