"OLD BRUIN": COMMODORE MAT THEW C. PERRY 1794-1858 by Samuel Eliot Morison. 482 pages. Little, Brown. $12.50.
Beneath his double disguise as biographer and historian, Samuel Eliot Morison, 80, is really a frustrated epic poet who writes a kind of factual legend celebrating the archetypal figure of the Great Sailor. With Pulitzers flying from his yardarms for biographies of Columbus and John Paul Jones, Morison has now given chase to a third incarnation of the Great Sailorand by his own standards, has come up luffing.
The fault, in all fairness, is not his. His settings are as novelistically vivid as ever. The action is brisk: scenes from the War of 1812 as a curtain rais er; no-quarter combat with pirates in Caribbean and African waters; amphibious derring-do during the Mexican War; for a climax, the Commodore's steaming into Edo Bay and dramatically opening Japan to the West.
The problem is Perry. He lacks color and temperament. Morison works hard to achieve a spit-and-polish luster in the image of "Old Bruin," but he makes the mistake of comparing him to his older brother Oliver, hero of the Battle of Lake Erie. "Oliver fascinated people when he talked," while Matthew "could only convince them." Matthew had the admirable but unexciting virtues of a seagoing Alger hero. Utterly efficient, he ran a taut but not too happy ship, stressing maximum standards of hygiene and minimum shore liberty. When corporal punishment was abolished, he predicted that the Navy would "go to the devil."
On most other subjects, Perry had the grimly methodical soul of a New England reformer. He improved lighthouses. He energetically earned the title, "Father of the Steam Navy." He was correct even about the future: he prophesied that the Pacific would become America's sea of destiny, and he warned that one day there would be a showdown with Russia. But his correctness his insufferable common sensefails to compel the imagination.
Morison winds up rather too stoutly defending the man he cannot quite love or quite bring to life. To this extent, the biography is a failure, but a failure that scatters in its wake some fascinat ing little gems from Morison's booty chest of Americana. Where else would the recipe for Rhode Island jonny cake appear in a footnote?*
* A New England version of corn bread, jonny is derived from journey, not John. The recipe: "The corn must be ground by finegrained stones, which would make 'flat' meal instead of 'round.' The meal should be made into dough and spread on the middle board of a red oak barrelhead [and then baked]. Only walnut coals were worthy, and the crust as it browned should be basted with cream."