AMERICA AND THE SEA: A MARITIME HISTORY
By Benjamin W. Labaree, et al.
Mystic Seaport Museum
686 pp., $50
Pardon the pun, but this is a whale of a book. Its scope is staggering, the publishing equivalent of a battleship. Not something to be read at one sitting, or even one ocean passage, for that matter. Its 686 pages, 55 color illustrations (many of them paintings from museums around the world), 290 archival black and white photographs and drawings, and 10 full-color maps, unfurl a nautical drama suited for teacher, student, naval buff, or any old salt.
There are 17 chapters. The storyline starts with the maritime interests of European countries whose descendants settled the United States, continues through the expansion and rise to a world power of the US and its naval supremacy, and concludes with how Americans now turn to the sea for recreation.
Benjamin Franklin's description of the as yet unknown Gulf Stream offers the typical mix of topical, scholarly, and historical nuance. There is a French version of a chart Franklin drew based on talks with Nantucket whalers. The chart's interesting detail received "greater acceptance ... in France, than in England."
My favorite section covers the naval strategies of the North and South in the Civil War. Disadvantaged due to limited resources, the Confederacy countered with technological innovation. In a short span it rolled out the ironclad, the ram vessel, and the "torpedo" (underwater mine). The South also built the first submarine to sink an enemy ship.
The book's six authors teach on the graduate faculty at Munson Institute of American Maritime Studies at Mystic Seaport, Mystic, Conn. Their scholarship is impeccable. The many topics evoke distinct museum exhibits - comprehensive, cogent, and engagingly lucid. For the high school history or social studies teacher, the modular bites are an invaluable resource for lesson plans and research projects.
* Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's Ideas editor.