Meet Samuel Eliot Morison

January 4, 2011

-By Penny Cherubino

Samuel Eliot Morison’s Statue is one of the more popular on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall.

Each year thousands of residents and visitors take photographs of the sculpture of Samuel Eliot Morison that sits on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall near Exeter Street. Many neighbors, like Patti Quinn, say this is their favorite statue in the park. But, just how much do these fans know about the man depicted by sculptor Penelope Jencks?

Samuel Eliot Morison (1887–1976) was a Bostonian, historian, educator, and man of the sea. His family lived at 44 Brimmer Street on Beacon Hill from his birth to his death. In summer he retreated, with many other members of the area’s academic community, to Northeast Harbor in Maine.

Boyhood in Boston

We have firsthand knowledge of his boyhood because in 1962 he wrote, “One Boy’s Boston 1887-1901.”

This time of year he would have been sledding on the Common. Morison wrote, “The Common hill was steeper then, before fill from the first subway was dumped on its slopes, and it was poor coasting indeed that did not take you and your sled all the way to the fence on Charles Street.”

Historian, Educator

After teaching positions at Berkeley and Oxford, he spent most of his academic career at Harvard where he had received both his undergraduate degree and Ph.D. Over the years he researched and wrote more than 25 books.

Admiral Morison

Morison’s work as the official historian of the US Navy resulted in the 15 volume, “History of the United States Naval Operations in World War II” and earned him the Legion of Merit and a promotion to the rank of Rear Admiral.

The official US Navy portrait of Rear Adm. Samuel Eliot Morison, USNR, c.1953. Courtesy of the United States Navy.

The Navy also named a frigate, the USS Samuel Eliot Morison, in his honor.

“Live Them First”

On a stone to the left of the central figure on the Mall is Morison’s advice for writers, “Dream dreams, then write them. Aye, but live them first.” It was a maxim he followed. When he decided to write his epic “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” about Columbus, he did his research and then set off in a sailboat to retrace the voyage.

One of the two Pulitzer Prizes he won was for that book. The other was for a biography of John Paul Jones.

Lifetime Achievement

The statue on the Mall is but one honor for a lifetime of achievement.

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson presented Morison with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.  Morison was awarded 11 honorary degrees including ones from Trinity, Oxford, Harvard, Columbia, and Yale.

About the Statue

The Smithsonian Inventory of Art tells us that the statue was, “Commissioned by the Back Bay Federation with funds from the George B. Henderson Foundation.”  Longtime Back Bay resident, Elliott Laffer recalled that, “The Back Bay Federation was an umbrella group for NABB and the Back Bay Association.”

Gregory Pfitzer authored an intellectual history of Morison’s work, “Samuel Eliot Morison’s Historical World.” Upon completing the book, he visited the statue, and wrote in the epilogue, “The complexities in Jencks’s sculpture convey adequately the intimidating diversity of the historian’s interest and knowledge; they remind us that in the search for truth and passion Morison went beyond mere storytelling or antiquarianism. He inspired readers of all ages to understand not only their nation’s past but its literary tradition and to take that tradition seriously.”

On your next walk along the Mall perhaps you’ll see the sailor sitting on the rock and think of him as an esteemed professor lecturing at Harvard, a man at a desk deeply enthralled in research and writing, a captain sailing the Atlantic, or a boy coasting down a hill on the Common.

  • Peter Motyka

    As a historian specializing on the early Pacific war (Pearl Harbor to Midway) and its origins, I find Vol. 3 “The Rising Sun in the Pacific” to be an absolutely essential read and source of reference. The man was phenomenal.

    • LarrySingleton

      I just started his “John Paul Jones”. Hate to admit it but it’s been sitting in my library for years. I actually put “Sea of Glory” down and started this one. Morison doesn’t pull any punches on “Little” Jones that’s for sure. I’m surprised to learn he was a selfish, egotistical prick who didn’t acknowledge the success of his friends and acquaintances….or his supporters like Commadore Hopkins.
      And off the subject I notice a name Peter Parker. I wonder if it means anything.

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