History as Romantic Art," by David Levin (Stanford University Press. 260 pp. $5.50), studies the literary techniques of four major nineteenth-century American historians. Margaret L. Coit has written biographies of John C. Calhoun and, most recently, Bernard M. Baruch.
By Margaret L. Coit
DAVID LEVIN, in his admirably organized "History as Romantic Art," describes William Prescott, John Motley, Francis Parkman, and George Bancroft as "the giants of nineteenth-century American historical writing." They were the authors of some fifty-odd volumes, ranging from "The Winning of the West" to "The Rise of the Dutch Republic."
Their bias and their craftsmanship as men-of-letters are the keys to their underlying unity. Each, as Mr. Levin puts it, suffered from "the imperfect attitudes . . . with which . . . Unitarian Boston and romantic literature had supplied him." All four shared a heritage of Puritanism, Transcendentalism, and Unitarianism. They believed in Divine Providence and the Darwinian law. They believed in progress, democracy, and Manifest Destiny. Most of all, perhaps, they believed in the vitality of the middle class, and in the folk hero or "representative man," who bears the sorrows of his people. George Washington, like Christ, had to go out into the wilderness to draw his strength from God.
All wrote from a point of view. Furthermore, their dogmas not only colored their concept of the past, but inspired them to write, to reveal the tragic lessons that history had to teach. Their works show both the advantages and the disadvantages of history written from bias. As "noble savages," the Indians were, of course, morally superior to the depraved Spaniards, and admirable, so long as thev were battling Spaniards. But Manifest Destiny and the will of "Our Great Father above" meant that the wilderness must be peopled by scientific men. Parkman, to bring his history alive, had to depict the Indians as the devils of the forest paradise.
What these writers strove for was to bring history alive. Our brilliant American historians today: the Schlesingers (connected by marriage with Bancroft, by the way), Bruce Catton, Allan Nevins, Esther Forbes, the late Marquis James, Carl Sandburg, with his epic of Lincoln, have built from the foundations these giants laid down. Their scholarship, like Mr. Levin's own, was impeccable. They saw the men of the past pictorially, "with color in their cheeks, with passions in their stomachs." They used the devices of fiction, without resorting to fictionalization. They had a feeling for place and time, staging their dramas against the background of the past, and thus giving their readers an intimate sense of that past.
Motley etched brilliant character portraits; Bancroft had great dramatic ability. Parkman used the redolent language of the frontier diaries to color his narrative. Prescott's gift was for characterization and dramatic unity. All had an eye for the significant detail that illumined the scene: Prescott describing the "smoking human hearts" along the walls of the Aztecs; Motley's picture of the Inquisitor, "shoes of swiftness on his feet, the coat of darkness on his back."
History rendered like this had far deeper impact per impact than merely upon future historians. In the nineteenth century, statesmen were often men-of-letters themselves. Senator Paul Douglas, with his contributions to the literary journals would not then have been regarded as the curiosity that he is today. Public figures were not "briefed"; they read. Thus, very subtly, the attitudes and fears of these romantic historians shaped the attitudes and fears of those who listened with near reverence to those who had.
Racial stereotypes became imprinted on the public mind: the "wild Indian," the sensuous Oriental, the Jew, with his innate thrift and financial genius, the indolent races of the South in contrast to the vigorous tribes of the North--all are here. With the historians' belief in the separation of church and state as a natural law, "the image of Catholicism as a religion appears in extremely distorted form," Levin observes. An "unnatural man," like a priest or monk, was an abomination; furthermore, the Church used kings, politicians, and priests "as their agents in the battle against human freedom." This was "the New England case against Rome," and its echoes still linger.
There were superior races and "naturally inferior" ones--like the Celts, an assertion not difficult to believe by Boston gentlemen, who saw the equivalent of the present-day "Spanish Harlem" in the slums of Roxbury and the South End. But in the Teutonic tribes was the germ, not only of the New England Town Meeting, but of the British constitution itself. The Protestant Reformation might have liberated the rest of the world; the Nordic mind had always been free. Thus great peoples were connected, not only by their perception of natural laws, but by a genealogical relationship. The "conscious unity of one race," Bancroft contended, would lead towards the eventual "unity of the human race." So, too, believed Hitler.
Mr. Levin sets forth his general themes, then illustrates by analyzing a representative work by each author. He has limited himself to an interpretation of the four historians' literary craftsmanship; he has not gone into their biographies or psychologies.
He has also, perhaps unnecessarily, limited the impact of his book for the general reader. To understand thoroughly either what he is about, or the historians he describes, the reader would have to have a fairly comprehensive understanding of Greek and Roman history, the Nordic sagas, the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, the "Gothic romance," etc., etc. In the nineteenth century, men-of-letters had this kind of cultural background. In the twentieth century, men-of-specialization do not.