In the conquest of Mexico Prescott found the ideal subject not only for the romantic historian but for his own particular talents. Both the conventions to which he was committed and his own artistic limitations--his prose style, his inability to portray complexity of character or to emphasize precise detail--required a grand subject, confined in time, that would allow him to concentrate on broad traits of personal and "national" character, on spectacular scenes, and on a simple theme. Although these limitations caused literary and interpretative faults in The Conquest of Mexico, it is an impressive work of art, and a large part of its success depends on Prescott's skillful use of romantic conventions.
The great virtue of The Conquest of Mexico is its brilliant design. Of its seven books only the last, a biographical epilogue on Cortés, contains important structural weaknesses, and some of these are virtually inseparable from corresponding advantages. In the first six books, ending with the conquest, Prescott arranges the events, aligns the characters, and controls the point of view so skillfully that he achieves the "unity of interest" that he considered essential to good history.
The primary source of this unity is, of course, Prescott's concentration on his hero's progress
toward a single goal. Even if one were to consider only the broadest outline of the action, one
have to admire Prescott's division of the narrative (after his introductory book) into five books, or
acts.1 In the first half of the narrative he traces a straight line
which Cortés marches steadily upward from anonymity to nearly complete control of a
strange, hostile empire. Then, at the very center of the drama, he slides Cortés down along
even steeper line that leads, at the middle of the fourth act, to the verge of ruin. From this dramatic
crisis the line rises just as steeply, and at the end of the fourth act Cortés stands ready to
the empire again. In the last act the whole pattern is retraced
It is in the union of theme and structure, however, that Prescott's skill is most impressive. Convinced that he should think of his story as "an epic in prose, a romance of chivalry," he designed it to support a fundamentally simple theme: the inevitable ruin of a rich but barbarous empire through its inherent moral faults; the triumph of "civilization" over "semi-civilization," of Christianity (however imperfectly represented) over cannibalism; the triumph of Cortés' "genius," "constancy," and resourceful leadership over Montezuma's "pusillanimity" and "vacillation," and then over Guatemozin's noble but savage devotion to a doomed cause. Every one of the first six books illustrates this theme, and in every book--even in his expository introduction--Prescott makes his organization emphasize some aspect of it. The crucial differences between the two cultures, as he sees them, are differences in character, leadership, and religion, and he builds every book toward a crisis, or turning point, somewhere near its center, which depends on one or more of these distinctions.
The introductory book on "The Aztec Civilization" establishes the romantic atmosphere and the
moral basis for the conquest. The theme of this book is the combination of "refinement" with
brutality, and in establishing this theme the central chapter is the third, on Aztec religious
Relying from the very first page on the Oriental comparison, Prescott repeatedly suggests the fatal
combination in his descriptions of exotic scenery, of the emperors' pomp, and of Aztec imperialism;
but in the first half of the book he arranges his description of Aztec achievements to culminate in
Aztecs' most "elevated" religious conceptions. The turning point of the book and the most emphatic
statement of the theme come immediately afterward, in Prescott's discussion of priests, sacrifices,
and cannibal feasts. The Aztec priests' influence, he says, was even worse than that of the Spanish
Inquisition; he describes the sacrifice in a brilliant tableau; and when he announces that the
served cannibal feast was a unique combination of "refinement and the extreme of barbarism" (I,
79)* the inescapable limits of Aztec civilization are clearly
established. In the succeeding chapters of the book, on intellectual achievements, economic life,
domestic manners, the Aztecs regain some of their lost respect, but Prescott requires one to see all
their progressive accomplishments
In the books on the conquest itself each of these turning points is an episode in the narrative.
The dominant theme of the second book, "Discovery of Mexico," is the resolute enterprise of the knight-errant, whose "life was romance put into action." (I, 217.) The central turning point comes with the first actions of Montezuma, who lacks the knight-errant's virtues and represents the fatal weakness of his empire. Prescott uses the first five chapters to reveal the character of Cortés, the representative hero, and to bring him as far as he can come without waiting for Montezuma's reactions to his intrusion. By this time the narrative has established not only Cortés' representativeness and decisiveness, but also his remarkable conversion from irresponsibility to constancy and reliability. (I, 245-46.) Then, as the Spaniards await Montezuma's reply to Cortés' first message, Prescott turns to Mexico; and his introduction of Montezuma, ending with an indecisive answer that "reveals, at once, both his wealth and his weakness" (I, 317), presents him as Cortés' antithesis: in the decline of his personal character, in his luxury, and in his "fatalism." From here on the narrative tallies increasing evidence of Cortés' resolute leadership, balanced regularly by examples of Montezuma's vacillation.
Thus Prescott's organization as well as his rhetoric emphasizes the interaction of character and destiny. At the beginning of the narrative Cortés' remarkable transformation typifies that of the progressive man; and the bold decision by which he begins his expedition in defiance of his superiors reveals that, although "selected by Providence," he himself "gave the direction to destiny." (I, 252-53.) At the center of the narrative Montezuma's personal decline typifies that of the reactionary, who is demoralized by excessive power and terrified by the prospect of change. He, too, assists destiny, by his mistreatment of conquered nations and by his "fatalism" itself. Once the two representative men have been introduced in this balanced way, the rest of the book works out the contrast in action. Montezuma's weak response to Cortés' first message provokes an even more decisive reaction, and the tempo of contrasting action quickens until Cortés, at the end of the book, burns his ships and thus displays an almost unprecedented confidence in his destiny.
