book review

Review: “Undaunted Courage” by Stephen Ambrose

Ambrose, Stephen E. Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West 
Simon & Schuster, 1996
Hardcover, 496 pages
ISBN 0-684-81107-3


In Undaunted Courage Ambrose has managed to do the nearly impossible: create a book that is accessible to both the academic community and the general public. For the scholarly reader, all the necessary annotations and required references are collected in notes on each chapter. But the general reader can ignore all the tiny numbers and just get caught up in the flow of the narrative.

For Ambrose can make the narrative flow. He includes quite a bit of background about the time period and about Thomas Jefferson, but the bulk of the book focuses on Meriwether Lewis and the cross-country expedition he led to the Pacific Northwest. Ambrose is at his best when he’s writing about Lewis’s life, accomplishments, and adventures. Only occasionally does Ambrose falter, usually when he steps out of storytelling mode into modern-analysis mode, as in this passage: “Tobacco culture represented an all-out assault on the environment for the sake of a crop that did no good and much harm to people’s health as well as to the land, not to mention the political and moral effects of relying on slavery for a labor force” (p. 33). Here the references to the harmful effects of tobacco and “the political and moral effects” of slavery look more like 1990’s political correctness than an accurate reflection of the thinking of the time.

Some have criticized Ambrose for focusing so much on Lewis and thereby slighting Clark. While this criticism is accurate, it must be noted that the book’s subtitle indicates that Ambrose’s purpose was to concentrate on Lewis. However, in at least one instance Ambrose gets so wrapped up in praising Lewis that he fails to notice that he’s contradicting himself. In his descriptions of Lewis’s early encounters with Native Americans Ambrose says that, when Lewis came upon a group containing members of different tribes, he sometimes caused trouble among the Native Americans by singling out one as the group leader instead of recognizing the head of each of the bands. Yet later Ambrose writes, “When he [Lewis] talked about Indian `nations’ he meant the word just as he applied it to European peoples. He was keenly aware of differences between tribes, a subject he wrote about at length and with insight” (p. 348).

Finally, Ambrose is so immersed in Lewis that he can’t help but get melodramatic when contemplating his hero’s thoughts the evening before he apparently killed himself in this much-abbreviated passage:

As he sat on Mrs. Grinder’s porch, looking west while the light faded from the sky, what were his thoughts? Were they of the rivers, the Missouri and the Columbia and the others? Did he recall the Arikaras, the Sioux, the Mandans? Did he think of the first time he had seen Sacagawea? Did he remember the April day in 1805 when he started out from the Mandan nation on his “darling project,” daring to link his name with Columbus and Captain Cook? Did he dwell on the decision at the Marias?

Or were the plants, animals, birds, scenery of the Garden of Eden he had passed through commanding his imagination? If so, surely he thought of cottonwoods, prickly pears, the gigantic trees of the Pacific Coast; of grouse and woodpeckers and condors; of the grizzlies and the unbelievable buffalo herds, the pronghorns, sheep, coyotes, prairie dogs, and the other animals he had discovered and described; of those remarkable white cliffs along the Missouri, the Gates of the Rocky Mountains, the Columbia gorge . . .

Or were his thoughts gloomy? Were they about his unsolvable problems? Did he agonize over his speculations and the financial ruin they had brought him? . . .

We cannot know. We only know that he was tortured, that his pain was unbearable.

(pp. 464-465)

It’s hard to read this passage without imagining a silent-movie maiden wringing her hands on one side of the stage (As he sat on Mrs. Grinder’s porch . . . what were his thoughts?), then quickly moving to the other side to strike the mirror-image pose (Or were his thoughts gloomy?).

But these inconsistencies and shortcomings make up only a miniscule portion of Ambrose’s book. Most of the book is very well written. Notice, for example, how, in describing Lewis’s writing style, Ambrose mimics it:

Though his sentences remained convoluted and cried out for punctuation, he managed to carry them off by retaining a flow of narrative interspersed with personal observations and reactions, all held together by using the right phrase at the precise moment in an arrangement of words that stands the ultimate test of being read aloud and making perfect sense while catching the sights and sounds and drama and emotion of the moment in a way that can be compared to the stream of consciousness of James Joyce or William Faulkner, or the run-on style of Gertrude Stein–only better, because he was not making anything up, but describing what he saw, heard, said, and did. 

(p. 67)

Even people–like me–who prefer novels to history books will find Undaunted Courage a compelling reading experience.

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown

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