Dr. Michael J. Crawford: Retirement Remarks

Dr. Michael J. Crawford
Senior Historian
Naval History and Heritage Command

On this occasion of my retirement after almost thirty-six years as a navy historian, I want to talk with you about two subjects dear to my heart: me and us. I want to discuss my career as a historian and I want to address our work together here at the Naval History and Heritage Command as collaborators in creating and communicating historical understanding.

Are events contingent on the choices we make, or are they inevitable, driven by forces beyond our control? Was the American Civil War an irrepressible conflict, or did it occur because of specific decisions particular individuals made? For the historian, both propositions hold true. In explaining events as they unfolded, the historian must treat them as contingent, examining the choices pivotal individuals and groups confronted while weighing all that may have influenced their actions. But, looking back at those same events, the historian must conclude that they were inevitable, for, in fact, they did happen, and the historian’s job is to explain why. We are both free to make our own decisions and at the same time prisoners of our circumstances. Perhaps it was inevitable that I would become a historian of the navy in the age of fighting sail; or was it a fluke, contingent on a series of choices I confronted as I sought work in my chosen profession?

When I was in grade school, my father did two things to strengthen my reading skills. First, to improve my grasp of the meanings of words, he set me to taking the vocabulary quizzes that appeared in every issue of Reader’s Digest magazine. And second, to motivate me to read more avidly, he recommended swashbuckling tales of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The advanced vocabulary of Robert Louis Stephenson’s Treasure Island challenged me, but I have vivid recollection of my excitement in reading Raphael Sabatini’s Scaramouch and Captain Blood. One of the earliest books I recall given me by my parents was Naval Battles and Heroes (1960), part of the American Heritage Junior Library series, written by Wilbur Cross, in consultation with John B. Heffernan. Rear Admiral Heffernan had been Director of Naval History and in charge of the predecessor office of the Naval History and Heritage Command from 1946 to 1956. Thus, some of my earliest formative experiences with books exposed me to stories of wooden ships, iron guns, and intrepid sailors.

While in high school, I built a large model of the U.S. frigate Constitution from a kit but thought little more about naval history. As an undergraduate at Washington University, in my native St. Louis, Missouri, taking courses taught by Professor John M. Murrin, I became enamored with early American history, where my interests centered on religious and constitutional ideas. This interest led to a dissertation on the intellectual sources of religious revivals in New England during the transition from Puritanism to Evangelicalism that took place between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which I wrote at Boston University under the tutelage of Professor Richard L. Bushman. After granting me my degree, Boston University offered me the opportunity to teach a course on the American Revolution.

With my Ph.D. in hand, I landed a visiting assistant professorship at Texas Tech University in 1978, with an option of staying a total of three years. The dearth of permanent history teaching positions in American colleges led me to consider other career paths. The texts of historical documents, the authentic words in which people expressed their ideas, had always fascinated me and I had very much enjoyed editing the spiritual autobiography of Nathan Cole, a participant in the eighteenth-century New England revivals, which I had the good fortune of publishing while in graduate school. So, I decided to market myself as a documentary editor, that is, a scholar of historical texts. During the summer of 1980, I attended “Camp Edit,” a three-week seminar in documentary editing sponsored by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and in the autumn of 1981 I said farewell to Texas Tech in order to accept a one-year fellowship at the Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Under the direction of the editor, Robert Taylor, and his assistants, Greg Lint and Celeste Walker, and working with the papers of John Adams and John Quincy Adams, I learned the fine details of survey, selection, transcription, annotation, and indexing of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century manuscripts.

In the autumn of 1981, the Naval Historical Center was seeking to hire a historian to assist with the editing of the U.S. Navy’s Naval Documents of the American Revolution series. At the annual meeting of the Association for Documentary History, Dr. William S. Dudley, then head of the project, interviewed me for the position. Apparently, he found that my training as an early Americanist, my knowledge of the era of the American Revolution, and my experience with documentary editing made me the most qualified candidate, for on 22 February 1982, with my eye glasses fogging up as I came into the office from the cold, I entered into my duties as a naval historian.

Although I knew a lot about early America, I knew little about naval history-one could say that I did not know my aft from my hawse­hole-and I had to learn on the job. Two examples will illustrate the process by which I gradually became educated in the argot of the sailor. One of my first assignments was to index parts of the ninth volume of the Revolutionary War series, then being prepared for the press. This was before personal computers and automated indexing programs. We wrote each entry by hand on a 3″ x 5″ index card. We then alphabetized the index cards by hand and organized and consolidated them before turning them over to a secretary to be typed on a typewriter (a piece of equipment even rarer in offices today than secretaries have become). I remember coming across a phrase in a British log book stating that the ship anchored by the “Best Bower,” wondering if the Best Bower was a place name, a proper noun requiring an index entry, and learning from my colleague, Ken McQuistion, a grizzled ex-Navy chief, that the best bower was the chief anchor-it hung from the bow-and did not get indexed. Later, I was assisting with the indexing of the first volume of our series The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History. A document relating to the U.S. naval station on Lake Ontario, at Sackets Harbor, New York, stated that the commandant had ordered a gun transferred from one of the warships and mounted on “the Cavalier.” Assuming Cavalier was the name of another ship, I spent a couple of frustrating hours finding no other mention of it until it finally occurred to me that there was no such vessel, and a dictionary of military terms revealed that the cavalier is a gun platform within a fort raised higher than any other part of the fort so as to be able to command the entire field of fire.

