The Oxford History of the United States (1783-1917)

by S. E. Morison. New York: Oxford University Press, American Branch. 1927. 12mo. xvi+461+474 pp. With maps. 2 vols. $10.00.
FROM the interior of a cavern it is possible in broad daylight, looking up through a fissure at the sky, to see the silvern shining of the stars. From that most enchanting of Gothic caverns, the University of Oxford, Professor Morison seems to have been able to see with the clear vision of daylight the shining stars of these United States. Leaving his professorship at Harvard, this young man of brilliant, and varied career has now spent three years interpreting American history to a band of keen-witted English youth. From his encounter with such an audience, at once friendly but detached, it is clear that the instructor also learned; and from his sojourn grew these two volumes addressed to the wider English public.
When Professor Morison published that amazing combination of popular success and impeccable historical writing, his Maritime History of Massachusetts (it has already begotten a horde of imitators), the question naturally arose: ‘Has this man set a pace which he himself will be unable to sustain?’ His Maritime History was a roistering sea romance. A history of the United States does not lend itself to such treatment, and the author is too sound a scholar and too sincere an artist to attempt, it. His Oxford History of the United States is to his Maritime History as an ocean liner to a clipper ship: not so picturesque, it is more powerful.
This log of the ‘Great Republic’ begins with the close of the Revolution and ends on that Good Friday (whether good or bad, men are not agreed), April 6, 1917, when we entered the World War. Written for an English public, the recital can take little or nothing for granted, which makes it the better for American readers. Again, being written for an English public, it is written in English, which, for many readers of American history, may be something of a novelty.
And what writing it is! To say what this work is, let me begin by saying what it is not. In a time when even reputable writers often seem to feel that they must be entertaining at all costs and get off smart remarks if they would keep their audience, this man speaks with dignity and simplicity, He knows how to take complicated questions and explain them briefly, He is good at telling the story. Brisk and businesslike, he ‘gets through the traffic’ without fuss or flurry. The matter is allowed to dictate the manner: now flowing with the ease of a veteran prose stylist; again, curt as military dispatches. The narrative moves with breadth and on occasion with grandear. In the scant space of four pages he can tell the story of Lee’s surrender and the assassination of Lincoln in sentences that quiver like heat lightnings. There are galleries of full-length portraits, painted with a brush which works in swift, powerful strokes, confident of its technique and with an art which recalls Trevelyan’s. The recurring antithesis between Jefferson and Hamilton (admirable example of the author’s impartiality, for here, if anywhere, men take sides) reads like scenario for Sophoelean tragedy, and the duel with Burr is told in a page and a half of stark stripped prose, terse and tense as desperate men.
Here is the family history which we are all supposed to know and mostly do not. I can imagine the lay reader lingering with pleasure over these pages. I can also imagine scholars admiring their technical craftsmanship. For my own share in the delight of it, let me say quite simply that with this work I sent myself gayly back to school. Yes, here am I, seated at my study table, evening after evening, pen in hand, glowering over these two volumes, marking, indexing, and passionately annotating!
It is such works, solid without being heavy, that are needed and needed so sorely to ballast our public opinion — not to say our ship of State — against its proneness to uneven keels and crazy courses. . . . Under those Gothic vaultings, amid those bookish glooms, beside glowing English fire-grates in oak-paneled halls, did not the mind and heart of this scholar go out as never before in love and understanding to his homeland? These pages of his are deeply and nobly felt. They are also savored with a dry Yankee wit which smacks of the New England soil and its people.