Journalist Martelle (Detroit: The Biography, 2012, etc.) juxtaposes two American lives anchored in two very different centuries and milieus.
The author grapples for cohesion and relevance in telling the stories of two notable American characters, John Paul Jones (1747-1792) and Horace Porter (1837-1921), whose lives only intersected across a huge swath of history—and after Jones’ death in Paris. The rogue seaman of the American Revolution who made a swashbuckling reputation for challenging the supreme British navy on its own turf, Jones died at age 45 of kidney failure and pneumonia. A Scottish-born Protestant, he had to be buried outside of the city’s Catholic perimeters, in the cemetery of Saint Louis, financed by his wealthy American friend Gouverneur Morris and others. However, since the French Revolution was raging, the cemetery became a dumping ground, and the celebrated American’s resting place was quickly forgotten. Gradually, over a tumultuous century of American history, Jones’ fame grew, thanks largely to published letters by the Revolutionary leaders, biographies and other literary efforts, such as James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Pilot (1823). Unfortunately, Martelle does not extract any material from these sources to provide a more fully fleshed portrait of Jones. Meanwhile, Porter, who was educated at West Point, served as aide to Gen. Grant during the Civil War and was appointed ambassador to France by President William McKinley, was encouraged by fellow patriot President Theodore Roosevelt to pursue the whereabouts of Jones’ body. With his great wealth and connections, Porter could do it: The discovery of the cemetery and the actual digging for the coffin amid all the skeletons make for a fascinating mystery, despite the tertiary slog through assassinations, war with Spain and the Dreyfus Affair.
An oddly disjointed work of history.