Read Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 by Nathaniel Philbrick Free Online
Book Title: Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842|
The author of the book: Nathaniel Philbrick
Edition: Penguin Audio
Date of issue: November 10th 2003
ISBN 13: 9780142800249
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Reader ratings: 3.4
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 617 KB
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When I was in college, I became very good friends with a German guy from Stuttgart named Tobias. He was six-foot-eight, spoke perfect English, and had been a model. We made for an odd sight on campus, since I am not six-foot-eight and am not a Euro model (I did, however, speak passable English).
After graduation, and before Tobias set out on his life as a globe-trotting international banker, I took him up to Minnesota to visit my folks. Along the way, I kept seeing signs along the highway marking the trail of Lewis & Clark’s Corps of Discovery. Like every European, Tobias was certain he knew everything about America. So I decided to quiz him:
ME: Hey, Tobias. Do you know who Lewis & Clark are?
TOBIAS: Superman and his girlfriend.
I’m pretty sure he was joking.
Everyone knows Lewis & Clark. They were the leaders of the most famous expedition of the early American republic. They were the subject of a wildly popular (and highly overrated) book by Stephen Ambrose. There was a PBS documentary. One of the participants inspired a dollar coin. Even the worst public school won’t let you matriculate without some mention of this famous trek.
Compare that to United States Exploring Expedition. What? you ask. You haven’t heard of the Ex. Ex.? One of the great voyages of discovery to ever set sail?
You’re not alone.
Between 1838 and 1842, six ships and hundreds of sailors, botanists, biologists, geologists and cartographers crisscrossed the Pacific Ocean under Lieutenant Charles Wilkes. They bumped up against Antarctica, mapped new islands, explored the volcanoes of Hawaii, slaughtered some natives, and charted the Columbia River. They also collected thousands of samples and specimens that formed the basis of the Smithsonian Museum’s scientific collection.
Yet it is forgotten today.
Nathaniel Philbrick’s Sea of Glory seeks to bring it back to life. Philbrick, who first came to prominence with the National Book Award-winning In the Heart of the Sea, seems like a natural fit for this nautical subject. And to be sure, the book is brisk, enjoyable, and in many ways enlightening (of course, it’s nearly impossible not to be enlightening, since the Ex. Ex. has been in the shadows for so long). But instead of a resounding triumph, something is missing.
All great exploration narratives contain three essential conflicts. Man verses nature. Man verses man. And man verses himself.
Philbrick focuses mainly on the third component. He is an avowed lover of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and in Lieutenant Wilkes, he has found his real-life Captain Ahab. Wilkes is a complex, combustible, ever-shifting personality. He begins as a wholly commendable figure: a loving husband, a competent officer, a good leader. By the end, you’ll be wondering why no one ever put him in a rowboat and then sailed to Tahiti.
As portrayed by Philbrick, many of Wilkes idiosyncrasies stem from a lack of esteem. And by esteem I mean rank. Despite being given command of the expedition, Wilkes was not given a captaincy. Philbrick describes how this weighed on Wilkes, not (merely) because of blunted ambitions and hurt pride, but because the rank of captain gave him legitimacy on the voyage. Far from shore, a captain could not rely on the laws of man or gods. He had only himself – his courage, his skill, his personality – between himself and a mutiny. By refusing to promote Wilkes, the sponsors of the expedition kept him at the same level as many of the officers he putatively commanded. Naturally, this eroded his authority.
Even when Wilkes is at his nastiest – and he’s a prick, to be sure – Philbrick faithfully reminds us of the stresses involved in commanding this years-long expedition. In other words, he reminds us that Wilkes was human, despite his glaring character flaws.
These flaws leads us to the second component of exploration narratives: man verses man. The most obvious manifestation of this conflict occurred on the Gilbert Islands, where Wilkes’ men battled indigenous warriors (in scenes reminiscent of Captain Cook’s death). Philbrick, though, is more interested in the simmering psychological struggle between Wilkes and his crew, especially his chief subordinate (and onetime friend) William Reynolds. (Spoiler alert: they don’t end up as friends).
The men of the Ex. Ex. chafed under Wilkes’ harsh discipline and oscillating moods. In one egregious example of his wroth, Wilkes had three men (two marines and a sailor) “flogged around the fleet.” This meant that each man was whipped aboard ship with the cat o’ nine tails, tied to a gallows on a rowboat, taken to the next ship, and whipped again. At another point, Wilkes punished marines whose enlistments had run out and who refused – by right – not to continue with the expedition.
