Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Michael A. Verney's "A Great and Rising Nation"

Michael Verney is assistant professor of History at Drury University in Springfield, Missouri. In 2017, he was a fellow at the Baird Society Resident Scholar Program at the Smithsonian Libraries. His next project will be a study of Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry’s Japan Expedition and the North Pacific Exploring Expedition of the mid-1850s.

He applied the Page 99 Test to his new book, A Great and Rising Nation: Naval Exploration and Global Empire in the Early US Republic, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Wilkes’s new base of operations was a massive room named the Great Hall, on the second floor of the U.S. Patent Office… On entering, visitors would have been immediately struck by the grandeur of the space before them. The Great Hall dominated the upper floor; at 273 feet long, sixty-three feet wide, and more thirty feet from floor to ceiling, it was one of the largest rooms in Washington. A series of red rectangular pillars stood watch over the gigantic space, which stretched far out of sight through two wings on either side. Above, a central, stained-glass atrium arose like a daffodil pyramid surrounded by blue poesies. Visitors had only a moment to take in the space before being greeted by a friendly and “courteous” doorman. He may have taken their coats and umbrellas if it was raining, asked them to sign the register of visitors (though few ever did), and might have good-humoredly pointed out a few architectural flaws. The distractions during this conversation would have been many: murmuring echoes, the tap and scuff of shoes on marble, and most of all, the main attraction itself: a maze of tall wood and glass cases, full of specimens and expanding out in all directions.

Wilkes had worked hard to re-fashion the Great Hall into a pleasing, organized, middle-class space…
The Test almost works. Page 99’s opening reference to Charles Wilkes, a Commander in the antebellum US Navy, reflects the book’s focus on mid-ranking naval officers. These were men who, like Wilkes, yearned to attain personal and national glory through leading naval exploring expeditions around the world. Their energies and vanities add tension to the book and drive much of its narrative plot. This page also hints at one of my core arguments: that committing the United States to a career of global imperial expansion was never solely the work of overambitious naval officers like Wilkes or government elites; instead, it required considerable buy-in from influential domestic constituencies. Page 99 is part of a section arguing that Wilkes’s displaying of the Navy’s natural and anthropological specimens at the National Gallery in Washington, DC, encouraged white middle-class US citizens to embrace naval voyages of discovery. They saw them as supplying novelty, pleasure, and education. Finally, this page is representative of my attempts to write as vividly and engagingly as possible. The text excerpted here draws from a real visit to the National Portrait Gallery, which was formerly the National Gallery.

What is missing from page 99 is the diplomatic dimension of my argument. Exploration boosters like Wilkes were inspired by European voyages of discovery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They craved the esteem of the Great Powers of Europe and believed that embarking the US Navy on scientific exploring expeditions would win them plaudits in European capitals. After all, Congress partly established the National Gallery, the nation’s first publicly funded museum of natural history, to match the cavernous public museums of Western Europe. To get that full analysis, however, a reader would have to voyage beyond page 99.
Follow Michael Verney on Twitter.

--Marshal Zeringue