In John Paul Jones, Fighting Sailor, Sperry combines history and fiction to create an American hero of mythic proportions. The biography is appropriate for younger readers because of the simplistic manner in which the subject is handled. The book begins with one chapter about a twelve-year-old Paul learning Scottish history from his uncle. The next chapter jumps to the Caribbean Sea, where Captain Paul fears injustice from the English. The following five chapters, constituting three-fourths of the book, shifts to Jones’s heroic service in the Continental navy. Finally, in only three pages, the last thirteen years of Jones’s life story is told.
The purpose of the first chapter is encapsulated in a rhetorical statement offered by Sperry: “Many have wondered how such a man, born a subject of the English king, could have turned his back on his native land to adopt the cause of the rebellious Colonials across the sea.” Sperry answers this query by pointing to Scottish history and the Battle of Culloden in 1746. While it is true that the history of Scotland was filled with frequent war with England, the event cited by Sperry as being a major catalyst in Paul’s life was probably not. According to Sperry, Paul was twelve when he learned of Culloden. Had the battle been as important as Sperry intimates, however, Paul would certainly have learned of Culloden long before 1759. Indeed, given that Paul was from the southwestern Scottish lowlands, an area that was neither pro-Stewart nor pro-Highland, it is very difficult to imagine that Culloden was significant to Paul at all. This literary license is the very foundation of mythmaking; Sperry needed a reason for Paul’s hatred of the English and therefore seems...
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John Paul Jones, Fighting Sailor is typical of the biographical style of an earlier era. Fictionalized dialogue is used to explain action; simplistic, and often contrived, interpretations explain the motives of the subject. Sperry’s purpose was to teach young American readers about the virtues of courage and honor. In the process, he gave a romanticized and heroic, although one-sided, view of Jones. In his writing, Perry ignored or distorted details about Jones’s life that were nonheroic, such as Jones’s personality and motives. In his short career, Jones was charged with murder, faced a mutiny, frequently quarreled with superiors, and usually left employment under a cloud. The failure of Sperry to deal with such negative elements is a major flaw in his work.
The heroic theme dominates all of Sperry’s works, although his attitude toward non-Europeans is condescending at best. His most important work was Call It Courage (1940), the story of a boy who was determined not to be afraid, for which Sperry won the American Library Association Newbery Medal in 1941. Yet his writing style and his Eurocentric attitudes toward other cultures have resulted in much of his work being retired. John Paul Jones, Fighting Sailor should best be remembered as a sentimental biography in the style of an earlier, less complex age.