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Episode 304

Portraits in History

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Posted by Mary Ann

Nathaniel Philbrick has a great name, doesn’t he? It’s a very New England name; fits the kinds of books he writes. Philbrick has written a number of fine books. I want to call out a couple that were much praised and talked about when they came out. They are officially on my retirement, if I ever do, reading list.

The first book is his 2000 book “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex.”

Philbrick lives in Nantucket, one of the old centers of the whaling industry in this country. This book tells the true story of a crew of Nantucket whalers. A sperm whale turns on the ship and destroys it. The crew and the captain, floating in the whaleboat, ponder their options, which weren’t good. This story was described by one reviewer as an “eerie thriller” and a “masterpiece of maritime history,” not two phrases you hear too often to describe the same book. This book is very astute on the town of Nantucket, which in those days was peopled by business-savvy Quakers who had grown wealthy off the whaling industry. This, of course, did not protect them from fate and happenstance. Of course, if this all sounds familiar, it is – it’s the true story on which the great novel “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville was based.

One interesting side note – The Essex tragedy had been written about already, but Philbrick was able to make use of the memoirs of the cabin boy on the voyage, which weren’t discovered until someone came across them in a New York attic in the 1960s.


Philbrick’s father wrote several books on American sea fiction, and the son certainly got the bug. Another highly regarded Philbrick book about the sea is 2003’s “Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery: The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842.” This book tells the almost unbelievable true story of the South Seas Exploring Expedition, often known as the Wilkes expedition, funded by the American government with the purpose of charting the Pacific. From the Kirkus review: “They froze in terror at the bottom of the world, tasted the excess of tropical paradise, slaughtered and were slaughtered by fierce savages in an uncharted archipelago, camped out on the rim of the world’s most massive volcano, braved one of the world’s most treacherous coastal inlets. Some never returned. The rest lived to spend years contradicting each other’s accounts of their voyage.” Wilkes was a bully, a martinet and a paranoiac in the Captain Bligh vein, but he got results. He discovered Antarctica, named it and charted its coastline, among other things.

I have to say; when I read these kinds of books about sea exploration, I feel a. like I lead, comparatively, a very dull life and b. I feel GLAD that I lead a very dull life.

Moving away from Philbrick’s books, I want to call out two of the best books I have ever read about the American Revolution. They are both biographies.

The first is “John Adams” by David McCullough. OMG, what a great book. I think this might have been McCullough’s best book, and he has written a lot of good books. He seems to have found the perfect subject – or perhaps I should say, two subjects.

Adams, one of our revolutionary founders from Massachusetts, was the son of a New England farmer, a blunt, plainspoken, moody and at times conceited fellow, who could nurse grudges for years but who never failed in his devotion to his country. And he was a wonderful writer. One of the fabulous aspects of “John Adams” is the many letters Adams wrote, particularly to his wife Abigail, from whom he was separated for months at a time because of the war and because of his participation in the founding of our country.

Which brings me to the other character, Abigail. What a brick. She nurtured and protected the family during his lengthy absences – she bore several of their children without his company. She had a wonderful way with words, too. “I felt like I had wandered into a cave full of treasure,” McCullough told me in an interview, about his pleasure in discovering the plainspoken, blunt, pungent quality of their letters to one another. And I think theirs really was a true love story.

Adams would go on to become ambassador to the French and (after the Revolutionary War) the British; U.S. vice president, president and in an old man’s sweetest triumph, father of John Quincy Adams, the fourth U.S. president. I should also say that the HBO version of this book, which starred Paul Giamatti as Adams and Laura Linney as Abigail, is one of television’s great accomplishments.

The other great biography of a Revolutionary figure I want to mention is “George Washington” by Ron Chernow. Most of us have an image of Washington as the creature portrayed in one of those stiff Gilbert Stuart portraits. But Chernow chronicles Washington’s amazing transformation, as he grows from an insecure young man with a hair-trigger temper to a leader bearing the weight of America’s birth and early development on his shoulders.

Like other Washington biographers, Chernow benefited from his subject’s “compulsion to record his everyday life.” Scholars are still sifting through the results: Chernow made extensive use of the Washington Papers, a project at the University of Virginia dedicated to compiling everything ever written by and about George Washington. This collection has expanded from 39 volumes in the 1930s to “sixty volumes of letters and diaries and still counting,” Chernow writes. “Strange as it may seem, George Washington’s life has now been so minutely documented that we know far more about him than did his own friends, family, and contemporaries.”

Chernow told me in a 2010 interview that there were already 900 books devoted to George Washington when he started this project. He made the right decision in pursuing it anyway. It’s a keeper. Chernow shows Washington as a brilliant and complicated man; a shrewd politician, a hard bargainer and a ladies man (he was a real flirt). He also had the foresight to realize what terrible damage the institution of slavey was doing to the still young country – he designated in his will that his 125 slaves be freed when his wife died.

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