The Maritime History of Massachusetts: 1783-1860

by Samuel Eliot Morison. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1921. 8vo, xiv + 401 pp. $5.00. Illustrated.
A GOOD many people have written of Yankeedom afloat, and some of them have written well. But this performance is unique.
The man who wrote it must be two people. One part of him is historian; the other part is artist. The historian is technically skilled, scientific in attitude; knows the values of documents (though, like most of his tribe, he is rather fonder of them than the average mortal), and knows what facts do and do not signify, just as a composer knows his thorough-bass. Added to this, he understands the age lie is writing about — which is another way of saying that he understands his own age. Here, for the first time, so far as I am aware, this phase of New England’s history has been competently dealt with by a man who understands and can make clear to the meanest order of intellect, my own, for example the bread-and-butter structure of that period. Others have painted its superficial glamour, its political intrigue, its antiquarian fuddy-duddery, or its salt-water romance. Their pictures were flesh without skeleton. This man knows the bony structure of its economics, and, without the less gracious painting of its living flesh-tints, lets you see that this flesh is draped on a skeleton — often a pretty grim one, of the closet variety.
And how fair he is. Legends are rife of New England fortunes made in slaves, rum, piracy, and its first-cousin, privateering. The temptation here is to use either the soft pedal or the muck rake. This man uses neither. He uses the scales. What facts he finds he presents with candor. With equal candor he declares that the story has, in general, been overdone.
One of my academic friends tells me that he believes that, in the age which we are entering, one of the principal functions of middle-class intellectuals of a liberal or radical stripe will be to rethink and rewrite political science and history. It has, he says, been written usually by such conservatives. that much of it is all but valueless to our generation. This new exploring squadron of historian-adventurers is already under weigh, and the present volume is one of its vessels. I cannot see the priests of Baal getting much fun out of a trip in this craft. The weather, in spots, gets intellectually rough, and I think I hear sounds of distress emanating from the state-rooms of firstclass passengers. I am not suggesting that this book is very savage. It is quite demure. But it contains numerous passages which are anything but orthodox.
Yet the presentation of fact is unexceptionable. It is scrupulously fair; it is economically enlightened; and it is warmed by an obvious human sympathy. The awkward thing about such a book is that, unless you have spent more time getting up the subject than the author has, it is unsafe to attack. My advice to anyone who does not like its pronouncements is to keep quiet.
The other half of the man who wrote this history is the artist. Perhaps not yet quite half, but certainly destined to be. The work opens (after a melodious little one-page preface) with a prologue, ‘Coast and Sea’; or should I say a gallant landscape painting of coastwise Massachusetts? It closes with a short epilogue — a clipper ship sailing into Boston Harbor on a spring day. Strewn throughout the book are these bits of spirited descriptive writing: character sketches, domestic interiors, harbors oriental and occidental, and pages spiced with touches of dry Yankee wit of the genuine old brew, and a dash of Rabelaisian humor in sly digs at bygone worthies about whom history has not always been as candid as this. The writing is very good, and it is going to be better. As yet the artist and the historian are not perfectly blended; but they bid fair to be.