Bernard Bailyn, the Harvard professor who presided over the birth of “AtlanticHistory” as a spry little subdiscipline in the 1980s, once confessed thathe knew of no one who was “poetically enraptured by the Atlantic world.”It’s safe to say that Bailyn had never met Simon Winchester. In his new Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, HeroicDiscoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories, Winchester’s vigorous “biography” ofthe body of water known at different times as the Ethiopian Ocean, the Mare Glaciale, and (oddly enough) theOcean Sea, is virtually Byronic in its length and devotion. Mention the namesof a string of middling coastal towns—Esbjerg or Vigo, Takoradi, Walvis Bay, orPuerto Madryn, Wilmington or Halifax—and where most would hear the verydefinition of back-water obscurity, for Winchester they’re the very stuff ofoceanic poetry.
Indeed, if the picturemost of us have of the Atlantic is bracing and austere, these very qualitieswere what led Winchester to an almost boosterish argument for its inherentpelagic superiority. The Atlantic, after all, is “the classic ocean of ourimaginings, an industrial ocean of cold and iron and salt. A purposeful oceanof sea lanes and docksides and fisheries, an ocean alive with squadrons ofsteadily moving ships above, with unimaginable volumes of mysterious marineabundance below. It is also an entity that seems to be somehow interminable.”
What Winchester dubs his “oceanromance” began at the age of eighteen, when he inexpensively crossed westwardon a seven-day passage from Liverpool to Montreal aboard the Empress of Britain, one rung abovesteerage. It was 1963, a crepuscular year for transatlantic steamship travel:before long, the Empress of Britainwould be out of the passenger-carrying business, a casualty of the boom inairline travel across the Atlantic—travel that has become so mundane as tostrip away all the awe the ocean had inspired for centuries. (Today, Winchestergets no kick in a plane: high over the mid-Atlantic in one of those “littleseven-mile-high cities in flight,” he muses, “How sad, I thought,that so vividly remembered a place should have so quickly transmuted itselfinto something little more than an incommoding parcel of distance.”)
Restoringthat sense of awe is part of Winchester’s calling in Atlantic, a challenge he accepts with swashbuckling zeal. A naturalstoryteller trained as a geologist, Winchester must be the only writer who canboast of having worked in the field in Greenland in 1965 and being interned asa journalist during the Falkland Islands conflict in 1982. Both experiencesserve him well, as he narrates the natural history of the Atlantic—an oceanthat is somewhere near the halfway point of what will be its 370 million yearlife span—as well as the naval campaigns that seem to have reached a certainfinality in the South Atlantic war between Britain and Argentina. In between isa lively history of waves of conquest and commerce, one that involves familiarnames, certainly (think Columbus & Co.) but is nimbly told nevertheless.Winchester voyages through centuries of long-distance trade, beginning with thePhoenecian search off the Moroccan coast for the mollusk responsible for aresplendently royal purple-crimson murex dye, up to the recent decimation ofthe Great Banks cod industry by fleets of colossal trawlers. These depredationsare fired by the “delusions of perpetual abundance” that are acollateral effect of the myth of the ocean’s endless bounty.
The book mixes sweepingaccounts of economic and political phenomena—slavery, empire, globalism, therationalized business of Atlantic exploration and its laterindustrialization—with morsels of trivia: how future Israeli president ChaimWeitzmann’s assistance in helping the British navy make much-needed acetone mayhave helped secure the Zionist cause; how Jack Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brownbecame the first airmen to cross the Atlantic nonstop in 1919, accompanied bytwo little black cats named Twinkletoes and Lucky Jim; how the Patagoniantoothfish found gastronomic acceptance and a potential for extinction when itwas rechristened Chilean sea bass.
The general and thespecific complement each other nicely in Winchester’s book, which sacrificesneither close detail nor wide angle for the sake of the other. Slightly lesswell balanced are Winchester’s ever chipper voice, as sunny and cheerful as hisgrinning countenance on the book’s back cover, and the at times melancholy toneregarding the new mundanity of the Atlantic in the age of global travel and globalwarming (of which Winchester is lightly skeptical, adopting an unfortunatelycavalier posture that is a rare sour note in the book). But who can resist theevocativeness of Winchester’s nostalgic ode to good old-fashioned oceanography,a place and time before “the knife-sharp winds, the smell of fish andStockholm tar, the coils of rope, the flap of sails, the keening of gulls, andthe thud of marine engines made way for the hum of machines andair-conditioning and the silky sounds of laser printing.” At moments likethis, Atlantic re-enchants an oceanthat Winchester argues has lost its magic. And you don’t even have to be fromEsbjerg to appreciate it.