In "March to Mexico," the third book, Prescott continues to play Cortés' strength against Montezuma's weakness until Montezuma is forced to welcome the conquistadors to Mexico. Here again the central crisis turns on individual character and religion. But Prescott gives these added force by transforming even the geographic facts into an artistic justification of his theme. With each major Spanish advance the scenery changes, and the character and "refinement" of the natives change accordingly; and with each Spanish success Montezuma's conduct changes.
Thus every major stage of the Spaniards' advance confronts them with a different aspect of Indian character. Moving from the lush tierra caliente to the wild mountains of Tlascala, they meet a "rude republican" army (II, 92) that will not admit them to the city until it has been defeated three times in open battle. Then, having defeated Montezuma's Tlascalan enemies, on whom the emperor has counted to destroy them, the Spaniards are invited to "refined" Cholula, situated on a richly cultivated plateau, where Montezuma, on the advice of his oracles, hopes to ruin them by deceit.
It is in this "Holy City of Anahuac" (II, 8), where there are more temples, more processions and sacrifices, more beggars and priests than anywhere else in the country, that the crisis occurs. Warned of the conspiracy, Cortés orders a retaliatory massacre, and the "effeminate" Cholulans call on their gods to destroy him. The Spaniards, however, destroy the gods, and in the face of this outrage Montezuma's oracles are dumb. With the Spaniards moving unharmed toward Mexico after victories over both savage and refined Indians and after desecrating his gods, Montezuma, trembling, sends a mission to welcome them. The last two chapters of the book describe their march over the most sublime mountains of all and down into the gorgeous valley of Mexico, where the people combine the qualities of rude Tlascalan and refined Cholulan. (II, 92.)
"Residence in Mexico," the fourth book, is symmetrically designed to bring Montezuma to his
lowest degradation before the Spaniards and Cortés to the height of his power, and then
abruptly to drop Cortés down the long slide that leads to his expulsion from the city. Here
again the crisis turns on religion. The steady decline and rise of Montezuma and Cortés,
respectively, culminate at the center of the book, when Montezuma gives the Spaniards "great
of gold" (II, 201) and tearfully swears allegiance to Spain. But the representative cavalier cannot
here. Cortés extorts Montezuma's permission to dedicate a Christian chapel on the great
temple, and Prescott contrives brilliantly to use this religious provocation as the beginning of Aztec
rebellion. He depicts the scene of the first
The central division of this book is underscored by Prescott's control of chronology. Just when he stops portraying Cortés' response to opportunity and begins to stress his reaction to adversity, he finds new leaders to contrast with his hero. But he refuses to digress from the events in Mexico until Cortés' position there has changed; until Cortés has also learned that a Spanish force has set out to replace him. Following the technique of Cooper and Scott, Prescott uses this point of suspense as the transition to a summary of events in Spain and Cuba. For the rest of the book he sets Cortés' brilliant leadership against the fumbling of Spaniards--enemies and friends alike. Cortés defeats the enemies, but in his absence from Mexico the slight chance he has had to pacify the Aztecs is spoiled by the rashness of his faithful lieutenant in the city. Prescott informs the reader of this blunder only when Cortés learns of it, and then he follows Cortés on the forced march back to the capital.
In "Expulsion from Mexico," the fifth book, Prescott reverses the structural principle of Book
IV. Here the fortunes of Cortés continue to decline until his greatest moment of peril,
through the book, and then they rise steadily until he reestablishes himself in Tezcuco, prepared for
his last campaign against Mexico. The theme of the book is his fidelity, through the greatest
adversity, "to himself." (II, 413.) To support the theme Prescott uses Byronic rhetoric more
repetitiously than in any other part of the history, and he also builds the first half of his book toward
crisis in which Cortés can rely on nothing else but himself. In the midst of a losing battle
which the tired Spaniards must fight without guns against a vast Indian army, Cortés' "eagle
eye" sees the languid Indian commander in a litter near by. Charging him instantly and knocking
out of his litter, Cortés demoralizes the Indian army and saves his own. (III, 399-400.)
Thereafter he continues to combine genius with good luck until his arrival in Tezcuco
In the death of Montezuma and the behavior of his people, this book also describes a decisive change among the Aztecs: the triumph of their savagery over their refinement. Prescott dramatizes the transformation by describing the Aztec people consistently from the Spanish point of view, from which they appear as a wild mass, and by arranging his narrative so that Montezuma's final disgrace and his death appear to be stages in the death of refinement. In each of the first two chapters he relies heavily on the natural imagery that he always applies to embattled savages and Moors, and he concludes each of these chapters with a sentimental essay on Montezuma. The method produces a beautiful fusion of structure and theme, for these chapters lead to the Noche Triste: with the refined emperor dead, the way is prepared for the most unrestrained outburst of savage passions, and it is clear that the Aztecs will now fight to the death. In the last chapter of the book, moreover, Prescott introduces the resolute new emperor and demonstrates that both armies are now stronger than when Cortés first occupied Mexico. Thus he sets the stage for a war of extermination between civilized man and barbarian.
"Siege and Surrender," the final book on the conquest, epitomizes Prescott's skill in unifying theme and organization. While retracing the narrative pattern of the entire history, Prescott's arrangement of the decisive campaign intensifies all the basic contrasts between Spaniard and Aztec; it gives the crucial position again to religion; and, through remarkably skillful pacing of the action, it facilitates a drastic change in tone toward the Aztecs.
By devoting the first half of the book to Cortés' isolation of Mexico from her allies, Prescott makes the very sequence of events intensify the nonreligious contrasts. As Cortés moves methodically around the lake, taking town after town, his "scientific" strategy stands out clearly against the Mexicans' reliance on inexhaustible numbers. In almost every town, moreover, his political skill then capitalizes on the weak "moral" basis of the Mexican empire. The section concludes, appropriately, with his most brilliant political and scientific feats--his disposition of a conspiracy against his life by his own men, and the launching of his prefabricated brigantines on the lake.
