Monday, April 12, 2010

Sea of Glory

I actually like to read history.. if it's written well, and I have two friends who understand that about me -- and only pass history books to me if they are a layman's read --- they are Wingate, and my husband's friend, Dr. Jim.

Over the years I have known them, they have both given me very readable history books --- and in the last two years, I have read two really good history books, given to me by Dr. Jim, and both of them were by Nathaniel Philbrick.

Last year, I read Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex -- the real sea story of a sperm whale attacking a whaling ship and on which Melville based his signature novel, Moby Dick.

I can hear the groans of my former students.
Please. No. Gillham. No Moby Dick.

I love Moby Dick. I think I am the only person I know other than Andrew Jones, Mary Hafner, and Tyler Williamson who has read that novel.

I'm not countin' one of my former students who pretended to read it and proceeded to tell me that Moby Dick was a blue whale.

Hello. Blue whale? What movie did he watch?

*waves to Evan B wherever you are*

I have never laughed so hard in my life ...

unless it was the time another student ask me if Gregory Peck was Abraham Lincoln (after seeing a black and white movie still photo in the American Literature textbook of Peck, complete with stovepipe hat, from Hollywood's Moby Dick.)


I laughed until my sides hurt, but not before I quipped to her that " Yes, Moby Dick was Lincoln's first movie before he was president."


I am totally off topic.

I just finished Sea of Glory, America's Voyage of Discovery: The U.S. Exploring Expedition 1838-1842.

Blog readers: Huh? What US Exploring Expedition?

That's what I said when Dr. Jim gave me the book -- I had never heard of it or the people involved, but the book turned out to be absolutely fascinating.

In the nineteenth century, six sailing vessels with a crew of hundreds that included geologists, mapmakers, biologists, and botanists, left New York city under the command of Charles Wilkes, nicknamed the Stormy Petrel, and sailed for the Pacific Ocean with an incredible goal -- to chart the Pacific Ocean from Antarctica to the Pacific Northwest.

Philbrick tells his reader about this lofty goal, especially in the 19th century: "Antarctica is the most inaccessible place on earth... and an entire vocabulary has been created to describe the appalling variety of icy hazards a navigator encounters when he approaches the continent."

Amazingly enough -- they accomplish this and much more --in spite of the less than sterling leadership of Wilkes -- who turned into a emotional barometer on the voyage -- he was nuts and petty, obsessed with the fact that he was not a "captain," and on whims would punish men whom he thought were trying to undermine him, almost all of which was unfounded.

Not only did Wilkes keep a journal, but so did officers under his command -- and their antipathy and anger at him, recorded for posterity, and an attempted court martial when the four year voyage was complete, showed how far they would all go for revenge.

After its return with its unbelievable collection that would contribute to a growing realization "that scientific pursuits such as geology, botany, anthropology, and meteorology were crucial to the progress of a nation," Washington began to pay for more exploration.

From 1840 to 1860, the federal government would subsidize fifteen naval expeditions --- at an enormous price. Philbrick writes, "Not even the race to the moon in the 1960s generated a financial commitment to science that rivaled the decades after the U.S. Ex. Ex."

The collections of the Ex. Ex., as it was called, became the foundation for the Smithsonian's scientific collection.

This contribution to America's scientific community seems huge -- why have I forgotten this in my own American history?

This book had it all -- complex characters, violence, intrigue, adventure, horror, and spectacle -- and it is history.

*scratches head*

Dang. Who needs fiction?

Well, I do -- but I love non-fiction when it reads like fiction. :)


  1. Yes, Moby Dick was Lincoln's first movie before he was president.


    Excellent tidbit. Now I'll be able to win on Jeopardy.

  2. Hmmmm . . . I'm gonna give myself a couple more decades before I broach this genre. Until then, I'll stick to novels, poetry, memoirs, sociology, and education books. :) You lost me at "in the nineteenth century." I took 20 English classes in college . . . and only two (the absolute minimum required) were lit before 1800. The rest, modern & contemporary lit. haha!

  3. Jennifer -- totally will help you on Jeopardy -- I told you that years ago. :)

    Claire: Technically, your nineteenth century is the twentieth century these days... LOL -- however, some of the greats of the 19th century -- Hawthorne, Melville, Cooper (which is debatable by many cause of his loquaciousness), Twain and Robinson are must reads. I know you have already read some of them. :)

    I love the moderns too -- even though, now, they are not so much modern.

    Good writers right now --- too--- even though I'm not the John Irving fan I once was. :(

  4. I haven't read Moby? How dare you! I loved it - except for the cetology chapters.

  5. Have you read Under The Tuscan Sun? I know this is random. But, I'm reading it right now and Frances Mayes reminds me of you. Her writing style and also the fact that she grew up in Georgia :)