Like the Greek historian Thucydides and the American historian Francis Parkman, Samuel Eliot Morison writes his books as much as possible from firsthand experiences. Indirect contact with the events that he recorded in his monumental History of United States Naval Operations in World War II.
He was born on July 9. 1887 to John Holmes and Emily Marshall (Eliot) Morison in Boston, Massachusetts at 44 Brimmer Street. That was in a house that his grandfather, Samuel Eliot, a historian and educator, had built. His other grandfather, Nathaniel H. Morison, originally from Peterborough, New Hampshire, had been the first provost of the Peabody Institute in Baltin.
As Morison has related in his autobiographical notes for 20th Century Authors (H.W. Wilson Company, First Supplement, 1955), he was reared in “an atmosphere where scholarship, religion and social graces were happily blended.” He attended Noble’s School in Boston and St. Paul’s in Concord, New Hampshire in preparation for Harvard University, which he entered in 1904.
Charles Homer Haskins and Edward Channing were among the distinguished scholars and professors at Harvard who aroused Morison’s interest in history. Receiving his B.A. degree cum laude in June 1908, he went at once to France for a year’s study, at the University of Grenoble during the summer and at the Ecole des Sciences Politiques in Paris during the winter.
Throughout his career, Morison has returned to Harvard repeatedly. In 1909 he took his M.A. degree there, and he remained at the university for the next three years (while assisting as a history instructor at Radcliffe College) to work for his Ph.D. degree, which was conferred in 1913.
Scholar and Historian
He gathered his material under the actual stress of battle as a commissioned officer in the Navy. Morison’s meticulous scholarship has not interfered with his desire to avoid pedantry and to reach many contemporary readers. He is widely known for his biographies of Christopher Columbus (1942) and John Paul Jones (1959), both of which won Pulitzer Prizes.
Several of his other books have established him as an authority on early American history and on the history of Harvard University, where he taught for almost forty years. New England has been the earliest, the most profound, and the most prolonged of the several major influences on Samuel Eliot Morison’s life and writings.
He had followed the suggestion of Professor Albert Bushnell Hart in choosing one of his own ancestors as the subject of his dissertation: his first book, The Life and Letters of Harrison Gray Otis, Federalist, 1765-1848, was published by Houghton Mifflin Company in 1913. After another trip to Europe, in 1913, which he spent partly in the on-the-scene study of the Balkan Wars, Morison taught history briefly at the University of California.
He joined the Harvard faculty in 1915 as an instructor, but three years later enlisted as a private in the Army. Instead of returning to the classroom at the end of World War I, he served as an attaché to the Russian division of the American Commission to Negotiate Peace and was also a delegate on the Baltic Commission of the Paris Peace Conference.
I unsympathetic towards the Treaty of Versailles, he resigned in July 1919 and went back to Harvard in the fall. The courses that Morison taught at Harvard included one on the history of Massachusetts. His enthusiasm for the subject led to The Maritime History of Massachusetts, 1783-1860 (Houghton, 1921).
Which he ranks among his most successful books. It is a result of both scholarly research and the personal observations that he made while enjoying his hobby of sailing up and down the coast of New England. In its fusion of the authentic and the interesting. It is an early fulfillment and illustration of the aims that he set forth in his pamphlet History as a Literary Art, published in 1946 and reprinted in his collection of essays By Land and By Sea (Knopf, 1953).
In 1922 Oxford University invited Morison to become the first incumbent of its new chair of American history. During the next three years, while teaching at Oxford as Harold Vyvyan Harmsworth Professor of American History, he worked on his Oxford History of the United States, 1792-1917, a textbook that met the needs of British readers of American history.
Later, in collaboration with Henry Steele Commager, he enlarged his book into The Growth of the American Republic (Oxford, 1930; fourth revised edition! 1950). Home again at Harvard, where he accepted a professorship in history in 1925, Morison turned to more local subjects. He occupied himself in Builders of the Bay Colony (Houghton, 1930) with early New England and the culture that the Puritans had brought to America.
In 1926 Harvard had appointed him the official historian for its 300th anniversary. By the time the tercentenary was celebrated in 1936, the Harvard University Press had published a book that he had edited called The Development of Harvard University since the Inauguration of President Eliot, 1869-1929 (1930); most of Morison’s multivolume Tercentennial History of Harvard College and University, 1636-1936.