Although he does not ignore these important contrasts in the second half of this book, on the
siege and destruction of Mexico, Prescott's organization of that section gives the greatest
to Aztec religious
The conventional changes in tone toward the Indians follow closely changes in the intensity of action. Always at a rhetorical disadvantage when fighting as an enraged "mob," the Aztecs appear at their worst during the sacrificial ceremonies just before the climax. Then, as the action declines, they become eligible for the sentimental treatment always accorded to vanquished "races." Although they manage to make several more, furious attacks, Prescott describes all of these very briefly, and he concentrates on the Mexicans' weakness and horrible suffering. Their "ferocity" is now pathetic; their resistance, impotent. In the closing battle scenes their resistance is almost completely passive, and their vigorous enemies--reluctant Spaniard and eager Indian--hack away at an inactive mass. To conclude the action of the history, Prescott emphasizes their passiveness in a series of pathetic tableaux: of the defiant people "huddled" together awaiting slaughter, of Guatemozin standing among the ruins of his empire, and of the survivors' "melancholy evacuation" just before the narrative ends with a Spanish procession of mass and thanksgiving.
Within this basic design there are several recurrent patterns that enrich it and illustrate the
Perhaps the simplest of these is Prescott's use of his conclusions, in both the larger and smaller
narrative units, to emphasize the continuity of action. Each of the first four narrative books ends as
prelude to greater action, and, especially in the two books on Cortés' first march to Mexico,
chapter after chapter ends with his departure on another leg of his mission. This device sharpens the
sense of movement
A more important pattern which enhances both "interest" and theme is that of recurring spectacular scenes. The sublime landscapes, vast battle scenes, and splendid processions that appear regularly from beginning to end of the narrative maintain the large scale essential to an epic in prose; most of them also illustrate the theme and the unity of romance and history. Prescott's most effective method is visual; from the first embarkation of Cortés' little fleet to the final evacuation of Mexico by the Aztecs, one can trace the course of the narrative through a succession of grand pictures.
Perhaps the most impressive example is Prescott's use of the Mexican temple, or teocalli. This is the one major symbol in the history. Its pyramidal structure epitomizes the Oriental comparison; it represents one of the finest achievements of Aztec material ingenuity; its sacrificial stone, its "hideous" gods, and the "smoking hearts" offered to them (II, 149) typify the brutality of Aztec religion. Introduced dramatically at the turning point of the first book, it dominates scene after scene through the rest of the history. In its sanctuaries the Spaniards see "richly gilded" carvings and gold and silver hearts, along with "smoking" human hearts and "gore" that stains the walls. Standing on its summit, beside Montezuma, Cortés gains his closest view of the Aztec empire in its greatest power; standing there a year later, he sees the city in ruins. There, too, while the Spaniards are insecure "guests" in the city, holding Montezuma as a hostage, a Spanish chapel and an Aztec sanctuary stand at opposite ends, suggesting the temporary equilibrium of the two powers; there, in a portentous battle before their expulsion, the Spaniards slaughter a superior Aztec force and light "the funeral pyre of paganism" (II, 328); there, at the climax, sixty-two Spaniards are sacrificed in full view of their comrades. And finally, on the site of the ruined teocalli, the Spaniards build the largest cathedral in Mexico, burying the original stones in the ground as a symbolic foundation.
Such grand scenes gain structural importance through Prescott's recurrent, though not
use of the Spaniards' point of view. Periodically throughout the history, the sights that they see,
when presented from their point of view, illustrate the immense odds against them. A major
A third important pattern is the rhythmic succession of crises that Cortés must face from his entrance on the scene until his death. Even more successfully than Parkman's volume on La Salle, in which the rhetoric is so remarkably similar to Prescott's,2 The Conquest of Mexico traces a hero's course from difficulty to difficulty. Regularly balancing the narrative of his victories are the periodic demands of his men to abandon the idea of conquest and return to Spain or Cuba; and Prescott follows each of these internal crises with an account of Cortés' skillful eloquence or political shrewdness. Less frequent, but still regularly balancing his problems with Indian enemies, are his periodic difficulties with Spanish enemies; and Prescott illustrates these recurring historical facts with periodic scenes that portray Cortés in meditation and summarize his difficulties.
Down to the eve of victory, moreover, these problems grow increasingly complex. The
administrative difficulties come to include not only restraining some of his impetuous officers but
managing his Indian allies. The result is that Prescott keeps his hero walking always on the edge of
ruin; and the succession of dilemmas makes forward movement seem imperative. In several
military situations Cortés resolves to march out and meet the superior enemy rather than
an attack; and throughout the history Prescott stresses heavily the central
The sole artistic value of Prescott's debatable epilogue, "The Subsequent Career of Cortés," seems to me to be its completion of this last pattern.3 There is no rest for the representative cavalier, and he wants none. Despite Prescott's fear that the book was too "tame," it follows the pattern of endless striving from crisis to crisis down to the day of the hero's death. Cortés must still be everywhere at once, and the troubles that dominate this book take him on a "dreadful march" to Honduras (III, 279), a dangerous return voyage to Mexico, and two voyages back to Spain. During the latter of these, while awaiting royal justice, he joins an expedition against Algiers, on which he is shipwrecked; and at his death he is preparing to return to Mexico for more exploration of Western coastal waters.