A career of three decades and more as an official Navy historian has increased my knowledge of the Navy’s history as well as afforded me the chance to contribute to that body of knowledge. It would bore you for me to mention all my wonderful colleagues who over the decades have taught me about the Navy’s history, sharpened my historical argumentation, and improved my writing. Those who are in the audience know who you are. But I want to acknowledge my wife, Elva, my beloved companion for almost as long as I have been with the Navy’s history enterprise, who, also having earned a doctorate and having spent a career in history, more than tolerates but truly understands my obsession with the past. She has also taught me that life is more than study-has shared a life of music, gardening, cooking, and volunteer teaching, as well as history. Likewise, I want to acknowledge our son Evan, who, having earned a doctorate in radiation physics, manages to keep his parents current on modem technology even from his distant post in Vienna, Austria, where he works to keep us all safe from nuclear proliferation in his job at the International Atomic Energy Agency, Pardon me, if my pride is showing.

Enough about me. Now, what about us?

Most of us in this space, whether we are archeologists, archivists, curators, documentary editors, historians, librarians, or museum specialists, are history professionals. We are all involved in the similar task of making the past come alive to a varied audience. We communicate our understanding of the past to others. The processes by which we accomplish this call for both collaboration and art. The experience of those of us who design museum exhibits and write their texts defies the stereotype of the solitary scholar reeking of lamp oil from lonely hours in an ivory tower. Similarly, those of us who are writers and editors of books, and this is particularly true of those of us who are documentary editors, work as teams. As our enterprises are large, our success is dependent on teamwork. Although some of us may be inventive geniuses, we are not like Thomas Edison the solitary inventor; rather we are like the teams of collective researchers assembled by Edison at his “invention factory” at Menlo Park. Or, a more apt analogy may be that we are not akin to Samuel Eliot Morison the Harvard scholar studying the voyages of Christopher Columbus, but we are akin to the team of Admiral Morison’s writers who produced the monumental fifteen-volume operational history of the Navy in World War II.

Have you ever felt like everything you thought you knew is wrong? I grew up believing that in a tornado one should leave a few of a house’s windows cracked to prevent a vacuum from causing the building to collapse, that margarine is better for your health than butter is, that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, that splitting an infinitive is bad grammar, that one should never end a sentence with a preposition, that Christopher Columbus was a hero, and that Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin. Now experts tell me that all these ideas are bunkum. The world I thought I knew has been turned upside down. I feel like the character in John Barth’s The Sot-weed Factor, a novel about a tobacco merchant in colonial Maryland, who, when gazing at the stars and having it explained to him that the earth is a sphere traveling through space, and that the stars are not just above him but below as well, experiences vertigo and falls from his horse. Good history should be like this, it should turn our views upside down, give us vertigo, and throw us from our mounts.

Good art helps the viewer see things in a new way, from a different perspective. Great art transforms the way one understands the world. As communicators, we are also artists. Our objective as historians, whether in designing a museum exhibit or in writing a historical essay, is to shine a new light on the experience of the past, bringing new understanding to the museum visitor or the reader. Maritime historian Lincoln Paine begins his magisterial The Sea & Civilization: A Maritime History of the World with the sentence, “I want to change the way you see the world.” Such should be the goal of every work of history. If our audiences leave us merely entertained, we have not succeeded. If they leave merely reconfirmed in the views they held before encountering our work, we have not succeeded. Our audiences should leave us somehow different, with some value added; they should learn something new, see the past differently. In our work, we should challenge long cherished notions, shake up our audience a bit. Better yet if we can get our audiences hooked on history, for, like any addiction, an addiction to history changes the way our brains work.

Here is where the art comes in. We can effect a change in our audiences’ point of view without an in-your-face confrontation, without the audiences even realizing that they are being taught something new, and even while holding their interest by entertaining them. We can do this by applying to the art of history lessons from the art of fiction. The novelist creates characters who evoke an emotional response, places them in situations that reveal truths about the human predicament, and employs make believe to craft a narrative with purpose. Similarly, historians can portray historical characters in ways that evoke empathy or revulsion, focus on moments in which those characters made pivotal choices, and employ facts (and artifacts) to craft narratives that teach historical lessons. Our ultimate goal should be to make a difference in the way our audience perceives our world. The better we accomplish this goal, the closer will our work be to great art. And to create great history that is also great art is a worthy aspiration.

(Return to July 2018 Table of Contents)

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