Friday, August 29, 2014

Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by Stephen E. Ambrose

Amazing journey, stunning aftermath
Undaunted Courage, originally published in 1997, is a biography of the explorer Meriwether Lewis by historian Stephen E. Ambrose. As the subtitle indicates, it emphasizes his relationship—both personal and political—with President Thomas Jefferson. Not surprisingly, about three-quarters of the book is devoted to the famed western expedition of 1804 to 1806 led by Lewis and William Clark. I had previously read the three-volume Dover edition of the Lewis and Clark journals, edited by Elliott Coues in 1893. I usually prefer to get history straight from the horses’ mouths, but the journals often get bogged down in the monotony of daily hunts for food or the constant packing and unpacking of boats. Ambrose, on the other hand, does a brilliant job of judiciously selecting the expedition’s most important moments, providing valuable context, approaching events from multiple viewpoints, and augmenting the familiar scenes with little-known details. Every step of the way he analyzes the captains’ decision-making process, making the reader feel like a member of the Corps of Discovery sitting in on campfire conferences.

Few adventures excite the American imagination more than the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and the author himself is not immune to the admiration and envy inspired by these adventurers who lived by their wits in the wild, charted unknown territory, and discovered new lands, creatures, and peoples. As if that weren’t enough, here we also have the guy who wrote the Declaration of Independence. Ambrose approaches both Lewis and Jefferson with unapologetic hero worship, often gushing over his subjects with showers of hyperbolic praise. He doesn’t let them off the hook, however, when they make an error in judgment or consciously act in an unethical manner to further their own ends. Ambrose is by no means a revisionist, but he does tell his story with the requisite amount of political correctness. Lewis, Clark, and Jefferson all owned slaves, and Ambrose has a tough time reconciling their participation in such a deplorable institution with their rather egalitarian views toward Native Americans. Although the expedition was the first nail in the coffin for many of the native tribes west of the Mississippi, Lewis and his party treated the Indians for the most part with fairness and respect. Sacagawea is given due credit for her contributions to the expedition, based on the limited record available, but Ambrose doesn’t idolize her.

Although his account of the expedition is excellent, the information Ambrose supplies on what happened before and after the journey is perhaps even more valuable. He provides insight into Lewis and Jefferson’s lives as Virginia gentlemen farmers and how this culture shaped their ideas and influenced their decisions. He examines Jefferson’s conception of the expedition, Lewis’s selection as leader, and the latter’s preparations for the journey in great detail. After the Corps returns from the West, the story becomes even more enthralling. Suddenly Lewis is not such a hero anymore, as he engages in shady opportunistic deals and exhibits unstable and erratic behavior indicative of mental illness. The ultimate fate of Lewis is as shocking and spellbinding as the climax of any Shakespearean tragedy.

The best account of the Lewis and Clark Expedition—even Ambrose admits—is the 13-volume set of The Journals edited by Gary E. Moulton. But let’s face it, that’s a lot to swallow for the general reader. If all you want is a one-volume summary that brings the voyage to vibrant life, it’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job than Ambrose has done here.

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