Ledyard: In Search of the First American Explorer

Bill Gifford, Author
Bill Gifford, Author . Harcourt $25 (331p) ISBN 978-0-15-101218-3
Paperback - 352 pages - 978-0-15-603305-3
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It's easy to see why the once famous 18th-century explorer John Ledyard lapsed into obscurity. Ledyard's claim to fame was his presence on Captain Cook's ill-fated final voyage to Hawaii, about which he wrote a partly plagiarized, sometimes unreliable but widely read 1783 book. Aside from that, there were unsuccessful stabs at the ministry and the fur trade, and his own fizzled journeys of exploration: an attempted trek across Siberia and North America ended when he was expelled from Russia, and his death in Cairo aborted a planned expedition across Africa. Journalist Gifford struggles to give Ledyard's feckless life a compelling arc. He reconstructs Ledyard's travels, supplementing them with observations from his own voyage on a modern replica of Cook's HMS Endeavour and trip through Siberia. And he highlights Ledyard's alleged charisma as a charming raconteur and ladies' man (attested by many episodes of venereal disease); a premature multiculturalist in sympathy with indigenous peoples; an inveterate mooch who financed long journeys from the generosity of bemused hosts; an "eternal adolescent," prototype of romantic American wanderers from Huck Finn to Dean Moriarty. Gifford's biography has plenty of engaging travelogue, but his claims for the importance of this "first modern American" give him an ambitious destination that he never quite reaches. Photos. (Feb.)

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