Not a bit of it! Abridgments serve self-evident good purposes, and they can be works of art on their own. There are facets of enjoying a subject that can get dulled or buried entirely when an author who's done a massive amount of research decides to share the whole of it with his readers. The sheer technical feat of keeping a narrative both coherent and interesting over the course of such an enormous work is within the reach of only a handful of writers, and it becomes all the more impressive when some of those writers can turn around and say, “OK, now that my world-encompassing labors are done, I'm going to write the 200-page book on this subject that was my original intent, and I'm going to make it just as good in its own way as the mother work is in all its splendor.” It takes a certain kind of humility to do that (a humility perhaps brought on by the need to eat, since it's almost always those 200-page one-volume versions that actually sell) – and a certain kind of craft, which is why you'll find many such abridgments on my bookshelves.
Morison's is an obvious and sterling example. In order to generate his gigantic fifteen-volume “History of United States Naval Operations in World War II,” Morison was given a rank and the freedom to move about from ship to ship as the official historian of the greatest naval war in the history of the world. He served on eleven wartime vessels and harvested unprecedented amounts of first-hand information and observation (much of it first-hand – Morison was no desk-bound historian; he served on fast ships, and he put himself in harm's way), and he had one crucial thing besides: a pronounced flair for writing history. His prose is half-Herodotus and half-Thucydides, bristling with facts and figures but also alive with heartfelt passion.
It goes without saying that I enthusiastically recommend that fifteen-volume account. I've read it straight through a few times and also rejoiced in picking up single volumes. In those volumes, Morison allows himself to give his subjects – the major battles, the major figures, the major trends – all the room and detail they deserve. Digression abound and are welcome. But I read very fast, and I devote almost all my waking time to reading, and I'm perfectly well aware that these things aren't true for most readers in the world – and Morison was well aware of it too. When his publisher (and his long-suffering agent – he wasn't always the easiest person to get along with) suggested a one-volume abridgment of his life's crowning achievement, Morison not only jumped into the task with gusto (he jumped into everything with gusto – when he paid a restaurant bill, onlookers got the impression it was the first time a restaurant bill had ever been paid, and they were tempted to applaud) but got it done in time for the Christmas book-buying season.
The Two-Ocean War sold like hotcakes, and deservedly so. In place of the sprawl of the original, Morison's largely reworked abridgment has the speed and punch of a torpedo. Here, in short order, readers get the whole of the war in the Atlantic and Pacific, from the dark early days when German U-boats, Italian mini-subs, and the mighty Japanese Imperial Navy seemed to have no serious hindrance anywhere in the world. The signal naval victory of those early years was of course the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, and Morison gives us a concise look at how such a disaster was possible (modern readers familiar with the details leading up to the 9/11 attacks will find the scenario gruesomely familiar):
A series of false assumptions, both at Washington and Oahu, added up to something as serious as the sins of omission. In Hawaii, the Navy assumed that the Army had gone on full alert, and that the radar warning net was completely operational. The Army assumed that the Navy was conducting an effective air reconnaisance around the island. Admiral Kimmel assumed that aerial torpedoes could not operate in the shoal waters of Pearl Harbor. Both Army and Navy Intelligence officers assumed that Japan was sending all her naval forces south, and that in any event Japan would not be so stupid as to attack Pearl Harbor. In Washington, Colonel Bratton of Army Intelligence assumed that the Pacific Fleet would go to sea after the 27 November “war warning,” so to him the intercepted reports of ships' positions by the Japanese consulate registered waste effort; and Captain Wilkinson of Naval Intelligence assumed that these reports were simply evidence of the Japanese inordinate love for detail. Rear Admiral Turner of War Plans assumed that this and all other relevant intelligence was going to Admiral Kimmel, and General Gerow of Army War Plans assumed that Kimmel and Short were exchanging every scrap of what they did get, which was considerable. Washington was as vague and uncertain about what was going to happen on the first or second weekend after 27 November as Pearl Harbor itself. It was a case of the blind not leading the blind; false assumptions at both ends of the line.
And Morison is there with us throughout – as the United States, ironically granted a boon at Pearl Harbor (no aircraft carriers were hit, nor were the vast oil tank fields that were well within the range of all those Japanese fighter-planes), rapidly poured men and material and money and technology into fielding a huge navy in both theaters. Morison wisely reminds us that despite this build-up, the numbers in any given engagement still often favored the Axis powers; the flame that animates his thrilling book is heroism, and that goes well with the occasional underdog scrap.
And he's alive, naturally enough, to the hand of history that lay over it all. This is a quality you'll find in all of Morison's books – he's never so focused on what he's researching and writing about that he fails to see its wider importance, as in the epic and game-changing Battle of Leyte Gulf, where he pauses even in the midst of the frantic action to recall its larger significance:
Mississippi's one salvo, fired at Yamashiro just after Admiral Oldendorf ordered Cease Fire, concluded this major phase or the battle [of Surigao Strait]. Silence followed, as if to honor the passing of tactics which had so long been foremost in naval warfare. The Battles of Lowestoft, Beachy Head, the Capes of the Chesapeake, Trafalgar, Santiago, Tsushimam, Jutland, every major naval action of the past three centuries, had been fought by classic line-of-battle tactics. In the unearthly silence that followed the roar of Oldendorf's 14-inch and 16-inch guns in Surigao Strait, one could imagine the ghosts of all great admirals, from Raleigh and De Ruyter to Togo and Jellicoe, standing at attention to salute the passing of the kind of naval warfare they all understood. For in those opening minutes of the morning watch of 25 October 1944, Battle Line became as obsolete as the row-galley tactics of Salamis and Syracuse.
Such moments occur often in that fifteen-volume official history, and they're every bit as moving and powerful – but how many readers can find them? The sheer size of the work can serve to hide its highlights, whereas here they're served up one after the next in a brilliant performance.
And it's not the only performance of its kind! In the coming weeks, we'll take a look at other abridgments that stand as worthy works on their own. My shelves abound with them, and my shelves are at your disposal, after all.