The basic fault of this book, the weakest of the seven, is not so much its tameness as its compression. Covering the twenty years in little more than one hundred pages, it reveals the weaknesses in Prescott's selective standards more clearly than do the five books on the conquest, which tell the story of a two-year expedition to a single goal. Prescott's announced purpose is to give the reader "a nobler point of view" from which to "study" Cortés' character, by portraying him as colonial administrator, agricultural experimenter, and nautical explorer. (III, 274-75.) But the accounts of these activities are extremely superficial, and conventional sentiment repeatedly supersedes the announced purpose--not only in Prescott's preoccupation with crises, but in his accounts of the fate of Cortés friends and enemies, and of the reward given to Cortés' mistress, Marina. In these passages Prescott seems to forget the small scale to which he has set this book, and the result is a diffusion of emphasis in which only the trials of Cortés remain distinct.
In characterization as in structure Prescott's best achievement is in the broad alignment. Stationing his characters along the line from savagery to extreme formality, he succeeds in making the conventional distinctions an integral part of the historical action and an asset to his theme. Although this achievement has its price in distortions and in shallow perspective, the basic arrangement is historically sound and aesthetically true.
I have already demonstrated how skillfully Prescott builds the character of Montezuma and that
Cortés into the structure of his first three acts, and how well he takes advantage of the fiery
Guatemozin's accession before
There are two sets of virtuous and defective characters, the Spaniards and the Indians. Prescott requires one to see them along an axis that displays progressive or "natural" virtue at one pole, "savage" virtue at the other, and corruption clustered near the center. There are more gradients on the Spanish than on the Indian side of the center, but the major divisions on the two sides balance each other. Cortés and Guatemozin, "the last of the Aztecs" (III, 286), stand at the poles; the intriguing Governor of Cuba and the Bishop of Burgos face the sinister Aztec priests, "the Dominicans of the New World" (I, 82), at the center; and at the halfway point on the respective sides, where the corruption of luxury and self-interest begins to predominate, stand the Spanish officers and men sent out to replace Cortés, and the emperor Montezuma. Close to Cortés are his most reliable officer and his good-hearted priest, both of whom have fewer faults than the hero but lack his "comprehensive genius" (III, 275); close to Guatemozin are the chiefs who rebuke Montezuma and die with passive bravery.
The conventional contrasts work all along the line of action, all along the line of characters. Cortés must often recall his wavering men to their opportunity and their duty; Cortés perpetrates a massacre which, though morally dubious, is politically brilliant, and a few weeks later one of his lieutenants orders a massacre which is politically stupid. Cortés' original men, having learned through self-denial and excellent leadership to emulate his daring, defeat a larger, better-equipped Spanish army that has been corrupted by comfort and self-indulgent leadership; and on the Noche Triste they fight bravely along with their leader while their greedy former enemies are weighed down by excessive quantities of Aztec treasure. Among the Indians one sees two chiefs die silently at the stake while their emperor sits in chains, and then one sees the emperor thank Cortés for his release from the chains; one sees the collaborator Ixtlilxochitl jeered by his Tezcucan countrymen who resist the Spaniards until hopelessly defeated.
In the over-all narrative these historically documented contrasts are artistically valuable
all of them tend to delineate minor characters who would otherwise be less distinct, and because all
them help, at the
The most effective example among the minor characters is that of Narvaez, the officer sent out from Cuba to replace Cortés. The brief battle between the two Spanish forces is decided almost exclusively by differences in leadership. Apparently having little evidence for a full portrait of Narvaez, Prescott stresses the trait most clearly revealed by the battle itself: Narvaez prefers comfort to vigilance, and underestimates his enemy. In short, this is a Mexican parallel to George Washington's victory over the Hessians. Prescott shows Cortés preparing his smaller force to attack during a severe storm; next he depicts Narvaez retiring for the night in his comfortable quarters; and then the decisive attack comes. A few words on the "softening" effect of an easy colonial life suffice to make the characterization sharp, for the action itself illustrates the personal contrast, and self-reliant, natural merit triumphs once more over inferior leadership depending on the letter of the law. (II, 254-67.)
With the two major characters as well, Prescott's best achievement is in unifying action, scene, and the conventional aspects of the theme. The progressive hero, originally aimless and irresponsible, is transformed by opportunity and follows thereafter a dedicated, resolute course; he is the energetic, self-made man, responding equally well to opportunity and adversity, and finally building success out of ruin. He is destiny's darling. His antagonist, the victim of destiny, is corrupted by power, luxury, and "superstition," and irresolute reaction only precipitates his inevitable decline.
As these qualities rise out of specific incidents and scenes and fit into the general structure, they represent the best of Prescott's art. His finest technical achievement is in the recurrent images of the two representative men.
A large majority of Prescott's pictures of Montezuma show him standing motionless or moving
reluctantly toward some melancholy destination. From the beginning one sees him
news of Cortés, the protagonist, and one almost never sees him acting on his own initiative.
Immersed in an atmosphere of ruin suggested by Prescott's description of the "tangled wilderness"
that "now" overruns the splendid palace grounds,
The characteristic image of Cortés, on the other hand, depicts him in energetic motion: riding onward and upward toward Mexico, charging in battle after battle, tumbling idols down the sides of a temple, riding on forced marches to avoid disaster, crossing a steep canyon to attack Indians in a natural fortress, addressing his men eloquently, pacing his quarters at night while his men sleep. When one does see him in a stationary pose, as when he sits exhausted after the Noche Triste, he is usually contemplating future action, and in at least one tableau his pose is implicitly aggressive: at his first meeting with Montezuma he tries presumptuously to embrace the sacred emperor as an equal.
