DAVID LEVIN, History As Romantic Art: Bancroft, Prescott, Motley, and Parkman. x, 260 pp. Stanford University Press, 1959. $5.50.
In History as Romantic Art, Professor David Levin has examined the theory and practice of the four great nineteenth-century American historians, Bancroft, Prescott, Motley and Parkman, and has, at the same time, written a book which illuminates the assumptions of the liberal, democratic society from which these four historians came. Mr. Levin's method is to treat the four as a group, emphasizing the way in which they shared the cultural conventions of their time. The result is an admirable book which places nineteenth-century historical writing at the center of the American Renaissance and says as much about American culture as it does about the writing of history in America.
Mr. Levin's historians are "romantic" men of letters because they not only employed the technical attributes of literary romanticism, but more importantly shared the deeper attitudes toward nature, history and morality which characterize the romantic movement of thought in America. Mr. Levin divides his book into three parts. The first establishes the historian as a man of letters and describes the themes common to all four of his historians (the simplicity of nature, the inevitability of progress and the primacy of morality). Part Two takes up in four separate chapters "Conventional Characters," the Emersonian representative hero, the tradition of Anglo-Saxon freedom, the reactionary character of "priestcraft and catholicism," and the pathos of "vanishing races" (Indian, Moor and Jew). Parts one and two combine, in Mr. Levin's own words, "literary and intellectual history with literary criticism." But because he feels any work of art must finally be considered in its entirety, Mr. Levin devotes his last part to three chapters which examine separately the histories which he considers best: Prescott's The Conquest of Mexico, Motley's The Rise of the Dutch Republic and Parkman's Montcalm and Wolfe. The result is a happy blend of formal literary analysis with comparative cultural appraisal. Students of each of Mr. Levin's four historians will find much to their use here, but students of American civilization will find much more.
JOHN WILLIAM WARD, Princeton University.