Adult Nonfiction GN663 .P48 2003
Summary: America's first frontier was not the West; it was the sea -- and no one writes more eloquently about that watery wilderness than Nathaniel Philbrick. In his bestselling In the Heart of the Sea, winner of the National Book Award, he probed the nightmarish dangers of the vast Pacific. Now, in a cinematic epic of adventure, he writes about the expedition that attempted to tame those dangers, only to find itself at the mercy of a tempestuous commander. The U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842 was one of the most ambitious undertakings of the nineteenth century and one of the largest voyages of discovery the Western world had ever seen -- six magnificent sailing vessels and a crew of hundreds that included botanists, geologists, mapmakers, and biologists, all under the command of the young, brash Lieutenant Charles Wilkes. Their goal was to cover the Pacific Ocean, top to bottom, and to plant the American flag around the world. Four years after embarking, they returned to the United States having accomplished this and much more. They discovered a new southern continent, which Wilkes would name Antarctica. They were the first Americans to survey the treacherous Columbia River, the first to chart dozens of newly discovered islands all across the Pacific. They explored volcanoes in Hawaii, confirmed Charles Darwin's theory of the formation of coral atolls, and collected thousands of specimens that eventually became the foundation of the Smithsonian's scientific collections. This was an enterprise that should have been as celebrated and revered as the expeditions of Lewis and Clark. Philbrick explains for the first time why the "Ex. Ex." vanished from the national memory. Using new sources, including a secret journal, Philbrick reconstructs the darker saga that official reports, which focused on the Ex. Ex.'s accomplishments, never told. The story pivots on Charles Wilkes -- simultaneously ambitious, proud, petty, and courageous, a self-destructive dynamo who undermines his own prodigious feats by alienating his crew and officers, fighting battles with his sponsors, and jealously guarding what should have been a proud national legacy. Against him stands William Reynolds, a promising young officer who signs on to the voyage filled with enthusiasm and admiration for Wilkes and ends it in bitter disillusion, finally facing his former commander in a sensational courtroom confrontation. Philbrick combines meticulous scholarship with spellbinding human drama in a tale that circles the globe: from the palm-fringed beaches of the South Pacific to the icy waters off Antarctica to the stunning Pacific Northwest coastline. He takes us under sail and inside the heads of Wilkes and his officers. We feel the excitement of discovery -- of climbing down into a smoldering volcano or looking out from a tall mast and spying a new continent. We feel the drama of terrifying encounters with hostile and dangerous natives. And at the end, we are grateful to have this piece of our history restored at last, in a magnificent American saga. Book jacket.
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