Except for some of the scenes of nocturnal reflection, which are imposed in stilted language on the action, all of these images rise out of documented actions. Along with the unpictured narrative of Cortés' achievements, they demonstrate the value of Prescott's basic method. Few of them are sharply detailed, yet they reveal the most important characters in poses that illustrate not only the theme but also the most important events down to the time of Montezuma's death. Prescott's deployment of his characters throughout the story of the conquest achieves the same double goal, and it therefore remains an admirable example of historical art.
But the method is also costly. Although the types are admirably suited to the historical facts and the theme, they are types only. For all their clarity in illustrating the basic conflict, they reveal nearly blank faces when one tries to examine them closely. They are ill suited to the portrayal of complex motivation, of complex character. They do not allow graceful qualification. These limitations weaken the portrayal of both Montezuma and Cortés, the two men whom Prescott tries to portray in detail, and they produce some distortion in the action itself.
The portrait of Montezuma is marred, of course, by the confusion of Prescott's double standard for savages, but the confusion is compounded by the unique prophecies of Aztec religion. Anyone acquainted with the double standard might expect Prescott to stress Montezuma's intrigue when describing his early resistance to Cortés, and then to judge his placid acceptance of the Spaniards by the standards of Indians who resisted to the death. What is surprising--and most damaging--is Prescott's careless treatment of Montezuma's belief that the Spaniards represented the "white gods" whose advent had been prophesied. Montezuma's puzzling behavior justifies some doubts that he consistently believed in the Spaniards' divinity.4 Yet Prescott does not even raise the question. Without suggesting that the belief wavered, he follows the peculiar course of condemning Montezuma's "pusillanimity" and then attributing it to the belief that the Spaniards were indeed divine agents. (See, for example, II, 75.)
Whatever the justice of this procedure, which seems to be based on an unexplained distinction between superstition and religion (II, 350), it certainly confuses the characterization. Following the pattern of contrasts, Prescott wedges Montezuma so firmly between the decisive Cortés and the resolutely hostile Aztecs that he fails to display clearly the religious aspect of Montezuma's motivation, even though his own judgment requires him to do so. In the narrative Montezuma's religious motivation stands forth clearly only in those incidents which precede the Spaniards' arrival in Mexico--incidents that highlight timid vacillation, human sacrifices, and deceit. This portion of the characterization ends when Montezuma, in a "paroxysm of despair" (II, 57), secludes himself to fast as the Spaniards approach the city. Once the Spaniards have arrived, however, the sinister behavior that they expect of Montezuma never occurs; not only does he treat them graciously and faithfully, but his religion prompts him to as many courageous as "pusillanimous" actions.6 Faced with this evidence, Prescott seems to forget the Aztec prophecy. Especially in the crucial episode of Montezuma's "incredible" capture in the palace, he restricts the psychological context almost exclusively to "honor," "pride," and "courage"; and he uses secular language to motivate all of Montezuma's actions in this scene. Only after having declared, in a reflective paragraph, that Montezuma should have fought to the death, does he allude to fate, and even then he uses Montezuma's belief in fate to explain his loss of "courage." (II, 166-68.)
Although Prescott's emphasis in this scene is unconvincing, the most important fact to notice
here is that he himself does not finally believe in it. Twice more before Montezuma disappears
the history Prescott
Thus, without underestimating the difficulty of portraying so strange a character, one must find Prescott's Montezuma out of focus. Unable either to doubt the religious sources of Montezuma's conduct or to examine it outside the frame of conventional Indian courage and patriotism, Prescott cannot achieve a coherent portrait. When the simple formula of emasculating decadence seems to him inadequate, he relies on feeble qualification which, instead of deepening the conventional portrait, only blurs it.
The same kind of defect weakens the portrayal of Cortés. In him Prescott sees such a combination of admirable and blameworthy traits that at beginning and end he emphasizes the idea of paradox. Yet in the narrative Cortés' unconventional traits and motives have little functional importance. Prescott describes several cruel actions and mentions some unheroic motives, but these become indistinct under the intense light that he concentrates on the conventional heroic qualities: lofty ambition, constancy, self-reliance, courage, leadership. When Cortés' actions reveal cruelty and avarice, Prescott regularly subordinates these traits to other qualities (such as firm discipline or strategic brilliance), or he remarks that other Spaniards were more cruel and avaricious. Whether or not this latter method is too lenient, it too often allows Prescott to exclude the unheroic qualities from his explanation of Cortés' behavior. By concentrating on how the historian ought to judge cruel actions themselves, Prescott avoids dealing with cruelty as a trait of his hero; by highlighting constancy as the main trait and ambition as the main motive, he obscures one's view of avarice as a lesser trait or motive. He may imply in his reflections on one episode that Cortés has no "humanity" (II, 177), but in a dozen narrative passages he highlights Cortés' sensibility. Since the narrative does not make the reprehensible traits a harmonious part of the characterization, one is left at the end with a combination of "incompatible traits." (III, 352 ff.)
The rigidity of the conventional pattern also forces Prescott into careless inconsistency. Confronted with Bernal Diaz' statement that it was the officers and not Cortés who first suggested capturing Montezuma in his own palace, Prescott uses Cortés' habit of command as his main argument against Diaz (II, 160, n. 3); but later on he reverses this argument completely in order to show that the officers and not Cortés were responsible for a disaster. (III, 136, n. I.) Again in the epilogue, moreover, he says that the officers and men virtually forced Cortés to torture Guatemozin during the search for hidden treasure. (III, 234.)
With both major characters, then, Prescott is willing to qualify his judgments.
