Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Review: "Undaunted Courage," Stephen Ambrose

By Paul Carrier

Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage is a moving look at the Lewis and Clark Expedition that shines a spotlight on Meriwether Lewis, the young Army officer who led the expedition (with William Clark) after serving as President Jefferson's personal secretary.

Ambrose approaches his subject with the muscular prose befitting such a heroic journey, offering a detailed look at Lewis' preparations for the expedition, its launch in St. Louis, the subsequent addition of the Shoshone woman Sacagawea to the Corps of Discovery and the many adventures that befell the explorers on their trip to the mouth of the Columbia River and back again.

In the process, Ambrose weaves Lewis' biography into the larger narrative of the expedition, which proved to be the greatest accomplishment of his all-too-short life.

As Ambrose makes clear, the expedition's primary goal was to find what proved to be a nonexistent water route to the Pacific Ocean. In the end, the explorers' accomplishments were much broader in scope than their debunking of what had been a centuries-old belief in the Northwest Passage.

A man of many talents who was trained by some of the greatest scientific minds of the day before setting out on his journey, Lewis the explorer also left his mark as a botanist, zoologist and ethnographer before his life took a tragic turn after the expedition drew to a close in 1806.

Lewis was a renaissance man of sorts, combining leadership abilities and military knowhow with the skills of a scientist, artist, sociologist and psychologist. Yet he also was a troubled man who died in 1809 at the age of 35, an apparent suicide.

Ambrose's penchant for waxing rhapsodic about the expedition's greatness can become tiresome. But any deficiencies in Undaunted Courage pale by comparison to the overall strength of Ambrose's prose, the depth of his research, the sharpness of his analysis, the insight gained by his own travels along the expedition's route and his obvious devotion to the legacy of Meriwether Lewis.