Atlantic Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories
HarperCollins: 512 pp., $27.99
One of the great joys of reading a Simon Winchester book is the inadvertent discovery of minutiae that is utterly useless, but also utterly fascinating. For example: The Rocky Mountain Triple Divide Peak in northern Montana "is the hyrdrologic apex of the North American continent," and the extreme western reach of the Atlantic Ocean.
How so? A rivulet formed by rain and melting snow on the southeastern slope is the first link in a series of connected waterways that ends with the mighty Mississippi River flowing into the Gulf of Mexico, where it eventually commingles with the waters of the Atlantic.
A minor geographic tidbit, to be sure, but one that illustrates the wide range of detail Winchester summons in "Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories," his discursive biography of the body of water that he sees as the most integral to the worldwide spread of European civilization.
Whether that was a good thing is an argument for another book. But Winchester argues convincingly that the "Atlantic community," as he calls it, has been connected for centuries in serpentine ways. More rivers flow into the Atlantic than any other ocean, forming a transportation network that sets the framework for the conquering and settling of the Americas, and in Africa the immoral horrors of slavery and colonialism.
The Atlantic has been the vehicle of wars and explorations since the time of the Phoenicians, who around 700 BC were the first to successfully strike out into the unknown from the relative bathtub of the Mediterranean, establishing trading posts on the Western coast of present-day Spain. Empires were born.
To Winchester, the Atlantic has also figured in art to a degree that no other ocean has, by poets, painters and novelists, and probably best captured by Winslow Homer's paintings of fishermen struggling against the power of the greenish sea. But the Atlantic was also, in the mid-19th century, the first ocean to be spanned by underwater telegraph cables and, half a century later, by radio signals. Each was a giant step in world communications, and messages that once took perilous weeks at sea to deliver could now be sent in a flash.
In some ways, "Atlantic" is a departure for Winchester, a former British journalist turned popular historian now living in western Massachusetts. Some of his earlier books, such as "Krakatoa" and, more recently, "A Crack in the Edge of the World," about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, were narrative retellings of specific events. If "Atlantic" has any precedent in Winchester's previous books, it would be 1991's "Pacific Rising: The Emergence of a New World Culture," which looked at the recent cultural, economic and political rise among Pacific nations as old industry lagged among the Atlantic nations.
The framework of his new book traverses time, linking events through their one commonality — the ocean. It occasionally feels like a tenuous connection. Wars, for instance, arose not because of the Atlantic, but because of the civilizations that rose around it. And his writing can get a bit self-indulgent, with stylistic fireworks masking repetitious details.
But those are small waves. Overall, "Atlantic" is a fascinating look at a long sweep of history. In fact, some of the smaller set pieces feel as though they could be Winchester books themselves, such as the competition to establish the first transatlantic shipping lines, and the spanning of the sea by telegraph.
For all the focus on history, Winchester concludes with three chapters examining the current state of the sea. It's a sobering overview of the perils of overfishing, the impact of global warming on protozoa-level life (the first link in the food chain), and the corrosive effects of manmade chemicals and pollutants.
As Winchester points out, the Atlantic will still be the Atlantic, no matter how much we fill it with poison. But the life that it sustains — including our own — might not survive.