In short, the true way of conceiving the subject is, not as a philosophical theme, but as an epic in prose, a romance of chivalry; as romantic and chivalrous as any which Boiardo or Ariosto ever fabled . . . ; and which, while it combines all the picturesque features of the romantic school, is borne onward on a tide of destiny, like that which broods over the fiction of the Grecian poets; for surely there is nothing in the compass of Grecian epic or tragic fable, in which the resistless march of destiny is more discernible, than in the sad fortunes of the dynasty of Montezuma. It is, without doubt, the most poetic subject ever offered to the pen of the historian.
Before me lies a bundle of these sermons, rescued from six-score years of dust, scrawled on their title-pages with names of owners dead long ago, worm-eaten, dingy, stained with the damps of time, and uttering in quaint old letterpress the emotions of a buried and forgotten past.
Behind all the histories of George Bancroft, William Prescott, John Motley, and Francis
Parkman lies the conviction that the historian is a man of letters. Although their names dominated
American historical writing for fifty years, every one of these men had established a place in the
New England literary community before he wrote a word of history. Bancroft published a volume
of poetry and wrote regularly for The North American Review; Prescott wrote a series of
critical essays for the same journal; Motley published two historical novels, two essays on Goethe,
and a long essay on Balzac for The North American Review; and before Parkman began his
France and England in North America, he had written The Oregon Trail, a critical
essay on Cooper, and his only novel. Of the
Membership in this literary aristocracy did not mean being a professional writer. The New England man of letters was a gentleman of letters, trained for some other, more "useful" profession and usually practicing it. Bancroft prepared for the ministry; Prescott, Motley, and Parkman made gestures toward the law. Both Motley and Bancroft tried to build careers in politics even after they had written their most successful histories, and Motley tried strenuously to get himself appointed to a Columbia professorship in history.2 None of these men, moreover, had to write history for a living; they all considered some other useful occupation a duty, and Prescott and Parkman were prevented mainly by their physical disabilities from putting historiography in its "proper" place as an avocation.3
Thus the four historians typified the large community of men of letters that distinguished Unitarian Boston in the first four decades of the nineteenth century. They belonged to the world of the Everett brothers: Alexander, the diplomat, editor, essayist; and Edward, the minister, orator, politician, professor, college president. As a diplomat in Spain, Alexander served as Prescott's agent, document hunter, and overseer of copyists, and in England Edward performed the same favor--as well as some free copying himself--for Bancroft. As editors, at different times, of The North American Review, both brothers acted to introduce foreign literature to America and to encourage American writers. Motley's closest friend was Oliver Wendell Holmes, the doctor; Prescott's two confidential advisers were George Ticknor, a lawyer first and later a scholar, and William Howard Gardiner, another lawyer who revised Prescott's Ferdinand and Isabella for publication and then wrote a laudatory review of it.4
During the early years of Unitarianism, then, it was the Bostonian gentleman's duty to promote
American letters, and the Unitarian ministers set the example. Perhaps 0. B. Frothingham
exaggerated when he defined the most conservative ministers' belief as "literary Unitarianism," but
the phrase named a fundamental interest of the whole fraternity, conservatives and radicals alike.
Joseph Buckminster, William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, Jared
Sparks, Andrews Norton, George Ripley, Charles W. Upham, John Gorham Palfrey, Edward
Everett, George Bancroft--all were Unitarian ministers even more dedicated than their seventeenth-century predecessors to encouraging scholarship and good literature.
