- Historic Sites
Historian And Publisher
One of America's most distinguished publishers writes of his personal and professional friendship with the famed historian, Samuel Eliot Morison.
April 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 3
He enjoyed Frederick Merk’s Manifest Destiny (“wrote to him about it”); H. L. Mencken’s Notes on Democracy , and Alistair Cooke’s Vintage Mencken (“These will provide an infinity of chuckles in bedside reading”); and Michael Crichton’s Five Patients and The Andromeda Strain . The last he found hard going, however, “owing to my ignorance of mathematics.” He had great enthusiasm for Conrad Richter’s superb trilogy, The Awakening Land , which comprised The Trees, The Fields , and The Town . “I repeat,” he wrote, “he is the greatest of our living historical novelists, a really honest and painstaking one, who conveys the correct atmosphere in even the idiom of the old wooded frontier, but he has never enjoyed the fame he deserves.” When Richter heard of Morison’s praise, he wrote me, “When a writer speaks kindly of me I feel a loyalty to read his books. … I feel good to have been mentioned by him. shall read him from now on with great interest.”
Over the years Sam was quite generous in his praise of others. About Walt Whitman’s Civil War , edited by Walter Lowenfels, he wrote me, “For years I have been saying that [Stephen Vincent] Benet’s John Brown’s Body was the best single volume on the Civil War, but I have got to revise my opinion and supplant it by the Walt Whitman volume you have just brought out. It is beautifully done and I am going to use many quotations from it in this book which I am working on now.” Sadly, Lowenfels’ admirable book sold so poorly that it has been out of print for years.
Again, Sam wrote: “In revising the bibliography for ‘ The Harvard Guide to American History ,’ I find that the best translation of the Vinland passages is in a book that you published in 1942 by Einar Haugen, Voyages to Vinland . If it is still in stock, would you care to present me with a copy?” Sam called it “a beautiful piece of book making, and I am sorry it was not a success, but it will be prominently mentioned in the new ‘Harvard Guide.’”
In another letter, he thanked me “ever so much for sending me Arthur Schlesinger [Sr.’s] ‘Birth of the Nation,’ a poignant reminder of our personal friendship and his impeccable scholarship. It was a very fine thing to bring this out posthumously, and Arthur would have been proud of the typography and the beautiful dust jacket. The text is written with his usual meticulous care for facts, and his humor shines through the entire narrative. This morning’s paper,” he added, “brings the news of the death of Conrad Richter. Not knowing his family, I send my condolences to you, as it was you who encouraged his writing over a long stretch of years. … I read every one of his books with keen interest and appreciation, and am very sorry that there will be no more.”
Far and away the most exciting judgment of a book of ours he ever sent me came in the fall of 1973 after we had sent him an early copy of Alistair Cooke’s America . He wrote me very soon and by hand, “Magnificent, outstanding—should have been proud to have written it myself. It warms my heart reading it these cold Maine nights. If you happen to be in contact with him by telephone or otherwise, please thank him for the very complimentary reference to me.” This was praise from the man whose approval of his book Alistair had been awaiting with the greatest anticipation.
Sam, however, could be brutal enough when he was roused. In 1957 he reviewed Lord Alanbrooke’s The Turn of the Tide , which I was reading at the time. This caused me to write him “to congratulate you on one of the most devastating, if not indeed the most devastating, review I have ever read. You don’t leave too much of Alanbrooke. …”
On May 11, 1963, Sam received the Diploma of the Balzan Award in Rome. The Balzan Prize (that year 225,000 Swiss francs), though relatively little known in this country, rivals the Nobel Prize in splendor and munificence. The General Committee on Prizes of the Fondation Internationale Balzan, consisting of representatives of many disciplines in every part of the world, decides each year who will receive the awards. After conferring its first Annual Peace Prize on Pope John XXIII , the committee awarded prizes for music, biology, mathematics, and history. Sam was chosen for the history award.
“This was a most pleasant surprise,” he wrote me. “A colleague had told me that I was one among some fifty historians being ‘considered’ for that award, but I gave it no more thought. The way I heard about it on February 28, ’63, is amusing. The Zuericher Neuester Nachrichten ordered its American correspondent to inform me and to try to find out what I had done to deserve the award. This enterprising journalist traced me to the Army and Navy Club in Washington and told me over the telephone that I was one of the five laureates. The connection was poor, and two names reached me somewhat garbled, so, when calling my wife in New York to tell her the good news, I said, ‘the Pope, Hindemith, Molotov, Povla Frish, the singer, and I have won Balzan Prize Awards,’ to which she replied, ‘This must be a joke. Povla Frish died years ago, and why should Molotov get a prize?’”