The travails of an elusive 18th-century traveler, brought to life by a biographer who goes to great lengths to get under his subject’s skin.
Little is known about John Ledyard (1751–89). Indeed, first-time author Gifford tells us, we don’t even know for sure what Ledyard looked like; the portrait on the book’s cover, like all other surviving images of Ledyard, was painted long after his death. Fortunately, plenty of written documentation remains, much of it written in Ledyard’s own hand, and Gifford liberally sprinkles his own text with quotations from his subject. The Connecticut-born Ledyard attended Dartmouth College for a while and in 1776 sailed into history with Captain James Cook (they embarked on a four-year expedition during which they “discovered” Hawaii). Gifford neatly divides his work between a retelling of that historic journey and reminiscences of his own weeklong, $200-a-day stint aboard a replica of Cook’s ship. Ledyard’s journal of the Cook expedition provides plenty of insight, although Gifford points out that it was written three years after the fact and contains many dates and names that don’t match those in other historical accounts. The author also offers evidence that some of Ledyard’s personal papers have been tampered with: He discovered one letter with a passage about a meeting with a married prostitute that had been crossed out, possibly by an overly protective relative; the passage does not appear in the three-volume transcript of Ledyard documents in Dartmouth College Library. Continuing to shadow the explorer’s movements (a journey to Siberia is particularly enthralling), Gifford concludes with an account of Ledyard’s death, which occurred just before he was about to undertake another gallant trek, this time through Africa. Fittingly, his corpse was never discovered.
An enthusiastic account: Gifford clearly relishes the chance to retrace his idol’s steps.