Wednesday, January 18, 2012
Posted by JaneGS
Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by Stephen Ambrose was everything I had hoped it would be. Inspiring, enthralling, and enriching, I absolutely loved reading about the trip to the Pacific and back that Lewis and Clark made just over 200 years ago.
I only had two issues with the book. First, I felt a bit let down that every aspect of Meriwether Lewis's life was explored in detail, but scarcely any of William Clark's was. To be fair, the title does say that the book is about Lewis, Jefferson, and the West, but since I always think of Lewis & Clark as a duo, I assumed that they would be treated equally.
Second, I used to be an ardent Jeffersonian, but then I started reading bios of Hamilton, Washington, and Adams, and I felt that Ambrose was somewhat unscholarly in his obvious adoration of Jefferson and the corollary slighting of John Adams, my new favorite forefather. We all have our biases, but Ambrose's irked me somewhat.
Once I got over these two slight hurdles, I fell in love with the book, and had to get a copy of the coffee table companion book Lewis & Clark: Voyage of Discovery so I could study the maps and gaze at the photos of landmarks along the journey that still exist today, some even in much the same condition as when L&C first encountered them.
There is no doubt that Lewis's story is a fascinating one and ultimately tragic. Despite his manifold talents and skills as well as the personality that enabled him to lead an expedition safely across an unchartered continent, his personal demons of depression, alcoholism, and self-doubt and self-indulgence drove him to destroy himself and, for a long time, his reputation.
With Lewis, it's difficult not to be overwhelmed by his early and tragic suicide and so overlook the years he spent as Jefferson's companion, secretary, and protege as he prepared for the voyage of discovery that Jefferson shaped with only him in mind. Next to the expedition itself, I found it fascinating to read about how Lewis planned the journey--how he decided what to take, who to take, and when and where to embark. He read extensively in a number of different scientific fields so that he could knowledgeably report on what he and Clark discovered, and Jefferson arranged for him to be tutored by leading experts in many of the fields.
This was truly a wonderful book that gave me a better understanding into the politics and geographic realities and dreams of America shortly after its founding, and it provided a fascinating portrait of a great and tragic American whose influence has been unacknowledged until fairly recently.
Here's a lovely image of Lewis with his dog, Seaman, who made the journey with the Corps of Discovery.
Now, I want to read a bio of William Clark as well as watch the Ken Burns film on Lewis & Clark.