John Paul Jones, Fighting Sailor Critical Context - Essay

Armstrong Sperry

Critical Context

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.