- by Carol Standish
John Paul Jones Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy by Evan Thomas (Simon & Schuster, 381pp, $26.95)
Author Evan Thomas ends the acknowledgment section of his biography of John Paul Jones with questions from his daughters who ask him, “ ‘Dad, why are you writing this book? Who is John Paul Jones?’ ”
Ignoring the fact that his daughters have never heard of Jones even though there are close to 100 titles about him listed on Amazon (most of the first 50 still in print) the reader might well ask the same questions after finishing the book.
Although Thomas seems to answer the question with the subtitle of the biography, “Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy” the text subverts such sobriquets. John Paul Jones was in fact a pathetic and unpleasant man. He wears thin quickly on just about everyone he rubs up against including the reader. Vain to the point of silliness, Jones swaggers about Europe in uniforms of his own design. Blinded by a driving ambition to rise above his servant class birth he is persistent and fawning in his cultivation of his perceived superiors—while simultaneously resenting the power they may wield over him.
Thomas repeatedly describes Jones as irrationally ambitious, tactless, vain, selfish, sullen, brooding, pompous, self-ingratiating, self-promoting, paranoid and worst of all, an incessant whiner, documenting the characterization with historical examples. Furthermore, Jones was such an egotist that he had no ability to observe or judge another’s character and was forever getting himself entangled with one worthless dolt or conniving charlatan or spy after another.
The book takes on the character of its subject to such an extent the reader finds his sympathy dwindling for Jones and growing for the legion of poor suffering souls who had to put up with him during his life. But just when the urge to slam the book shut with hearty “get a life, Jones” is close to irresistible, Jones gets a life.
At sea, Jones is more alive than on land. Thomas describes him as “a ruthlessly imaginative warrior.” He paces his deck and schemes. He sits in his cabin and writes of “scheems.” In battle he performs ferociously. He is a wily strategist and an ultimate risk-taker—an all or nothing kind of fighter. And he gets positively high from the fight, experiencing “a savage joy from maximum peril.”
Thomas’s narration of Jones’ battles and other perils at sea is tense and full of detail. Quoting from accounts of sailors on the scene Thomas leaves no doubt about Jones’ willingness to take on the entire British navy. The author is also specific about the carnage and the destruction, the crudeness of the weapons and the ludicrousness of two ships sitting broadside to each other and blasting away at one another. The “glory” of “the age of sail” is not what it appears in the novels of Patrick O’Brian.
Myth-making cannot be the intent of this book. Rather Thomas presents Jones as a deeply flawed individual, tormented by the fear of revealing his own inadequacies—both real and imagined, driven close to mad in his pursuit of personal “glory with honor,” a goal that he perceived belonged only to the upper classes. His burning desire to be recognized as and received among gentlemen disallowed opportunities more in keeping with his talents—namely, privateering. Such gains would be ill-gotten.
In his vision of himself as the leader of a meritocratic American Navy which would rout the aristocratic British navy was his hope for entrance into the new peerage. In Britain he was doomed to ignominy by birth into the servant class. He fought hard against his background and in the end destroyed himself with the ferocity of his combined ambition and self-doubt.
From the looks of Thomas’s end notes, his research has been extensive. He has consulted primary sources in archives in England and the U.S. He quotes copiously from correspondence between his subject and all manner of famous personages involved in the American Revolution, like John Adams, Lafayette and especially Ben Franklin (from whom Jones took frequent counsel and dubbed “my philosopher”).
Thomas authoritatively presents Jones as a man to be avoided in polite society, revolutionary or otherwise, who fought infrequently but desperately. While suggesting that Jones was the first “terrorist” in his harassment of the British coast Thomas also suggests that the strategy was very probably motivated by a lifetime of British slights.
So what is the answer to Thomas’s daughters’ questions? The New York Times reviewer concluded that Jones was “a perfect American hero.” This reviewer’s impression is that Jones was a deeply tortured soul, psychologically unbalanced, consumed with social ambition—trying to keep up with the Joneses. Read the book and decide for yourself. The details of the Jones life are sufficiently fascinating to make up for his miserable personality.