Undaunted Courage

One of the few bestsellers I’ve reviewed.

A retro review from January 12, 2001 …

(Yes, I know that Ambrose was a plagiarist. I don’t believe he plagiarized this book though.)

Review: Undaunted Courage: Meriweather Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, Stephen Ambrose, 1997.Undaunted Courage

In an age of historical ignorance, a lot of people still know the names of Lewis and Clark. They even have a rough idea of what they did. But Lewis and Clark have, for most, long ago petrified into icons. Ambrose resurrects the real people behind the legend.

The book is a biography of Meriwether Lewis. But, reflected in the light of Ambrose’s examination, we also come to know William Clark as a real man. Of course, the book concentrates on their famous expedition, but it’s over a hundred pages before that journey starts. Ambrose doesn’t waste the space though. Not only does he show how Lewis’ life prepared him for leading the Corps of Discovery, but we also get details of Lewis’ friendship with Thomas Jefferson, Lewis’ experiences in the Whiskey Rebellion and his training in scientific matters before leaving for the west. We also get a brief, but fascinating, section on how Thomas Jefferson’s slaveholding was not only a moral failing, as he knew it was, but also not justifiable on an economic level since German farmers in Virginia had profitable farms with fewer acres and no slaves.

Of course, the bulk of the book is taken up with Lewis and Clark’s trip to the Pacific and back. And it’s a gripping tale of survival, exploration, first European contact with some Indian tribes, and, briefly, of combat. Ambrose’s style is emminently readable even if, as some have noted, he does repeat certain passages from time to time. His biggest contribution may be to emphasize Lewis’ scientific contributions. Lewis faithfully gathered a great many samples of the plants and animals he found and made detailed descriptions in his journal.

Those journals are at the heart of a mystery covered in this book. Lewis’ raw notes are still extant and are extensive. But, for great chunks of time on his trip, he made no entries. Ambrose, following other scholars, offers an explanation for those gaps.

Lewis’ journals are also central to the mystery of his psychological dissolution. Though he made preparations to organize his notes and publish them in book form, he never completed the job though he had plenty of time. He came back a hero in 1806; he died from a gunshot wound in 1809. Ambrose blames early fame, alcoholism, and Lewis’ tendancy towards depression. And he makes a convincing case, conspiracy theories notwithstanding, that it was suickide and not murder, a conclusion bolstered by Lewis’ history and the opinion of his friends. The failure to publish his findings and pass his knowledge on to a wide audience hurt the historical reputation of the expedition. It was only in the 20th Century that Lewis and Clark became popular figures of American history.

Ambrose’s account will certainly keep Lewis and Clark from falling into obscurity again.


The Old West page.

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