HISTORY AS ROMANTIC ART: BANCROFT, MOTLEY, AND PARKMAN. By David Levin. (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1959. xii+260 pages, $5.50.)
Already fifty years have gone by since Ezra Pound proclaimed that the history of literature was the "history of masterworks," and over forty since T. S. Eliot rejoined that "the main current . . . does not at all flow invariably through the most distinguished reputations." With respect to American literature, at any rate, the issue remains very much alive simply because after two generations of hard trying we still are engaged in the task of defining main currents. Professor David Levin's admirable book takes us a long step forward. At a time when consideration of history as an art is generally neglected, History as Romantic Art turns our attention to Bancroft, Prescott, Motley, and Parkman and establishes a baseline to which we can relate the notoriously individual achievements of our greatest writers.
Historical writing was never more centrally a part of literature than in the nineteenth century. In that great age of the historical novel and the narrative history, novelists and historians shared a world much as novelists and poets do today. In a crucial example, Mr. Levin quotes Carlyle's approval of the influence of Walter Scott, which replaced in history the remotely abstract "philosophy teaching by experience" with "direct inspection and embodiment." The channels of influence were open to two-way traffic over long distances: Professor Joseph Frank informs me that Dostoevski, as a magazine editor of the 'sixties, printed long sections of Prescott's Mexico and Peru and that the latest Soviet scholarship establishes the American's Phillip II as the source for the Grand Inquisitor. But the international importance of the historian as a man of letters depends on individual achievement that everywhere starts from local causes. It is important, therefore, to see that Bancroft and Prescott wrote under the prompting of causes not usually thought of together: the New England Unitarian's commitment to the historic validation of religious claims and the American gentleman's devotion to the picturesque ideal of "Europe." There was, to be sure, nothing Dostoevskian about the Saturday Club. But when intelligence, morality, and imagination go hand in hand, the result may be literature: Dostoevski recognized that, even if our Dostoevskian age tends not to.
Mr. Levin does not let us forget the limitations of the New England nineteenth-century enlightenment, living as it was off the capital of earlier times. The historical heirs of Voltaire and Gibbon scorned the one for his "pernicious philosophy" and the other for his "bad taste" in affronting the sentiments of his Christian audience. Transcendentalist and Brahmin alike held John Locke in contempt. What becomes apparent as we read is that we are viewing American anti-intellectualism from a startling perspective: for this book offers the most concrete analysis of the Genteel Tradition we have, and one of the main points is that Transcendentalist and Brahmin were alike. While George Bancroft represents the Jacksonian and Emersonian traditions that are rather too loosely held accountable for Philistinism in America, Mr. Levin shows that Bancroft and the Bostonians thoroughly agreed on essentials. Their common dogma was the idea of progress: this explained the historical evolution of the best of all possible worlds, in which Europeans conquered indigenous peoples, Christians beat infidels, Protestants won against Catholics, Germanic nations triumphed over Latin, and "since Providence was supreme, the proper rate of progress was clear in the actual rate of progress." A peculiarly American characteristic of this Whig interpretation of history was the historians' special emphasis on simple natural vigor as against the "torpor" and "effeminacy" of the overcivilized and overintellectual. These cultivated writers would have been shocked had they been accused of hostility to mind: they had no quarrel with thought, only with strict reasoning and complex argument, and they knew how to use the romantic preference for heart over head as a sanction for their judgments. Their subject matter made their rational delinquency easier, of course.
Though Mr. Levin is quite right in saying that they were not escapists in choosing their subjects, still only Bancroft--the one Democrat and Transcendentalist among them--ever brought his story down as far as 1789, the first year of the American republic and the revolutionary beginning of modern European history. Since contradictions at a distance are not so intellectually coercive, Motley's histories, for example. have a value which his political writings do not. The handicap of genteel anti-intellectualism was less evident when Motley and the others studied a past that was superficially so different from the present. Then they could look into their hearts and write of the profit motive as materialistic and unseemly while praising the "spirit of commerce" as natural and progressive.
The greatest writers depend on conventions; minor writers depend on conventions almost entirely. The New England romantic historians, just because they were so uncritical, provide almost perfect examples of literary conventions at work. They sought "representative men" to express the "genius of the people" or the age, and preferred their heroes to be Byronic as well as Carlylean. They conveyed racist ideas from German to American historical writing at a much earlier date than has been recognized. They elaborated "Monk" Lewis's Gothic view of priestcraft in their treatment of the Inquisition and made the view intellectually respectable, and they accommodated their heartfelt admiration of the noble savage to their intellectual conviction that wiping out the Indian was inevitable and progressive. Because, in historical writing, literary convention and social opinion run so close together, these writers seem to be the representative men of a very limited society. And yet the history of ideas and of literature which defines their limitations also discloses the informing strength of their best works. In the concluding section of his book, Mr. Levin beautifully subverts the American reluctance to believe that men can achieve anything of genuine value by working within conventions or institutions.
His critical assessment of those fine histories, the Mexico, the Dutch Republic, and Montcalm and Wolfe, is notable in many ways. One of the most striking is his scrutiny of Prescott's, Motley's, and Parkman's prose, for coming at a moment when so much recent effort has gone into the close reading of verse, it brings us full circle to an awareness that prose should be as well written as poetry. In his illuminating analysis of the way the histories are organized, he makes clear the challenge which the historian always confronts in the quest for form; and he shows how, at their best, the New England historians met the challenge. If I would question his metaphorical use of the term dramatic structure, it is only for the sake of pointing out that the epic is a more useful analogue. Telling the heroic exploits of the Early Modern age just preceding our own era, depicting the clash of races and the emergence of institutions from "prehistory" to their presently recognizable patterns, these histories succeed where the poetic efforts of an earlier generation failed. In the country of bigness, we may remark with uneasy amusement that our best school of genuine minor artists produced epics!
But before we indulge in the wide range of speculation to which Mr. Levin's book invites us, we had better recognize how much we owe him. He has shown how eighteenth-century ideas were transformed and romantic attitudes transplanted by nineteenth-century Americans not just in intellectual history but in serious literary practice. History as Romantic Art must have a central place in our apprehension of the American past because Mr. Levin's historical analysis and critical judgment stem from a rare intellectual authority.
J. C. LEVENSON, University of Minnesota