These Unitarian ministers also perpetuated their Puritan ancestors' strong interest in history. Whatever their allegiance in the Unitarian-Transcendentalist war, the question of the historicity of miracles engaged their attention.6 For the rational, orthodox Unitarian, who had been repelled by trinitarian dogma, theology itself was a historical science, to be based on verifiable evidence. Andrews Norton, who had not gone to Germany to be corrupted by the most irreverent Biblical critics, wrote volumes emphasizing the historicity of miracles as the basis for Christian faith.7 And Harvard sent young George Bancroft to study under Johann Eichhorn at Göttingen, there to be made into "an accomplished philologian and Biblical critic, able to expound and defend the oracles of God."8 By thus pointedly reminding Eichhorn of the conclusions to which Bancroft's investigations were expected to lead, and by admonishing Bancroft to acquire Eichhorn's knowledge without catching his infidelity, Norton and President Kirkland made almost pathetically clear the orthodox Unitarian's belief in historical study. Although well aware that some German scholars liked to "scoff at the Bible and laugh at Christ,"9 they sent this eighteen-year-old boy to learn the facts and methods which German scholars could teach. Eventually Kirkland advised Bancroft to give up Biblical criticism and German theology,10 but he did not object to Bancroft's heavy concentration on historical study. Bancroft read all of Tacitus, Livy, Herodotus, and Thucydides in the original, and he studied under Heeren, whose History of the Political Systems of Europe he later translated.11 This was part of the theologian's training.12 At Bancroft's doctoral examination Eichhorn examined him in history; a decade later the young American followed Eichhorn's example, moving from theology and criticism to history.13
Without emulating Bancroft's apostasy to transcendentalism and Jacksonism, Jared Sparks took
the same step from the ministry to history (becoming one of Parkman's Harvard teachers), and John
Gorham Palfrey and Charles W. Upham combined preaching with diligent historical labor. Edward
Everett, too, dabbled in the fashionable avocation by writing "The Life of John Stark" for Sparks's
Library of American Biography.14
The Unitarian's religious inclination to historical study does not, of course, explain the strong general historical interest of this period, either in Boston or in the large world outside New England. If the Unitarian man of letters was interested in history because he was a Unitarian, he was interested also because he was a man of letters and an American. The patriotic call for a native literature had been reiterated since the days of the Connecticut Wits, and during the first thirty years of the new century Americans expressed the same growing desire to discover and preserve historical records that permeated Spain, France, Germany, and England during those years.15 Municipal, state, and eventually federal appropriations encouraged the collection and publication of historical documents. In this atmosphere New England gentlemen considered it their patriotic duty to help the writers of their country's history, even those whose political bias offended them. Although Bancroft's activity for the Democratic party was regarded as apostasy,16 and although it has been said that every page of his history voted for Andrew Jackson, his most determined political enemies considered him the historian of his country, and they helped him cordially when they could. Prescott's father, the old Federalist judge, "trembled with delight" when his son read him Bancroft's outline for the battle of Bunker Hill; Amos A. Lawrence, the pro-Bank, high-tariff Whig, sent Bancroft a cordial letter in 1842, offering him revolutionary documents; and Edward Everett continued to help him despite the political strains on their friendship.17
Important though this context is, however, the essential characteristic of the Unitarian's view of
history was the kind of literature he had in mind when he referred to historical research as "literary
research."18 To the most conservative men of the older
generation, the founders of Boston's Athenaeum, this expression meant simply that history was a
branch of letters and that histories should be well written. Trained in the classics, they had read the
Greek and Latin historians, and their affection for eighteenth-century English literature led them to
think of Robertson and Gibbon when they thought of history. But to most New England men of
letters after 1820 the expression carried new meanings suggested by the foreign books which the
Athenaeum had been buying. They read not only Scott and Cooper but Wordsworth, Coleridge, and
Byron. Those who had been to Göttingen read Schiller, Goethe, Herder, and perhaps
Jacob Grimm; those who had not, read essays about them in The North American
The New England historian was conditioned by the very attitude toward the Past that one can find in almost any literary young American's letters home from Europe during the early years of the nineteenth century--by the inclination to wallow in sentiment at the sight of ruins. The calm Prescott, whose prose and temperament were so stately in their balance, admitted that it was Gibbon's autobiography that had first moved him to consider becoming a historian;20 and his susceptibility to Gibbon's account of inspiration among the ruins on Capitoline Hill seems unemotional in comparison with a letter he wrote his parents in 1816. "When I look into a Greek or Latin book," he said, "I experience much the same sensation one does who looks on the face of a dead friend, and the tears not infrequently steal into my eyes."21 The extravagance of the comparison, the obvious posturing in the entire sentence, Prescott's confidence that his parents would know what the sensation was--these underscore the conventionality of the statement. One finds the same kind of prescribed sentiment in the awe with which he first viewed "the chaste Gothic" of Tintern Abbey, and in his "profound" emotion when he first saw some of England's other "venerable ruins."22 Usually more extravagant than Prescott in both style and temperament, the young Bancroft told Andrews Norton that he was delighted to discover "how intimately" a learned man can "commune with antiquity," how "he rests upon her bosom as upon the bosom of a friend. He can hear the small feeble voice, that comes from remote ages, & which is lost in the distance to common ears."23
By the time Motley made his first trip to Europe one could even admit the self-consciousness of
the conventional emotion in the same letter in which one expressed it. Having told his parents of
two "complete and perfect ruins, but very well preserved," Motley apologized for his "very tame
description"; "I shall undoubtedly see many a thousand times more interesting
Secure in the country of the future, the American writer could still lament conventionally, as Motley did on several occasions, the "naked and impoverished" appearance which the absence of a "pictured, illuminated Past" gave America.27 But even in America Parkman heard the feeble voice from among the "blasted trunks," the "towering sentries" of the primeval forest.28 And one could certainly hear it speaking from the authentic documents, the genuine private letters and diaries of historic figures. Wherever one heard the voice, one concentrated on responding emotionally to its sound, on putting oneself or one's reader in proper imaginative relation with it--with its reality as well as its message. To be thrilled with the idea of participating in a continuing history, to imagine the ruin in its former wholeness, and the life that it contained; to feel melancholy over, though seeing the moral in, those "silent Tadmors and Palmyras, where the fox dwells in the halls of forgotten princes"; to imagine oneself on the most familiar terms with "any ghost that ever flits by night across the moonlight air" of a historic city--this was the conventional experience of the literary observer.29 In the ancient natural scenery, the vanished Aztec and Inca dynasties and architectural ruins, or the relics of French empire in North America, Bancroft, Prescott, and Parkman found the same opportunities for imaginative contemplation of the Past that Motley restricted to the Old World.
