25 June 2009

"Boone: A Biography" by Robert Morgan

Boone: A Biography
Robert Morgan
Date of Publication: 21 September 2007
Cover Price: $29.95
538 pages

I have a DVD Talk community member to thank for reading Boone: A Biography. I have seen, time and again, that Lateralus is an avid reader of history and so when he declared this work on one of my childhood heroes the best book he'd read in two years I knew I had to read it. The moment I fell in love with this book came when I pictured Boone, the only living soul living in Kentucky, camped out at night reading Gulliver's Travels and the Holy Bible. What wondrous times those must have been, for a singular man to have an entire territory to himself! Certainly, it was not without danger, but then, as Boone himself once declared, "I wouldn't give a tinker's damn for a man who isn't sometimes afraid. Fear's the spice that makes it interesting to go ahead" (page 69).

The subtitle is A Biography, but it should probably have been A Historiography, which is to say, Morgan has provided a history of the history of Daniel Boone. What Morgan brings to this volume is not just research; he contributes his own voice to the discussion of the implications of Boone's legacy and rather than outright discount all the anomalous claims of the pioneer scattered throughout the various historians who have chronicled his exploits, Morgan regularly pauses to explore the possible validity of each claim. Some he can debunk outright--for instance, noting that Boone could not have met with James Audobon in Kentucky at the time the famed ornithologist claimed, for he had yet to arrive in America during the time that Boone may have returned to his former home state. Rather, Morgan supposes that they met in Missouri and that Audobon relocated the discussions to Kentucky for the sake of his European audience, who would likely have been disappointed had they not been left with the image of Boone in the state he all but literally put on the map.

Morgan is, by trade, a poet and prose writer and so his narrative of Boone's exploits go beyond the typically cut-and-dried approach of historians divorcing themselves from emotion for the sake of objectivity. When Boone arrives and takes his first look out onto the Appalachian Mountains, Morgan fills the account with awe and wonder; when Boone lays to rest loved ones, it is as much Morgan's sadness as Boone's that permeates the page.

This is a very personal exploration of a man who, in many regards, existed as a self-contradiction. The explorer whose enthusiasm led directly to the destruction of the wilderness he loved, the hero hounded more by creditors than enemies, the devoted family man who once spent two entire years hunting in isolation during which his wife gave birth to what was likely the daughter of one of his own brothers; the list goes on. Now, in 2009 as we look with uncertainty toward our own present and future, it is with great comfort to recall the adventures of a man threatened with bankruptcy and external incursions and to know that the American spirit has, since before it was even American, endured such events. And, perhaps, we can learn from Boone's mistakes as well.

If I had two complaints, it would be these. Firstly, I sincerely wish Morgan had employed footnotes, rather than endnotes. Not only that, but there are no markers in the text pointing the reader to a particular endnote; rather, one must consult the endnotes and see which chapter, page number and sentence originated with which text. This may have made for a cleaner page to look at, but it did hamper some of my reading as I wished to know, frequently, where Morgan had found a particular quote.

Secondly, Morgan refers to events before discussing them several times. This is common in historical writing and the only reason I mention it in this instance is that this more prose-conscious work brought me much closer to Boone than my previous studies of the man. It "took me out of the book" to read a reference in one chapter that would not actually occur chronologically for another few chapters.

Still and all, this is an impressive work and obviously a labor of genuine love for Morgan. Beyond being a fascinating read about one of my personal favorite historical figures, Boone is also a beautiful physical book. You can click the above thumbnail for a much larger look at the gorgeous cover art, but only by hefting the tome in your own hand can you appreciate the quality that Chapel Hill put into its publication. The pages undulate, the font is pleasing to the eye...this precisely the kind of work that one prominently displays among a library. Despite having read it, this is going direct to the top of my Books Wishlist.