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carry on, mr. bowditch

29 september 2014

Nearly all Newbery Medal winners – and a host of children's books besides – feature a protagonist who is such an avid reader that he or she will keep their nose in a book during troubles that would dishearten a fairy-tale prince. Nat Bowditch in Jean Lee Latham's 1956 Medal book Carry On, Mr. Bowditch is certainly a reader, but a unique one for his genre: he loves to read math textbooks. He's one of the few children's-lit protagonists that I know of who is way better at 'rithmetic than he is at reading.

Google "Nathaniel Bowditch" and you'll see images of a guy who looks cadaverously professorial, sometimes classically sculpted, and I don't mean in the swimwear-model sense. But he must have been young once, and Latham's project in this novel is to imagine the childhood and young-adulthood of a man who would grow up to be one of the foremost applied mathematicians in American history.

I like literary children's books and I like stories of old wooden navies, and I like their intersection, from salty perennials like Horatio Hornblower to fresher classics like Charlotte Doyle. So I was predisposed to like Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, and indeed, I enjoyed its bluff good humor and its Yankee can-do energy. It's an essentially sanguine novel, even if its Wikipedia page devotes about half its content to "Deaths," in order to warn child readers that a lot of its characters go to their graves, watery or otherwise.

Mr. Bowditch is one of those children's novels, once common and now vanishing by the year, where a child grows up not just to the brink of manhood but well into middle age. We meet Nat Bowditch when he's six, and we stick with him throughout a naval career that sees him become a renowned scientific writer. He's married in the course of the novel, and widowed, and remarried. There's lots of kissing and other yucky stuff with girls in the book. In fact, there are so many women left behind in the course of Nat's nautical career that it's easy to lose track and impossible to tell them apart. Various sisters and girlfriends blend together in a way that might be creepy if it weren't so relentlessly innocent. I sense a determination by the author to be true to the biographical facts of Bowditch's life, even if it might be better dramatically to conflate these female foils into a single young woman character.

Carry On, Mr. Bowditch exudes a postwar American confidence in the value of universal education. Nat grows up the son of a feckless cooper, and hasn't much hope for higher education: "Takes a heap of money … to go to Harvard," announces his grandmother (20). With what I imagine is a heaping tablespoon of anachronism, Latham structures the early chapters of her story around Nat's frustrated academic ambitions. In the pre-Pell-Grant 1780s, Nat must instead become apprenticed to a ship's chandler. Latham codes this work as a barren mercenary occupation, but in the course of adding the ha'pence to the pence, Nat learns an astounding amount of mathematics, as well as surveying, bookkeeping, and the rudiments of celestial navigation.

At this point, the name Nathaniel Bowditch really did sound familiar, despite my oceanic ignorance. Bowditch is mentioned several times in Moby-Dick, as a by-word for the charts and tables that whalers steer by: "the immaculate Bowditch," who just never made mistakes. Come to find, gradually, that even as Nat is learning the ins and outs of almanacs and lunar tables, he will eventually be the guy who rewrites them all and whose name becomes inseparable from them, sort of like Noah Webster and the dictionary.

And while he's rewriting navigational knowledge as a public service, Nat goes to sea and teaches sailors before the mast – who, like him, have been denied higher formal education. (Which wouldn't have taught them much practical navigation anyway, but no matter; that's just the little bit of anachronism the book serves up.) "Carry on, Mr. Bowditch," which becomes the book's tagline as well as its title, is initially not a naval command but an instruction to provide the ship's company with continuing education (112).

As a result, Nat founds what amounts to a shipboard academy, and his graduates go on to become officers in many another vessel. The ideology is straightforward: given a good enough teacher, anyone can master technology, gain white-collar employment, and vault into a higher social class. As tendentious as it sounds, there is of course some truth in the belief. Nathaniel Bowditch's father was a cooper; his grandson was Dean of Harvard Medical School.

As if loath to let her hero fade into the sereness of mathematics, Latham ends Carry On, Mr. Bowditch with a stirring scene of nautical adventure, as Nat leads a voyage around the world in search of costly spices, and braves dense fog to sail home to his Polly or whoever he's married to at this point. In history, Bowditch went on to additional fame and fortune as an insurance executive. But I suppose that part of his life will have to wait till somebody writes the sequel, Bowditch, Immaculate Actuary.

Latham, Jean Lee. Carry On, Mr. Bowditch. Illustrations by John O'Hara Cosgrave, II. 1955. New York: Scholastic, 1992.