A man who relived history to write about it
Boston — Dream dreams and write themm Aye but live them first.m Adm. Samuel Eliot Morison
''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.''
Dualisms pervaded the nature of Morison as well. He was a scholar and a sailor, a man who lived in the same elegant Beacon Hill town house all of his life yet traveled to some of the most remote and primitive parts of the globe. It was not unusual to see the admiral sporting riding breeches in the morning and a top hat and tails at the opera in the evening.
Even during his lifetime, the Boston-born man of letters was regarded in monumental terms - referred to as ''admiral,'' ''professor'' or ''doctor.'' He was a professor at Harvard University for nearly half a century, during which time he produced an average of one book a year. In 1954, after he and his wife returned from a summer in Mount Desert Island, Maine, his wife remarked to some friends, ''Yes, we had an easy summer of it. All Sam did was write the ninth volume of his naval history, a short history on Christopher Columbus, and a third book about the Peabody Museum in Salem.'' In an effort to vindicate himself, Morison replied, ''I really did very little; Columbus and Peabody were short works, 50,000 words each. The newspaper people rattle off 50,000 words in a week.''
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Although much of Morison's work related to the sea, there was also a bit of the landlubber in the admiral. He was the official historian at Harvard, writing the ''Tercentennial History of Harvard College and University'' for the occasion of the institution's 300th anniversary.
He authored ''One Boy's Boston,'' an insightful and charming account of the city he knew as a boy. In his description of Victorian Boston, one can almost hear the horsedrawn fire wagons clattering down cobblestoned Charles Street. His vignettes also reveal the formal customs observed by the ''proper Bostonians'' of the day. Morison writes, ''On the street, boys were supposed to wear gloves, or at least carry them in their hands, like their elders. I remember Grandfather looking out of the window and, seeing his classmate Edward Everett Hale gloveless, remarking, 'There goes Ned Hale, as usual without gloves - can't he learn that a gentleman always wears gloves?' ''
This sense of tradition and formality also permeated the admiral's sense of scholarship. to here JB Morison emphasized the importance of a ''traditional education,'' posing the question, ''What was the nature of the scholarship of these leaders of the early Republic?'' Answering his own question, as he so often did, the tall, aquiline New Englander said, ''Its rudiments were, first, a thorough knowledge of Latin and Greek literature, which opened to them the treasures of antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance. They read Plato, Aristotle, and Polybius, and followed them up in later life with Aquinas and Bellarmine, Calvin, and Montesquieu. They pondered long and deep about the relation of man to society, the nature and art of government.''
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Morrison pointed out in a lecture, ''When the American Revolution broke, it was led by scholars; and, in the shape of the federal Constitution, it was triumphantly crowned by scholars. Sam Adams, it was said by his Tory enemies, 'got at the Whigs and Tories by the Greeks and the Romans.' ''
In a 1960 Monitor interview Morison said admonishingly, ''The average history student in graduate school today cannot even read French or German. Unless he makes a great effort this restricts his work to English or American history - and not even all of that.''
Morison also found that a working knowledge of a second language is sometimes useful in extricating oneself from a noisome situation.
Fascinated by a map in the Vatican library, Morison once drew up a chair to examine it. A party of American tourists came along and began asking him questions. Morison turned to them and said sharply in Italian, ''I am sorry but I do not speak English.''