He knew just about everyone and went just about everywhere.
Jul 4, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 40 • By EDWARD ACHORN
The Last Voyage of Captain Cook
JOHN LEDYARD MAY BE THE most famous American you've never heard of. Two centuries ago, he was an "international celebrity" who sailed around the globe with Captain Cook, befriended such luminaries as Thomas Jefferson, and dreamed of walking the world. By the time newspapers throughout Ame-rica and Europe reported his death, in 1789, "Ledyard the Traveler" had become "a legendary figure."
Today, he is a historical footnote, known to buffs of Jefferson, or Dartmouth College, or others who have some specialized interest in his times. Does he deserve greater renown? James Zug, a magazine writer and author of an acclaimed history of squash (the game), certainly makes a case for it in this biography, as well as in his new collection of Ledyard's writings.
Zug describes Ledyard as a man of "magnetism, resourcefulness, unbridled imagination, and rare ability to endure hardship," as well as one who possessed "capacious intellect," with a knack for "debunking the beliefs of his day." No less an authority than Jefferson called him a "man of genius."
So why did I have the sense that I was reading about some Zelig-like character at the center of a celebrity-strewn life, as if Ledyard had stumbled through history and bumped into the right people, at the right 18th-century cocktail parties, at the right time? Ledyard's adventures seem to underscore Woody Allen's contention that showing up is 90 percent of life.
The man's personality is elusive, to say the least, and fades entirely into the scenery at some points, including in his own memoirs of the Cook voyage. Perhaps that is why his previous biographers--Jared Sparks in 1828, James Kenneth Munford in 1939, and Helen Augur in 1946--felt the need to dress up his role, "even," Zug notes, "creating imaginary scenes." The life is crowded with an all-star cast that includes not only Cook and Jefferson, but also the Marquis de Lafayette, John Paul Jones, Robert Morris, and Catherine the Great, as well as tales of seafaring derring-do and romantic adventures with the sexy, highly accommodating native girls of Polynesia.
Reading through it, I was reminded of John Lennon's famous crack about Help!--that the Beatles were extras in their own movie. Ledyard seems to be somewhere in every scene, as he is comically blown off course from adventure to adventure; but he doesn't seem to be controlling much of the action.
Instead of a great historic figure, we find a boyish smart-aleck who fails at attempt after attempt to become rich and successful--and, finally, by this means, manages to obtain fame. What motivated Ledyard? Zug makes a speculative case for mental illness, citing "his days spent in bed, his mood swings, his shopping sprees, his rash exits, wildly bizarre entrances, his intense garrulousness, and his physical feats. As if he knew he was not well, he kept walking away from his family, friends, and women he loved before he blew up at them and ruined it all." In an interview, Zug boils it down by describing Ledyard as a "jerk."
Jerk or not, he did lead a life so quirky that, at times, it reads like a discarded Monty Python script. Born in 1751, son of a Connecticut sea captain who died in Ledyard's youth, he wowed his fellow freshmen at two-year-old Dartmouth College by arriving in a sulky--a ridiculously fancy vehicle to have dragged into the New Hampshire wilderness of muddy "old corduroy log roads, drovers' trails and Indian paths," interrupted by streams not yet bridged.
"It was the first carriage of the kind ever on Dartmouth plain," recalled one classmate, and the fact that Ledyard had managed to get it there at all "displayed in him a fortitude, & something of that spirit of enterprize, for which his after life was so highly distinguished."
It also displayed in him a lifelong tendency toward flakiness. When a certain disagreement arose over tuition--Dartmouth's first president, Eleazer Wheelock, found that Ledyard had misled him about a bequest that was supposed to pay his way--Ledyard felled a big tree, hollowed out a canoe, and paddled away for home on the Connecticut River. Many years later, Robert Frost, another Dartmouth escapee, dubbed him "the patron saint of freshmen who run away." To this day, Dartmouth undergraduates reenact Ledyard's famous journey, some of them supplying the innovation of paddling through Hanover in the nude.
His failure to complete his college studies was soon matched by a failure to secure a post as a clergyman. So he went to sea. After arriving in Britain, he found himself impressed into the Royal Navy, thus managing to obtain the break of his lifetime: joining Captain Cook on his third (and, as it turns out, last) voyage in search of the nonexistent Northwest Passage to the riches of the East.
A bit player on the trip, Ledyard still got a bestselling book out of the experience, although he misled readers into assuming he had witnessed the murder of Cook by Hawaiians. Ledyard's book prompted the Connecticut legislature to pass copyright protection, leading the way for all states to protect intellectual property. In a classic Ledyardian irony, it turned out that the adventurer had plagiarized his final 38 pages, stealing them verbatim from an anonymous author's account of the same trip.
But the Cook voyage was enough to make his name. Ledyard emerged as the only American to have seen the West Coast of America, Alaska, and Hawaii, and he used that distinction to stoke the interest of such intellectuals as Jefferson. The future president urged Ledyard to explore America's interior--before eventually turning to the more reliable Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. For the last six years of his life, Ledyard lived off contributions from investors and travel fanatics. His dream of returning to the Northwest to get rich in fur trading never came to fruition.
His great plan to walk the world went awry for two reasons: one, he quickly discovered that Russia was too big and dangerous to cross on foot (he took post-office carriages and highways instead, crossing the vast country all the way to the frigid Siberian city of Yakutsk); and two, the Empress Catherine was not amused when she discovered he had entered her country despite her explicit refusal to grant him a passport. She had him arrested and hustled back to the West. In England, he ran into wealthy investors who wished to finance a journey to deepest Africa. He made it as far as Cairo, where he caught dysentery, took too large a dose of emetic, and vomited so violently that he died, age 37.
Zug tells all this in a style rich in detail, demonstrating a strong command of his source material, and gets through Ledyard's busy life in 286 pages. This book is admirably peppered with Ledyard's best, almost epigrammatic, observations, culled from his journals and letters. I never felt swept along by the narrative--more dragged along, station to station--and some of Zug's phrases land with a leaden thud: "But Ledyard eschewed ordinary professions. He pined for the life of adventure." Or: "The last few days before leaving were riven with excitement." Or: "The loss of a baby brother was saddening . . . " Or this peculiar statement about Paris, circa 1785: "London was a thousand years old. Paris was new. The aphorism was true: London was a riddle, Paris was an explanation." Not to this reader.
I actually found Ledyard himself, plagiarist or not, a more engaging stylist (though some of his letters collected by Zug seemed almost indecipherable). It is easy to see why Herman Melville, drawn to telling his own tales of romance and intellectual adventure, was a fan (he even cited Ledyard in Moby Dick). As Zug notes, Ledyard's travel writing is fascinating because it focuses on people, not things, and he is an unusually generous and fair-minded observer of the natives he encountered.
These two volumes are welcome additions to the literature of exploration and adventure--even if Mr. Ledyard, the hero at the center, seems rather hollow.
Edward Achorn is deputy editorial page editor of the Providence Journal.