Edward G. Gray, The Making of John Ledyard: Empire and Ambition in the Life of an Early American Travel (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)
John Ledyard, America’s first man of the world, spent most of his time in motion: outrunning debtors, impressing patrons, exploring the unknown. It was a kinetic approach passed on to him by his father, who captained vessels in the West Indies trade in the mid-1700s. Young Ledyard would also take to the sea, serving as a sailor on commercial ships bound for Europe.
Once abroad, Ledyard’s life took on the arc of a Dickens novel, with dramatic, implausible twists of fate. Searching for relatives in England, for example, he was arrested for vagrancy. Given the choice between serving time or joining the British army, Ledyard chose the army, becoming a soldier at the same moment that the American colonies rose in rebellion against Britain. But just when it seemed that Ledyard would be policing his Connecticut relatives as a redcoat, (dare I say it) fate intervened. He found an assignment with Captain James Cook, leader of a Pacific expedition to find the Northwest Passage. Cook’s expedition sailed from England in the summer of 1776 and Ledyard sailed with it, spending the next four years aboard HMS Resolution. Ledyard, like so many other sailors on discovery expeditions, scribbled away furiously while aboard ship, hoping one day to publish a narrative of his adventures. He certainly couldn’t have chosen a better voyage. Cook’s expedition would offer gripping stuff: the search for the Northwest Passage, the discovery of the Sandwich Islands, and the death of Cook at the hands of angry Hawaiian islanders.
Yet Ledyard’s narrative, like so many of his projects, fell short. Of the lush locales and fantastical events of Cook’s voyage, Ledyard gave only a “spare, factual accounting” (45). Yet the book’s terse prose and tepid popularity did not seem to bother him much. He followed Cook’s voyage with a series of new adventures. He spent years developing a plan to send fur-trading ships to the Pacific Northwest. He lived in the Paris of Louis XVI, then teetering on the edge of revolution. He traveled six thousand miles across the Russian Empire, before his arrest and forcible return to Europe. Had he made it to the Pacific, he hoped to walk from the Pacific shores of America to the Eastern seaboard (all of this sixteen years before Lewis and Clark). When he died, Ledyard was in Cairo working for the African Association of Britain, planning a solo trek down the Nile and then west into the African interior to find the source of the Niger River. Ledyard’s list of friends and acquaintances was almost as impressive as his record of travel. Perennially poor, semi-schooled, and lacking in pedigree, Ledyard nevertheless mixed with the Who’s Who of 18th-century life. He was a sailor for Cook, a friend to Thomas Jefferson, an employee of Joseph Banks, a business partner of John Paul Jones, and a thorn in the side of Catherine the Great. He was present at the discovery of Hawaii, the beginning of the American Revolution, and the end of the Ancien Régime. A man who constantly found himself at the crossroads of history, Ledyard was the Enlightenment’s Forrest Gump.
Yet, we can push the comparison with Gump only so far. Gump, after all, is a man of limited intellect, moving through the world guided by a strong, if simple, moral compass. Ledyard, by contrast, was a man of considerable intellect, yet fundamentally detached from the people and places he set out to describe. Through Gray’s biography, Ledyard’s motives and personality remain opaque. We can explain some of this opaqueness as the result of historical distance. For all of Ledyard’s eagerness to make a life for himself as an explorer, he left surprisingly few tracks: an account of Cook’s voyage, scattered personal letters, and some fragmentary journals. Yet one gets the feeling that something else is at work here, that Ledyard’s restless movements emerge from something unmoored or unresolved within his psyche. While he knew almost everyone, no one seemed to really know him, not well enough, at least, to make sense of him. At Dartmouth, he had taken up acting, appearing in a stage production of Cato, and in many respects, it appears as if he never left the stage. At times, he took on the robes of an ardent republican, at others, someone who disdained the masses. He was quick to make moral judgments, even as he pursued trysts with an international cast of natives, villagers, and prostitutes.
Other Ledyard biographers, such as Bill Gifford and James Zug, have made sense of these contradictions by painting Ledyard in bright colors. In their works, he comes across as a bold, if sometimes rakish, explorer who is bigger than life. Gray resists the temptation to put Ledyard on the couch, however, even though it would provide the reader with a satisfying, if speculative, diagnosis. Without the guide of documents, he refuses the urge to delve too deeply into the psyche of his subject. As a result, the vagueness and mysteriousness of Ledyard remains on the page. This is a gutsy decision on Gray’s part because he allows Ledyard to remain slightly out of focus. Indeed, Gray approaches Ledyard almost as if his story is afflicted by macular degeneration. As Ledyard fades in and out of view, the surrounding landscape becomes more vivid by comparison. The Making of John Ledyard thus gives the reader a grand tour of subjects swirling around its mysterious protagonist: the culture of the British Navy, the American publishing industry, the maritime commerce of New England, university life at Dartmouth, and the political worlds of 18th-century France and Russia. The result is a biography that is, at times, a bit unsettling to read. But it is also one that shows Gray’s muscle and versatility as a historian, willing to take on political, social, and cultural history on three separate continents during the Age of Revolution. More importantly, it shows Gray’s commitment to getting Ledyard right: an important man who, at best, must be imperfectly rendered.
Thanks to editor Matthew Warshauer for permission to publish these excerpts from my upcoming review in the Spring 2008 issue of Connecticut History (volume 47)