This romantic attitude toward the Past applied to human experience itself. The beauty in relics
and scenes seemed less important than "their historic associations."30 What thrilled the writer was his contact with the life, the vital
feeling of the Past. To a group of men whose literary experience, however varied, hammered so
consistently on the theme of experiencing, of the observer's responses to objects and ideas,
no history could be valuable unless it brought the Past to life upon the printed page. Whether from
Schiller and Goethe (whom Bancroft and Motley admired),
. . . that bygone ages of the world were actually filled by living men, not by protocols, state-papers, controversies and abstractions of men. Not abstractions were they, not diagrams or theorems; but men, in buff or other coats and breeches, with colour in their cheeks, with passions in their stomach, and the idioms, features, and vitalities of very men. ["Men"] is a little word. . . . History will henceforth have to take thought of it. Her faint hearsays of "philosophy teaching by experience" will have to exchange themselves everywhere for direct inspection and embodiment: this, and this only, will be counted experience; and till once experience have got in, philosophy will reconcile herself to wait at the door. It is a great service, this that Scott has done; a great truth laid open by him.33
Whether or not Scott laid open this great truth, the New England historians considered it a
fundamental truth. They concentrated on literary technique, "interest," and effect not only because
they had been literary men before they became historians, but also because they believed that the
re-creation of the Past requires imaginative and literary skill. To give events their natural coloring,
as Bancroft wanted to do,34 to re-create men with passions in their
stomach, one had to be "literary." The so-called philosophical historians were in disrepute.35 The New England historians did not object primarily to their
Toryism or to their writing (Prescott, for one, admired Hume's style);36 the issue was the kind of experience that should be let in
while philosophy waited at the door. Vitality, color, embodiment--these are the most important
ideas in Carlyle's paragraph. The proper subject for the historian was one in which types of "very
men" and ideas could be embodied. Prescott did not want to write as Hallam did, "like a technical
Jurist."37 Bancroft said he was unworried by the competition
Prescott's notebooks reveal how strongly the "literary attitude" could influence the choice of subjects. In his first written notice that he was considering a history of Ferdinand and Isabella, he said he preferred it "as more novel and entertaining" than any alternative topic. His recurrent doubts about the subject grew out of his dislike for "minute details," his desire to avoid "what I detest, hunting up latent barren antiquities."39 When he confirmed his decision "finally, for the hundredth time," in 1828--after having long abandoned the subject for a study of English literature--he stressed again the idea that the narrative would be interesting; he reminded himself to "aim at wide rather than deep views, at a popular, rather than erudite compilation, avoiding intricate research, particularly in antiquities, and particularly too on topics relating to constitutions of Government, or economy." Such a history, he argued, "may be made novel, elegant, useful, and very entertaining. What more can I desire?"
But he needed still more convincing. "If I cannot approfondir an historical subject like Hume and Gibbon and such gentry," he wrote later on the page, "I can come nearer to the superficial merits of Roscoe and Watson; & is not this as well as to write like a technical Jurist, as Mr. Hallam does?" He warned himself to be scrupulous about "facts, facts," even to display this fidelity "a little ostentatiously." But again he came back to qualify, as he always did in these notes, in the name of interest: "Mem.: Never introduce what is irrelevant or superfluous, . . . for the sake of crowding in more facts. They injure ye interest, and ye effect."40
This same refrain runs through the journal Prescott kept while writing The Conquest of Mexico. Despite its faults, he said, Voltaire's Charles XII had "the great requisite--in a work meant to be popular--of interest."41 "Interest, interest, interest," he commanded himself after he had finished the introduction to The Conquest of Mexico, "--I have given the reader, or at least myself--a sweat in the Introduction. The rest must be play for both of us." Preparing to write a few days later, he exhorted himself to "keep in view the most important, stirring, affecting incidents.... Above all, keep character,--& especially the pervading, dominant character of the hero in view. Omit no act or word of his that can illustrate it. Interest is created out of character. All other interest is not only inferior in kind, but in degree."42
Prescott resolved, therefore, to follow Mably's method in The Conquest of Mexico:
"sticking to the thread of the narrative," "approfondiring character
The subject had to be an interesting narrative, on a "grand theme," in which a varied group of remarkable, vigorous characters acted heroically on the largest possible stage. The grand theme involved the origins of a nation (preferably, in some way, America), the progress of Liberty in her battle against Absolutism, the conquest of a continent, or all of these. It included, if possible, some "poetic"--that is, melancholy--incidents. The scenery had to include something of the picturesque, and as much of the sublime as possible.
