JOHN PAUL JONES: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy

Evan Thomas, Author . Simon & Schuster $28 (400p) ISBN 978-0-7432-0583-2

This superlative biography from Newsweek assistant managing editor Thomas (Robert Kennedy, His Life) can hold its own on the shelf with Samuel Eliot Morison's Pulitzer Prize–winning Jones bio, A Sailor's Story. It does not add much to our knowledge of the events of its subject's life (from his birth in lowland Scotland in 1747 to his lonely death in revolutionary Paris in 1792), but it adds interpretations and dimensions to practically every event that has been recorded elsewhere. Jones's reception in the rebellious colonies, for example, where he arrived as a fugitive from justice, was much helped by his Masonic affiliations. His (frequently successful) pursuit of the ladies raised eyebrows, and his conduct during the famous ship to ship engagement between Bonhomme Richard and Serapis was more stubborn than sound. The British Captain Pearson was deservedly knighted for saving his valuable convoy from Jones's attack, and Captain Landais of the frigate Alliance may have mistaken his target in poor visibility when he fired some damaging broadsides into Jones's ship, rather than being treacherous or mad as tradition would have it. Jones was clearly prickly, socially ambitious, a difficult subordinate (he alienated every American diplomat in France except Benjamin Franklin) and a martinet as a superior. Jones was also a superb practical seaman (the survival of the frigate Ariel in a hurricane is only the most gripping example), a charismatic combat leader and a man with a vision of the American naval future. Both Jones and his latest biographer can justly be praised as masters of their respective crafts. (May)

Forecast:More accessible to a contemporary audience or readers without much background knowledge about the sea, Thomas's book is a better place to start for many of them than Morison's. Without a major hook, look for a core of navy and Americana readers to seek this one out.

Reviewed on: 05/05/2003
Release date: 05/01/2003
Genre: Nonfiction
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