HISTORY AS ROMANTIC ART: BANCROFT, PRESCOTT, MOTLEY AND PARKMAN. By David Levin. (Stanford Studies in Language and Literature, XX.) Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. 1959. x, 260 pp. $5.50.
Professor Levin's book is a study of history as literary art; more specifically, it studies those histories written by the great New England quartet of Bancroft, Motley, Parkman, and Prescott, as Romantic literary art. In the first part of his book he examines the assumptions on which they founded their historical theory; in the second he discusses relationships between that theory and the literary conventions of the time, which were of course prevailingly Romantic. He is interested chiefly in how the vocabulary and techniques of Romanticism were used to express those historical ideas that the current concept of history produced, and how the use of the themes, characters, and language of nineteenth-century Romanticism made what the historian had to say more effective and understandable to his audience. The latter portion of the book is given over to separate studies of three major historical works, Prescott's Conquest of Mexico, Motley's Rise of the Dutch Republic, and Parkman's Montcalm and Wolfe, which are discussed as examples of the close working relationship between history and literature during the period.
By approaching these four great historians as literary men rather than historians, Dr. Levin throws a good deal of illumination on them and on their work, as representative specimens of American Romanticism in full bloom. Their histories become something more than monumental by-products of the New England Renaissance, or admirable though only parallel examples of Emerson, once removed. Rather, in this view, they become key expressions of it. The link between the historians and the theologians, poets, essayists, and quasi-philosophers who made up New England's flowering, as a result, is made stronger and clearer. The historians, Dr. Levin argues, saw history-writing in the same terms as their fellow Romantics. It demanded "a quest for coherent order," the "choice of one or two major themes," the portrayal of character for "moral purposes," and a balanced, organized narrative. These were essentially literary problems, which all four of these historians solved in contemporary literary terms.
Examining the historical theory and practices of Motley, Bancroft, Parkman, and Prescott, the author finds that they were powerfully influenced by the prevailing Romantic attitudes toward such key concepts as Nature, Progress, the Past, and the Individual. These attitudes colored their view of history, and led them to adopt certain assumptions about the nature of history as an illustration of moral order, progressive democracy, popular liberty, and natural heroism. "Progress" meant to them, as it did to the Jacksonians, almost exclusively a movement toward popular liberty and popular control of political and social institutions. How much thc state benefitted the People (the word was often capitalized) became, to an aggressive Jacksonian such as Bancroft, the only benchmark against which Progress (even more often capitalized) could be measured. "Nature" meant the world's moral order, derived from God. History meant instruction by "moral drama." Thus the New England historians, deeply touched by Unitarian and Transcendental ideas, found the unity of all moral truths in an Infinite Providence, saw history as the unfolding pageant of the interaction of those truths with human affairs, and conceived of the historian's task as the assembling of evidence from the past to portray and explain it. History, Mr. Levin points out, was therefore to them, and to the Romantic age they lived in, an account of the forward and upward motion of events--of liberty winning over tyranny, Protestantism over Catholicism, the civilized and rational over the savage and uncontrolled. It was, in fine, a Romantic art.
The historians sought to give meaning and relevance to their work by integrating it into the prevailing literary and philosophical conventions of the times, so that it fitted "the spirit of the age," a favorite phrase of nineteenth-century reviewers. They saw close ties among historical techniques, poetry, philosophy, and painting. They saw history as drama, or as "actions on the stage of the past," much as the painters did. Like the poets, they chose "grand themes," "poetic" incidents, "picturesque" tableaux, "natural" scenery, and included in history much of what the critics called the "noble" and the "sublime." To impersonate the abstract qualities of the "genius" of nations or times, they found "heroes" or "representative men," (as Emerson and Carlyle did) whose "grandeur of character," "nobility of sentiment," and "natural eminence" fitted them to exemplify the great conflicts of which they wrote. Thus Motley chose William the Silent; Parkman, William Pitt; Prescott, Elizabeth or Isabella; Bancroft, Roger Williams or Washington, to stand for national character, ideal virtue, and the ultimate triumph of moral principles.
Mr. Levin has shown in his examination of these four major historians that they deserve a far more central position within the period called loosely the "American Renaissance" than is often assumed. As he explains, Bancroft, Prescott, Motley, and Parkman produced more than fifty volumes of first-rate history, a not inconsiderable share of the total New England output; what they produced was not simply some ancillary illustrations of Romantic thought in nineteenth-century America, but a clear, important, and complete expression of it. They employed, he concludes, the principles and formulae of Romanticism to provide a framework for the expression of certain ideas which had powerful political and social pertinence and great moral significance to the age of Emerson and Jackson. His book is soundly researched, clearly and pleasantly written, and is in all an excellent, meaningful contribution both to literary history and historiography.
RUSSEL B. NYE
Michigan State University.