A man who relived history to write about it
Dream dreams and write themm Aye but live them first.m Adm. Samuel Eliot MorisonSkip to next paragraph
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''I have no imagination,'' Adm. Samuel Eliot Morison once said. ''I can't write about a battlefield until I've been over it, nor about sea warfare unless I've taken part in it.''
Perhaps this modest admission by one of America's foremost historians best explains the admiral's innovative approach to his subject matter.
In the tradition of American historian Francis Parkman and Thucydides of ancient Greece, the admiral, who won seven battle stars in World War II, believed the only way to write history was to live it. Morison's research carried him around the globe - to the paradaisical West Indies, the stormy Straits of Magellan, and to war-strafed Normandy and Okinawa during World War II. Under sail, he retraced the stormy routes taken by Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, and other New World explorers.
During his career, Morison wrote 48 books, two of which (his biography of Columbus, ''Admiral of the Ocean Sea'' and ''John Paul Jones'') were awarded Pulitzer Prizes.
Other prominent works include his 15-volume ''History of US Naval Operations in World War II,'' and ''The Oxford History of the American People.'' In the latter, Morison traced the major events in the nation's history from prehistoric times to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
In the preface to ''Admiral of the Ocean Sea,'' Morison declares, ''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.''
Four-hundred and fifty years after Columbus made his historic voyage to America, Morison decided to make history again by sailing the route as the leader of the Harvard Columbus Expedition. ''My attempt,'' he said, ''was to try to see through Columbus's eyes . . . just as if I had been beside him on the quarterdeck.''
In planning the Columbus expedition, Morrison drew upon nearly 20 years of ''armchair navigation.'' He hoped to authenticate the journey as far as possible. He sailed in a 140-foot schooner, which was designed to approximate the sailing conditions of Columbus's ships, the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria.
Morison described sailing up to San Salvador and seeing the same sight Columbus had seen 450 years before. Morison wrote in his log, ''Why, you can even figure out where he must have gone ashore. You don't know where he went ashore, but as a seaman, you know he just couldn't have gone ashore any place else.''
Dr. Henry Wade, Morison's colleague at Harvard, remarks, ''The Columbus enterprise could not have been made by just any old salt. In preparing for this journey a thorough knowledge of Latin, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese was requisite because a tremendous amount of research had to be done in preparation for the sail and the book which followed.''
The end result was the writing of ''Admiral of the Ocean Sea.'' George Gloss, the proprietor of the Brattle Book Shop in Boston (which Morison used to frequent), says, ''This book and so much of Morison's work is a favorite with our clientele because he provides the reader with an intimate sense of time, place, and person rather than a docket full of statistics.''
Morison was, in fact, as much concerned with the character of Columbus as he was with the journey which changed the complexion of world history. In writing about Columbus, Morison explained, ''This dualism (the man of the Middle Ages and the modern man commingled in Columbus) makes the character and career of Columbus a puzzle to the dull-witted, a delight to the discerning.''