Moreover, his more popular survey Three Centuries of Harvard, 1636-1936. The Tercentennial History brought him both the Jusserand Medal and Columbia University’s Loubat Prize. Professor Morison deplores the lack of knowledge of foreign languages that he finds in many young historical researchers. He told Earl W. Foell of the Christian Science Monitor on September 29, 1960.
That when he encouraged his students to work on the discovery of America in celebration of the 450th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America, they shied away from the subject because of language difficulties: “Nobody was left but poor me to do anything on Columbus.”
Following the example of Francis Parkman, who had prepared for his Pioneers of France in the New World (1865) by retracing the routes of the French explorers and living among the Indians, Morison tried to approximate the experiences of Columbus on his voyages to America.
Between 1937 and 1940 he made four trips in sailing vessels in the waters. That Columbus had explored, crossing and re-crossing the Atlantic in 1939-40 as commodore of the Harvard Columbus Expedition. Several of Morison’s major books grew out of these adventurous investigations.
The Second Voyage of Christopher Columbus from Cadiz to Hispaniola and the Discovery of the Lesser Antilles (Oxford, 1939); Portuguese Voyages to America in the Fifteenth Century (Harvard. 1940); and Admiral of the Ocean Sea; A Life of Christopher Columbus (Little, 1942).
His work on Columbus, for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in biography in 1943. was hailed as a monument of scholarship. The comments of Lincoln Colcord in the New York Herald Tribune Books (March 1, 1942) reflected the opinion of many reviewers: ”Combining extreme erudition and the art of good writing in almost equal quantities.
The narrative flows like a superb novel, while all the facts and observations are buttressed and re-buttressed with four centuries of references until there is hardly anything left to say.” Admiral of the Ocean Sea proved to be an excellent recommendation for Morison when he set out in early 1942 to interest President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his proposal to prepare “a full, accurate and early record” of the part played by the United States Navy in World War II.
Samuel Eliot Morison has said that the welcome that sailors everywhere gave him as the biographer of Columbus was an even greater advantage to him than his commission as a lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve, which he received in May 1942. Although he held the title of the historian of naval operations and was given a staff of officers and access to naval documents, he was not an official historian for the Navy.
Beginning in July 1942 with a convoy trip across the Atlantic, during the next three years, Morison covered almost all the battle areas and important naval operations of the war. He was an eyewitness to the North Africa landings in the fall of 1942, participated in the Central Solomon’s campaign in the summer of 1943 and later in the Gilbert Islands assault, visited the beachheads at Salerno and other areas of the European theater.
However, in 1945 saw the battle for Okinawa from the bridge of the flagship Tennessee. He served on some dozen ships during the war, earning seven Battle Stars and the Legion of Merit with combat clasp. Much of Morison’s naval history was based on the notes of facts and impressions that he jotted down with a pencil on yellow paper during interviews and battles.
He filed these away, with official reports and other documents, to await the end of the war. He did not begin to publish his History of United States Naval Operations in World War II (Little) until he could examine enemy records. Working for the most part at an office in Harvard’s Widener Library, he produced about one volume every year between 1947.
When the Battle of the Atlantic: 1939-43 appeared, and 1960, when Victory in the Pacific, 1945 closed the fourteen-volume series. (Victory in the Pacific is the last of the narrative volumes. A fifteenth volume contains a cumulative index and list of errata and various annexes.) Because Morison’s work is his own history.
Rather than the authorized or official record of the Navy, he has room for personal judgment in his treatment of Navy heroes and for his own conclusions in considering such questions as the justification of dropping the atom bomb on Japan. Hanson W. Baldwin, the military editor of the New York Times, expressed the view in the rimes Book Review (November 6, 1960).
That among the minor defects of Morison’s cycle was an occasional indulgence in “sweeping generalizations impossible to prove or disprove.” He found, however, that “the virtues are self-evident a combination of painstaking research and clear dramatic writing in a sweeping pageant of action.” During the fifteen postwar years that Morison winked on his naval history he wrote eight other books.
