Boone: A Biography
By Robert Morgan
Algonquin Books, 538 pp.
If you're feeling haunted by the specters of peak oil and global warming, you might enjoy a glance back to the beginning of America in Robert Morgan's biography Boone, to a time when conservation concerned the amount of deer a man shot in a day.
The biography portrays the famous woodsman and explorer in a manner you may recognize, even making his friendships and conflicts with Native Americans exciting, nuanced and suspenseful.
But Robert Morgan fashions Daniel Boone not just as a legendary woodsman, but as a literary and philosophical ideal—a naturalist—living the life of Walden before Thoreau ever valorized such ideals. Long before the 1960s television series, Boone was famous across the frontier as a skilled hunter, his name known as far away as Europe. His legendary stature was cemented when he forged the Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap, helping pave the way for westward expansion. Morgan ultimately tells the story of a witness to the untouched beauty of Kentucky, a man who witnessed that wilderness erode into farms and settlements as a result of his own exploration. As he moved out of Kentucky in the hopes of finding "more elbow room," Boone was among the first to feel the ache of an America slouching toward Wal-Mart.
The biography is filled with snapshots of frontier life from Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky, with historical segments between chapters focusing on such things as domestic arts—like making soap—and even a vignette of the revolutionary Regulators from Hillsborough. Morgan, who grew up in the mountains of North Carolina, was reminded of his affinity for Boone while researching the revolutionary war to write his historical fiction. The voice is always one of admiration for Boone; the book takes pleasure in his triumphs and feels sorrow in his failures. This narrative identification can seem a bit over the top at times, as Morgan parallels Daniel Boone's journey into Kentucky and the beginning of westward expansion with the achievements of such luminaries as Whitman, Columbus, Thoreau, Goethe, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Washington, Lincoln and Moses.
But Morgan's ability to draw on literary and historical comparisons also helps shape this narrative, which is peppered with the words of such greats as Balzac and William Carlos Williams. We can see the poet in Morgan emerging in certain details, as when he describes Boone's enjoyment of hunting in the rain: "Every sound, every leaf, is vivid. In wet woods you can step without making a sound. [...] His hearing was more acute, and his eyesight sharper, without sun dapples and shadows, as the trees dripped and the air ticked and tapped and hummed."
Morgan accomplishes a great feat in carving the facts out of a vast assemblage of rumors and legend, always certain to tell particular stories with a grain of salt, providing varying accounts when available, or simply explaining the rumors—just in case anyone thought Boone was as tall (or as fictional) as Paul Bunyan. I laughed at the opening sentences of the book: "Forget the coonskin cap; he never wore one. Daniel Boone thought coonskin caps uncouth, heavy, and uncomfortable. He always wore a beaver felt hat." To many modern readers, the difference between beaver felt and coonskin seems fairly negligible, and we may marvel at the notion of beaver felt being considered couth—but the material of Boone's hat gets at the crux of the issue of how difficult it can be to separate the legend from the fact for a man who was a legend in his own time. In fact, Morgan tells us that the first published biography of Boone resembled Robinson Crusoe more than a work of history.
Morgan's devotion to Boone and his achievement in telling "the real story" does not come without some drawbacks, however. Morgan portrays a man who would choose to be a peacekeeper, a man who learned a lot about hunting and the land from Native American culture, a man who was in fact "adopted" by the chief of the Shawnees at one point in his life. But when a reader expects to hear the legends of Boone's heroism, particularly those in battle, Morgan comes up with a rather weak, ambivalent term: "reluctant Indian fighter"—an attempt at nuance that simply sounds awkward. But, in the end, this reluctance seems genuine—Morgan recounts many instances of Boone's proclivity for clever stalling and negotiation tactics to avoid any bloodshed during war. Even when describing the end of Boone's life, Morgan persuasively characterizes the explorer's fondness for Native Americans and his resentment toward white businessmen and lawyers after a long life of incurring debt and getting hoodwinked out of land. The naturalist respects an ambush in the woods more than an ambush of official documents.
Though Morgan attempts to treat fraught subjects like slavery and Native American rights with grace, he occasionally stumbles. The discussion of Boone's involvement with slavery comes across as a single-page apologia, with Morgan appearing regretful even to mention this crack in his hero's armor. Similarly, after recounting the story of the kidnapping and rescue of Boone's daughter, Jemima, Morgan compares the Native American practice of inducting kidnapped people into their tribe with the Nazi practice of Lebensborn, when the Nazis would take children from enemy countries and raise them as Germans—certainly a bizarre comparison given the sympathetic contemporary perspective toward the decimation of Native American culture.
One might pick up this biography and feel that this is more knowledge about Daniel Boone than anyone would care to know. To be sure, it's a long read. The breadth of research, the parsing of rumor from fact, the collection of information from earlier biographers, and the entertaining anecdotes made vivid with everyday details of frontier life create a power package of a biography of a man whose life embodies the story of America when it still had a frontier, when all this had just begun. And, in the process you might just learn something about the medicinal benefits of eating oak bark, or figure out how to make beer from corn.