Review: Undaunted Courage

Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage tells the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition with an emphasis on Meriwether Lewis and Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson may seem out of place in that sentence.  He never travelled west of the Mississippi, but as Ambrose demonstrates, he did groom Lewis extensively and shaped the goals and principles of the expedition.

Lewis is a fascinating individual. Already a patriot, soldier, and woodsman, he eagerly takes up Jefferson’s training to become a enough of a jack of the trades of writer, botanist, and navigator to turn the expedition from a look around into a scientific endeavour.  Between the two men it is also clear that this is to be a political and business expedition as well.  Understanding and cultivating the trust of the natives, and determining the extent of the land Jefferson bought and how to exploit it take up at least as much time as looking at new plants.

A fair amount of time is spent understanding Lewis’s relationship with Clark, of course.  Their unique shared command of the expedition was key to its success and the two men fought the prevailing structures of society to make it work.  The Army expected one commander, but Lewis (their choice) made it clear to the men and the brass that he and Clark would be equals.  Ambrose illuminates this key relationship.

When exploring something that is as much a part of the American mythos as this expedition, it would be easy to gloss over the real men and real pressures inherent to it.  Ambrose does an excellent job of keeping the magnitude of the task in focus while pointing out places the expedition errs.  There’s no sugarcoating, either.  When Ambrose thinks Lewis has messed up, he is blunt about it.  This is a considerable merit.

As I sit down to write this, some weeks after completing Undaunted Courage, I remember that it did take a while to get through it.  But, I also realize that I remember much more of it than I would have expected.  This is a pretty good selling point for Ambrose’s writing.  I don’t remember any flashiness, but I do remember the narrative and interesting perspectives on a monumental undertaking in American history, undertaken by real humans.  Tough to do better than that.


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