Interest and character, stirring incidents, variety of characters--these terms recur endlessly in the historians' notebooks and journals, in their letters of congratulation, and in their literary criticism. They all knew Mably's Sur l' étude de l'histoire, which Prescott said he read "for the tenth time" while writing The Conquest of Mexico;45 they all knew and used Barante and Macaulay, both of whom Prescott paraphrased in his review of Irving's Conquest of Granada.46 From some of their critical remarks, however, and especially from their presentation of character, scene, and incident, it seems clear that they also found useful models in historical fiction. They distinguished, of course, between history and historical romance; although they often compared the two genres, they were always careful on such occasions to boast of their restraint in avoiding "imaginary" conversations, of their fidelity to the documents.47 But while they respected the theories and techniques of the French and English historians, they admired no historian more than they admired Sir Walter Scott.
Parkman, then, does Cooper a great honor when he says that the American novelist sometimes
"approaches" Scott, and his reason for placing both writers at the head of English literature echoes
the very language of Carlyle. "Their conceptions of character," Parkman declares, "were no mere
abstract ideas, or unsubstantial images, but solid embodiments in living flesh and blood." Here
again, embodiment, the external re-creation, represents
This analogy to portraiture appears so frequently in the letters and histories of the four historians that one might easily dismiss it as a cliché. Like many conventional metaphors, however, it deserves careful attention. Behind all the allusions to historical painting and broad canvases lie significant assumptions about historical technique. The romantic historian considered himself a painter.
Motley revealed the basis of this comparison when he praised Rubens' Descent from the Cross in the same rhetoric that Parkman chose to praise Scott and Cooper:
It seems to me as if I had really stood at the Cross, and seen Mary weeping on John's shoulder, and Magdalen receiving the dead body of the Saviour in her arms. Never was the grand tragedy presented in so profound and dramatic a manner. For it is not only his colour, in which this man so easily surpasses the world, but in his life-like flesh and blood action, the tragic power of his composition. And is it not appalling to think of the large constitution of this man, when you reflect on the acres of canvas which he has covered? How inspiriting to see with what muscular masculine vigor this splendid Fleming rushed in and plucked up drowning Art by the locks . . . . Well might Guido exclaim, "The fellow mixes blood with his colours!"
He is certainly the Shakespeare of painting. . . . How providentially did the man come in and invoke living, breathing, moving men and women out of his canvas!49
Rubens was the "Shakespeare of painting"; Scott, Prescott said, "Shakespeare in prose."50 The qualities admired in both, and the qualities Parkman praised in
Cooper, were the same: energy, masculine vigor, flesh-and-blood action, stirring movement, color,
the illusion of participation. In the essay on Cooper and the essay on Scott, moreover, Parkman and
The habit of conceiving the subject pictorially had many important effects on the histories. The most obvious was the convention of writing "portraits" or "sketches" of characters as they appeared--and even, sometimes, as they died. The term "sketch" was not simply a metaphor, for a character sketch usually began with a careful description based on a contemporary portrait. These historians agreed with Carlyle (and with Hawthorne) that a portrait reveals the essential character of the subject;52 indeed, some of their verbal portraits show the influence of phrenology. Motley's description of two sons of William the Silent demonstrates how literally the analogy could be applied. The stock figure of the "Jesuitical" conspirator (exemplified by Scott's Rashleigh Osbaldistone)53 appears in William's oldest son and namesake, whom Philip II had carried off to Spain when William fled the Netherlands.
He had already become so thoroughly Hispaniolized under the masterly treatment of the King and the Jesuits, that even his face had lost all resemblance to the type of his heroic family, and had acquired a sinister, gloomy, forbidding expression, most painful to contemplate. All of the good that he had retained was a reverence for his father's name.
