Since most Americans don’t think much about Lewis and Clark beyond elementary school, it often comes as a surprise to learn that Meriwether Lewis died by suicide in 1809. It was just three years after the end of the cross-country expedition to explore the lands of the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the nation. He was only 35 years old when he passed away, and the historical evidence shows that the cause of death was self-inflicted gunshot wounds.
America doesn’t like to think of one of its heroes taking his own life. But Lewis’ life and death can help us to recalibrate notions of masculinity as our collective focus turns toward men’s mental health and the “male loneliness epidemic.” It helps us think through cultural notions of masculinity, which place value on men hiding or burying their emotions and which have served as roadblocks to prevent men from receiving the mental health treatment they need.
Such harmful ideas surrounding American masculinity have been shaped by the history of male wilderness heroes like Lewis and Clark, who have been portrayed as brawny, self-sufficient, stoic strongmen who know how to navigate any terrain and could survive the frontier.
But there is another side to this wilderness masculinity: the introspective and melancholic one. In fact, Lewis appears to have been highly self-aware, in touch with his emotions, and capable of expressing them. Lewis’s expedition journals and post-expedition letters show him to be a thoughtful, sensitive, and poetic man plagued by anxieties. On his 31st birthday on Aug. 18, 1805, during the first half of the expedition to reach the Pacific Ocean, Lewis wrote of his disappointment at feeling as if he had wasted his life: “I reflected that I had as yet done but little, very little indeed, to further the happiness of the human race, or to advance the information of the succeeding generation.” He ended the passage by formulating a strong defense mechanism to redirect his thoughts: “I dash from me the gloomy thought and resolved in future … to live for mankind, as I have heretofore lived for myself."