The same kind of weakness affects Prescott's portrayal of the Aztec people and their "priests." One can hardly condemn his revulsion against human sacrifice and cannibalism or his conclusion that these customs precipitated the ruin of Mexico. Certainly the need for sacrificial victims encouraged the Mexicans' imperial wars and aggravated their relations with conquered peoples. In the Spanish campaign itself, moreover, the Aztecs lost several opportunities to delay the conquest--and even an easy chance to kill Cortés--simply because they were obliged to save captives for the sacrifice. But although Prescott exploits these facts skillfully, his commitment to the conventional attitudes hinders his efforts to qualify the mass characterizations. He insists that sacrifice and cannibalism debased the national character, but his faithfully presented evidence of "civilization" often outweighs the evidence by which he tries to justify the prefix "semi." (See, for example, II, 135-39.) Although the Mexicans' military tactics and religious rituals were, respectively, savage and brutal, Prescott offers no evidence besides the customs themselves that they debased character.
With the priests, whom he portrays as Gothic figures "flitting" wildly about in certain battle scenes, Prescott has little trouble until the last section of the narrative, when they advise Guatemozin never to surrender. Their influence on this decision should suffice to demonstrate the religious cause of the destruction of Mexico. But Prescott cannot let this fact alone show the inevitability of the catastrophe. After reporting their irrefutable arguments for refusing to surrender, he impugns their motives without offering any evidence for doing so, and he thus weakens his already exaggerated portrayal of them. (III, 169-70.)
The triumph of excellent design over faulty detail is nowhere clearer than in Prescott's prose style. In The Conquest of Mexico it is often his organization, his control of the narrative, or his conception of a scene--rather than brilliant rhetoric or precise description--that contributes most to the effectiveness of a passage. Both the faults and the virtues of his style account for this fact, and many passages succeed in spite of serious defects in the prose itself.
This is not to deny that The Conquest of Mexico contains passages of faultless rhetoric
description. But Prescott's stature as a great stylist has been exaggerated by modern critics, who
usually cited only his best
The main virtues of Prescott's style are its graceful balance, its frequently stately cadences, and its clarity. Modest but substantial merits, these qualities are extremely valuable in the history. They suggest judiciousness, and in many appropriate passages they provide what Prescott called "elevation."8 They are well suited to expository summary, to the grand procession, to the spectacular scene. In many sections, moreover, they call one's attention to the structure of the narrative, to the orderly sequence of paragraphs, rather than to details within the paragraph. The skillfully meshed, graceful sentences move the narrative so well that one may often overlook all but the most distracting faults within the sentences.
Although adequate illustration of this judgment would require the quotation of an entire episode, three paragraphs should suffice to clarify it. In the Spaniards' first penetration to the center of Mexico during the final campaign, they had to fight their way slowly along a causeway intersected by several canals, at each of which the retreating Mexicans destroyed the bridge and made a stand. Prescott's seven-page account of this battle is controlled by two simple devices that are largely responsible for its success. Every one of his twelve paragraphs is constructed to emphasize the alternation between forward movement and pause or retreat. And, beginning with the Spaniards' entry on the main street, he emphasizes pictorial views looking toward the central objective, the square of the temple, where the decisive action occurs. It is the movement toward this square, with the clear suggestion of what that movement cost in a whole day's battle, that distinguishes the account. The representative passage begins with the vista opened to the Spaniards as they arrive on the main street, and it ends with their view of their objective. They have just come off the causeway after having taken and filled in the last of several breaches in it. (III, 111-13. I have numbered Prescott's sentences for later reference.)
1. The street, on which the Spaniards now entered, was the great avenue that intersected the town from north to south, and the same by which they had first entered the capital. 2. It was broad and perfectly straight, and, in the distance, dark masses of warriors might be seen gathering to the support of their countrymen,
who were prepared to dispute the further progress of the Spaniards. 3. The sides were lined with buildings, the terraced roofs of which were also crowded with combatants, who, as the army advanced, poured down a pitiless storm of missiles on their heads, which glanced harmless, indeed, from the coat of mail, but too often found their way through the more common escaupil of the soldier, already gaping with many a ghastly rent. 4. Cortés, to rid himself of this annoyance for the future, ordered his Indian pioneers to level the principal buildings as they advanced; in which work of demolition no less than in the repair of the breaches, they proved of inestimable service.
5. The Spaniards, meanwhile, were steadily, but slowly, advancing, as the enemy recoiled before the rolling fire of musketry, though turning, at intervals, to discharge their javelins and arrows against their pursuers. 6. In this way they kept along the great street, until their course was interrupted by a wide ditch or canal, once traversed by a bridge, of which only a few planks now remained. 7. These were broken by the Indians, the moment they had crossed, and a formidable array of spears was instantly seen bristling over the summit of a solid rampart of stone, which protected the opposite side of the canal. 8. Cortés was no longer supported by his brigantines, which the shallowness of the canals prevented from penetrating into the suburbs. 9. He brought forward his arquebusiers, who, / protected by the targets of their comrades, / opened a fire on the enemy. 10. But the balls fell harmless from the bulwarks of stone; while the assailants presented but too easy a mark to their opponents.
11. The general then caused the heavy guns to be brought up, and opened a lively cannonade, which soon cleared a breach in the works, through which the musketeers and crossbow-men poured in their volleys thick as hail. 12. The Indians now gave way in disorder, after having held their antagonists at bay for two hours. 13. The latter, jumping into the shallow water, / scaled the opposite bank without further resistance, / and drove the enemy along the street towards the square, / where the sacred pyramid reared its colossal bulk / high over the other edifices of the city. (III, 111-13.)