The next son was Maurice, then seventeen years of age, a handsome youth, with dark-blue eyes, well-chiseled features, and full red lips, who had already manifested a courage and concentration of character beyond his years.54
In such a contrast, the conventional juxtaposition of dark and fair symbolizes the antithesis of the sinister Jesuit "treatment" and the candid, manly heritage of Nassau. But Maurice of Nassau lived to become the arch-enemy and "judicial murderer" of another of Motley's heroes, the Arminian Barneveld. The portraits of Maurice in John of Barneveld retain some traces of the frank Nassauvian face depicted above; but a phrenological blight has afflicted the lower half of the face, and the color of the eyes has changed:
The face, although unquestionably handsome, offered a sharp contrast within itself; the upper half all intellect, the lower half quite sensual. Fair hair growing thin, but hardly tinged with grey, a bright, cheerful and thoughtful forehead, large hazel eyes within a singularly large orbit of brow; a straight, thin,
slightly aquiline, well-cut nose--such features were at open variance with the broad, thick-lipped, sensual mouth, the heavy pendant jowl, the sparse beard on the glistening cheek, and the mole-skin-like moustachio and chin tuft.55
One sees the full implication of this change when Motley paints the two enemies at their final confrontation; by that time all the honorific color has disappeared from Maurice's face and eyes:
The Advocate, with long grey beard and stern blue eyes, haggard with illness and anxiety, tall but bent with age, leaning on his staff and wrapped in black velvet cloak--an imposing magisterial figure; the florid, plethoric Prince in brown doublet, big russet boots, narrow ruff, and shabby felt hat with its string of diamonds, with hand clutched on sword-hilt, and eyes full of angry menace, the very type of the high-born, imperious soldier--thus they surveyed each other as men, once friends, between whom a gulf had opened.56
However strongly one might object to this manipulation of rhetoric to praise and then condemn the same person, one must notice that these are three portraits of a man at different stages of his life, and in different moods. Rightly or wrongly, Motley is using a portrait in the same way in which Hawthorne used his portrait of Judge Pyncheon in The House of the Seven Gables: to reveal pictorially the character of the subject. It is only fair to remember that the Prince in the last portrait is a jealous Prince who has been described through allusions to Othello.57
Usually, of course, the successive portraits of a major figure were more consistent with each other than these three portraits of Maurice. Once the portrait of a major character had been presented, the writer might use it frequently, keeping before the reader a visual idea of the character's nature. Motley's sketches of Philip II leaning over his desk in the Escorial, and of the dark Henry, Duke of Guise; Prescott's gloomy Ferdinand, darker than the fair Isabella; Parkman's stern but passionate Pontiac, who was "darker than is usual with his race"58--these reiterated images are only a few of the most striking examples. Although Motley's repetitiousness eventually becomes tiresome, such an image as that of Philip bending over his desk is, as Macaulay felt historical pictures should be, "not merely traced on the mind, but branded into it."59
These examples demonstrate that the romantic historians often dealt in character types. "The
types are various," Bancroft wrote to Edward Everett, "grand in their character, and capable of
being arranged in an interesting narrative."60 "The "arrangement"
of types was often an arrangement of pictures. Whenever clear historical evidence did not
contradict the convention,
Despite the strong temptation to do so, one would be unwise to conclude from this statement alone that Parkman was anti-Catholic; the description itself indicates that Parkman, like Motley, was consciously writing within a phrenological context and a strict literary convention. When the details of Maurice's historical face do not support the emotion Motley wants to suggest, he abstracts "floridity," takes the color from the eyes, substitutes the phrase "eyes full of angry menace," and relies lamely on the abstraction "the very type of the high-born, imperious soldier"; in the portrait of Olier, who is not a major figure in his history, Parkman abstracts all the qualities from the engraved portrait: he gives no details at all.
In a multivolume history that emphasized individual characters, the resources of the palette were bound to be quickly exhausted in the pictorial suggestion of emotion and temperament. By the time the writer had described a dozen faces and forms, he would have found it difficult to keep from repeating himself even if he had determined to avoid "types." But these writers considered the types an advantage. Like Cooper and Scott, they were interested in generalizing about such subjects as "national character," and in illustrating through minor characters such abstracted traits as "remarkable resolution," "intrepidity" (especially the intrepidity of an occasional woman), and chivalric generosity. They seemed pleased, too, to be able to show at times that a genuine historical character resembled the fictitious creations of a Scott or a Cooper. When Prescott, for example, sent Bancroft a list of episodes in Ferdinand and Isabella from which Democratic reviewers might want to quote, he emphasized a moving scene that was "very like the scene described by Scott, of Louis XI and the Astrologer, in Quentin Durward, vol. III., chap. 6. Eng. ed."62 And he pointed out the same connection in the text of his history.
