10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
A flawed account of an epic undertaking,
By A Customer
This review is from: Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West (Paperback)
Though less known to Europeans than the epic explorations of the interior of Africa in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Lewis and Clark's great crossing of North America to the Pacific Ocean and back in 1803-06 ranks with the expeditions of Bruce, Park, Burton and Livingstone. It is hard to conceive a subject more intrinsically exciting for a book and for much of this work the author does it ample justice. In so doing he makes a pivotal period in United States history easily accessible. Within the context of a biography of Meriwether Lewis, the expedition itself dominates, and the story races along, made all the more enjoyable by the extracts from the leaders' journals and letters. Again and again one is struck by their delight at beholding sights of splendour hitherto unseen by civilised man, by their tenacity when confronting terrifying obstacles and by their indomitability in the face of hunger, cold, fatigue and illness. Through their eyes we witness the grandeur of an all but pristine wilderness and the self-inflicted misery of the lives of the tribes of savages they encounter. The first part of the book frames the expedition very competently in its historical context, using as a connecting thread the early life of Lewis and his contacts with Thomas Jefferson. The expedition is the core of the narrative but the final part is almost unbearably poignant, detailing Lewis's mental deterioration and eventual suicide within three years of his triumphant completion of his splendid achievement. It is a minor weakness of the book that William Clark remains a shadowy figure throughout, to the extent to which his separate exploration of the Yellowstone on the return journey is essentially not covered. Despite the foregoing strengths there are significant weaknesses. Mr.Ambrose's choice of wording often jars to the European ear - "the papers and maps were okay" (p.384) being typical. Even worse, is when he speculates that in the last moments of his life Lewis might have reflected on "the time he got shot in the ass." These are minor complaints however compared with the author's treatment of contacts with Indian Tribes, when we find the heroes taken to task for not sharing the opinions and attitudes of the Politically Correct of two centuries later (see p.357-8 for a superb example of being wise after the event). It is however with the fawning adulation with which Jefferson is dealt that the narrative falls to the level of the ridiculous. We learn of the master and lover of the slave girl Sally Hemmings that "No American has ever surpassed Jefferson, and fewer than a handful have ever equalled him as friend, teacher, guide, model, leader, companion"(p.63), an evaluation that seems unfair as regards Lincoln and the Roosevelts, not to mention many who never aspired to the White House. To describe this paragon as "the greatest champion of human rights in American history" (p.348) is not only unjust to these same gentlemen but is to dismiss Eleanor Roosevelt's work for the UN charter and Herbert Hoover's superhuman work of famine relief in Russia. In summary "Undaunted Courage" is a book that is enjoyable and readable, but could have been considerably better had the writer's prejudices been kept in check.
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Initial post: 23 Jun 2009 11:10:48 BDT
D. Wight says:
I wonder if it is possible for any author in anything other than rigidly academic work to leave out their own prejudices? I think your comments are slightly contradictory in that you criticise SA for applying the views of the politically correct C20/21 but you don't mind doing the same to his views on Jefferson. Given the context of their own times you might argue that Jefferson hasn't been surpassed, and the examples you quote don't perhaps rise so high above the rank and file as Jefferson did?
I don't agree about jarring language. It adds to the feeling of an American tale and with abundance of American books, films, websites and TV shows it would sound quite natural to any but the die-hard English recluse
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