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Review of Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose

Review of Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose

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Published by Tim W. Brown
Review of Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West by Stephen Ambrose. Originally appeared at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association web site on October 7, 1996.
Review of Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West by Stephen Ambrose. Originally appeared at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association web site on October 7, 1996.

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Published by: Tim W. Brown on Jul 08, 2009
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09/15/2010

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Stephen E. Ambrose,
Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and theOpening of the American West 
. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996. $27.50 cloth. by Tim W. BrownOstensibly a biography of Meriwether Lewis, the book's centerpiece is the famed Lewisand Clark expedition of 1803-1806. This section covers well-traveled ground, but thestory is a good one and bears repeating. I emphasize the word "story" here, for that iswhat Ambrose supplies, a work of narrative history calling to mind the greatest adventurefiction. The reader may even recognize a dash of Melville and Conrad.Ambrose begins by discussing Lewis's upbringing and training, both of which influencedPresident Thomas Jefferson's decision to appoint him leader of the party. Lewis was heir to a plantation near Jefferson's, and the President recognized in him the inquisitive habitsof mind marking many of the landed gentry of early Virginia. In the army, Lewis hadacquired the skills necessary to survive on the frontier while stationed at various poststhroughout the Old Northwest. Next came Lewis's preparations for the trip, which make for fascinating reading. Here the book rivals the early chapters of 
Moby Dick 
in its keen attention to detail, providing anexhaustive catalog of provisions: clothes, foods, medicines, guns, powder, cookware,whiskey, and trinkets for the Indians. As he arranged the logistics, Lewis put muchthought and effort into selecting his companions, not least among these his good friendWilliam Clark. Finally, before departing, Lewis took what amounted to a crash course inastronomy, zoology, and botany with the leading scientists of the young republic.At last, the expedition cast off from St. Louis in spring, 1804, cruising up the Mississippiand Missouri Rivers, traversing the Bitterroot Range, and flowing down the Columbia.Ambrose is at his strongest here, mixing quotations from Lewis and Clark's journals toimpart their impressions of terrain, flora, and fauna during their passage through unchartedwilderness. The author constantly refers to "the first recorded" animal, bird, or plantspecies they discovered. A sense of wonderment prevails in the book's great middle, butAmbrose does not neglect the trip's many dramas. First, the men are tested by the sheer  physical demands of rowing against river currents or portaging across rugged mountains.Second, they are continuously on guard against Indians, never knowing what type of reception they will receive -- hostile (the Sioux and Blackfeet) or friendly (the Mandansand Nez Percé). Eventually, as history shows, the expedition triumphed over nature, theelements, and human limitation by reaching the Pacific Ocean and returning every man butone safely.In the last portion of the book, Ambrose recounts Lewis's difficulties in coping with theworld-wide fame he faced upon returning as well as his own personal demons. Here thereader is reminded of 
 Heart of Darkness
, only Lewis discovers a hole in his soul whileattempting to navigate civilization. In 1809 at the age of 35 he committed suicide, adebtor, alcoholic, melancholic, and failed territorial governor.The book is largely a synthesis of journals and letters from Lewis, Clark, and Jefferson,contained in a succession of editions by Biddle, Thwaites, Jackson, and most recently
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