In using the conventional character the historian had whatever advantage came from his
reader's familiarity with the convention; but at the same time he knew that the historicity of the
character would impart at least some individuality even to an embodied cliché. Except
on rare occasions when the writer had perfect material for the portrait of a unique figure, a
character's pictorial features identified the type to which he belonged,
The use of conventional characters does not necessarily weaken the histories. When a character had "lineaments" appropriate to the desired moral effect, a writer as skillful as Motley needed no more than convention offered. Lacking a dominant hero for his United Netherlands, Motley lavished as much emphasis and "natural coloring" on Queen Elizabeth as the documents would allow. She appears in these pages as a coy, vain, niggardly, sometimes heroic, and always petulant woman. Pausing several times to paint his fascinating subject, Motley gives this picture of her at fifty-three, when "she considered herself in the full bloom of her beauty":
Her garments were of satin and velvet, with fringes of pearl as big as beans. A small gold crown was upon her head, and her red hair, throughout its multiplicity of curls, blazed with diamonds and emeralds. Her forehead was tall, her face long, her complexion fair, her eyes small, dark, and glittering, her nose high and hooked, her lips thin, her teeth black, her bosom white and liberally exposed.64
The grotesque incongruity of the red, black, and white in this picture does much more than the heavy satire of Motley's narrative and his indignant moral judgments to achieve the effect he wants. This picture and others of Elizabeth seem to answer Macaulay's promise that "a great artist could produce a portrait" of Elizabeth "at least as striking as that in the novel of Kenilworth, without employing a single trait not authenticated by ample testimony."65
The analogy to painting applied also to natural scenery. Through his landscapes, too, the historian wanted to communicate not merely external features but essential significance. In romantic history as in historical romance--in historical "painting" as in the canvases of Thomas Cole--one had to convey the emotional impact of Nature. Parkman praised The Deerslayer's scenery for its "genuine game flavor":
It exhales the odors of the pine-woods and the freshness of the mountain-wind. Its dark and rugged scenery rises as distinctly on the eye as the images of the painter's canvas, or rather as the reflection of Nature herself. But it is not as the mere rendering of material forms that these wood-paintings are most highly to be esteemed; they breathe the somber poetry of solitude and danger.66
Parkman, of course, attributed his choice of the French-Canadian subject to his "taste for the woods and the Indians."67 Throughout his journals and his published works he reveals an unusually intense appetite for physical activity, especially among wild natural scenes. But although Bancroft's adolescent letters about "regaining [his] youth on Nature's bosom" seem amusingly self-conscious when placed against Parkman's intense revelations, the contrast demonstrates the conventionality of the attitude.68 Motley alone chose a subject that could not always be "ennobled" by "primeval" natural scenery; but in his volumes on the Netherlands he used the wild ocean when he could, and when he argued that Peter the Great's action in "the Northern war" was "a magnificent subject for the historical painter," he included the scenery as an essential advantage: "What imposing personages," he exclaimed,
what dramatic catastrophes, what sudden and bewildering reverses, what wild scenery, what Salvator-like chiaroscuro--dark Sarmatian forests enveloping the actors in mystery and obscurity, with flashes of light breaking upon the anxious suspense of Europe, and revealing portentous battles, sieges, and hair-breadth escapes--what "dreadful marches" through the wilderness.69
In order to exploit the locale in this way, the historian felt obliged to know it personally. The fame of Parkman's thorough explorations has obscured the importance of Bancroft's, made when Parkman was only fourteen years old. "I marked as near as I could the spot where Jacques Cartier may have landed," Bancroft wrote from Montreal in 1837; at "sublime" Quebec he "trod the soil where Wolfe landed" and "marked the very hillside" Wolfe had climbed.70 Motley, of course, knew thoroughly the Dutch and Belgian cities that he had to describe, and he relied on historic association or the "wild ocean" when he wanted to achieve a sublime effect.71 Prescott, though unable to travel very often, recognized the importance of knowing the natural scenery through which his characters moved. Relying on the eyes of others, especially Humboldt and Malte Brun, for the details of his scenery, he believed that his description in The Conquest of Mexico ought to emphasize the "sublime scenery." He realized that his description, though "full of the picturesque," read "very much like Miss Porter--rather boarding-schoolish finery. . . . But the tierra caliente without flowers," he knew, "would be like a garden without roses."72
Landscape was not mere ornament in these histories. It was intended as an integral part of the
historic action. Whatever the historians' indebtedness to the geopolitical theories of Montesquieu
and Herder, they were happiest when they could emulate Scott and Cooper by staging a battle
When Parkman praised Cooper for achieving this effect in The Deerslayer, he distinguished sharply between the effect of a "great battle" and that of a skirmish. One reads of a battle, he said, with "the same kind of interest with which he beholds the grand destructive phenomena of nature"--although one's "feeling" is "far more intense" here because the forces are "living tides of human wrath and valor." In well-described skirmishes or single combats, however, "the reader is enlisted in the fray"; he shares the feelings of the participants and, instead of imagining a picture, seems actually to feel the spray of the "foaming cataract," and "the tangible presence of rock, river, and forest."73 Parkman's control of point of view in his own histories reveals the importance of this paragraph: again and again he tries to put the reader on the scene--inside a small stockade attacked by Iroquois, bivouacking with a French and Indian war party, trying to sleep in a reeking Indian hut.
