Oceans of History About the Sea

OCEANS divide but also connect, form boundaries but also conduits. Once perceived by historians as essentially a dramatic backdrop against which heroic personages sought glory, the oceanic world gained a new intellectual definition when Fernand Braudel's ``The Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II'' was published in 1949. Braudel portrayed that ancient sea as the heart of a dynamic region, which, though divided between Islam and Christianity, was united by geography, climate, technology, commerce and more.

Some of Braudel's delight in the endless variety and accommodations of Mediterranean life appears in Robert Fox's ``The Inner Sea: The Mediterranean and Its People,'' a knowledgeable, deftly-written account by a British journalist with a critical outlook and long experience in the region. Fox is skilled at the impressionistic set-piece, and his wide-ranging inquiry into the politics and societies of the contemporary Mediterranean countries - from Seville to Jerusalem, Milan to Cairo - misses little that matters.

He offers a solid dose of history, a good helping of description, all spiced with political analysis. The result is engaging, the perfect traveler's companion to a region whose ethnic and religious rivalries Fox treats fairly. Inevitably, there are factual errors in a book so vast, but the theme of rapid and perhaps destabilizing change, particularly where Islam abuts its Christian and Jewish neighbors, is convincing.

In ``Let the Sea Make a Noise...: A History of the North Pacific from Magellan to MacArthur,'' Walter McDougall of the University of Pennsylvania, whose book on the American space program won a Pulitzer Prize, now grapples with a different kind of space: the Northern Pacific, that great arc from California through Alaska and Siberia to North China. This is a popularizing book, stuffed with tales and incidents but puzzling - even disturbing - for anyone preferring leaner intellectual fare.

``Let the Sea Make a Noise...'' opens in 1565, with a successful Spanish voyage east across the Pacific. Hundreds of pages follow, on the three centuries of sporadic encounters between native peoples and Western intruders, who came to explore and trade, and stayed to conquer and proselytize. So we have Father Serra establishing Spanish missions in California, Lewis and Clark reconnoitering the Pacific Northwest, the penetration of Japan by Perry, of Hawaii by Western mariners and missionaries, and of the Amur River basin by Russian expansionists. McDougall is content to rehash earlier books; questions regarding why Westerners conducted these remarkably dangerous ventures go unasked.

He then focuses on Japan, Russia, and the United States, the great rivals once the Spanish empire was gone and China was declining. It was, in fact, China that a semi-fascist Japan attacked in the 1930s, bringing the US in as China's defender: No American would accept the Japanese control of East Asia that a conquest of China would foretell. Pearl Harbor inevitably followed, not because President Roosevelt was scheming for war, but because Tokyo saw a chance for empire and took it.

This is the conventional wisdom to which no specialist will object. But McDougall relates it all in a great spate of words that flow vividly and dramatically, but which ultimately exhaust and even confuse. His text overflows with facts, heroic episodes, armed clashes, avaricious traders, idealistic missionaries, egotistical adventurers, and all manner of compelling tales, extracted from specialized works, and now displayed with the artifice of an uninhibited storyteller.

Put aside the question of whether such hyperbolic treatment really illuminates a Northern Pacific that - before the steamship and railroad - was difficult for Westerners to reach. Ignore the obvious fact that this was no coherent geographical-historical entity like the Mediterranean or the Indian Ocean, but a fragmented region in thrall to a harsh climate, great distances, and infertile lands. Perhaps McDougall's eagerness to write blockbuster history has led him not only to inflate the importance of his story, but also to fatten it from a crowd-pleasing menu.

These culminate in 13 fictional pseudoseminars, in which several historical personages respond to the prodding of a ``scholar'' by discoursing in a slangy, hip-hop style on what happened and might have happened. Some of this is the analysis that McDougall hasn't integrated into his narrative. And some of it is just plain silly, as when Japanese Ambassador Saito is made to say, ``Oy, vay! as they say in Flatbush.'' Here the storyteller's gimmickry annihilates the line between fact and fiction.

McDougall clearly draws on James Michener's megahistories, Norman Mailer's nonfiction novels, Paul Kennedy's assessments of rising and falling empires, and especially Simon Schama's novelistic prose picture, ``Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution.'' In their varied ways, these writers tried to fill the gap between a public interest in readable history, and an academic community that seems quite content to write minutely specialized works only for itself.

The general interest reader has long been ignored, and this leaves the way clear for McDougall to write what academics will doubtless condemn as a travesty, but to which they have offered little alternative.

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