A FORMER generation filled the pages of this Review and other periodicals in heated controversy over the question: Is history a science or an art? In our own time the problem apparently has been resolved by following traditional "scientific" research, and presenting the results in as artistic a narrative as an author an command. The writers who are the subject of Mr. Levin's volume, though choosing themes usually different from those selected by their successors, were the real progenitors of this school of history in America.
Bancroft, Prescott, Motley, and Parkman, New Englanders all and Harvard-bred, viewed the past from a common vantage point. In their volumes they express "enthusiasm" toward the past, a warm regard for the heroic, and an attachment to the "natural." The thread of history, as they unraveled it, led inevitably to the America of their own nineteenth century. It was the grand climax in the development of the Western world from the initial impulse generated by the Reformation.
Levin has divided his thoughtful and well-written book into three parts. The first two attempt "to combine literary and intellectual history with literary criticism." His chief aim is to examine the themes, characters, and language common to the histories. For this purpose he has made, in his third section, a close study of Prescott's The Conquest of Mexico, Motley's The Rise of the Dutch Republic, and Parkman's masterpiece Montcalm and Wolfe.
The historians under discussion all started with the assumption that they belonged to the romantic school of letters. To recreate the past required a vivid imagination, dramatic presentation, and skilled literary artistry. Along with entertainment the reader was to be enlightened. He was to be taught that the procession of human progress was from east to west, reaching its culmination in North America, where a virile, free society energetically advanced economic and social organization. Progress led to popular liberty, and its safest guardians were the middle class.
Heroes and heroines were required to possess warm emotions, a delicate sensibility, and loftiness of character to sustain their suffering. A superior racial strain, it was said, derived from Gothic ancestry, for this was the people who were predisposed to progress and liberty. To advance the latter the New England historians were hostile to authoritarianism and clericalism, which they generally identified with Roman Catholicism. Intellectual and political liberty flourished better in the climate of Protestantism.
Levin is at his best in his analysis of the style of his historians. Though noting their defects his final estimate is one of high praise for their achievement. While he denies to Parkman distinction for great prose (a mistake, I think), he credits him with "the most completely successful of all the romantic histories." In his claim that these historians were "not on the periphery of the American Renaissance" but rather at the core "of romantic thought in America," Levin is on firm ground. Other scholars have dealt with various aspects of romantic historiography in America but no one else has written on this subject so acutely and with such broad comprehension.
Michael Kraus, City College of New York