BOOK REVIEW – Guiding Lights: United States Naval Academy Monuments and Memorials

Nancy Prothro Arbuthnot,  Guiding Lights: United States Naval Academy Monuments and Memorials, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2009.

Review by Matthew McGrew
University of Southern Mississippi

Recent “History and Memory” scholarship has analyzed the importance of monuments and memorials to the societies that erect such tributes.  Readers should approach Nancy Prothro Arbuthnot’s Guiding Lights with the understanding that the author’s purpose is not to follow the footsteps of scholars such as Jay Winter in providing a cultural reading of Annapolis memorials.  Rather, this book serves as a veritable ‘family album’ to insiders of the navy community and a ‘tour guide’ to individuals on the outside looking in.  From this perspective, Arbuthnot’s book provides readers with an accessible compendium to many well-known Naval Academy monuments.

Guiding Lights’s no-nonsense organization lends itself well to Arbuthnot’s goal of exploring the history behind the sites passed daily by past and present midshipmen.  An introductory chapter about the architectural history of “the Yard” from the nineteenth century to the present gives way to over sixty brief sketches of selected monuments in alphabetical order.  Readers will easily jump from the “Administration Building” to the “Zimmerman Bandstand” and all points between – assuming that memorials of interest made the author’s cut.  Though space limitations and authorial license did prevent the inclusion of all Annapolis tributes, the information and photographs (B/W) included with each entry more than make up for any missing sites.

The book’s greatest strength comes from the inclusion of poetry and reflections about each location provided by more than eighty midshipmen in the graduating classes of 2001-2010.  In addition, the author’s own poetry about specific monuments of importance to herself – as both a faculty member and daughter of an Academy graduate – will catch the attention of future researchers interested in Annapolis culture and legacy.  As with all books however, Guiding Lights is not without its shortcomings.  The most glaring flaw – a complete lack of foot- or endnotes – will prove a hindrance and irritation to most academic readers.  While the author does enclose all primary source excerpts within headers and footers that allude to point(s) of origin, readers looking for a bread-crumb trail to the archives will search in vain.  With no citation to directly link text to bibliography, interested researchers will spend time scouring the reference list for what may be the appropriate book, article, manuscript collection, or website.  Aside from this major drawback, Arbuthnot’s book is quite user-friendly.

Because of its more-basic, less-specialized approach to the subject matter, Guiding Lights will appeal to a wide range of academic and non-academic readers.  First, any researcher of service academy mentalité (i.e. what type of environment makes a midshipman a midshipman) will delight in the ability to visit these Annapolis haunts from the comfort of home.  Second, the poetry and reflections by the author and the midshipmen contributors will serve as valuable primary sources to future “History and Memory” scholars.  Third, Arbuthnot’s book will undoubtedly find a welcome audience among current and retired naval personnel, their friends and family, and any laypersons interested in the Naval Academy.  Simply put, most readers who pick up Guiding Lights will find it a useful guide to Annapolis with a variety of research applications.

(Return to the October 2013 Issue Table of Contents)

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