Times Literary Supplement, July 15, 1960, p. 452.
America Has It Better

David Levin: History as Romantic Art. Bancroft, Prescott, Motley and Parkman. 260 pp. Stanford University Press. London: Oxford University Press. 4£ 4s.

Henry Adams advised the young Henry Cabot Lodge to take up history, rather in the spirit of an Oxford don noting that scholarship led to fame and emolument. Adams had before him the precedents of the four masters whom Dr. Levin discusses, three of whom knew fame and fortune in their lifetime, though the historian whom most scholars now rate highest, Parkman, knew no fortune and, for a long time, little fame. Adams was no doubt speaking with his habitual irony, for it was already apparent, or at any rate probable, that he would not know the kind of success that his predecessors had known. The new vogue for scientific history had come: Johns Hopkins was distilling the spirit of Göttingen in Baltimore; Adam's own Harvard seminar was an innovating and chilling force. It is not that Boston could no longer produce historians who combined literary talent with deep scholarship. There was to be Admiral Morison, to name only the most obvious example. But the old simplicity of views, the belief that the world was, on the whole, a simple place, these foundations for literary historiography could not be found again.

Dr. Levin is entitled to take his four literary giants and treat them above all as men of letters practising the art of history. He does not indulge in psychological speculation, discuss the impact of his semi-blindness on Prescott, of his invalidism on Parkman, of his neurotic temperament on Motley. (Bancroft's cheery conviction that God was in his heaven and nearly all right with the world would seen highly suspicious today.) He takes them as Bostonian and Harvard historians of the early nineteenth century, feeling the first impact of German scholarship, being heretical Unitarians, but still committed to the view that Clio was a muse to be served and worshipped. Dr. Levin takes their choice of themes, their treatment of "the hero", the philosophy of history as progress, their literary methods, and illumintes both the problems of writing literary history and the problems of the New England mind as Henry Adams ironically observed it in his youth and early manhood.

Of the four, Dr. Levin devotes the least space and least sympathy to Bancroft. His hero was not Cortés or Wolfe or William the Silent but "the People", hypostatized in a lush Germanic fashion. Of all the classical historians of America, Bancroft is probably the least read today; he is barely in print while all the others still have their readers. But if Bancroft believed in the free, "Germanic", Protestant, liberty-loving Americans as Hegel believed in the Prussian state, he shared with the others a belief in progress and a complacent superiority to lesser breeds without the law, Indians, Spaniards, French. He was not, perhaps, as naive in his admiration for Bismarck's Germany as was Motley (after all he knew Bismarck much better), but he had had a life of nearly unchecked prosperity and it enabled him to an advanced old age to believe in the evident march of God in the World, in Prussia but still more in America. Germany had it good but "Amerika du hast es besser". Goethe (whom he had known) was right.

None of the other three was quite so optimistic, quite so innocently pleased with democracy. They were more strictly "proper Bostonians" than Bancroft; unlike him they had not planned to be preachers. Parkman and, still more, Prescott were capable of sympathy with societies that "History" had justly condemned. Motley was as dogmatic as Bancroft and in a less attractive way; but he was a more effectively dramatic writer, more like Carlyle than like Macaulay (as Dr. Levin acutely notes) and perhaps recalling Charles Sumner's pathological rhetoric more than the style of either of the British historians. Dr. Levin devotes some acute, almost "new critical" pages to style and is severe on Prescott although he does not make the point made by others, that Prescott, paraphrasing Bernal Diaz, does not improve on him or equal him.

Dr. Levin does not discuss the question of the scholarly value for the present day of any of them. Probably Parkman stands up best to modern testing. Motley was a violent partisan who saw in the complicated story of the division of the Burgundian "Great Netherlands" a simple triumph of right over tyranny and superstition. (Dr. Levin notes that he suddenly admits the existence of great masses of Catholics in the Netherlands for whose survival no good reason is given.) We take a less simple view of Aztec and Inca society than Prescott did, but his books are still the most read and in many ways the most sagacious of the four, the feast dominated by the superiority of Boston Unitarianism. His Phillip II is a more interesting figure than Motley's monster. (He is also a less interesting figure than Froude's "semi-hero".)

Dr. Levin handles his difficult material adroitly, is tolerant of the innocent anti-Papalism of all four (least evident again in Prescott), kind though candid about the double measures they all used (especially Motley), acute in his analysis of the milieu.