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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
Because the Pope had been awarded the Peace Prize, the ceremonies were held in Rome. Sam and each of the other laureates (it turned out that awards went to Karl Von Frisch, the Viennese biologist, and Andre Kolmogoro, the Soviet statistician) were asked to deliver lectures there on their own specialties, and Sam’s lecture, “The Experiences and Principles of an Historian,” somewhat changed and amplified, was included as the lead piece in Vistas of History , a small collection of his writings that we published in 1964. The rest of the volume contained what Sam described as four “samples of my writings to enable a reader to judge whether the principles set forth in the lecture [at Rome] have been carried out in practice.”
In chronological order, they were, first, chapters from The Story of the “Old Colony” of New Plymouth , which we had published in 1956. Sam called them “a fair sample of what might be called cubic history—not exclusively political, social, economic, or cultural, but an attempt to co-ordinate all four aspects during a definite period in a specified area.” Written for young people, “it happens to be the only available book covering the entire history of that colony.” Then came “The Wisdom of Benjamin Franklin,” an example of popular biographical treatment. Originally a lecture, it made its first appearance in print in the Saturday Evening Post . The next piece, “The Peace Convention of 1861,” a topic about which very little had been written, was a limited and almost wholly political subject. It had been delivered as a paper before the Massachusetts Historical Society. Finally, “since my reputation as an historian is largely based on naval and maritime history,” he reprinted a chapter from The Two-Ocean War on the battle of Samar—“to my way of thinking,” he said, “the most interesting and dramatic of the Second World War. …” Sam’s foreword to the book concluded, “So here, reader, I drop my anchor; and after you have heard the rumble of chain cable through the hawse-hole and the officer of the deck has let out sufficient scope, you may ride snug and, I hope, enjoy what Alfred Knopf and I have to offer.”
As in the case of By Land and By Sea , but on a very, very much smaller scale, it took time and our copy editor’s close attention to get a letter-perfect manuscript for the printer, though Sam wrote, “All matters of punctuation, capitalization], spelling, and so forth, I shall be happy to leave to his judgment.” Amusingly, our copy editor had pointed out that Sam’s dedication, added to galley proofs, was grammatically incorrect. “It reads,” he said, ” ‘For Priscilla Barton Morison, beloved companion both in triumph and tribulation.’ It should be changed to either ‘both in triumph and in tribulation’ or ‘in both triumph and tribulation.’ ” I sent this memo on to Sam, who returned it, underlining in red ink the first of the two alternatives and writing below, “Correct. Thanks. SEM.”
We both seem to have had great trouble in arriving at a title. Sam even suggested Through History With S. E. Morison , or his full name. Priscilla and he had got the idea from a series of humorous cartoons called “Through History with J. Wesley Smith” in the Saturday Review , and I, in my stupidity, wrote him that I had no objection provided he did not feel that readers would expect the book to be a humorous one. VVe were both saved almost inevitable embarrassment when one of my associates pointed out that this sort of title was considered a joke in most academic circles. We quickly abandoned the idea, and a little later the Morisons hit on the title Vistas of History .
We agreed that the little volume did not need an index, but he wrote that if we wanted one, he could take care of it. This reminds me of the shock and amazement he expressed once when I told him how reluctant many historians were to prepare indexes for their own books. He simply could not understand how a fellow historian would want an index done under any but the closest of personal supervision.
In October, 1964, the New York Times Book Review gave its “Speaking of Books” page to Edmund S. Morgan, of Yale, who devoted his space to Morison and our book, but particularly to the Balzan address. “Do your own research,” Morgan quoted from the book. “Get at the facts. But remember, documents are not facts in themselves but symbols of facts; that everything in a document has passed through a human brain. Go to the source, but go to the scene too and let the sight and sounds pass through your own brain. Above all, remember that you have a story to tell and the only way.to tell it is to write. Writing is thinking. So even if your ideas of what you want to say are nebulous, start writing . ”
Morgan commented that “Modson … attributes whatever excellence he has achieved to ‘a painstaking cultivation of moderate abilities.’ Perhaps. But those of us who cultivate our own moderate abilities, however painstakingly, find the magic of his words hard to catch. I know of no better exercise in humility than to write an account of some historical episode, work it over, polish it, and then find the same events related by Morison, who will have told the story more clearly, more succinctly, and more gracefully … one ingredient of it is the courage to simplify … to simplify where you know little is easy. To simplify where you know a great deal requires gifts of a different order: unusual penetration of mind and, above all, sheer nerve. Morison has always had nerve in the finest sense of the word.”