Meriwether Lewis: beauty and tragedy

February 11, 1996|By MICHAEL E. RUANE | MICHAEL E. RUANE,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West," by Stephen E. Ambrose. Simon & Schuster. Illustrated. 511 pages. $27.50

Late on the afternoon of Oct. 10, 1809, the renowned explorer Meriwether Lewis rode up alone to a log-cabin inn along the old Natchez Trace about 70 miles south of Nashville, Tenn.

Looking agitated and sickly, he requested lodging and some whiskey and called for his bear skins and buffalo robe. Inside, he kept to himself, pacing and muttering. Finally, he grew quiet and remarked to the innkeeper's wife, "Madam, this is a very pleasant evening."

Early the next morning, in the solitude sometime before dawn, he took out his pistols and killed himself.

The journey of Meriwether Lewis from his roots in old Virginia to the heights of science and exploration and then to his ignominious end in rural Tennessee is the subject of Stephen E. Ambrose's new history.

And "Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West," is a fascinating tale: How the brittle young army officer, schooled at Jefferson's White House, led a handful of men over the Rockies to the storm-lashed Pacific and back again.

It is one of the great stories in American history, telling, through a mysteriously fragile hero, of the dying Enlightenment's encounter with the reality of America's western frontier.

It is a story that the author might well have told with more drama. Until near the end of the book, for example, there is scarcely a hint about Lewis' looming struggle with fame and his tragic downfall. And the book is haunted throughout by strange gaps in the journals Lewis kept, suggestions of a troubled mind and hints that he sought solace in alcohol and narcotics.

Mr. Ambrose might have done more with this and the book might have been even better than it is. But the focus is kept tightly, and effectively, on the historic expedition.

Commissioned by Jefferson, to whom he was almost an adopted son, Lewis gathered Clark and about two dozen adventurers and set out in May of 1804 to explore the uncharted Louisiana territory, which the United States had just purchased from France.

The expedition departed from St. Louis and by boat followed the Missouri River through the Dakotas and Montana. It trekked over the eternal winter of the Bitterroot range of the Rockies and braved the white water of the Columbia River to the Pacific. Then it came back again.

Lewis returned to St. Louis in September of 1806, having covered 8,000 miles in 28 months. He had been chased by grizzly bears, seen undulating oceans of buffalo, been both saved and tormented by Indians and been accidentally shot in the behind by one of his own men.

He came back with one of the most sublime stories in American history packed in his brain and scribbled on hundreds of pages of his journal. Though he had been a courageous leader and incredibly conscientious reporter, his story seems in the end to have overcome him.

Not so this book's author. Mr. Ambrose navigates expertly, if methodically, through the great adventure and its uneven historical record. And in the end brings his fellow travelers back home well rewarded by the journey.

Michael E. Ruane is Pentagon correspondent for Knight-Ridder newspapers. Previously, he was a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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