Thursday, July 28, 2011

Undaunted Courage--Stephen Ambrose

I pondered briefly giving this 4 stars, rather than 5, because of how long it took me to get through it.  But then I realized it took so long because of its amazing thoroughness.  Every single thing--every mile of the trip, every nuance of the time, every Native tribe they encountered, every possible outlook of every important decision that Lewis and Clark (and Thomas Jefferson) made--was given quick but thorough room in this book.  I understand the time, and Thomas Jefferson, better than I had before.  It is a brilliant book of a different time, an era that we will never revisit.  It is a miracle that every man but one of the Corps of Discovery returned from this three-year adventure.

The last few pages are a vastly different chronicle of a man who was perhaps the victim of Thomas Jefferson's biggest political mistake--the appointment of Meriwether Lewis as Governor of the Louisiana Territory, a position for which Lewis was horrifically, and very obviously, unsuited.  He would have been better off sent on another expedition, or given a job at the famous Philadelphia museums of the time, chronicling his discoveries and getting his journals published.  It took him over a year to even get to Louisiana after he was appointed Governor of the Territory.  He went insane there--instances of emotional and mental imbalances occurred throughout his life, but seemed to oddly disappear while exploring the Territory.  Possibly he had advanced malaria.  Medications he took for that may have reacted badly with the alcohol and other drugs he heavily consumed.  He seemed rather like Poe when he drank--some sort of reaction besides basic drunkenness apparently occurred.  Then he committed suicide in bizarre fashion, just a couple of years after his return from the expedition--with the journals still on him.  One of the greatest mysteries of the time is why this man, who was willing to give his life for the journals while in the Territory, and who was desperate for money after his return, never really even tried to have his journals published.  The publication would have brought him even more riches and fame than he had received upon his return.

A mystery of a very mysterious man.  And so the book is heavily recommended, but beware that it is a breathtakingly thorough work that will take some time to get through.  It will be well worth it.

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