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 to have manufactured one.
The second chapter focuses upon the reasons for Paul’s flight to America in 1773, when he was twenty-six. Again, through a fictionalized retelling of the events, Paul is shown to be victimized by the English. What is omitted are his earlier nautical experiences. Paul had received a warrant as midshipman in the British navy, an appointment that casts doubt upon his antipathy for the English. He also served as chief mate on a slaver vessel for two years. In 1770, he had flogged the ship’s carpenter for laziness, who then deserted but later died; it was for this flogging that Paul was charged with murder. Free on bail, he searched for evidence to clear himself, and it was at that time that he was faced with the mutiny. Paul did flee and change his name, although it was probably not because he was Scottish but because of events prior to 1773. Moreover, he fled to Virginia because that was where his brother was living.
Sperry is at his best when he recounts the exploits of Jones between 1775 and 1779 and when he is describing nautical activities. Sperry’s own knowledge of sailing lends an air of authenticity to the events discussed, and the author creates dialogue to tell what Jones did and why he did it. Of particular note are Sperry’s descriptions of the capture of New Providence in the Bahamas in 1776, the Irish Sea venture in 1778, and the fight with the Serapis on September 23, 1779. Without question, the battle with the Serapis was the event that made Jones an American national hero. His steadfastness under fire and his refusal to quit, even under the worst of conditions, created a heroic role model for American naval officers. Yet Sperry omits much relevant material, preferring instead to focus only on the high points of Jones’s career. Most significantly, Sperry fails to place Jones into historical perspective; that is, he does not fit Jones into the story of the American Revolution.
Jones’s last years are treated as being irrelevant to his life. Except for his service as a rear admiral in the Russian navy between 1788 and 1789, he performed no further significant naval activities. After leaving Russian service, he returned to Paris, where he died in obscurity and poverty in 1792. Again omitting historical perspective, Sperry fails to note that the Paris of that period was the focal point of the French Revolution. More than a century after his death, Jones’s body was enshrined at the United States Naval Academy.
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