Master And Commander
New York Newsday, January 4, 2004
A review of Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery - The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842, by Nathaniel Philbrick.
Chances are you have never heard of Charles Wilkes. Chances are even better that you've never heard of the United States Exploratory Expedition. To Nathaniel Philbrick (the author of the 2000 National Book Award winner "In the Heart of the Sea"), this is a sad state of affairs. Between 1838 and 1842, Charles Wilkes led a fleet of six ships and more than 500 men on America's first great scientific voyage. As they circled the globe, they drew the first maps of Antarctica, surveyed hundreds of islands in the Pacific, explored the waters of the northwestern United States and picked up thousands of specimens and artifacts. Their research would play a key role in the birth of sciences ranging from anthropology to geology to evolutionary biology.
Yet the Exploratory Expedition sank into obscurity soon after Wilkes arrived back home. In "Sea of Glory," Philbrick revives its story in impressive detail, hoping not only to memorialize the voyage but to figure out why it didn't become as famous as the journeys of Charles Darwin or James Cook. The answer, Philbrick concludes, is that Wilkes was the boss from hell.
In coming to this conclusion, Philbrick has produced a book that is part travelogue, part history of science and part psychological profile. It works well - despite some flaws - on all counts. Philbrick demonstrates how the Exploratory Expedition was a moon shot for an early America: a scientific voyage that would prove the nation was on par with England and France. Its purpose was not purely science for science's sake, however. The expedition was also designed to expand American trade by charting new territories and finding safer, faster routes across the seas.
Wilkes was a last-minute choice to lead the "Ex Ex." The unprecedented logistics of preparing the voyage proved too much for more senior officers, and so the navy turned to the 40-year-old lieutenant. Wilkes was a brilliant surveyor who had mapped parts of the Atlantic coast with unmatched precision. He saw himself not as a naval warrior, but a scientist at sea. And he also proved to be a good leader, able to inspire his crew to meet his own high standards. When some of his officers ended up assigned to the Ex Ex, they looked forward to working under him.
They soon realized their mistake. Wilkes had always been prey to arrogance, impetuosity and insecurity, but, according to Philbrick, his wife, Jane, through her counsel, kept all those demons in check. Once Wilkes left her for this four-year trek, the demons got loose. The navy had failed to promote him to captain before he set sail, and the humiliation hurt him deeply. He began to dress like a captain and fly a captain's pennant. To make himself feel superior to his officers (some more experienced than he), Wilkes humiliated them in every imaginable way. Most of us have had bosses like Wilkes, who punish anyone who rightly questions their judgment and then put the blame for failure on those who follow their orders. On the high seas, however, there was no escape from his tyranny. Vicious floggings and harsh imprisonment were par for the course. When the Ex Ex returned to the United States, some members of the crew raised a slew of charges against Wilkes, and they were all delighted to follow his court martial. They were outraged when he slipped away with barely a slap on the wrist.
Paradoxically, this awful leader managed to push his squadron further than anyone would have dreamed possible. He navigated his fragile wooden sailboats through fields of icebergs and mapped 1,500 miles of Antarctica at a time when few people believed that the continent even existed. It's in episodes like these that Philbrick's writing jumps off the page - thanks not only to his research into the copious journals kept by the captain and crew, but to his own intimate knowledge of the ships of this period. Later in the voyage, Wilkes led his men to many other amazing feats, such as climbing Mauna Loa on the island of Hawaii to set up a scientific observatory, and Philbrick consistently succeeds in communicating their awesome struggle against the elements.
But was it ultimately worth all the effort? As an exercise in mapping the world, certainly. But Philbrick sees the Ex Ex's accomplishment as rising far above cartography. He believes it was hugely important to the overall scientific development of the United States. The evidence he presents doesn't quite live up to his claims. Wilkes climbed Mauna Loa, for example, to perform experiments with swinging pendulums in order to map the density of the Earth. For all his work, though, the results were useless. Philbrick tries wherever possible to link the work of Ex Ex scientists to later breakthroughs, such as plate tectonics and Darwin's theory of evolution, but generally it's a reach. But while the Ex Ex may not have been the birth of American science per se, it still mattered: It was the first example of America's penchant for Big Science - a tradition that would later produce the Manhattan Project's invention of the atomic bomb and the Human Genome Project.
A more serious shortcoming of "Sea of Glory" is its thin treatment of the personal dimension of the voyage. Too often, Philbrick simply recounts the actions of the crew without exploring the significance of what they're doing. The most jarring example comes when Philbrick describes the Ex Ex's travels around Fiji. During some tense negotiations for food, members of the crew got into a fight with some islanders. Fijians had a reputation for aggression, but the American sailors proved in the end to be far more homicidal, massacring almost 80 islanders and burning several villages to the ground. Philbrick offers no insights into the violent impulses that can lurk underneath the noble rhetoric of scientific exploration.
Philbrick's profile of Wilkes' tortured psyche also proves disappointing. He argues that Wilkes sabotaged his own fame: If his crew hadn't leveled sensational charges against him, there would have been no court martial to distract the country from his achievements. This seems like a fair conclusion, judging from the many juicy passages Philbrick has chosen from Wilkes' letters. But Philbrick makes an awkward tour of Wilkes' inner life. He tries some half-hearted psychoanalysis, clumsily offering a long excerpt from the pop-psychology book "Emotional Intelligence." It's shortcomings like these that prevent this good book from being a great one.
As I read "Sea of Glory," I kept thinking about Herman Melville. Philbrick's "In the Heart of the Sea" recounted the story of the doomed whale ship Essex, which provided Melville with some of the raw material for "Moby Dick." It's been suggested that Melville also used Wilkes as a model for Captain Ahab - a national hero gripped by obsession and arrogance. Reading "Sea of Glory," I kept wishing for Melville's penetrating psychological insights, his ability to see the tragic underpinnings of the American experience, his poetic panoramas of an incomprehensible, unconquerable natural world. One longs for less "Emotional Intelligence" from Philbrick, and more "Moby Dick."
Copyright 2004, Carl Zimmer