Vain, arrogant, hag-ridden by ambition, a member of one of America's early aristocratic families, hailed as a naval hero and...


DUPONT: THE MAKING OF AN ADMIRAL: A Biography of Samuel Francis Du Pont

Vain, arrogant, hag-ridden by ambition, a member of one of America's early aristocratic families, hailed as a naval hero and ultimately reviled as a military incompetent (or worse), Samuel Francis Du Pont would seem a fascinating subject for a biographical ""exposÉ."" Sad to say, that doesn't prove to be the case here. Unfortunately, Merrill (whose previous works include biographies of William Tecumseh Sherman and William F. [""Bull""] Halsey) seems more intent on repolishing a long-tarnished reputation than in drawing a realistic portrait of a complex and, in many ways, representative figure from the American past. The author seems blissfully unaware of the flaws in Du Pont's character, soft-pedalling his political string-pulling, downplaying his denigration of equals and superiors, or at least letting these faults pass without comment. An authorial point of view is what is missing here, and the reader, (frequently) repelled by Du Pont's self-congratulation, religious maunderings and social maneuverings, is at a loss to know how Merrill views his subject. Du Pont's life spanned a particularly significant stretch of US history, when the country was beginning to feel its national oats. His naval career commenced with a Mediterranean tour of duty chasing Barbary pirates, proceeded through America's increased involvement with European imperialist ventures in China and Japan and the bullying annexation of Mexican territories in the American Southwest, then culminated in the Civil War. Through it all, Du Pont was on the alert for ""career advancement possibilities."" Scant attention is paid to what little there was of a domestic life. Married to his ailing and deeply religious cousin, Sophie Madeleine Du Pont, Frank (as Merrill persists in calling him) was constantly reassuring his wife of the salutary influences she exerted on him (generally at a distance of thousands upon thousands of miles). His letters to her are filled with references to Bible readings, prayers to the Almighty, homilies on drunkenness and swearing delivered to his subordinates, and frequent self-praise. Merrill's presentation of the tale is slack. He fails to delineate his cast of characters, to capture the tensions and excitements of the military episodes, and seems unwilling or unable to infuse color and vitality into the exotic locales. Despite the author's efforts, Samuel Francis Du Pont remains a minor and all-too-often exasperating figure in US naval history, a 19th-century ""Yuppie.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1987


Page Count: -

Publisher: Dodd, Mead

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1987