STRICTLY SPEAKING, THE LEWIS AND Clark Expedition was a flop. Like Columbus, they set out to find something and failed. As Stephen E. Ambrose writes in _B_Undaunted Courage_b_ (511 pages. Simon and Schuster $27.50), his absorbing new history of that fabled journey, "the real headline news from the Lewis and Clark Expedition was that there was no allwater route across the continent." In hindsight, that ostensible failure looks like a footnote. It's what Meriwether Lewis and William Clark found, not what they failed to find, that we consider important.
Exploring the new Louisiana Purchase, forging to the Pacific and back in three years (1804-1806), they were the first Americans to see the entire sweep of the continent. Carefully mapping a journey of more than 4,000 miles, these explorers gave America its first tree sense of the epic reach of the United States. No Hollywood scriptwriter could hope to improve on this story, so improbably wondrous that the most shameless back-lot hack might hesitate before inventing a character like Sacagawea, the Native American woman who bailed the white men out of trouble at crucial points on their journey.
Ironically, Hollywood-not to mention grade-school textbooks tends to draw the curtain just when the story gets most interesting. They say nothing, for example, about Lewis's manic depression, his scandal-ridden political career or his eventual suicide at the age of 35. Ambrose, on the other hand, has written acclaimed, multivolume biographies of both Eisenhower and Nixon. Heroes and troubled souls are his meat, and in Lewis he gets a twofer. A lifelong woodsman with experience in the militia, as well as Jefferson's protege and personal secretary, Lewis was handpicked by the president to lead the Western expedition. Clark was Lewis's choice as co-leader (they were old army buddies), but Ambrose leaves no doubt that intellectually, the expedition belonged to Lewis. He was a natural leader, an avid naturalist and a splendid writer, The Lewis journals are a beguiling mix scientific observation, travel writing and dry humor. In one entry, he eagerly anticipates his first sighting of a grizzly bear. A month later, having suffered several near-fatal encounters with grizzlies, he wrote, "I find that the curiossity of our party is pretty well satisfyed with rispect to this anamal." (It was upon reading the journals in 1975 that Ambrose was inspired to spend several family vacations on the Lewis and Clark trail and ultimately to write this book.)
The multitalented Lewis was a chip off the Jeffersonian block. But the chip was chipped. Inquisitive and adventurous, he was also mighty squirrelly, happy only when he was in motion and singularly lacking in self-awareness. A national hero by the age of 32, he had become, three years later, a political failure as governor of the Louisiana territory as well as a drug addict and an alcoholic -proof of F. Scott Fitzgerald's observation that "there are no second acts in American lives."
The verdict on Lewis and Clark's mission is mixed. Ambrose calls Jefferson's dream of uniting the American empire through the water courses of the Missouri and Columbia rivers "a breathtaking vision." But his admiration does not blind him to the expedition's more material realities. "Lewis and Clark were advance men and traveling salesmen," Ambrose writes, selling the Indians on the idea of cooperating with white aims, selling themselves and the folks back home on the idea of American empire. In their exploits were sown the seeds of American imperialism.
A remarkably balanced historian, Ambrose is neither a revisionist nor an apologist. Yes, he allows, Lewis always condescended to the Indians, lied when convenient and on one occasion stole from them. At the same time, Ambrose points out that despite all the "Great White Father greets his children" patter, here was a white man who admired most Indians and hoped that they could be amicably integrated into American life. Here and elsewhere, Ambrose weighs shortcomings against positive attributes and ultimately presents us with a convincing hero, "a great company commander, the greatest of all American explore, an in the top ran Of world explorers." In this cynical age, "Undaunted Courage" is a dubious title, but Ambrose makes it stick. "If I was ever in a desperate situation," he declares, "I would want Meriwether Lewis for my leader." When it comes to assaying American history, one could say the same for Stephen Ambrose.