Parkman's distinction between the effect of a great battle and that of a skirmish helps to explain the abundance of detailed anecdotes, the episodic quality of most of these histories. The description of a great battle is almost always generalized; the writer does describe it as he describes a tempest at sea; he does keep the general scene before the reader's eye, emphasizing tides of wrath and valor, masses of foot and horse, until the conventional climax, when the quick eye of the successful leader or the heroic action of a small group capitalizes on the chance for victory.74 This kind of description might illustrate national character, as Prescott's accounts of French impetuosity, Motley's anecdotes of Spanish endurance, or Parkman's criticisms of Indian hit-and-run tactics are intended to do; but except for the hero's quick decision or the losing general's indecision, it rarely particularizes a character.
To achieve that effect, each of the historians pauses frequently to tell an anecdote involving one
or very few characters--often minor characters. Many of these episodes describe what Cotton
Mather called "Remarkables" and Motley, "hair-breadth escapes"; almost all of them reveal unusual
devotion, courage, cowardice, cruelty, or generosity. Most of them, moreover, depict some
individual in the face of unusual danger. A generous chevalier in single combat against a more
powerful Spanish knight; a lone woman calling out to an imaginary garrison in her house, and thus
Too often, however, he failed. Such episodes as that of the intrepid woman or the hero's hairbreadth escape from the enemy became conventionalized: Prescott's injunction to "omit no act or word that can illustrate" character seems at times a self-inflicted curse on his own writing. If many of these anecdotes do justify Parkman's evaluation of the "petty" skirmish, the reason is not that the writer evokes the tangible presence of rock, river, and forest, but only that (again) the dreadful or affecting experiences were real experiences. The trouble is that the foaming cataract had itself become a cliché, and none of these writers could do with a foaming cataract what Motley had done with Elizabeth's black teeth. For a writer committed to "vigorous," "colorful" language, moreover, and limited besides in the number of documented details, the rhetoric available for describing a skirmish did not differ very much from that used to describe a great battle. The conventional scene was particularized by the same kind of quality that particularized the conventional character: its location and its reality. For the reader familiar with Scott and Cooper the cliff did not need to be described in great detail. The writer had only to announce that the skirmish had occurred on a "rocky eminence" or a towering height and then to suggest the danger or the aptness of the setting. By addressing the reader in the second person or using the historical present, by controlling the point of view at a moment of crisis, he could sometimes achieve the illusion of participation.76
Since this illusion implies a dramatic technique, it is not surprising that in their remarks about
history these writers compared history to drama almost as often as they compared it to painting.
Macaulay had declared that the difference between history and drama lay more in conception than
Bancroft, especially, received critical praise for his dramatic ability. Prescott told him he admired "your original & very effective way of a dramatic form of writing, by making the parties not only act but speak for themselves." When Bancroft's next volume appeared four years later, Prescott admired the "greater reality" which Bancroft had given the story by "making actors tell it with their own mouths."78 This greater reality was the main purpose of making the actors speak for themselves, but it did not mean only the more impressive effect that dialogue gave to a narrative. It meant exemplifying the peculiar language of a nation or an age. If the historian was lucky enough to find a reasonably important character whose language was "colorful," his use of the character's own words would add the "natural coloring" that he wanted in his history. In his essay on history Macaulay had complained of having "to look for the wars an votes of the Puritans in Clarendon and for their phraseology in Old Mortality."79 One can find the Puritans' phraseology and at least the translated phraseology of the Indians in Bancroft and Parkman, along with the wars and the votes.
The historian did not always apportion his quotations according to their dramatic importance in
the over-all plan of his history. He gave a special hearing to the eloquent and the colorful speaker.
