Americans Journey to the West

Title page of early print edition of Journey to the WestA thousand years after Tang monk Xuanzang’s original trek from China to India, his quest in search of Buddhist scriptures was immortalized in Wu Cheng’en’s classic novel, Journey to the West, published in 1592. That same year, halfway around the world in London, actor Robert Greene published a repentant sinner’s memoir called A Groats-worth of Witte, bought with a million of repentance. Greene's Groats-worth of Wit, 1592In the book, he complains about an “upstart crow, beautified with our feathers… [who] is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country” — thus providing what scholars believe is the first reference in print to the greatest poet in the English language, William Shakespeare.

Map of Jamestown, showing the fort,1608Fifteen years later, in 1607, three merchant ships of the Virginia Company of London sailed into Chesapeake Bay, and landed a few miles up the southern shore, where they put up a fort, on May 14, thereby founding the first successful English colony in America, Jamestown. Others, of course, had arrived in the “New World” before them. There were the Native Tsenacommacah, who skirmished with the English settlers when they landed; to the south and west, millions of square miles of what we now call North and South America were claimed by Spain. And within a few years, the Dutch and the French were building trading communities along the coast to the north and inland as far West as the Great Lakes. After a hundred years, however, it was the English-speakers who had battled and bought their way to controlling the eastern shore of North America from Massachusetts to Georgia, and within five generations they had pushed their domination of the land all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Map of America at the time of Lewis & Clark's ExpeditionObviously this mass colonization was the aggregate of many smaller journeys, explorations, and foundings. But if we want to find a Western parallel to the pilgrimage of Xuanzang and his companions (human or semi-divine), my vote would go to the journey undertaken by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in 1804, to explore the vast unknown territory stretching from the Mississippi River — the American frontier at the time — to the Pacific Ocean, over 2000 miles to the West. The Expedition of the Corps of Discovery (as it was called) wasn’t commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson to fetch sacred scriptures in order to save the new republic, but rather to find “the most direct and practicable water communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce.” The business of America has always been business, it would seem.

What the Corps discovered was that there is no such thing as “practicable water communication” between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans — a dream of western explorers since at least Christopher Columbus: Driving the last spike in the US Transcontinental RR, May 10, 1869direct transcontinental commerce in America would have to wait another 65 years, for the completion of the new Transcontinental Railroad. In another coincidence (or synchronicity), we learn that the steam locomotive that would, in 1870, begin crossing America (primarily for the purposes of commerce), was patented just three months before Lewis and Clark embarked from St. Louis (on May 14, the 197th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown), paddling and poling their canoes and barges up the Missouri River into the unknown.

Lewis & Clark guided by SacagaweaIt’s fun trying to imagine the classic novel that might be written 800 years from now about that remarkable voyage — what demi-gods, demons, or dragons might be pressed into service to protect the poor humans on the mission? and what American equivalent of Guanyin, goddess of compassion, would watch over them? Perhaps she might take the form of a very pregnant 15-year-old Shoshone Indian woman named Sacagawea, whom Lewis and Clark hire as a guide and interpreter when they reach their first winter quarters in what is now North Dakota — but who knows what it will be called then…?

— BBly

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