Commentary Magazine


Contentions

John Ledyard

Soon 2007 will draw to a close, and with it the much-fêted fiftieth anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I’ve had all year to ponder it, but I’m no closer to understanding what the fuss is about. Could it really hurt to temper the praise by pointing out some of the book’s deficiencies? The reverential overtones of this title couldn’t be more appropriate; many fans treat the book as though it were some kind of religious text. But the real puzzle isn’t why people, many of them young people, love Kerouac. It’s why they don’t prefer the vastly more entertaining adventures of—to name a few—Richard Henry Dana, Herman Melville, or Mark Twain (or, if I may jump the pond, Eric Newby or Patrick Leigh Fermor) . . .

. . . or John Ledyard (1751–1789), the quintessential Dartmouth Man. The College’s Alma Mater boasts of the alumni that “’round the girdled earth they roam,” and the line might as well have been written with Ledyard in mind. Unable to pay his tuition, he chopped down a tree, made a dugout canoe, and escaped on the Connecticut River—which puts Kerouac’s automotive antics in perspective, I think. He later sailed on Captain Cook’s third voyage, which he chronicled in his Journal of Captain Cook’s Last Voyage. The travelogue has the dual distinction of being the first American book to describe Hawaii and the first American book to be protected by copyright.

This year saw a renewed interest in Ledyard, with the publication of two books: Bill Gifford’s Ledyard: In Search of the First American Explorer and Edward G. Gray’s The Making of John Ledyard: Empire and Ambition in the Life of an Early American Traveler. Arts & Letters Daily has linked to an excerpt from the latter:

The list of famous individuals he came into contact with during his short life comes straight out of the indexes of history: Captain James Cook, on whose last voyage he sailed as a lowly marine; Robert Morris, financier of the American Revolution and Ledyard’s one-time employer; John Paul Jones, with whom he struck up an acquaintance and tried to raise funding for an ambitious expedition to the northwest coast of America; Ben Franklin, whom he met in Paris during Franklin’s last days as American ambassador there; Thomas Jefferson, Franklin’s successor, whom Ledyard also met in Paris. The list goes on, but it seems just as well to stop here. For it was in Paris that Ledyard enjoyed his first great social success, when he was accepted into the famous expatriate circle surrounding Thomas Jefferson.

Read the whole thing here. You might be inspired to retrace his steps.



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