Wilkes officers hated him as much as the men. They were bitterly annoyed by his pettiness, his vindictiveness (he sent several officers home), and his presumptuousness (he flew a captain’s pennant and wore a captain’s epaulets). Once the expedition ended, everyone referred charges against everyone else, and what should have been a celebrated homecoming denigrated into a string of ugly court-martials. Later, in a fit of douchiness, Wilkes attempted to keep the fruits of the Ex. Ex.’s government-funded voyage his private property.
Philbrick does an excellent job of detailing Wilkes’ quarrels with his crew, and within himself. Surprisingly, though, he fails to pay attention to the most obvious component of a book of this sort: man verses nature. The Ex. Ex.’s voyages took them to the frigid, iceberg-studded waters off the coast of Antarctica, where the men were pelted with a shivering rain and the ice-coated ships sloughed low through heavy seas. Their voyages also took them to tropical paradises, with gold-sand beaches and cerulean waters and temperate weather and mangoes and coconuts and sexual promiscuity. The exotic locales, the sheer extremes, should have made for a compelling travelogue.
Unfortunately, Sea of Glory fails to transport you to these places. Philbrick is so focused on the shipboard dynamics that he neglects the larger environment. This is a book that never tries very hard to put you in the moment. You never feel the freezing rain or the warming sun or get a touch of seasickness when the ship slides into the trough between waves.
In fact, many of the bigger details of the expedition are ignored or glossed over completely. At one point, an entire ship – the Sea Gull – disappears. The loss of the Sea Gull with all hands is barely mentioned by Philbrick. One moment the ship is there, the next it’s gone. Disposed within a sentence. Men died on her, but they are unnamed and un-mourned.
Oddly, there is scant discussion of the expedition’s raison d’être. We never follow the scientists as they make their discoveries and collect their specimens. We are told time and again that great finds were made, but Philbrick never elaborates. This is regrettable and unnecessary, since the scientific aspect of the expedition was well-catalogued. The Ex. Ex.’s crowning achievement, the survey of the Columbia River, barely rates a mention. Again, we are told it was important, we are told it was hard, but we are never told why.
In fairness to Philbrick, it is clear the focus of the book – on Wilkes and his odyssey – was a conscious decision. Wilkes fascinates Philbrick far more than the maps drawn by the mapmakers, or the rocks gathered by the geologists, or the dead animals collected by the biologists. And I have to admit, Wilkes holds the center. He was the genuine article. A compelling jackass. An audacious glory hound. (Civil War buffs will recall him as the instigator of the Trent Affair). A devoted husband and father.
He is the perfect man around which to build a lasting sea story. I only wish that Philbrick had taken the time to fill in the frame. He has his hero, flawed and tragic. What he is missing is a compelling hero’s journey.
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Read information about the authorPhilbrick was Brown’s first Intercollegiate All-American sailor in 1978; that year he won the Sunfish North Americans in Barrington, RI; today he and his wife Melissa sail their Beetle Cat Clio and their Tiffany Jane 34 Marie-J in the waters surrounding Nantucket Island.
After grad school, Philbrick worked for four years at Sailing World magazine; was a freelancer for a number of years, during which time he wrote/edited several sailing books, including Yaahting: A Parody (1984), for which he was the editor-in-chief; during this time he was also the primary caregiver for his two children. After moving to Nantucket in 1986, he became interested in the history of the island and wrote Away Off Shore: Nantucket Island and Its People. He was offered the opportunity to start the Egan Maritime Institute in 1995, and in 2000 he published In the Heart of the Sea, followed by Sea of Glory, in 2003, and Mayflower. He is presently at work on a book about the Battle of Little Big Horn.
Mayflower was a finalist for both the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in History and the Los Angeles Times Book Award and was winner of the Massachusetts Book Award for nonfiction. In the Heart of the Sea won the National Book Award for nonfiction; Revenge of the Whale won a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award; Sea of Glory won the Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt Naval History Prize and the Albion-Monroe Award from the National Maritime Historical Society. Philbrick has also received the Byrne Waterman Award from the Kendall Whaling Museum, the Samuel Eliot Morison Award for distinguished service from the USS Constitution Museum, the Nathaniel Bowditch Award from the American Merchant Marine Museum, the William Bradford Award from the Pilgrim Society, the Boston History Award from the Bostonian Society, and the New England Book Award from the New England Independent Booksellers Association.
from his website