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Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West Paperback – June 2, 1997
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Ken Burns Stephen Ambrose is that rare breed: a historian with true passion for his subject. Here he takes one of the great, but also one of the most superficially considered, stories in American history and breathes fresh life into it. Lewis comes alive as we've never known him.
From the Publisher
Undaunted Courage is the story of a heroic and legendary man, and the saga of a great nation creating itself. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson chose Captain Meriwether Lewis to lead the first government- backed exploration of the vast and unknown western territory of what would become part of the United States. Lewis was the perfect choice.
Undaunted Courage is first and foremost a significant, scholarly work, yet it reads like an adventure novel filled with high drama, suspense, and personal tragedy. It brings to life the times and circumstances of Meriwether Lewis and his unprecedented expedition, and renews our wonder of the vastness of our country and the heroics of our forefathers.
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It is a "meaty" book of 500 pages. The first 80 or so pages set the historical stage for the expedition. The vast majority of the book depicts the expedition itself. Lewis and Clark, and their men, departed from camp, along the Mississippi just north of St. Louis, in May, 1804, and followed the course of the Missouri river deep into present day Montana. They winter camped with the Mandan Indians in present day North Dakota. Ambrose relates the drama with verve. Details, such as the caloric intake requirements of each expedition member are so telling in terms of the exhausting work in moving their canoes upriver. Later, on the far side of the Rockies, they descend what would be classified as Class VI rapids today, without accident, and of course, without those mandatory safety helmets of today. In particular, this book has inspired me to see the Bitterroot Range in Idaho that the expedition had to struggle over. As is well-known, the expedition did make it to the Pacific, spending the next winter at the mouth of the Columbia River, between present day Oregon and Washington states. They managed to return to St. Louis in the summer of 1806, confirming that it is a lot easier going back down a river. Kudos were indeed in order for the expedition's leaders; however the denouement for Meriweather Lewis was not a glorious one. He was haunted by depression, and although there is still considerable controversy over the circumstances of his death, Ambrose comes down on the side of suicide as oppose to murder.
Alas, the biography of Stephen Ambrose is not as untainted as the glorious episodes of American history that he prefers to focus upon. I didn't realize that when I first read this book, and feel "hoodwinked," if not more. The evidence is now rather overwhelming that Ambrose was a chronic, serial, plagiarist. Furthermore, on numerous occasions he has played free and fast with the facts, for example, on the number of times he met with Eisenhower, and the dates, for Ambrose's biography of him. The biography of Ambrose at Wikipedia is full of additional material on this matter, and Google can retrieve some equally good articles in Slate magazine. Such information tends to totally discredit the "Undaunted Courage" account of Lewis and Clark's expedition. Sure, I felt good, and still want to see the Bitterroot range, but what was fact, and what was embroidery will remain a nagging question, awaiting a more honest author. A similar situation occurred with Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time. I was admittedly "taken in" by both accounts, and wonder now why I did not read each more critically. I note that Amazon reviewers have now posted numerous critical accounts on Mortenson's book, but in general, this has not occurred to Ambrose. Why? Well, in the meantime, saved from the ultimate ignominy of a lone star by the inspiration to see the Bitterroots, I'll give it 2-stars.
Here is my issue with this book; I read DeVoto's edit of the journals and loved it. I wanted more. There was so much left unsaid in the journals such as background information, explanations of sickness, sounds, and what was the ultimate fate of the Mandans.
In the last several decades there has been countless hours of research done by many historians on various aspects of the trip. I wanted this information in one book instead of spending months locating and reading the various articles and small books by these other historians.
Ambrose didn't give it to me. I had a difficult time finishing this book. I think it can be broken up into 3 areas that he wrote about. First, he gives you a Wikipedia quality retelling of the story. There really is no comparing the journals themselves to this second hand retelling. The journals themselves give the best, most exciting, and clearest version of the trip. Ambrose's retelling is boring and poorly written.
Second he gives you his personal opinions and speculation about the trip. This tripe felt like a middle school history teacher, not an accomplished historian. He frequently ends chapters with what if's or a critique of Lewis's actions. Worthless.
The third bit of it was what I was here for. The information missing from the journals. An example is the loud noise heard by the party near the mountains. If my memory serves me correctly this is not explained in the Journals or Courage, however after reading a book about David Thompson, who was also in the area at this time, it seems likely that the sound was in fact frequent, intense avalanches. This is what Ambrose is supposed to tell, and he did to a bit of it, but he left out most of what I wanted to know, and what he did put in was the work of other historians.
And while I'm at it, what kind of book is this anyway? A history, a biography? I'm not sure Ambrose had decided himself, just look at his long apologia at the beginning. He knew what he was writing didn't really fit into Lewis and Clark scholarship. He was in two minds when he wrote this book. Half of him wanted to tell the story of the trip to his kids around the camp fire, the other half wanted to narrate the life of Lewis. Both came off half cocked.
So, 1/3 of the book is good stuff, 1/3 is Wikipedia, and 1/3 is worthless.
3/3 of the journals are priceless.
This is POP HISTORY and it sucks. Read the Journals.
The Journals of Lewis and Clark (Lewis & Clark Expedition)