The Magazine

Yankee Zelig

He knew just about everyone and went just about everywhere.

Jul 4, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 40 • By EDWARD ACHORN
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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.