Saturday, November 20, 2010

Misunderstood Mariners: Samuel Eliot Morison

"America was discovered accidentally by a great seaman who was looking for something else; when discovered it was not wanted; and most of the exploration for the next fifty years was done in the hope of getting through or around it. America was named after a man who discovered no part of the New World. History is like that, very chancy." -- Samuel Eliot Morison, The Oxford History of the American People (1965)

Historian and mariner Samuel Eliot Morison was born into a wealthy Boston family in 1887. He attended the prep schools typical of his class, then moved on to Harvard, where he would eventually rise from undergraduate to full professor of history in 1925 after teaching stints at Berkeley and Oxford.

In 1930, Morison and Henry Steele Commager co-wrote the textbook Growth of the American Republic. It's publication would lead to charges that Morison and Commager were racists and apologists for slavery which, they wrote, "there was much to be said for." Throughout the 1950s the two would resist calls to change the tone of the book before finally relenting in 1962.

Morison was an avid sailor, and combined that interest with his academic specialty when researching Admiral of the Ocean Sea, his biography of Christopher Columbus. With some friends, in 1939 Morison outfitted the barkentine Capitana ("near enough to Columbus's ships in rig and burthen") and attempted to re-create Columbus's voyages as nearly as possible because, he wrote in the Preface:
[No] biographer of Columbus appears to have gone to sea in quest of light and truth. And you cannot write a story out of these fifteenth- and sixteenth-century narratives that means anything to a modern reader, merely by studying them in a library with the aid of maps. Such armchair navigation is both dull and futile. It may be compared with those ancient books on natural science that were compiled without field work or experimentation.
Admiral of the Ocean Sea won the Pulitzer Prize in 1942.

At the outbreak of World War II, Morison convinced Franklin Roosevelt to let him document a detailed history of the war as it progressed, so Morison joined the US Navy Reserve as a Lieutenant Commander as part of the project. He served in both theaters of the war, taking part in actions in North Africa and the South Pacific, including the battle of Guadalcanal. Following the war he completed his 15-volume history, later abridging it to one volume for popular release under the title The Two Ocean War.

Morison was promoted to Rear Admiral by the Navy and awarded the Legion Of Merit. In addition to a second Pulitzer for a 1959 biography of John Paul Jones, Morison had a guided-missle frigate named after him, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964.

Morison died in 1976.

Works by Morison available at Googlebooks are

Googlebooks offers parts of the 15-volume History of United States Naval Operations in World War II here. The series can be purchased from the University of Illinois Press, the US Naval Institute Press, or SeaOcean Books.

The Wellington, New Zealand Evening Post published an article about Morison's then-upcoming voyage on the Capitana here. The Harvard Crimson reported on the voyage's return here. Morison's own account of the voyage, written for Life magazine, can be found at Googlebooks here.

Jonathan Zimmerman, Director of the History of Education Program at Steinhardt School of Education, New York University, touches on the Growth of the American Republic controversy in his article "Brown-ing the American Textbook: History, Psychology, and the Origins of Modern Multiculturalism" in the Spring 2004 issue of History of Education Quarterly here.

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