American History 1301
A Brief Look at Stephen E. Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage:
Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West
Undaunted Courage is a very detailed account of what Ambrose considers the most important expedition in American history, Lewis and Clark’s exploration of the west. Ambrose attempts to project Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a country that stretches from sea to shining sea, of an open road to the west, of an “Empire of Liberty”. Ambrose repeatedly shows how important the expedition was to the United States and especially to Thomas Jefferson by giving examples of the powers given to Lewis by Jefferson in order to complete the expedition. Lewis is given a letter of credit signed by Thomas Jefferson
“authorizing him to draw on any agency of the U.S. government anywhere in the world, anything he wanted” (Ambrose 95). He is also given the power to choose his own team including his co-leader William Clark whom he had served under in the army and knew to be “a tough woodsman accustomed to command” (Ambrose 97).
Ambrose focuses mainly on Meriwether Lewis, the leader of the expedition and Secretary to President Jefferson. He is very in-depth in his description of Lewis’s character and his philosophies concerning slavery, Native Americans, and his general political beliefs. He gives detailed descriptions of the many new species of animals and plant life that are discovered, the Indian tribes they encountered, and the awe and wonderment they experienced with each new discovery. He also discusses at great length the many hardships that they experienced along the way including dealing with unfriendly Indians, crossing portages, surviving harsh winters, and the expedition’s only casualty, the death of Sergeant Charles Floyd, a relative of Clark.
Ambrose is a skilled writer and he relied heavily on the journals kept by the Corp of Discovery and his own vast knowledge of the subject to tell the story and be as historically accurate as possible. One would think this combination would produce an epic tale impossible to put down. This was not the case for me. I found the book to be a chore to read. It seemed to be too wordy. He would give long detailed descriptions of conversations and events when a simpler one would do. I also believe it tended to read as a text book or journal rather than a novel. Every third paragraph begins with a date as if it were a diary or timeline. There was little continuity to the storyline. Once these flaws are recognized another becomes apparent, its incredible size. It is a voluminous text of almost five hundred pages! This is another example of how his attention to detail might have worked against him. The story could have been told in much fewer pages and reading the story might not have been so fatiguing. Another problem I had with the book is that he used the period’s correct vernacular so any quotes or dialogue are in this flowery poetic style which does not lend itself to readability. At times, it was like reading Shakespeare. I think perhaps he spent too much effort relaying the events accurately and not enough developing the characters.
I do not believe I am judging this book too harshly, for I have read many historical novels with which to compare it including Gods and Generals and The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara and the many books in Bernard Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe series. All of these books deal with historical events from the point of view of the actual people that were involved with them but, Undaunted Courage fails to capture the reader’s attention and entertain the way Shaara’s and Cornwell’s novels do. Instead of eagerly anticipating what new exciting adventures lay in the next chapter, I found myself eagerly awaiting the end of the book.
In all, I do not think I would recommend Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West to anyone who was not an insomniac. If reading the book does not put you to sleep, it is big enough to thump yourself on the head and knock yourself out.
Ambrose, Stephen. Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. New York: Touchstone, 1996