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...
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