As LWT’s Digital Content Manger I usually deal exclusively in things that are, well… digital. But when I found out the hand drawn maps from the Lewis and Clark expedition were in the collections of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library a mere 5 minutes from my desk, I couldn’t settle for the digital copies online. The legacy of this particular piece of history is so important and influential to the family in Lewiston that I wanted to get a tangible understanding of those feelings for myself.
So I put in a request with the Beinecke to see the map drawn by William Clark in 1805 depicting the same area of what would become Lewiston, Idaho. (In case you didn’t know, anyone can request to see items from the library’s collections like I did.) Two days later I trekked off to see the map. It’s a bit silly to say, but as I drove to the library to see it I felt as if I was on a similar quest as Lewis and Clark, a quest for knowledge, a quest to the unfamiliar. After all, how many of us go and handle 210 year old maps while at work on a Thursday? I went into the Franke Family Reading Room at Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library (that’s where the Beinecke has its temporary home while it undergoes renovation) and was handed this fairly large, green canvas box bigger than my torso. I lugged it to a table, opened it, and went through it folder after folder, map after map (there are 83 maps in the Lewis and Clark collection), until I came to it: folder 35. Opening the table-sized manila file folder I found a yellowing piece of paper roughly the size of a piece of copy paper. ‘All of this’, I thought, ‘for something so tiny, so ordinary?’
Then something clicked. The brown squiggles depicting mountains and rivers and the somewhat illegible notations were made by Clark, THE Clark of Lewis and Clark, day by day as the expedition forged across the land of the Snake River valley, the land of Idaho and Lewiston before those names were ever attached to those places. If they’d taken a different turn, a different route, would these places be as we know them today? If they hadn’t encamped at the confluence of those two rivers on that land or even if Clark had not recorded that on this map would that land today be named Lewiston on one side of the river and Clarkston on the other? Would our current production have the same name, or would Samuel D. Hunter have had that moment of inspiration that caused him to write the play Lewiston at all? This map, this tiny and ordinary object, is in a way the source for everything that’s led to Hunter’s play and all the work we’ve been doing at LWT to make it materialize on stage.
I looked at that map and saw the chain reaction that led directly from Lewis and Clark in 1805 to the play Lewiston in 2016, and I thought it was pretty cool to kind of be a part of that. ‘That’s probably how the characters in the play feel’, I then thought, ‘and probably why selling the family land is so difficult for them.’ That land is their personal connection to the Lewis and Clark legacy. Who wants to lose something that gives you that sort of special sense of connection? We all like feeling like we’re a part of something, right? Feelings aside, though, I remembered that Alice has no use for the land in Lewiston except selling fireworks from a stand on it. In much the same way, even though I really liked sitting in a library with this 210 year old map, it wouldn’t make sense if I wanted to take it and use it to find my way to present day Lewiston, Idaho, what with roads, cell phones, and GPS, not to mention the document’s fragility. It would probably fall apart or get me lost rather than be helpful. The maps of Lewis and Clark being relegated to a library’s archives in this day and time makes the same practical sense selling the land does for Alice at this point in her life. But because of the feelings and history attached to that land it’s not easy for her or her granddaughter Marnie to take the practical route. Likewise it was kind of sad for me to pack the map up and give it back to the dark shelves of the library. The special part of my day was over and it was time to return to real life. Would I feel as a part of that history or as inspired when I didn’t have the map in my presence? I didn’t know, just like the characters don’t know if they’ll lose their sense of connection to their history if they don’t own the land. And then I realized that that’s the beauty of the story Hunter’s crafted. It’s about the intersection between the practical needs of the present and the sentimentality for the past. How do we reconcile those? I don’t know, but I know it’s not easy and I can understand why he used the legacy of Lewis and Clark as a backdrop to explore that question. It’s a very powerful piece of American history.
It’s hard to sum up my visit to the Lewis and Clark maps. It was inspiring, telling, and, yes, cool. It made me realize how powerful a piece of theatre Lewiston is for having sent me on such a literal and psychological journey of exploration. It made me feel connection, empathy, and a wonder about how I personally succeed or fail at incorporating history in to my present. And it made me feel like there was some type of fate at work here, that somehow Lewiston having its world premiere in the same town the Lewis and Clark expedition’s maps came to rest was destined. Maybe, just maybe, this was all meant to be.
If you’d like to see the Lewis and Clark maps for yourself or go on a similar adventure like mine you can request items from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library online at beinecke.yale.edu.
Lewiston by Samuel D. Hunter makes its world premiere April 6 – May 1 on LWT’s Stage II. Tickets are available at longwharf.org/lewiston