Armchair explorers will be delighted to hear that Nathaniel Philbrick, the author of the National Book Award-winning In the Heart of the Sea, is back with an adventure that is even more astonishing than his previous book.
Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery is the story of the greatest American scientific exploration you've never heard of. We all know who discovered America, but how many of us know who discovered Antarctica? The surprising answer is Charles Wilkes, a young navy lieutenant appointed to lead this country's first great scientific naval voyage, the U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842, known as the "Ex. Ex." The mission, in the spirit of Lewis and Clark, was to explore the southern Pacific ice fields and map the islands of the South Seas and the northwest coast of America. This was a noble mission, fraught with danger, but the personality of Wilkes himself led to even greater challenges. From his earliest days, Wilkes was determined to achieve greatness whatever the cost, and as the expedition proceeded, the amiable lieutenant rapidly morphed into an egocentric martinet. Observing all this was William Reynolds, an educated, articulate midshipman who kept a secret journal of the voyage, and who, along with several embittered officers, brought charges against Wilkes at the voyage's end.
Though the Ex. Ex. has been largely forgotten, its contributions were enormous, from the discovery and first exploration of the Antarctic coast, to the expedition's superb maps, which were still in use as late as World War II. The volume of specimens brought back was astonishing, and these indirectly led to the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution, in part because of the obsessively driven Wilkes.
Sea of Glory is an engrossing depiction of danger, bravery, cruelty and, perhaps, even madness. A worthy follow-up to In the Heart of the Sea,, Philbrick's latest is a fascinating look at a long-forgotten piece of American maritime history.