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Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West ()

San Francisco Chronicle Top 100 Nonfiction Books of the West (41)

Certain deeds are so familiar to us that we lose our sense of perspective on just what was accomplished.  Thus, during the recent anniversary of the Moon Landing, I'm sure everyone had a moment where they were sort of taken aback and realized--Holy Cripes! Those guys went to the Moon in a vehicle that's less advanced technologically than my car.  Similarly, the journey of Lewis and Clark is one of those things that lurks in your consciousness from grade school on, but you never really think about what they did or what it meant.  Stephen Ambrose has provided the perfect remedy for that oversight with this excellent book.

Structurally the book is a biography of Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) with heavy emphasis on the  28-month, 8,000-mile expedition that he lead (ending in September 1806), at President Thomas Jefferson's behest,  along with William Clark (1770-1838).  Along the way, Ambrose, writing in a nearly conversational style, weighs in on the many controversies surrounding the journey and the participants.  He synthesizes the extensive scholarship about the trip, provides ample samples of the journals they kept and draws upon his own personal knowledge of their route.  What emerges is, first of all, a sweeping but detailed portrait of the trip, of the hardships and difficulties they faced and of the fortitude and courage that they demonstrated every step of the way.  Second, and more importantly, he puts the whole venture into perspective for us.  We share in Jefferson's vision of an America that stretches from ocean to ocean; familiar as this is today, there was no certainty that it would become a reality at the time (early 1800's).    Ambrose nearly overwhelms us with the sheer volume of physical geography and species of flora and fauna that these men discovered.  From April through November of 1805 they were in territory that was completely unmapped.  (Had their journals and maps been published more rapidly, virtually every river and physical feature from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean would bear the names that they originated.)  Finally, as the story wends it's way to the tragic conclusion, when a lonely, debt burdened and deeply depressed Lewis shot himself to death in a travelers lodge on the Natchez Trace, one can't help feeling that America had lost one of it's greatest heroes.

Ambrose has done a great job of recapturing the drama and the deeper meaning of a chapter from our history that is all too easily taken for granted.


Grade: (A-)


Book-related and General Links:
    -FEATURED AUTHOR: Stephen Ambrose (NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: Most of what Lewis and Clark saw, we cannot (Stephen Ambrose, Bozeman Daily Chronicle)
    -ESSAY : Stephen Ambrose, Copycat : The latest work of a bestselling  historian isn't all his. (Fred Barnes, 01/04/2002, Weekly Standard)
    -ARTICLE : Ambrose Sorry for Copying Phrases (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS,  January 7, 2002)
    -ESSAY : Ambrose Apologizes : After only two days, historian Stephen Ambrose says he's sorry. (Fred Barnes, 1/7/2002, Weekly Standard)
    -ARTICLE : 2 Accuse Stephen Ambrose, Popular Historian, of Plagiarism (DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK, January 5, 2002, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : As Historian's Fame Grows, So Does Attention to Sources :  While conceding inappropriate use of text, Stephen E. Ambrose
defended his overall methods (DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK, January 11, 2002, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : Ambrose Has Done It Before (Mark Lewis,, 01.07.02,)
    -ESSAY : More Controversy For Stephen Ambrose (Mark Lewis,, 01.09.02,)
    -ARTICLE : Stephen Ambrose And the Rights Of Passage : In a Growing List of His Books, Others' History Repeats Itself (Ken Ringle, Washington Post, January 11, 2002)
    -ESSAY : Is Ambrose doomed for repeating history? : A charge of plagiarism prompted an apology. Was that enough? (Carlin Romano, 1/08/02, Philadelphia INQUIRER)
    -REVIEW: Giants in the Earth  (Alvin M. Josephy Jr., NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Gordon S. Wood: 'The Writingest Explorers'  (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: (The Newshour, PBS)
    -REVIEW  : of The Good Fight by Stephen E. Ambrose (Benjamin Schwarz, The Atlantic)

 -Journals of Lewis and Clark (Hypertext)
    -REVIEW: of The Journals of Lewis and Clark America's Heroic Moment (Marius Bewley, NY Review of Books)
    -Lewis and Clark (PBS)(screensaver, maps, bios, etc.)
    -Discovering Lewis and Clark
    -Looking for Lewis and Clark: On-line images of the Voyage of Discovery
    -Lewis and Clark Trail  Heritage Foundation
    -Lewis & Clark Related Internet Sites
    -Letter from President Thomas Jefferson (authorizing the trip + journal excerpts, etc.)
    -Lewis and Clark in North Dakota (Sen. Byron Dorgan)
    -Harpers Ferry - Meriwether Lewis
    -Lewis, Meriwether - Ghostly Shadow and Other Ghosts
    -Meriwether Lewis:  American Explorer
    -Meriwether Lewis Home Page
    -Along the Trail with Lewis and Clark
    -Case 15: Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego: Lewis & Clark in the Pacific Northwest

    -Stephen Ambrose on Booknotes for D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II (C-SPAN)
    -DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER  Excerpted from an essay by Stephen Ambrose