Although far better than the worst prose in the history, these typical paragraphs not only
the merits but also suggest the defects of Prescott's style. The conception and general construction
admirable, for the order of each paragraph reflects the basic qualities of the action, advance and
pause, and each of the three pictures stresses one kind of difficulty that delayed the Spaniards'
advance. The balanced length and rhythm of elements in the compound and complex sentences
underscore the changes in action, as in the second sentence, the entire second paragraph, and the
eleventh and thirteenth sentences. Although the succession of subordinate clauses in the third
sentence threatens to escape Prescott's control
The rhythms of this prose also require attention. Phrase, clause, and sentence consistently end with a firmly stressed word, emphasizing the almost orotund symmetry. Moreover, although the length of rhythmic elements is properly varied, Prescott often uses a pentameter line to intensify battle action, as in the series of five that I have marked in the last sentence, and he sometimes makes this line regularly iambic. With one exception (end of sentence 3) he also makes the most euphonious lines those which describe the most vigorous action, as one can see in the sharp contrast between the rhythm of the second sentence and that of the line describing the missiles hurled from the rooftops.
Yet Prescott's sense of rhythm and balance often leads him into trouble, as one can see even in this successful passage. Although the heavy alliteration of the first two paragraphs is sometimes appropriate (as in the letters I have italicized in the second paragraph), the alliteration in the first paragraph shows a marked failure to discriminate. Perhaps unintentionally alliterated, the succession of five heavily stressed plosives (italicized in sentence 2) puts these unpoetic words in grotesque contrast to the excessively poetic "already gaping with many a ghastly rent"--an unquestionably intentional flight which soars conspicuously above the rest of the language. Surely, moreover, the "storm" of missiles is "pitiless" largely because Prescott wants to alliterate with "poured," a word that has already weakened the "storm" metaphor; and the phrase "on their heads," which leaves the next clause at least momentarily dangling, would have been deleted by a writer less frequently tempted to write by rhythmic phrases rather than individual words. In the same careless way Prescott gives the stone rampart a "summit" in the next paragraph because he is thinking more of rhythm and sibilance than of precise meaning.
Neither these faults nor the awkward shifts to the passive voice in each of the first two pictures ruin the passage, but they do illustrate the basic defects in Prescott's prose. The central weakness is inadequate attention to detail, a surprising insensitivity to precise meaning. The result is often no worse than an annoying verbosity that tempts one to substitute a word for a phrase; but if such tautologies as "gifted with a truer foresight into futurity" (II, 421) are fortunately rare, they reveal the extremes to which Prescott could be led by this kind of carelessness. The fault is most damaging in his imagery.
A writer who describes a "tempest of missiles . . . which fell thick as
In the many battle scenes the conventionality of the imagery is not in itself the main flaw. When they make the reader visualize a specific action the worn metaphors can still be serviceable. When Cortés, for example, standing on the causeway, first hears and then sees his army being chased toward him by an immense Indian force, the familiarity of the "torrent" image does not vitiate the impact, for Prescott skillfully requires one to see the action from Cortés' point of view. (III, 143-44.) And, in the same way, the conventional natural imagery with which Prescott describes his Indians is often forceful despite its triteness, because it is relevant to his theme and appropriate to the Spaniards' point of view. (See I, 443; II, 315.)
For each of these figures, however, Prescott employs at least one that does weaken the passage
in which it appears. Monotonously repetitious in his battle imagery, he makes tempest or torrent,
current, tide, or flood soak almost every battle scene. Often, he uses his trite images as substitutes
concrete description. Often, too, he prefers trite metaphorical phrases to single, literal verbs; and his
habit of using rather elaborate similes often produces a trite figure at the end of a literal description
that is already sufficiently clear and forceful. Sparks of courage kindle in bosoms, and sparks of
hope die away in bosoms (II, 56); men in trouble imagine themselves standing on the brinks of dark
and yawning gulfs; armies and cities lie buried in slumber (I, 433); buildings are wrapt in flames
58), and news spreads like wildfire or on the wings of the wind; in the still watches of the night
an anxious thought crowds on the mind of Cortés (I, 433); Indians huddle together like
of frightened deer (II, 24); passions are fanned into a blaze (II, 287), and an annunciation of bad
news falls like a knell upon the ears of the Christians (II, 332); a restless eye roves round the
battlefield, becomes, in the next paragraph, an eagle eye, falls on its desired object, and then lights
with triumph (II, 399); the stoutest hearts are often filled with dismay (II, 394); brows darken (II,
289), and wounds rankle deep in bosoms (II, 291); brigantines, ready to be launched on the bosom
of a lake, emerge, at last, on its ample bosom, and make the hero's bosom swell with exultation (III,
77, 88); missiles carry desolation
One should recognize, of course, that most of these figures, along with others which Prescott used regularly, were accepted as ordinary expressions in the prose of the time, and that at least some of them were not regarded as figures to be analyzed for accuracy or consistency. Prescott's physical handicap provides an even more important explanation; his terrible eye trouble, which denied him that experience of precise observation on which the best imagery is based, also led him to compose some entire chapters in his head before writing, and to warn himself repeatedly against looking back over too much of his manuscript before proceeding with his composition. He wrote at his noctograph, trying to refrain from looking at the page, and when his manuscript had been copied for him, he left a large part of the revision to his friend W. H. Gardiner. Indeed, he once enjoined himself not to worry too much about details of composition, for his own revision or Gardiner's would correct nice faults.10
But however much these facts may explain, however much they may temper one's judgment of Prescott, they cannot alter the defects. Even if he had not criticized these very faults in his notebooks and in his biography of Charles Brockden Brown,11 Prescott's history would have to stand by itself. In so far as the tradition in which he was writing sanctioned these faults, it was a faulty tradition.
