Monday, December 19, 2011

Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone BeforeBlue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before by Tony Horwitz

Let this wonderful book be your introduction to Captain Cook and the culture of love and vitriol surrounding him, even today. Cook was not an American, of course, and so there is nothing absolutely great he could have accomplished in the way of daring and understanding and prudence when exploring both poles and every latitude between on three unprecedented voyages. However, for an Englishman he did pretty well. He charted previously uncharted waters with a thoroughness and precision unmatched until the 20th century. He made friends with most of Polynesia, and opened lands as far-spread as Australia and Alaska to further European exploration, for better or worse. His story deserves to be better known, and what better time than the current age of historical counter-revisionism to know it. And who better than Tony Horwitz to tell it. Horwitz is such an engaging writer and storyteller it's a toss up whether his retelling of Cook's story, or his own modern travelogue and search for the real Cook, is more entertaining. Readers can't lose either way.

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Sunday, October 09, 2011

Six Frigates, by Ian Toll

Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. NavySix Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy by Ian W. Toll

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Toll tells this story thoroughly and well: America didn't want a navy, and remained dubious even when necessity forced her hand. For a while she acquiesced in the extortion demanded by the barbary states, but then stood up to them--resulting in the loss of a brand new frigate, lots and lots of money, and other humiliations. Other nations thought she was crazy.

And she was, to a great extent. Her new design of frigates had no precedent and freaked out everyone charged with building them. The building itself was an ordeal beyond imagining. The timber cutters got malaria and died in droves. Costs overran, the newspapers printed scandal, the politicians warred. Then the new president halted construction--for a while--and very nearly killed the young economy.

A bit later, an enterprising British force burned much of the capital and a great deal more, and marched overland in a sort of proto-blitzkrieg, sowing havoc and confusion through the states--basically just to show that they could.

Fierce, strutting American officers found their delicate honors incensed, and shot each other at a rate greater than any enemy. Newly minted American captains rolled off the line, some of them very good, others not. America achieved a few spectacular victories in single ship actions, but lost many others, and never had the slightest chance against the greatly superior Royal Navy, as everyone knew.

But something altogether unexpected arose from all this. That was the confirmation of the incredible good luck--some say the divine guidance--that America enjoyed during her formative years. Through all the bumbling and bluster the country somehow got through. And that, according to many, is what makes her exceptional. However, you can see this, as Toll clearly shows, only if you don't examine the details too closely.

White Jacket, by Herman Melville

White JacketWhite Jacket by Herman Melville

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Melville never made it as a novelist--really: Moby Dick and his other "novels" failed, with a failure that still echoes. Possibly that's because he could never shape himself quite to the novel pattern. He enjoyed the facts too much--small wonder, with his own life constructed of facts almost too exotic to believe. He was one of a very few of his time strong enough to visit the far shores and talented enough to paint them, a very rugged, and very American, sort of genius.

But this is too much praise to the America of that age, I think. Melville's allusions, his offhand references, presume a base of classical knowledge rare in his generation and non-existent in ours. Expounding upon those allusions could fill a large book--and indeed that book exists. Its study would make a decent education all by itself.

Yet we continue to treat books like White Jacket as novels, possibly because we have no name for the genre Melville invented, and occupied all alone for a very long time. It was a kind of adventure anthropology, the explication of the unfamiliar through a sharp and thorough eye, told with humor and poetry. No one did it before, and no one has done it since. Maybe no one ever will do it again.

Students of American maritime history should consider themselves lucky that this eye dwelt so long on an American warship of 1841--as it happens, one of the original six frigates signed into being by George Washington. Here, far more thoroughly and acutely than I have seen anywhere else, is the picture of life aboard an American warship in active service during formative years of the mid-19th century.

We meet the people, learn the usages, hear the rolling of the drums to quarters--almost feel the lash. We get more than the flavor of the officers' insolence, and feel the injustice of an essentially British system of discipline imposed on an American democratic ethos. We also see something of Melville the reformist crusader, whose stated objective it was to make known the horrors of flogging to a wide audience. In this, even if the book sold poorly, he succeeded.

As an historical document alone this book is extremely worthwhile. When you add the fact of Melville's authorship, you have a very strong recommendation indeed.