July 28, 2014

Review of Undaunted Courage

Back in December 2012 I read this book:

Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American WestFrom the bestselling author of Band of Brothers and D-Day, the definitive book on Lewis and Clark’s exploration of the Louisiana Purchase, the most momentous expedition in American history and one of the great adventure stories of all time.

Amazon.com Review
A biography of Meriwether Lewis that relies heavily on the journals of both Lewis and Clark, this book is also backed up by the author's personal travels along Lewis and Clark's route to the Pacific. Ambrose is not content to simply chronicle the events of the "Corps of Discovery" as the explorers called their ventures. He often pauses to assess the military leadership of Lewis and Clark, how they negotiated with various native peoples and what they reported to Jefferson.

From Publishers Weekly
Without adding a great deal to existing accounts, Ambrose uses his skill with detail and atmosphere to dust off an icon and put him back on the trail west. History Book Club main selection; BOMC split selection; QPB alternate; author tour.

wow, that was long trip
By Bill Chaisson on November 1, 1999

Ambrose chose a huge sprawling subject and wrote a medium size book that does not sprawl at all. In order to accomplish this he had to write in an almost telegraphic style. This book is largely descriptive with frequent, but brief interpretive asides.

Anyone fascinated by Native American cultures should read this book. It offers a tantalizing look at several tribes either at or immediately following "contact". If you know anything about the later history of the tribes of the Upper Missouri and Pacific Northwest, this book just drips with tragedy and none of it is spelled out in a silly melodramatic way; Ambrose's restraint makes the impact that much greater.

If you don't expect history books to be particularly literary, but just to tell a good story, then you'll think this is a terrific book. If you are looking for a meditation on the ramifications of the L&C expedition with regard to the settling of the American West, then this book is a little sparse on analysis, although it is good about reporting salient information. Having read it, I guess I feel prepared to read more in-depth account about smaller segments of this story.
Rob's reaction

Around that time I posted the following on Facebook:

Reading Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose about Lewis and Clark. Tumors, boils, dysentery, diarrhea, syphilis, gonorrhea, mosquitoes, fleas, hunger, injuries, rain and snow, manual labor, bear attacks, hostile Indians...who wants to be an explorer? Anyone?

Hard to believe Jefferson seriously thought he could move all the Indians west of the Mississippi, where they'd 1) assimilate into American culture and 2) live unmolested by white settlers. This is a ridiculous fantasy on so many levels. Ambrose criticizes the plan to some extent, but not nearly as much as it deserves.

Hey, let's resolve the Irish problem by relocating them to Cyprus, and the Greek/Turkish problem on Cyprus by relocating them to Ireland. The Cypriots can become Irish and the Irish can become Cypriots. Then everyone can live in peace. What could possibly go wrong?

That's about how dumb Jefferson's plan was. Even if Ambrose stuck to primary sources, I bet he could've found someone critical of it. Saying "here's what Jefferson intended" and leaving it at that isn't enough.

Rob's rating of Undaunted Courage: 8.0 of 10.

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