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Vol. 2 No. 2 (2021): Mediating Mountains

More than a Feeling: Why the Lewis and Clark Expedition Did not Experience 'the Sublime' at the Great Divide when Crossing the American Continent

January 23, 2020


When in the early summer of 1805 Meriwether Lewis for the first time sights the great mountains of the American West, he merely reports "an august spectacle." The word "august" was not then an aesthetic category, nor did it usually describe visual contact with landscape. Categories used for these purposes were the picturesque and the sublime. Whereas there are numerous examples of the picturesque in the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the sublime draws a blank. In my contribution, I will be offering several reasons for the absence of description in the sublime mode: (1) Like their contemporaries, Lewis and Clark held nature up to the yardstick of utility, calculating the agricultural potential of the land or the navigability of a river. (2) The Lewis and Clark expedition was a military expedition, sent out by President Jefferson not to stand in awe at sublime grandeur but to document a useful landscape. (3) Seeing mountains as sublime was essentially a matter of an individual imagination. The Corps of Discovery was a group, whose success depended on cooperation. Hence, the individual imagination must take a back seat. (4) The actual experience of hardship and adversity during the crossing of the Rockies would have obviated any description in the "grand style." (5) Finally, the Corps of Discovery was not even prepared to encounter the great mountains of the West, expecting instead gentle rolling hills that would enable an easy portage to the Columbia River and, if anything, call for picturesque description.


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