Parkman quoted speech after speech in the style of Indian metaphor, whether the speaker was a
European or an Indian. In A Half-Century of Conflict and Montcalm and Wolfe he
repeatedly used the diaries of unlettered New England soldiers, of a chaplain, of a doctor, making
the most of their concrete language.80 Bancroft, by making the
actors throughout the colonies speak for themselves just before the Revolution, brought "all the
various phases of sentiment in a flash as it were before the eye of the reader."81 In the United Netherlands, however, Motley outdid all the others--primarily, it would seem, because he had Elizabethan characters to portray and meant to use their
prose for all the color it could provide. With excellent material to choose from in the letters of
Elizabeth, Leicester, and other Englishmen of high
Colorful as Indian eloquence or Puritan diaries could be, Elizabethan language was incomparable for writers who admired both a "flowing," "ornate," and "aphoristical"83 style and men of frankness, independence, and action. The conceit, the striking epithet, the alliteration, and the stirring rhythms seemed to exemplify the vigor of honest Englishmen during Elizabeth's reign: "'Rob,'" Elizabeth writes to Leicester in the Netherlands,
"I am afraid you will suppose, by my wandering writings, that a midsummer's moon hath taken large possession of my brains this month; but you must needs take things as they come in my head, though order be left behind me. . . . It frets me not a little that the poor soldiers that hourly venture life should want their due, that well deserve rather reward; and look, in whom the thought may truly be proved, let them smart therefore. And if the treasurer be found untrue or negligent, according to desert he shall be used. . . .
"Now will I end, that do imagine I still talk with you, and therefore loathly say farewell one hundred thousand times; though ever I pray God bless you from all harm, and save you from all foes."
When Leicester complains of dissension among his officers, who Motley says "were all at daggers drawn," Motley lets him speak: "'Would God I were rid of this place!' he exclaimed. 'What man living would go to the field and have his officers divided almost into mortal quarrel? One blow but by any of their lackeys brings us altogether by the ears.'"84
Such language as this suggests the heroic, flesh-and-blood action that Motley found in Rubens' painting. The dramatic method gave muscular vigor a value that is reflected in the historians' criticism of historical language as well as their choice of subjects. It was Bancroft's "crisp, nervous style" that Motley admired, his ability, "by a few sudden strokes, to reveal startling and brilliant pictures."85 Washington Irving praised Bancroft's accounts of Lexington and Bunker Hill because "a vigorous fire runs through the language and flashes out occasionally in epithets and phrases that startle";86 Prescott, whose style was anything but "nervous," admired Motley's Rise of the Dutch Republic because "yr. portraiture of character is vigorous and animated."87
Committed to the idea of re-creating the Past, and considering himself a man of letters, the romantic historian did not think about a historical controversy or a historical period and then say, "I shall investigate this subject and find out what happened." He was more likely to say, "No history (or no good history) exists in English on this subject. The theme is grand, interesting, novel." He searched earnestly for the truth, but in discussing his subject he usually emphasized questions of presentation or the value of the subject as historical reading. This emphasis appears in his attitude toward facts, toward research, as well as in his critical comments. Whatever value facts had for their own sake, it was the story, and the kind of story, that counted. Reviewing Ferdinand and Isabella, Bancroft says that even after Irving's "historic romance," Prescott's "story" of the conquest of Granada "loses nothing of its charm in the accurate narration, which is confirmed by sober criticism, and gains a new and a deeper interest from its authenticity."88 When Motley boasts that he is giving the "ipsissima verba" of Elizabethan characters,89 that no "imaginary conversations" occur in his work, he not only reminds the reader of his scrupulous accuracy; he implies the same judgment Bancroft expressed in comparing Irving and Prescott on Granada: that however great Scott's conversations are in Kenilworth, he cannot provide what appears in this history--the very words, just as colorful as those in romance, but words of a deeper interest because they are authentic. Motley adds interest to his history by reminding the reader that he is reading "the secret never published correspondence" of royalty; Parkman insists repeatedly that he has actually studied the historic scenes, that he has painted his picture of Indians "from life"; Prescott defends Ferdinand and Isabella as "an honest record, from rare and authentic sources, of a period, rich in circumstance, of personages most remarkable in their character."90 Authentic sources provide the pleasure of picking from "the dressing-gown folds of the stealthy, softly-gliding Walsingham the last secret which he has picked from . . . the Pope's pocket," the pleasure of sitting "invisible at the most secret councils of the Nassaus and Barneveldt and Buys."90 "It may seem dreary work," Prescott says, "to plod through barbarous old MS. chronicles, of monks and pedants, but this takes up but a small portion of the time."92
The fact that the stories of Cortés and Pizarro were well known was a distinct
advantage, Prescott remarked in his journal--provided he could get original documents.93 The major events of every one of the histories these men chose to
write were well known by the time they started writing.
Thus the New England historians shared a romantic attitude toward the Past and toward the historian's aesthetic problems. But their interest in ruins, in vital experience, in portraits, conventional characters, and Nature has a far greater significance than the merely technical aspects of the literary attitude can indicate. History, like all literature, had more important purposes than entertainment. The New England Unitarian's version of romanticism included important assumptions about the meaning of history, and he adapted romantic literary conventions to communicate that meaning.