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

Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West - Stephen E. Ambrose This is a book both entertaining and educational--a gripping read that gave me a picture of a trail-breaking expedition of exploration and adventure that ranked not far behind the voyages of Columbus and Captain Cook in importance. I knew little of this expedition beyond that it was associated with the Louisiana Purchase and that an Indian woman, Sacajawea, was lauded as being crucial to its success. I had no idea the expedition was associated with so many firsts. Ambrose, who I had associated with histories of World War II, beautifully set the context. He reminded the reader that when the expedition set out in 1804, nothing, but nothing, could travel faster than the horse. The steamship and the railroad had yet to be invented. Ambrose explains just how little was known back East of the American West. Ambrose, quoting Lewis and Clark scholar Donald Jackson, observed that when the expedition was sent out, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most knowledgeable regarding the lands West of the Mississippi, believed: "That the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia might be the highest on the continent; that the mammoth, the giant ground sloth, and other prehistoric creatures would be found along the upper Missouri; that a mountain of pure salt a mile long lay somewhere on the Great Plains; that volcanoes might still be erupting in the Badlands of the upper Missouri; that all the great rivers of the West--the Missouri, Columbia, Colorado, and Rio Grande--rose from a single 'height of land' and flowed off in their several directions to the seas of the hemisphere." In the two year expedition, not only did Lewis and Clark fill a lot of the blanks in the map, they were the first Americans to report seeing coyotes, prairie dogs, jackrabbits and pronghorns, to kill a buffalo and grizzly, and "discovered and described 178 new plants." Moreover, their letters, reports and journals are a priceless source of ethnological data--since Lewis and Clark encountered numerable Native American tribes--sometimes making first contact. Sacajawea was a Shoshone, and prominent in the narrative among other tribes are the Sioux, the Blackfeet, the Nez Perce. Ambrose doesn't stint on showing some of the dark side of Lewis and Clark and their expedition--but by and large the intentions and contact was peaceful. Frankly, the most brutal part of the account wasn't the interaction with the Indians. Ironically given what would happen in the coming decades, there was little racism expressed towards the Indians at this point--at least by the members of the expedition. Clark even attempted to adopt a part-Indian child. Ambrose pointed out this would have been unthinkable had the child been part black, and there lies much that is ironic and sad. Because if anyone in this account was treated badly by the captains it was York--William Clark's black slave and his companion from childhood who was with them every step of the way and an invaluable and trusted member of the expedition. York thought for his services he should be set free. Clark did not. So through the lens of this expedition we see a lot of what would drive American history through the rest of the 19th century--both in terms of Indian policy and slavery. And Ambrose's enthusiasm for the subject is infectious--he literally followed in the footsteps of the expedition and livens the book by telling us what the historical sites are like today. I do have a couple of concerns, enough I decided to dock this a star. Some time ago I learned that Stephen Ambrose had been accused of plagiarism--allegations that concern this book as well as others. I tended to dismiss the charges as the usual thing you hear about inspired by professional jealousies. But then I came across this article in Salon, "America's Worst Historians" dealing with plagiarism among other issues--not regarding Ambrose but Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough. And the issue is about more than plagiarism: The mark of a good historian is writing something new about something old and making an original argument gleaned from primary sources. You will not find a painstaking scholar dressing up his or her material to make it more familiar than it should be, such as: “The dark eyes that gleamed behind large metal-rimmed glasses – those same dark eyes that had once enchanted a young officer in George Washington’s staff – betokened a sharp intelligence, a fiercely indomitable spirit …” This is from the opening page of Ron Chernow’s mega-selling “Alexander Hamilton,” describing Hamilton’s widow as if the author knew her personally and could verify these superior qualities. I think had I not come across this article while I was reading Undaunted Courage, I'd have had no problem with the book, and the grip the book had upon me and what I learned from it would have gained it five stars. But having read that I couldn't help but notice such things as Ambrose writing of Lewis, "He breathed deeply and got control of his temper" (page 357) and "His heart pounded." (page 387). Before the article, trusting Ambrose, I would have believed he got these details from the journals or a letter or account of someone there. But now I can't help be suspicious--it's not as if such observations are footnoted. Part of my problem isn't just the plagiarism issue, and how that affects how reliable I find an author, but ever since I've read Truman Capote's In Cold Blood I've become all too aware of how this bastard hybrid of fiction and non-fiction has become pervasive. I admit, in a lot of cases, such as Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff the result is enchanting. But I still regret it. The truth is hard enough to figure out. Think of say the contested presidential election involving Gore and Bush. Tell me what you think of that election, or Clarence Thomas versus Anita Hill, and I can pretty much identify your party affiliation--but not the truth. If we can't definitively agree on the truth of matters a decade or two ago within our lifetimes and played out in front of cameras, how can we hope to know that of over 200 years ago if we so freely mix fact and fiction? We don't have a prayer. Some might say I'm asking too much, being too harsh. This is a popular history and intended to be. If I want the "truth," I should go read the primary sources. Truth is for the scholar, not the general reader seeking to be entertained. And I'm not convinced by the Salon article that I should look only for books put out on an academic press or that non-historians might not have something to add to history--many a valuable such book has been written by journalists and not academics. One of the works of history I most enjoyed last year, The Black Count, was written by such a journalist, who found new primary material on his subject. I don't know. But since I'm not a historian, the history I do read is by its nature almost always second hand and must be taken on faith. And I'm not sure I trust Ambrose anymore. That said, it says a lot about how much I enjoyed this book that I've rated it as high as I have.