I bought Undaunted Courage, Stephen Ambrose's biography of Meriwether Lewis that doubles as as account of the Lewis and Clark expedition, five years ago, but it took me this long to get past the first couple of pages. Every time I read about Ambrose taking a group of students from Mississippi to Montana to sing patriotic songs and enumerate the reasons they love America, I got slightly ill and expected that the 500 pages that followed would be full of jingoistic, Manifest Destiny stuff.

Thankfully, this introduction (and, for that matter, the title) proves to be unrepresentative of the whole. Ambrose's is not a whitewashed account: though he unapologetically makes a case for Lewis's and Clark's heroism, he never hesitates to point out moments when their behavior is monstrous (eg, Clark's treatment of his slave York), when their words drip with hypocrisy (castigating various natives for behavior endemic among Virginia aristocrats), and so forth, and thus his praise of their good points carries much more weight. The narrative is for the most part well written — though I started off reading this because I needed something to do on the subway, I soon found myself itching to get back to it at any and all odd moments, a sure sign that the author's doing something right. That said, it does suffer a bit from the "then this happened, then that happened" syndrome common in historical writing, becoming a mere chronological recounting of events. All the more reason to be appreciative when coming across the work of someone like Arthur Quinn who turns his narrative into something more.

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