One of the biographer’s tasks is to explain why their chosen subject is important to the scope and shape of history and, further, to argue that that person remains significant in the present age. Robert Morgan’s Boone succeeds admirably on both counts. Morgan’s skills as a novelist and poet help in making this the most detailed and compelling life of Daniel Boone to date—Morgan is partial to dramatic imagery and sensual turns of phrase, for instance—but beyond telling the tale and getting the facts right with fastidious precision, this is a work of genuine scholarship, which interprets the frontiersman as a figure key to our understanding of the Enlightenment, colonialism, and the very idea of the American experiment.
Given Morgan’s sharp eye for drama, it’s hard to see Boone as other than a hero here, a claim that needs little justification from a historical perspective. But Morgan’s Boone is also a hero in a literary sense, a man driven beyond the ironies and conflicts of his era to pursue what the author calls a “mission,” being chosen by fate to discover his true self in the sublime isolation of the primeval American wilderness, which, during his first visit in 1769 from the far western edge of the British colonies, was the “mythic, Edenic place” called Kentucky. In fact, one of the great strengths of this biography is the implication that Boone, though not a literary man himself, is nevertheless an important figure for literature: He is emblematic of the Romantic ideals of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Byron, the Transcendental harmonies of Emerson and Thoreau, and the all-American adventures of Huckleberry Finn and was an inspiration to the likes of William Carlos Williams.
Yet unlike Huck, who lights out for “Injun Territory” persuaded that the bounties and liberties of life on the frontier are inexhaustible, Morgan’s Boone encounters the wilds of Kentucky fully aware that his days there are numbered, because the wilderness itself is doomed. Within three years of his first extended wanderings, Kentucky was flooded with settlers, the region was mired in the legal and economic conflicts and the deadly skirmishes that would result in the American Revolution, and game was already scarce. Thus, a sense of the tragic enters the romance—and there is tragedy aplenty. By 1799, when Boone and his family left Kentucky for Missouri, he didn’t own a single acre of the state he’d fought to establish and settle. He was old, broke, and irrelevant, and American civilization, with its two-handed engine of consumption and waste, had arrived and all but paved over the frontier.
Boone was courageous and practical, like many in his age, but he was also a man of imagination, whimsy, delight, and contemplation, encouraged by his frequent and often friendly encounters with Native Americans. Morgan reminds us of a statement made by Shelley: “‘Reason respects the differences, and imagination the similitudes of things.’ For twenty-five hundred years European culture had developed its analytical, logical way of making sense of the world of experience.” Boone’s time in the wilderness and that spent living among the Indians brought his European roots into confrontation with a tradition that presented “a more ancient, poetic, and connective way of defining identity and humanity.” After reading Morgan’s biography, my admiration for Boone is magnified and enriched, but I am also saddened, for in a figure like Daniel Boone we see more clearly and painfully what America might have become.