Historians and literary critics have always placed William Hickling Prescott, John Lothrop Motley, and Francis Parkman alongside Henry Adams as the giants of nineteenth-century American historical writing, and they have usually regarded George Bancroft as an important, if wayward, pioneer. Of the four older writers, however, only Parkman has received much critical attention during the last fifty years, and most studies of Parkman and the others have concentrated more on biography than on the historical works. The standard literary histories, moreover, recognize some affinity among the four historians, but then treat them separately, underscoring their individual differences.
There are good reasons, of course, for emphasizing biography. Bancroft the transcendental Democrat--who earned a German doctorate in philology, talked with Goethe about Byron and Coleridge, and then came home to found a progressive school and to enter politics as campaign biographer, Secretary of the Navy, diplomat--is an extremely attractive, difficult figure. Although his History of the United States expresses a notoriously effusive patriotism that he called "objective," he was capable of great shrewdness not only in political strategy but in perceiving the subjectivity of other historians.
Bancroft's close friend Prescott had a much less complex career and much less puzzling personality. But his biography gains considerable interest from the collegiate injury that nearly blinded him and from the determination with which, though wealthy enough to live an easy life, he relied on one eye for his writing and the aid of an oral reader for his research. A bland, charming conservative, he seems no less different from the energetically Democratic Bancroft than from Parkman and Motley, both of whom seem to have suffered from neurotic anxieties.
Motley, too, was comfortably rich, and he spent most of his adult years traveling and writing in
the high society of Boston, England, and the Continent: joining Thackeray and Macaulay at dinner;
living as the guest, first, of the Queen of the Netherlands, and then, of his old friend Bismarck. But
his career also had its gloomier drama. His passionate devotion to honor and justice spilled out not
only onto the pages of his histories of the Netherlands,
Parkman's life is surely the best known and the most pathetic of the four. The grim intensity with which he tracked down historical facts and vigorous experience in Nature makes a fine subject in itself. But his story becomes irresistible when one watches him work daily for only a few minutes, after a doctor has warned him that concentrated thought will drive him mad. His contempt for physical weakness, his passionate attacks on woman suffrage, and his heroic efforts to continue strenuous exercise after he had been crippled by arthritis give a peculiar interest to his historical achievement and his portraits of manly heroes.
These differences are important, and no critic of the histories can ignore them. But they can too easily tempt one to ignore even more relevant similarities. Although Prescott and Bancroft were students at Harvard before Motley and Parkman were born, it is more important to notice that all four went to Harvard; that Motley studied at Bancroft's Round Hill School; that Parkman read Bancroft's volume on La Salle and the Jesuits carefully in the year before he decided that he himself would write a history of France and England in North America. Both Motley and Parkman consulted Bancroft about various parts of their histories, and Bancroft and Prescott frequently consulted each other. All four historians, moreover, looked on the Past from a common geographical and cultural position.
Even if these biographical facts were not available, the massive evidence heaped up in the histories themselves and in the historians' journals and correspondence would make the relationship quite clear. In this book, therefore, I have declined to assume that the uniqueness of a writer's psychological experience or political ideas explains his most significant literary techniques. The evidence has forced me to ask instead whether other causes might not have been equally influential. If Bancroft's La Salle differs little from Parkman's, and if both La Salles resemble some characters of Byron's, then Parkman's battle with his own mysterious "Enemy" (his undiagnosed malady) does not necessarily explain his portrayal of La Salle.
For these reasons I have concentrated first on the histories and papers of all four men and on their relationship to other writers. One cannot understand the individual history without understanding its vocabulary and its context. In Parts 1 and 2 I have delineated the literary conventions that function in all these histories, and I have examined the relationship between the historian's assumptions and his literary techniques. In short, I have tried here to combine literary and intellectual history with literary criticism.
Clarifying the histories has also required me to answer some important questions about American versions of romantic thought. The common notion that Prescott, Motley, and Parkman sought some kind of escape from the Present into the Past is erroneous. Nor did Prescott try, as one critic has claimed, to put the Past safely away in a separate place. All three Brahmins sought as earnestly as Bancroft to give the meaning as well as the experience of history an immediacy in their own time. They all shared an "enthusiastic" attitude toward the Past, an affection for grand heroes, an affection for Nature and the "natural." But whether he approached the darker vision of Hawthorne and Melville or the expansive optimism of Whitman, every one of them saw history as a continuing development toward nineteenth-century America, the most "natural" of nations. Their histories tell a remarkably consistent, composite story of Western development from the Reformation through the American Revolution. They regarded romantic conventions not as meaningless stereotypes, but as effective ways of communicating a message that all their literate contemporaries would understand.
One of my major purposes, then, is to illuminate the individual histories by studying conventional themes, characters, and language in all of them. Yet this process of abstraction inevitably causes some distortion. When a conventional character is lifted out of the history in which he was originally placed, he may seem as lonely and unreal as the Byronic hero himself. For this reason, and because the evaluation of any work of art must consider it as a unit, I have devoted Part 3 to separate studies of the three best histories: Prescott's The Conquest of Mexico, Motley's The Rise of the Dutch Republic, and Parkman's Montcalm and Wolfe.
My judgment of these three masterpieces proceeds from a few convictions that can be stated briefly. I believe that the writing of history is a literary art, and that history is one of the most difficult of literary forms. However "scientific" the historian's preoccupations or research, he must eventually select the evidence that merits preservation in his work, and any principle of selection implies at least the quest for a coherent order, the choice of one or two major themes. If he believes that individual experience affects the development of history, he must find some convincing way of portraying human character, and he cannot avoid some evaluation of character. He must also arrange the events so that those which he considers most important appear to be the most important, while his narrative reveals a coherent relationship among events, between action and character, between particular fact and general principle.
These are literary problems, but one cannot divorce them from more narrowly "historical" questions without risking the absurdity that H. H. Brackenridge ridiculed when he wrote his model of pure form unencumbered by content. No serious student of history or literature will actually read Motley or Prescott "for his style," although some people talk of doing so. The judgment of a historian's characterization, his structure, and even his style must be based at least partly on his fidelity to the evidence and the validity of his interpretation. The history written by previous generations will always display interesting contemporary attitudes, but it can endure as literature only if it presents a defensible version, however liable to revision, of historical truth.
Clearly, then, the criticism of history, like the writing of history, demands more gifts than most men who attempt it can bring to it. The ideal critic of these four historians should know the literary materials on which I shall draw so heavily, and the historians' own sources as well: the records of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Spain, France, England, Mexico, Peru, and the Netherlands; of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France, England, and America. Since I cannot pretend to such erudition, I have had to rely on secondary materials for those periods, except for some random checking and the original research that I have done in American colonial history. The accuracy of particular statements of fact in the New England histories lies beyond my chief interest here and, with few exceptions, beyond my competence. I have assumed that transcriptions of documents in the histories are accurate, and my judgment of the historians' interpretations usually focuses on general questions or on those that can be discussed on the basis of internal evidence. One should understand, however, that although each of these historians has been criticized with varying severity for some faulty research, specialists in their different fields agree that most of their research was sound.