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Book Review, NRJ 65.3

August 28, 2020 12:00 PM | David Eddy

Sailing Under John Paul Jones: The Memoir of Continental Navy Midshipman Nathaniel Fanning, 1778-1783

Edited by Louis Arthur Norton

Nathaniel Fanning's memoir, masterfully edited by Louis Arthur Norton, recounts the adventures of Nathaniel Fanning. Fanning followed a unique journey by first becoming a privateer and then serving as a midshipman in the Continental Navy. After sailing under John Paul Jones on Bonhomme Richard, Fanning commanded privateer vessels out of French ports and served for a short time as an officer in the French navy. His story includes descriptions of shipboard life, Bonhomme Richard’s battle with HMS Serapis, conditions in the British prisoner of war camps, and French society during and after the American Revolution.

At the beginning of the book, Norton provides biographical information about Nathaniel Fanning and his family during the Revolution. He provides context about Fanning's upbringing and background. The text begins with the birth of Nathaniel Fanning and then his decision to become a privateer at the age of twenty-three. The chapters then correspond to significant events, including being captured, his time on Bonhomme Richard and its battle with HMS Serapis, the aftermath, Fanning's time as a French privateer, and the aftermath of the Revolutionary War in France. The book also includes illustrations and portraits of battles and people. Fanning also includes a full character sketch of John Paul Jones that describes his personality, his command style, and his character flaws.

The author does an appreciable job of keeping the text as close to the original as possible while editing it, so it is understandable to the modern reader. The book is easy to read and understand because of the updated language. However, it does expect the reader to have background knowledge of sailing terms, naval history, and the difference between a navy and privateers.

The book's title focuses on when Nathaniel Fanning was a midshipman on Bonhomme Richard. There are three chapters dedicated to the events before, during, and after the engagement with HMS Serapis. The book also has a detailed overview of the battle from the editor and a biographical sketch of John Paul Jones. While this is a significant event in Fanning's memoirs, there is much more to his story, including his time as a British prisoner of war and a French privateer and naval officer. These recollections provide a broader narrative of the naval war during the American Revolution by describing the life and the war on the European side of the conflict from an American perspective. The book also provides a look into French society a few years before the start of the French Revolution. This description is useful because it shows the radical changes to French society during the Revolution.

Overall, the book does an excellent job of relating Fanning's memoir in language that is easier to understand while staying true to Fanning's writing. This text is insightful and valuable for readers interested in the eighteenth-century privateer and naval life. Norton does a beautiful job conveying his story to a modern audience while staying true to Fanning's words and writing. With only two hundred pages, it is a quick and edifying read.

  • Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2019 
  • 6” x 9”, softcover, viii + 171 pages 
  • Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $39.95 
  • ISBN: 9781476679600

Reviewed by Ryan Miranda, East Carolina University

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