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February 20, 2015

Sea of Glory: A Book Review

I finally finished reading "Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842" by Nathaniel Philbrick. I say finally because, yes, it took me a long time, but not because it was drudgery. Yes, it's non-fiction, and yes, it's a little bit of a slog, but it's also fascinating. Partly because my coworker, Lou, who lent it to me, told me that it's about a little-remembered expedition that was primarily responsible for the Smithsonian collection.

As it turns out, the expedition's haul doesn't make up the majority of the Smithsonian's collection, as I'd been telling people while reading the book (they don't talk about that part until the end) (sorry for the spoiler), but only about 1/5th. Still—1/5th. It's a lot. And it sounds like it's arguably the impetus for the Smithsonian being what it is today.

Other interesting things about the four-year expedition, led by Charles Wilkes:

- They mapped 1,500 miles of Antarctic coastline, basically confirming (without much credit) that it is indeed a continent.
- One of the things the author keeps coming back to that the expedition brought back was Fijian war clubs. Presumably because many were thrown at the crew.
- They charted 100 miles of the Columbia river and sent overland expeditions across the Cascades and down to San Francisco. This wasn't even really talked about in the book, beyond a mention. They mapped out San Francisco Bay. One of the scientists seemingly obsessively or lovingly documented languages.
- The famous geologist James Dana (whom I didn't know about—sorry, not much of a history buff, getting better) basically confirmed Darwin's ideas about how atolls form and made some nice proto-plate tectonics observations in Hawaii. I make his work seem quaint. He's was a powerhouse who made all sorts of natural history observations both inside and outside his field, and on the expedition he was still quite young.
- A lot can happen in four years and it's really hard to get a feel for it from a single book.

Overall, the book was very interesting, especially since I learned a few things about places I'd been. The Antarctica bits were particularly interesting. I didn't know that Palmer Station and the research vessel and icebreaker Nathaniel B. Palmer were named for the American sealer whom maybe first sailed along the Antarctic Peninsula, before anyone knew it was connected to a continent. Also, Weddell seals (fat, blobby masses of fat and fur) are named for... someone who killed them, British sealer James Weddell. As my cousin Susan pointed out, Weddell's long gone and the seals live on. So there's that.

The book was dense with information, but easily digestible information. I like that. Philbrick would leave cliffhangers at the end of chapters, keeping me turning pages. What I was a bit perplexed by as the book wore on though is that I learned quite a bit about the expedition and about exploration and trade (the expedition was spurred by the need for better charts for Americans exploiting foreign waters—a phrase the author never uses, but is the frank description: seals, whales, otters, sea cucumbers) I didn't get a good feel for the experience. The six ships sailed through extremely treacherous waters, barely making it through getting crunched by icebergs and getting tossed about by huge seas, almost crashing against rocks and cliffs and requiring long, hard, exhausting work and expert maneuvers to extricate themselves from these near misses. I got this from the text—they did hard things. But I didn't feel it. I don't know what it was like. I don't know ships, and maybe this is part of it. Ordeals were explained, but the closest I felt to being there was standing on the beach at Malolo, Fiji, watching two key crew-members get killed. Perhaps this is because the author had more "emotional information" on this event—people writing about what they saw and felt in their journals about an event that lasted maybe moments rather than hours. I knew those two men on the beach, and I watched them die. I saw their bodies in the water. It's worth noting that I didn't see anyone else's bodies, though—I didn't see the bodies of the multiple Fijians that died on the same beach, but without their friends journaling about it afterward.

Still, overall, the book was worth it. I do wonder at the value of reading books like this. How much will I retain? Is it worth the hours I spent with it? Is it enough just to light up the portions of my brain that engage in the act of reading? Will I retain an impression of the voyage that will somehow serve me, if not the details?

One thing about the book that provides major food for thought is its tale of leadership, which is really what the book is about. Charles Wilkes as a leader. Charles Wilkes as a person. How to lead, how not to lead. It's easy to say that Wilkes was a horrible leader. He was elitist, mean, insecure, rash, painfully egotistical, and often unreasonable. No one whom I would want to share space with. But as Lou, my book-lending coworker, pointed out, the expedition may not have been as successful under different leadership. Wilkes was anal, focused, and belligerent, including after the expedition when it came to producing results and keeping the collections together.

Still, I always like to believe there is a way to be a good, kind, successful, productive leader. I don't think belligerence and kindness are mutually exclusive.

Either way... Now, with my new-found understanding of 16 chapters of history, I can move on to those volcano books that have been calling to me. Island on Fire, wait, I'm coming!

Posted by beth at February 20, 2015 2:44 AM

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