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

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Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. Stephen E. Ambrose. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996. 511 pp. $27.50 cloth.

Two of the reasons the retelling of the Lewis and Clark expedition continues to capture the attention of readers is that they can learn about themselves through the experiences of these pioneer/adventurers and truth is indeed more mysterious than fiction. There are certain similarities in the story that are universal to everyone, while at the same time the contribution they made is unique.

Ambrose succeeds at two levels: 1) in delivering a storyline that is familiar to many in a manner filled with detailed descriptions, epiphanies, and well-reasoned interpretation, while 2) retaining content accuracy. Through the pages of Undaunted Courage one isn't merely given another version of a 19th century adventure, one is transported back to the era.

From the role model perspective, Meriwether Lewis's admirable attributes included an intense devotion to his scholarly role to President Jefferson to report on the inhabitants, flora and fauna of the territory west of the Mississippi River. His sense of adventure is a second characteristic worthy of examination and emulation. Third, Lewis as military leader not only had the loyalty of his men on the expedition, but frequently motivated them in such a way that they were capable of achieving feats beyond their normal expectations. A fourth attribute of Lewis was his willingness to share the responsibility and success with his peer, William Clark, who technically had an inferior rank.

On the down side, Lewis had character flaws that caused recurring intense psychological pain his whole life. Ambrose concludes from the available data that he was a manic depressive. This resulted in substantial mood swings ranging from extreme exhilaration to deep depression. …