From Publishers Weekly
It's easy to see why the once famous 18th-century explorer John Ledyard lapsed into obscurity. Ledyard's claim to fame was his presence on Captain Cook's ill-fated final voyage to Hawaii, about which he wrote a partly plagiarized, sometimes unreliable but widely read 1783 book. Aside from that, there were unsuccessful stabs at the ministry and the fur trade, and his own fizzled journeys of exploration: an attempted trek across Siberia and North America ended when he was expelled from Russia, and his death in Cairo aborted a planned expedition across Africa. Journalist Gifford struggles to give Ledyard's feckless life a compelling arc. He reconstructs Ledyard's travels, supplementing them with observations from his own voyage on a modern replica of Cook's HMS Endeavour and trip through Siberia. And he highlights Ledyard's alleged charisma as a charming raconteur and ladies' man (attested by many episodes of venereal disease); a premature multiculturalist in sympathy with indigenous peoples; an inveterate mooch who financed long journeys from the generosity of bemused hosts; an "eternal adolescent," prototype of romantic American wanderers from Huck Finn to Dean Moriarty. Gifford's biography has plenty of engaging travelogue, but his claims for the importance of this "first modern American" give him an ambitious destination that he never quite reaches. Photos. (Feb.)
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John Ledyard, a renowned traveler and explorer, died in 1789, and a biography written in 1828 placed him in the pantheon of American heroes. Ledyard took part in three expeditions: Captain Cook's voyage to the Pacific, an expedition across North America that was later completed by Lewis and Clark, and the exploration of inner Africa led by the Scottish explorer Mungo Park. Ledyard left a handful of letters and a few scattered journals, most of which were expurgated by his relatives; others have been lost. "Over a period of four years," Gifford writes, "I pursued Ledyard from the Connecticut River to the North Atlantic Ocean, from the libraries of New England to the archives of Britain, and from the streets of Paris to Siberia." Gifford describes him as a complicated man--idealistic and mercenary, restless and lazy, chivalrous and uncelibate, and having a history of tantrums and fistfights. Gifford contends that Ledyard's life was a series of self-reinventions, and this rich and immensely detailed biography brings this obscure explorer to life. George Cohen
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