I've just read a couple of books about Yellowstone, one a bit older and one brand new. The older book is Paul Schullery's classic Searching for Yellowstone, revised most recently in 2004. The brand new book is Yellowstone Denied: The Life of Gustavus Cheney Doane, published this year.
I don't have much to say right now about Schullery's book, which I recommend for anyone who wants to engage issues related to Yellowstone National Park. Yet, while I recommend the book, I would have little kind to say about it. It is the antithesis of Alston Chase's Playing God in Yellowstone, and the two authors are quite hostile toward each other. Yet, I'm disappointed with Schullery perhaps even more than Chase. Frankly, I like both books for the way they engage important issues, and I hate both books for their unwillingness to confront philosophical and values questions in any meaningful way. Chase is loose with facts and has an obvious axe to grind while Schullery sounds like an apologist for the National Park Service, from whom he is quick to assert his independence. I think for now I will leave it at that; there wasn't enough in Searching for Yellowstone to provoke any response that you can't find in the various posts written the last few months on this blog and across the Web.
The biography of Doane, however, has been on my mind a lot, perhaps because like so many I have a strange curiosity into the founding of Yellowstone National Park. In putting together my Web site, one of the more interesting projects I undertook was typing out the transcript of Lt. Doane's report from the 1870 Washburn expedition. Doane led the military escort of Washburn's expedition. In the history since then, it has been Nathaniel Pitt Langford's stirring and now in portions discredited account of that journey that has been far more famous.
I can say that if Doane had read this account of his life that the man likely would have been beside himself with anger. Scott portrays Doane as a man consumed with becoming a famous explorer like John C. Frémont. Besides his travels in Yellowstone, Doane led an ill-fated expedition of the Snake River country, where he and his party nearly froze to death, and took part in an ill-fated and badly organized attempt to explore the arctic where he was stuck in Greenland for a significant amount of time. Was it ill fate, or was it Doane, or was it both? The book suggests that Doane never became famous partly because of who he was and partly because he had his share of bad luck. Still, on the whole, the portrait of Doane is unflattering. Here is a man who left his family behind for a very long period of time, used connections (generally unsuccessfully) to advance during the Civil War, and then was the carpetbagger mayor of a town in Mississippi that his troops had previously helped to destroy. He ultimately fled the town in scandal. As an officer, he was generally (though not always) competent but like many in his time, schemed incessantly to advance his own career. During that career, he proudly had a significant role in the Marias River Massacre of about 200 Piegan Indians, and was an incompetent and sometimes cruel liaison between the Army and allied Crow Indians. He left his wife to pursue his own career and a younger woman. Ultimately, he died a broken and defeated man, having just failed - again - at becoming superintendent of Yellowstone National Park.
So, perhaps, it's not hard to see why there haven't been many significant tellings of Doane's life until now (though that, as the Epilogue shows, is a story unto itself). He was hardly a hero and about as wretched a man as Nathaniel Pitt Langford, the man who ultimately took so much of the glory for mythologizing the founding of the national park idea. In fact, Doane is so full of himself that it's hard to have much sympathy for him, and the author barely tries.
I don't think we need heroes; they get in the way. They lead us to the severe judgments we make about other people. If you set yourself on a pedestal, then you will be rightfully taken down. Doane was never turned into a hero, was bitter about it, and now his biography is the story of a bitter, dead, white man and why he never got the glory he so hungrily lusted after. And, as cynical as it sounds, it is hard to deny that truth. The sadness is that because we live in a world where that kind of glory, where that kind of heroism is so adored, we aren't allowed to meet Cheyney Doane on his own terms, terms that are probably not a whole lot better or worse than the rest of us, or might not have been if we didn't live in a society that has such artificial metrics of value.
Like many things in life, heroes are too large and abstract. In all our circles, there are people we love and people we hate. They aren't the sort of heroes and villains that I'm talking about, however. Those in our circles are still tangible to us; we really do feel them and know them, or should if they really are so close to us. The heroes I am talking about are distant, only known in a few details, identified with some kind of abstract ideal that probably isn't so ideal either when you break it down. The national park idea is one such archetype that we need to question. What is grand about the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone wasn't that it was protected but rather that it inspires the senses the way it did for people like Langford and Doane. We forget that when we lift up these men instead of lifting up the sensuality of the experience. And, ironically, we tear down the men as well.
When we search for Yellowstone and search through its history, of course we are haunted by that 1870 expedition and what came before and after it. I don't see National Park Mountain and not think of a whole cast of characters in a history and a myth. Yet, I hope we can build and lift up new stories besides that one. While Doane will never truly be put to rest in the Yellowstone story, I think books like this will help us from putting his place on that river junction too far out of proportion.
Scott's book is hardly a must read, but I'm thankful for reading it if only to recognize the traps faced by me and and all of us in becoming too enamored with such fleeting and yet abstract values as the ones that tortured Doane - which tortured him far more than his infected thumb during much of that 1870 journey into the future park.