For many of us of a certain age, the enduring image of Daniel Boone is coonskin-capped actor Fess Parker on the eponymous television series from the 1960s. Robert Morgan shatters that iconic image right from the get-go in Boone, his impressive new biography of the American legend. Forget the coonskin cap, he writes in the very first sentence, he never wore one. That's just the first of many myths that Morgan a novelist (Gap Creek), poet and Cornell professor dispels in his meticulously researched and elegantly told book. Boone, as Morgan celebrates him, was many things, some of them contradictory. He was resourceful and intelligent; a visionary, to be sure, and a marksman without rival. A loving husband and father of 10, he spent a significant chunk of time away from the family he cherished and was frequently in debt. He was a gregarious, social man who preferred to be alone in the woods. Raised a Quaker though he nonetheless killed a few Indians in his time he later became a Freemason (and Morgan lays claim to being the first biographer to explore this particular philosophical bent, with its ideals of liberty and brotherhood, when evaluating the woodsman's life.)As one might expect of a biography written by a novelist and poet, Boone places its fabled subject within the context of the late-18th/early-19th century Romanticism that spurred Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman in the United States, as well as their European counterparts ( General Boone appears in Byron's Don Juan). James Fenimore Cooper was just one writer of the age who placed characters modeled on Boone at the center of novels, thus fueling the myth. Within decades of his death, Morgan writes, his image and his character would be portrayed and transformed in a hundred different ways and under different names to become a quintessence of America's ideal of itself, its origins and aspirations, its destiny. But Morgan seeks to demythologize Boone, bringing him down to human scale, and he sets to this task with an exacting attention to detail. Those details take readers to the heart of day-to-day life in America both before and after the Revolutionary War (in which Boone himself played a role). Life on the frontier was hard, of course, and could be perilous at the best of times. Morgan is adept at recounting such harrowing events as the brutal torture and killing of a scouting party that included Boone's eldest son, James, by an angry group of Cherokees, Delawares and Shawnees. He is very good, too, at conveying the optimism of seemingly endless possibilities that inspired the pioneers. Boone epitomized this spirit, clearing the path, both literally and figuratively, for the settlement of the West, and Morgan counts road maker among the man's many achievements. The irony that is never far beneath the surface of this biography's narrative, though, is that Boone's almost religious fervor for taming the virgin wilderness ultimately helped hasten the destruction of the thing he loved most in the world.
Separating fact from fable, we meet a Daniel Boone who was indeed a leader, though not always comfortable in that role. His marriage to the uncomplaining Rebecca Bryan (whom Morgan portrays as the consummate great woman behind the great man), endured long absences, but indeed seems to have been the great romance it has often been painted as. Despite his inherent integrity and leadership qualities, Boone was different from most of the men of his age, Morgan says. His innate character as woodsman and hunter, a white Indian as it were, made him perhaps ill-suited for some of the political and business situations that would prove his undoing in later life.
Written with admiration and great care, Boone is a book for those who like their biography told with leisurely erudition, readers interested in taking the countless side trips that fill out the story and place it within a larger context. The narrative teems with fascinating asides: We learn, for instance, that Indian Summer is so named because it was the season when Native Americans were most likely to be on the warpath. Oh, and if you're wondering, Boone's real hat of choice was beaver felt. Robert Weibezahl is author of the novel The Wicked and the Dead.