James D. Hornfischer: Revisiting Samuel Eliot Morison's Landmark History

Roundup: Talking About History

[James D. Hornfischer is the author of a new World War II history, Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal.]

On March 23, 1942, the historian Samuel Eliot Morison wrote to his friend President Franklin D. Roosevelt to offer himself as a “sea-going historiographer” to chronicle the activities of the U.S. Navy in World War II. “In order to do it the right way,” he told Roosevelt, “I must have a living, intimate connection with the Navy flagrante bello. An armchair history job after peace is concluded won’t do.” Before April was out, Morison was meeting with Navy officials to accept a commission as a lieutenant commander and discuss the logistics of his globe-spanning assignment.

That July, he boarded a destroyer and pressed into the cold swells of the Atlantic to witness the war against Germany’s U-boats. In ten other ships, over three years, Morison amassed the eyewitness experience that buoyed his 15-volume History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. The series, published between 1947 and 1962, was not only a comprehensive report on the Navy’s projection of power over two oceans, but a classic of historical literature that stands as the definitive treatment of its subject. And now that the Naval Institute Press is reissuing the series, with Volumes 7 through 9 due this spring, Morison’s masterwork is worth considering as a lesson in how history can have both blue-ribbon scholarship and popular appeal—and why works of such scale are almost never published anymore.

Morison (1887–1976) was one of the pre-eminent historians of his generation—among his many honors were two Bancroft Prizes and two Pulitzers—but he worried about who read history and why. “When John Citizen feels the urge to read history, he goes to the novels of Kenneth Roberts or Margaret Mitchell, not to the histories of Professor this or Doctor that,” he lamented in his 1946 pamphlet, “History as a Literary Art: An Appeal to Young Historians.” As Morison saw it, academic historians had only themselves to blame: “They have forgotten that there is an art of writing history.” For Morison, fine writing required deep living....

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