October 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 6
A new column
The great job of the historian is to enable people to understand how things were and why they happened so in a time and at a place that are gone forever. Somehow he has to reach the irrecoverable past. Living in one era, he must work in another, trying his best to lay his hands on something that is forever beyond his grasp, to hear voices that have been stilled for generations and to interpret the aspirations and motivations of minds and hearts that returned to their elements long since in the mists beyond the Jordan. The job can never be done fully, and no one knows this better than the historian himself. He would sell his hope of salvation (provided such hope remains to him after years of the kind of toil and frustration that is apt to warp the soul) if only, just once, he could actually go to the era he has been studying so hard and see just what the men of that day were up against.
This is a vain hope, to be sure. And yet little bridges to the past can be built, if a man has the imagination to see the possibility and the driving determination to make something of it. As witness the case of the late Samuel Eliot Morison.
At the time of his death last spring Morison was pretty generally recognized as America’s greatest living historian. He earned that distinction in the traditional way—by an immense capacity for hard work, by an unswerving honesty of purpose that led him to follow where the verifiable facts took him, and by steady exercise of a native ability to express himself in clear, understandable English prose. He had also, of course, what every good historian has—the burning desire to go there and see for himself. Unlike most of his confreres, Morison found that if a man builds the right kind of bridge he can come close to gratifying that desire.
Morison had written a good deal about various aspects of maritime history. He had also become a skilled and ardent yachtsman. And when he undertook, somewhere around 1940, to write a biography of Christopher Columbus, he faced the riddle all biographers of that great sailor have faced: could Columbus, with the charts, navigation aids, and general knowledge of sea and weather available to him in 1492, have sailed the courses and made the miles he said he had done? Was his record to be accepted as evidence, or had there been short cuts, improvisations, and borrowings somewhere along the line?
Morison wanted to know, so he went and found out; which is to say that he got his sailboat, went to Palos with a copy of Columbus’ log, and sailed over Columbus’ track, following the great sailor’s courses, making his mileage—and coming, at last, to Columbus’ astounding, world-changing landfall. He verified Columbus’ story in the simplest and most conclusive way imaginable. He had the sailor’s skill to do it; more important, he had the creative imagination to think of doing it. So he did it, and history is the richer for it.
On the heels of this came the kind of assignment a man like Morison would have dreamed of. During World War II President Roosevelt, who wrote no history but made a good deal of it, decided there ought to be a solid account of the doings of the American Navy. He turned Morison into a rear admiral and sent him to the fleet, accompanied by a general order that all hands must tell this seagoing historian everything he wanted to know, and sat back to wait for Morison to do the rest. Morison did it, and by 1962 he had completed the epoch-making fifteen-volume History of U.S. Naval Operations in World War II . He filled this assignment not without opposition. Naval officers have to work very hard for their promotions, and some of them were not at all pleased to see an arrant civilian given flag rank by stroke of a Presidential pen. One officer of rank told this writer: “Some of us made up our minds we weren’t going to tell him everything, and we didn’t . There was lots he didn’t know.” This never caused Morison to break stride. Like any competent historian working with imperfect source material, he knew how to bridge a gap when he encountered one. He bridged this one, and the history he wrote was definitive. No problem …
Anyone privileged to work in the field of history must feel bound to pay a tribute, however belated, to a great master of a great craft.