Also, including The Story of the Old Colony of New Plymouth (Knopf, 1956) and Intellectual Life of Colonial New England (N.Y. Univ. Press, 1956), as well as John Paul Jones; A Sailor’s Biography (Little, 1959), for which he won his second Pulitzer Prize in biography. Columbia University awarded him its Bancroft Prize in 1949 for the third volume of his history of World War II naval operations.
The Rising Sun in the Pacific, 1931-42 (1948), and in 1962 he received the Gold Medal for History and Biography of the National Institute of Arts and Letters for the excellence of his work as a whole. His autobiographical One Boy’s Boston was published by Houghton Mifflin Company in the autumn of 1962.
Since August 1951 Morison has been on the Navy’s honorary retirement list in the rank of rear admiral. Since 1955 he has also been retired from teaching at Harvard, having become Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History, Emeritus, after holding that professorship in active service for almost fifteen years.
Semiretired as a historian, however, he began working on his Oxford History of the American People before the final volume of his World War II cycle was off the press in 1965. Morison has also continued to add to the scores of articles that he has written for scholarly journals and for more popular periodicals like the Saturday Evening Post.
He has been a member of the editorial boards of the New England Quarterly and the American Neptune; president of the American Antiquarian Society, the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, and the American Historical Society; and a Fellow of the American Philosophical Society, the British Academy, and the Royal Academy of History in Madrid.
His many other professional affiliations have included the chairmanship of the council of historians of the Institute of Early American History at Williamsburg, Virginia, trusteeship of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, and vice-presidency of the Naval Records Society. Many colleges and universities — Yale, Oxford, Notre Dame, and Columbia, among others, have awarded Morison honorary degrees.
He is a member of the Charitable Irish Society and of several clubs, including the St. Botolph and Somerset in Boston and the Athenaeum in London. His church is the Episcopal. For some forty years he had been a member of the Democratic party, but in 1952 he voted Republican in support of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Samuel Eliot Morison was six feet one inch tall and has the hale look of a seagoing man. The dignified, somewhat reserved manner generally associated with a Boston Brahmin. Samuel Eliot Morison and Elizabeth Shaw Greene, a painter, were married on May 28, 1910, and had four children, Elizabeth Gray (Mrs. Edward Spingarn), Emily Marshall (Mrs. Brooks Beck), Peter Greene, and Catharine. Morison’s first wife died in 1945, and in December 1949 he married Priscilla Barton of Baltimore.
She has accompanied him on his travels to the Far East to revisit the scenes of World War II and on the trips, he took to collect material for his biography of John Paul Jones. She also shares Morison’s hobby of sailing his yawl out of Northeast Harbor on Maine’s Mount Desert Island, his lifelong favorite vacation resort, which he celebrated in The Story of Mount Desert Island (Atlantic-Little, 1960).
Many his books are Mariner 1955, Freedom in Contemporary Society in 1956, Old Colony of New Playmouth in 1956, William Hickling Prescott in 1958, Nathaniel Holmes Morison in 1957, A Sailor’s Biography in 1959, Story of Mount Desert Island, Maine in 1960, One Boy’s Boston, in 1962, Introduction to Whaler Out of New Bedford (1962), and A History of the Constitution of Massachusetts in 1963.
Honors and Awards
Samuel Eliot Morison received 11 honorary doctoral degrees and many military honors, literary prizes, foreign and national awards. The list includes Balzan Prize, Legion of Merit, two Pulitzer Prizes, two Bancroft Prizes and Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1979, the frigate USS Samuel Eliot Morison was launched, in the honor of S.E. Morison by the U.S. Further, there is a bronze statue of Morison depicting in sailor’s oilskin.
In 1955, Samuel Eliot Morison retired from Harvard University and devoted his rest of life for writing purposes. His home otherwise is still Boston’s Brimmer Street. He died on May 15, 1976, at the age of 88 Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. You can red the bibliography of Samuel Eliot Morison on Wikipedia.
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References Christian Sci Mon pll S 29 ’60 por N Y Times Bk R p6 Je 5 ’60 por Morison, Samuel E. One Boy’s Boston (1962) Twentieth Century’ Authors (First Supplement, 1955) Who’s Who in America, 1962-63