Sea of Glory, by Nathaniel Philbrick

Exploration! Adventure! See the world! The U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842 offered all that. With a task force of six sailing ships and 346 men, the Expedition discovered Antarctica, mapped much of the South Pacific and the Pacific Northwest, and circled the globe. It returned with materials that formed the basis of the collections of the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Botanic Garden, and sparked the formation of the U.S. Hydrographic Office and the Naval Observatory. 

Why is this Expedition not ranked alongside Lewis and Clark in our history?  Nathaniel Philbrick, noted for histories of Washington, Custer, and the whaling ship Essex, takes on that question through a review of the journals and correspondence of the principal officers of the Expedition and other historical records. 

Those records revealed a corking tale of the inner turmoil of the commander of the Expedition, Charles Wilkes, and the resulting tension among the officers and crew.  Throughout the voyage, Philbrick traces the deteriorating relations between Wilkes and his officers, particularly William Reynolds, who started as an admirer of Wilkes and by 1842 was his adamant opponent. Wilkes was at once supremely self-confident and supremely insecure. This internal tension (Philbrick quotes Thoreau’s description of “the private sea”) was reflected in inconsistent and ineffective leadership of the Expedition’s officers and crew, unwarranted transfers, unnecessary and brutal floggings. 

Our group’s discussions kept coming back to Wilkes’s tragic character flaws. Was it arrogance and self-conceit? Yes, but the accomplishments of the Expedition deserved high regard. Would Wilkes have been better balanced and more tolerant if he had been given the recognition he thought was deserved? Melville is quoted: “All mortal greatness is but disease.” Could another commander have managed the personnel better? Maybe, but no senior officer of the Navy wanted to take this command. And maybe a more collaborative commander would not have achieved as much as Wilkes did. The title “Sea of Glory” comes from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII as Cardinal Wolsey laments his loss of office: “I have ventured . . . this many summers in a sea of glory, but far beyond my depth.” These are universal questions, but they are magnified by small ships, large oceans, and four years at sea. 

Ah, but the adventure. The Expedition brought together threads of scientific investigation, the commercial needs of traders and whalers, and the U.S. diplomatic expansion of the Jackson and Van Buren era. It visited Antarctica twice, once from the tip of South America, and a year later from Australia. The seamanship needed to take sailing vessels through the fog and ice of the high southern latitudes was a real adventure, which Philbrick tells skillfully. Between and after the Antarctic visits, the Expedition surveyed hundreds of Pacific Islands, had a hostile encounter with Fijians, climbed through the climate changes of Mauna Loa in Hawaii to make pendulum observations which would increase scientific understanding of the earth’s gravity, shape, and density. After completing that task, the Expedition moved to the Pacific Northwest, surveyed the coast from California to Vancouver Island and the Puget Sound, and entered the mouth of the Columbia River, traversing some of the most dangerous waters in the United States. 

The Expedition returned to the United States in 1842 to a Tyler administration whose interests had shifted to westward expansion, the annexation of Texas, and conflict with Mexico. In the naval culture of that time, after-action disputes were taken to courts martial. Wilkes, Reynolds, and three others were given suspensions and reprimands that gave no sense of vindication for anyone, and undercut the public image of the Expedition. Over the next few years, its scientific output gained greater appreciation as books, memoirs, and findings were written. But the public had moved on to other interests and the Expedition missed the moment of accolade that Wilkes and his crew had expected. But what an adventure they had.

— Bill Smith

Prague Winter, by Madeleine Albright

Full Title: Prague Winter, A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948

We found Prague Winter engaging on many levels. Albright tells personal and family stories that play out across the mid-20th Century history of Central Europe, with a focus on the ethical choices that confronted her family, their friends, professional colleagues, and national leaders during this tumultuous time. Prague Winter is not a conventional history book, but it explains a large sweep of history in these personal contexts.

The family story is an absorbing one of her parents’ slow motion courtship in the Czechoslovakia of the 1930s, her father’s development as a professional diplomat, and the family’s relocation to Belgrade, London, back to Prague, and eventually to the United States. (Albright’s own professional story as a diplomat and Secretary of State is told in other books).

The European history is anchored in the familiar elements of World War 2 and the Communist takeover of Central/Eastern Europe. But Albright’s telling of her family’s story gives us a highly personal and accessible view of the historic events. She explains the emergence of Czechoslovakia, its sacrifice on the altar of world peace at Munich, its suffering during World War 2, its brief democratic resurgence, and the bungling that took it into the Communist fold in 1948. 

Albright lets us see the personalities of Masaryk, Beneš, and other key players in the story, and many people who weren’t in positions to drive history but nevertheless had to navigate it. This is Albright’s real theme in this book: the painful personal and ethical choices people had to make throughout this period. What did Nazi occupation look like from Prague? From the concentration camp? And from exile in London? How did people weigh international peace with national integrity? How do people take political positions that risk the welfare of family and friends? These are questions with no easy answers, and often with no good answers. But they provide great discussion, and that’s what we enjoyed so much about this book.

— Bill Smith

The Water is Wide, by Pat Conroy

Pat Conroy introduces himself in this book, published in 1972, before writing several much acclaimed and widely read novels such as The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline, and South of BroadThe Water is Wide is a reflection on a year of teaching middle school (1969-1970) on the culturally isolated Yamacraw (Daufuskie) Island, South Carolina. It’s a young man’s coming of age, reckoning with his military brat upbringing and the transformation of his traditional Southern White outlook to a mindset that was enormously progressive for that time and place. 

As a young teacher, Conroy was challenged by the island’s culture and economics. His African-American students were accustomed to regular use of violence with each other, their families, and their animals. His colleague, Mrs. Brown, accepted the traditional White expectations of low ability and poor outcomes for these kids and the prescription of rote learning and discipline by the belt. Although Conroy was supposed to be teaching middle school, most of his students were woefully deficient in even the most rudimentary pieces of elementary education – they couldn’t write their names, say the alphabet, or find the location of their island on a map. The islanders led a withdrawn lifestyle after the failure of the island’s oyster beds, but were reluctant to let their kids go to the mainland for their first experience of Halloween, one of Conroy’s early projects. The school administration treated the island as a distant distraction from the needs of the mainland towns. Conroy met these situations with the righteousness of a committed young man, tested various strategies of engagement, avoidance and confrontation, and predictably met with varying degrees of success.

Conroy brings a remarkable clarity and maturity to a fairly fresh set of experiences, and he does it with humor and palpable images of the island and its people. He has a clear eye for his own growth as he gained respect for his students’ ability to deal with their reality and battled the administration for resources and flexibility. He also has a handle on his own rigidity that inevitably ended his teaching career; he picked an unwinnable dispute over gasoline and maintenance costs of the boat he used to commute to the island, but he would never have been successful with a school bureaucracy that was managing system-wide integration.

He earned my respect for his effort and creativity to give his students an awareness of life off the island, where many of them would eventually have to live. His experience came several years before broad-based programs like Teach for America but it points to some of the ways such programs may be able to support teaching in disadvantaged communities. Conroy ends the memoir with a hopeful forecast of racial acceptance in South Carolina that has only been partly realized by recent history but his story echoes with hope and possibility.

— Bill Smith