History as Romantic Art: Bancroft, Prescott, Motley, and Parkman, by David Levin. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press. 260 pp. $5.50.
In his introduction to "History as Romantic Art," David Levin writes: "Behind the histories of George Bancroft, William Prescott, John Motley, and Francis Parkman lies the conviction that the historian is a man of letters."
One suspects that this conviction diminished in American historical writing after Bancroft, Motley, and Parkman completed their great works. And it has never fully returned. Narrative history was their forte. Each practiced it with a deftness unmatched in today's effort for strict scholarship. They wrote voluminously and yet interestingly.
New England born and reared, and Harvard educated, all four were strongly influenced by romanticism--and it is this point which Professor Levin uses as his theme. Yet his book is much broader in scope. It illustrates quite graphically how the forces of rationalism, democracy, Christianity, and progress affected the writings of these historians. The conscious effort of each one to reach his reader with something of interest--even with something to excite readers--is carefully told by Professor Levin.
It was Bancroft's multi-volume "History of the United States" which witnessed the coming of age of American historical writing; then came Prescott's "The Conquest of Mexico," followed quickly by his other works on Spain and Spanish America; Motley turned his attention to "The Rise of the Dutch Republic," and Parkman rounded out the era with his masterpiece, "Montcalm and Wolfe."
Professor Levin believes "they found in romantic conventions a way of giving the Past artistic order and contemporary moral significance." This is true. Moreover, they did not divorce literary methods from historical theory. But on this point, Professor Levin falters, for he leaves unanswered the question of how deliberately these four historians imposed "romantic formulas on the historical record."