Tuesday, February 7, 2012

"Dream dreams, then write them. Aye but live them first." Reading Samuel Eliot Morison

Statue of historian Samuel Eliot Morison in Commonwealth Park, Boston
 I'm not sure whether Samuel Eliot Morison was a sailor who also happened to be a Harvard scholar, or if Morison was a Harvard scholar who was also a sailor.  Morison (1887-1976) was prolific.  He wrote the official history of the U.S.Navy in World War II.  Won two Pulitzers for his biographies of Christopher Columbus (Admiral of the Ocean Seas, 1943) and John Paul Jones (John Paul Jones: A Sailor's Biography, 1959.)  Before his death of a stroke at age eighty-eight, Morison went on to win the Bancroft Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Morison was an unusual historian, in the sense that a lot of his work was related to his first love, the sea.  Set aside that he wrote these tremendous naval histories-U.S.N. Operations, fifteen volumes worth, still popular and in print today, or those two prize-winning sea dog biographies, Morison was a sailor himself. Whether sailing the coast between Boston and Maine he knew so well, or retracing the path of Columbus himself, Morison's, a native Bostonian, advice to writers was "Dream dreams, then write them.  Aye, but live them first."  When World War II came along, Morison offered to write the official naval history of the conflict to his friend Franklin Roosevelt.  Though his offer was accepted, and Morison was commissioned as a Vice Admiral in the USNR, he didn't just write from behind a desk.  He went to the thick of the fighting while in his late fifties, faithfully serving on convoys across the Atlantic, witnessed the Torch landings in North Africa, went to the Pacific and bunked on destroyers, battleships and cruisers in the Solomons, including the Battle of Kolombangara, and served on the U.S.S. Tennessee in 1945 as part of the covering force at Okinawa.  

I'm writing this entry, not so much because I think that Morison was a great historian-he was.  But this isn't the sort of eat your broccoli 'cause it's good for you post.  It's that his work was so good and so accessible to anybody with an interest in his subject matter.  I'm currently reading Old Bruin: Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry. Perry was the younger brother of Oliver Hazard Perry, the victor of the Battle of Lake Erie in the War of 1812.  Though he did not achieve the notoriety of his older brother, Calbraith, as he was known, was the dominant figure in American naval history 1835-1856, much as Winfield Scott was the commanding leader of the U.S. Army during the same period.  It's an enjoyable tome (440 pages) because Morison was a great storyteller, shared lots of great detail and wove it into an engaging narrative.  In scholarly circles today Morison would be scorned.  Too much telling and not enough analysis.  My kind of writer.

I can't help but believe that the Admiral, a nickname repeated to me by Redmond Barnett, one of my professors at the University of Puget Sound many years ago, would be perfectly at home if he'd been born fifty years later.  Morison would be great as one of Ken Burns' talking heads (no derision intended), or as one of CNN's experts in residence, called upon to explain the Cole bombing in 2000, or the Navy's role in both Gulf wars, '91 and '03, or how the Navy will handle the closure of the Straits of Hormuz, should Iran follow through with its threats. I'd compare him favorably to David McCulloch, another great storyteller, and less obnoxious than Briton Niall Ferguson.

Samuel Eliot Morison was my kind of historian. 

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