Samuel Eliot Morison was born into a wealthy Boston family in 1887. He attended Harvard, and went on to teach there in the years following his graduation. During this period, he wrote several volumes on Massachusetts, including The Maritime History of Massachusetts, 1783-1860, which brought him considerable critical acclaim. Morison briefly taught at Oxford before returning to Harvard in 1925, producing The Oxford History of the United States and the two-volume Growth of the American Republic, as well as histories of New England, early Puritans, the colonies, and Harvard University.
In the early 1940s, concerned with what he would later call “armchair history,” Morison boarded a three-masted ship and retraced the routes of Christopher Columbus. “The great historians,” he wrote, “ are those who have not merely studied, but lived.” He therefore attempted to “live” the life of Columbus, eventually producing Admiral of the Open Sea, for which he won his first Pulitzer Prize.
Morison followed Admiral by approaching President Franklin D. Roosevelt with a proposal for a naval history of World War II. Over the course of three years, he worked on ten boats, observing the war first hand and eventually writing a fifteen-volume history of the combat, which was published over as many years. The work was praised for both its detail and its literary quality. Following this brief service, Morison retired from both the Navy and Harvard, writing several dozen additional books, which covered subjects such as Columbus, New England cities, and the colonies. His biography of the sailor John Paul Jones earned him a second Pulitzer Prize.
In addition to his historical and intellectual interests, he was concerned with the future of historical writing, authoring a pamphlet titled “History as a Literary Art: An Appeal to Young Historians.” He concludes that text,
“Finally, the historian should have frequent recourse to the book of life. The richer his personal experience, the wider his human contacts, the more likely he is to effect a living contact with his audience.”