Imagine that you are a student and that the registrar's computer has been playing tricks with your course enrollment. You thought you were signed up to take the standard American history course, but the computer has placed you instead in a history class for ROTC cadets.
Things become puzzling when your instructor's lively stories keep returning to the same theme: the proper behavior and philosophy of a good company commander. Although unexpected and often quite interesting, this preoccupation does not strike you as doing full justice to the rich meanings of American history.
In similar ways, Stephen E. Ambrose's "Undaunted Courage" is a story on a big scale with meanings squeezed into a framework built on a considerably smaller scale.
There is no question that this is a good and readable story. Meriwether Lewis was an extremely interesting man and writer, and any book with the license to quote him at length carries a competitive advantage. Born on Aug. 18, 1774, on a Virginia plantation neighboring that of Thomas Jefferson, Lewis hunted, learned nature lore and served in the militia. Soon after Jefferson became president, Lewis moved into the White House as his private secretary. The two often discussed exploring a land route to the Pacific Ocean, and in 1803, Jefferson successfully persuaded Congress to fund the mission.
Lewis invited his friend, Lt. William Clark, to help him lead 26 men into a vast terrain, much of which had just become, with the Louisiana Purchase, America's own.
After devoting five opening chapters to Lewis' origins and relationship with Jefferson, Ambrose's next 25 chapters take their shape from the story of the expedition: the trip up the Missouri River in a 55-foot covered keelboat and two small craft; the cold winter in what is now North Dakota, where they acquired the help of a captive Shoshone woman, Sacagawea; the move from keelboat to canoes before crossing the Great Falls of the Missouri; the strenuous crossing of the Rockies; the wet winter at Ft. Clatsop on the Pacific Coast; the rushed, anticlimactic return to St. Louis.
Repeatedly, Ambrose, a historian best known for his three-volume biography of Richard Nixon and a recent oral history of D-day, locates the meaning of these stories in lessons of universal military practice. At the Pacific camp, Lewis' goals in maintaining order and discipline, Ambrose says, were "the goals of every company commander from the time of the Roman Legions to today." Meanings reaching so far over time can stretch themselves pretty thin. "A good company commander looks after his men," Ambrose writes, adding that Lewis was like "the head of a family," evincing concern for his men matching "that of a father for his son."
A family composed of men accompanied by one Indian woman, however, would seem to be a social unit calling for an awareness of the various meanings and workings of masculinity, especially when a Virginia gentleman undertook to lead a party composed largely of French Canadians. But the call for an analysis of culture and gender is one of several calls from the 1990s that Ambrose has decided not to answer.
In truth, if you concealed the title page and asked readers to guess the publication date of this book, estimates might vary considerably. The subtitle's reference to the "opening" of a presumably locked-up West, the celebration of the "discovery" of lands long occupied by Native Americans and the use of the terms "braves," "red men" and "squaws" suggest a publication date in the 1950s.
Other phrasings sound very much more like the '90s: rivers were "free of any pollutants"; Lewis was most likely "manic-depressive"; beyond the Platte River, the expedition entered "a new ecosystem"; Lewis was "sensitive and caring" toward his mother. Ambrose is, moreover, very much a celebrant of hindsight--in his phrasing, "after-action analysis"--and an enthusiast for the identification of "mistakes."
And mistakes accumulated badly at the end. For those taken by human nature and its weird ways, the final seven chapters of the book, covering Lewis' last three years of life, may well be the most intriguing.
When the explorers returned after a two-year journey of 6,000 miles, there was much celebration, for they had been presumed dead. But Lewis--the man who rose to every challenge in his crossing of a continent--was laid out flat by the conditions of his return. Preying on his apparent predisposition to mental illness, three prosaic elements of early 19th century American social and cultural life knocked the triumphal explorer off his feet: the difficulty of courtship, the irritations of administering a territorial government and, perhaps worst of all, the problems of preparing a manuscript for publication.