The Early American Wilderness

Quincentennial or not, don’t expect to find Columbus anywhere in the ten chapters of THE EARLY AMERICAN WILDERNESS: AS THE EXPLORERS SAW IT. As author Bill Lawrence points out in his preface, in none of his voyages did Columbus get “so much as a peek” at what is now the mainland of North America. It is this mainland, stretching from Florida to Alaska, that is the stage for the drama Lawrence presents: the encounter between Old and New Worlds.

Somehow, when the men Lawrence portrays enter the American wilderness, they become boys, with all the best and worst that implies: greed, boldness, willfulness, buoyant energy, and wonder. Animal species are seen for the first time—and promptly slaughtered. Along the coast of Newfoundland, Jacques Cartier’s crew sighted auks, black-and-white birds as big as geese, now extinct; within an hour of landing, the Europeans had clubbed to death enough to fill two boats. Consciously or not, Lawrence himself mirrors their duality; quite aware of the explorers’ exploitative motivations, he as a boy, the reader suspects, worshiped them as heroes and, down deep, still does. Lawrence’s own ambivalence is suggested by his quoting Thoreau in the book’s epilogue: “At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable....”

At times, Lawrence seems to describe a continent in a near-Edenic state: polar bears as far south as Maine, fish outstripping today’s in size clogging the waters. Nevertheless, the book does debunk the myth of the generic noble savage of the American wilderness. Instead it presents natives differing widely in appearance, behavior, and alliances.

A former history teacher, the author craftily writes about geography in the context of narrative. Facts of geography then accrue a meaning which helps make them memorable. Lawrence’s training as a historian also leads him to an inspired use of original documents. The reader’s vicarious experience is greatly aided by these records of direct observation. Not so welcome are the poor-quality maps and line drawings that illustrate the text. Overall, they are too small to be illuminating. Much more useful are the book’s generous bibliography and index.