History as Romantic Art: Bancroft, Prescott, Motley, and Parkman. By David Levin. [Stanford Studies in Language and Literature, XX.] (Stanford: Stanford University Press. 1959. Pp. x, 260. $5.50.)
Sunday supplement journalists, publishers, popular historians, and even elder statesmen of the historical profession are fond of lecturing the modern historian on his inability to write. Certainly a writer as witty and urbane as Carl Becker is a rarity, and he came like rain to a desert of self-styled "scientific" historians. Yet Henry Adams, who spent a lifetime in the service of a speculative ideal of "scientific" history, commanded a style that even a devotee of Henry James can admire. I can think of a large handful of our most sophisticated modern historians who write with genuine artfulness, do well in paperback, and even make the book-clubs, despite the fact that nobody, least of all themselves, eagerly awaits the day when the "new criticism" will perform reverent dissection on the body of their work. Perhaps the complainers only wish to remind us of the golden days when Boston Unitarian gentlemen-historians were proud to call themselves "men of letters." Mr. Levin, playing the demanding double role of historian and literary critic, has turned an analytic eye, trained in American Studies, on the four giants of this tradition who still stir such nostalgic and vague memories of past glories.
As historian, Mr. Levin establishes convincingly for the first time the unity of this group as participants in the American Romantic movement with allies in more familiar types of literature. These are the Coopers of American historiography. They share a view of the past as a vivid spectacle of moral drama, in which the reader is invited to participate. They all see the course of history as a spiralling progress towards the modern world of democracy, commerce, and individualistic religion. They celebrate together the superior "natural" morality of the man of self- reliant vigor, generous sympathy, and simple piety. Their histories exalt "Representative Men" of the People, like Bancroft's Washington, Prescott's Corés, Motley's William of Orange, and Parkman's La Salle, who embody the "natural" virtues, while they condemn the stock villains of priests and monks, emissaries of a despotic Old-World Church. With a common ambiguity of vision they respond to the Indian as a part-"natural," part-savage sentimental victim of progress. Whereas American historians have generally discovered the cult of the "Anglo-Saxon" theory of liberty as a Teutonic inheritance in the writings of a later generation, Mr. Levin finds the germs of the "germ-theory of politics" in these romantic historians.
For these valuable insights students of the literature of history and of the Romantic movement in American culture can thank Mr. Levin's discriminating exposition. The historian of philosophical turn of mind will be less satisfied since the problem remains of examining more thoroughly the advantages and disadvantages for history of this particular romantic attitude. This line of inquiry may be limited, if not foreclosed, by the author's commitment to the idea, shared by his subjects, of history as a literary art. He believes that the development of themes and the portrayal of character demand literary techniques, and he analyzes The Conquest of Mexico,The Rise of the Dutch Republic, and Montcalm and Wolfe from this point of view. Here I found myself less enlightened and persuaded, though a much more intimate knowledge than I have of the texts might have made it easier going. His critical conscience, keen to detect paste gems and false rhetoric, will, at least, unsettle the more breathless admirers of these powerful writers.
Mr. Levin sensibly admits that literary and historical questions cannot be separated in a work of history, for "no serious student of history or literature will actually read Motley or Prescott 'for his style,' although some people talk of doing so." Yet the effect on me of his analysis of the structure, characterizations, and styles of these examples of "romantic art" was perilously close to the formalistic hollowness he rightly condemns. Both art and history have, for the modern mind, a hard-won autonomy not easily relinquished. Serious readers of history, despite all the common complaints about Mr. Dryasdust, will, I suspect, go on reading historians for their historical insights and taking good style and imaginative structure as gracious blessings. Literary force is more than that, of course, so long as narration and characterization are intrinsic to the historical enterprise, but if we continue to read these classic historians it will finally be because of the quality of their historical imaginations. The difficulty is that already these instruments of the heroically productive Bostonian gentlemen increasingly appear to modern taste to be badly blunted by the literary romantic conventions Mr Levin has so clearly illuminated.