The effects of Prescott's insensitivity to language appear regularly throughout the history, often tainting otherwise excellent passages. Many of the sentences are marred by what Prescott himself called vague "epithets." Sometimes the heightened rhetoric, especially in battle scenes from which specific detail is omitted, seems merely stilted; sometimes the diction is inconsistent or awkwardly elevated.12 In passages describing strong sentiment, Prescott often displays an awkward lack of restraint--not only by using trite language that diffuses instead of intensifying the particular sentiment, but also by saying too much. Occasionally, his inclination to conventional phrasing leads him to say something that he could not possibly believe.13
Even some of the great moments, the most memorable scenes, in the history include such
The portrait of Montezuma sitting in chains is unforgettable because of its place and meaning in the
narrative, because Prescott displays a fine sense of pictorial grouping, and because he knows how
use one essential detail. But the flaws of his language--cliché, abstract, unnecessary simile,
and repetitious or unnecessary telling--show
Montezuma was speechless under the infliction of this last insult. He was like one struck down by a heavy blow, that deprives him of all his faculties. He offered no resistance. But, though he spoke not a word, low, ill-suppressed moans, from time to time, intimated the anguish of his spirit. His attendants, bathed in tears, offered him their consolations. They tenderly held his feet in their arms, and endeavoured, by inserting their shawls and mantles, to relieve them from the pressure of the iron. But they could not reach the iron which had penetrated his soul. He felt that he was no more a king. (II, 172-73.)
Prescott's moving descriptions of the Noche Triste; of Montezuma's fatal attempt, from the palace roof, to calm his people; of Cortés' return to silent, hostile Mexico after the expedition against Narvaez--all contain similar defects. They are memorable, and our literature would be the poorer without them; but they are superior to their defective parts.
Because of this combination of skills and stylistic faults, and because of the nature of his subject, Prescott's most remarkable achievements in the history are the general scenes so important to its structure. It is the tableau, the sweeping panorama, the grand procession, that most often compels one's admiration. For the same reasons his presentation of battle settings is usually more impressive than his account of the battles themselves. Neither his style, his inclination to choose generalizing epithets, nor the scarcity of detailed information permitted him to write his best prose in his circumstantial descriptions of violent action. In almost all the battle scenes the quality of his description declines as he moves closest to the specific action and as the amount of imagery increases. The best battle scenes are those in which he minimizes his imagery (as in the passage quoted above) or those, such as the Noche Triste, in which the importance of the event and his concentration on specific sounds and broad pictures of the scene overcome serious faults in the language. (See, for example, II, 23-25.)
One should not conclude from this analysis that there are no passages of consistently good
in the history. Although it would be difficult to find a section of fifteen or twenty pages that is not
damaged by some of the faults which I have discussed, Prescott achieves many fine passages of
exposition. The least defective of these are the descriptions of quiet action, such as the Spaniards'
first entry into Mexico, and of such factual subjects as Montezuma's way of life. In these sections
Prescott does not seem to feel obliged to elevate his language, and the grace and clarity of his
ordinary prose are not offset by excesses in rhetoric. Moreover, his most successful rhetorical
passages usually describe scenes that allow his rhythm and
Prescott's first description of a sacrificial ceremony, in his introductory book, illustrates the principle. A captive, surrounded with splendid luxury from the day of his selection as a victim, must give it up on the last day:
As the sad procession wound up the sides of the pyramid, the unhappy victim threw away his gay chaplets of flowers, and broke in pieces the musical instruments with which he had solaced the hours of captivity. On the summit he was received by six priests, whose long and matted locks flowed disorderly from their sable robes, covered with hieroglyphic scrolls of mystic import. They led him to the sacrificial stone, a huge block of jasper, with its upper surface somewhat convex. On this the prisoner was stretched. Five priests secured his head and his limbs; while the sixth, clad in a scarlet mantle, emblematic of his bloody office, dexterously opened the breast with a sharp razor of itztli,--a volcanic substance, hard as flint,--and, inserting his hand in the wound, tore out the palpitating heart. The minister of death, first holding this up towards the sun, an object of worship throughout Anahuac, cast it at the feet of the deity to whom the temple was devoted, while the multitudes below prostrated themselves in humble adoration. The tragic story of this prisoner was expounded by the priests as the type of human destiny, which, brilliant in its commencement, too often closes in sorrow and disaster. (I, 76-77.)
This scene epitomizes Prescott's romantic art. The contrast between splendor and horror, a common romantic device, emphasizes the theme of the history; the height of the stage, another romantic quality stressed at the beginning and end of the scene, adds to its effect; the priests' moral foreshadows the doom of Mexico itself. As in Hawthorne's more famous tableaux, the silence and the hint of a silhouette, as the pageant winds round the temple and as the priest reaches toward the sun, reinforce the picture's symbolic quality. One should notice, too, that Prescott makes the transition from sweeping movement to horrible detail by presenting the Gothic image of the priests; and that he directs one's attention again to the large scene, to the multitude, by the priest's act of raising the heart to the sky, and then flinging it down. The cadences and the sounds of individual words ("as the sad procession wound up the sides"; "a huge block of jasper") intensify the melancholy atmosphere.
In this kind of picture, in his deployment of characters along a scale appropriate to both historical fact and romantic conventions, and above all in his brilliant organization, Prescott achieved a masterpiece despite the inescapable limitations of his method and his language.