History of American Literature
by Edward Simonds
Chapter 1: I
| II | III
| IV | Chapter 2: I
| II | III
| IV | V
| Chapter 3: I | II
| III | IV
| Chapter 4: I | II
| III | IV
| V | Chapter 5: I
| II | III
| IV | Chapter 6: I
| II | III
| IV | V
| VI | Chapter 7: I
| II | III
| IV |
THE period in our
literary history which produced our most distinguished writers in prose and
verse has not yet been fully described. Contemporary with these -- the popular
classics of our literature -- there were many authors of lesser rank whose names
belong in the record of our literary development. Some of these may be designated
as the minor essayists, novelists, and poets of their generation, while some
are our foremost representatives in other fields of literary effort as yet not
First in this enumeration
are the historical writers -- who constitute an important group among the authors
of the century. The most brilliant of the number were Prescott, Motley, and
Parkman. These three men were thoroughly representative of the traditional New
England aristocracy of culture. They were all residents of Boston and graduates
of Harvard College. A peculiar coincidence is found in the fact that both Prescott
and Parkman suffered from the affliction of partial blindness, and that it was
only in spite of extraordinary difficulty, by the exercise of consummate patience,
that each was successful in his achievement.
Prescott was born in Salem; but his parents removed to Boston when the boy was
twelve years of age, and placed their son in Harvard College as a Sophomore,
in 1811. It was in his junior year that the accident occurred which caused his
loss of vision. A crust of bread thrown in the dining-hall by a fellow student
struck his eyeball, and the sight of the left eye was destroyed. Intervals of
complete blindness fell upon him, and the fear of losing his sight altogether
never left him.
career was the result of a youthful ambition. "I had early conceived,"
he says, "a passion for historical writing, to which, perhaps, the reading
of Gibbon's Autobiography contributed
not a little. I proposed to make myself an historian in the best sense of the
word." It was, however, after long deliberation that he settled upon a
romantic period in Spanish history as his theme. Happily Prescott's means were
ample; the physical difficulties in his situation could hardly have been overcome
The story of this
effort is heroical enough. When oculists assured him that the sight of the remaining
eye would be impaired if not destroyed by literary labor, he refused to retreat.
Calmly he determined that even should sight fail, while hearing remained his
literary ambition should be realized. Dictation he found impossible. He invented
a mechanical device for guiding his pencil over the paper, and employed readers
to copy the manuscript he wished to consult. There were long interruptions in
the work. We read in his journal entries like these: "The last fortnight
I have not read or written, in all, five minutes." "If I could only
have some use of my eyes!" "I use my eyes ten minutes at a time, for
an hour a day. So I snail it along."
For ten years,
Prescott labored over his first volume, The History of
Ferdinand and Isabella, conscientiously examining all accessible sources.
The work, which was published in 1837, met with immediate success in this country
and abroad. It was at once translated into five European languages, and its
author was welcomed to the fellowship of the distinguished historians in England,
Germany, and France. The Conquest of Mexico followed
in 1843, The Conquest of Peru in 1847. A history of
the reign of Philip II was undertaken, but only three of the six volumes proposed
were finished, the third appearing in 1858. Prescott died in January of the
Although to a certain
extent discredited as authoritative upon historical fact, these works possess
high literary value. They read like romance; their style is pictorial and vivid.
Prescott was the successor of Irving in the romantic field of Spanish history.
Irving himself, indeed, had meditated a history of the conquest of Mexico, had
collected material therefor in Spain, and was actually engaged upon the work;
but when he learned of Prescott's design, he quietly withdrew from the field
and placed his material in the hands of the younger man. A few years later Prescott
in turn performed a similar act of kindness in resigning to Motley an important
part of the field naturally included in any account of the reign of Philip II.
a part of Boston, was the birthplace of John Lothrop Motley. After graduation
from Harvard in 1831, he spent two years as a student at the universities of
Berlin and Göttingen, forming an intimate acquaintance with Bismarck his fellow
student, the future chancellor of Germany. Motley's literary career began inauspiciously
with the publication of an unsuccessful novel, Morton's Hope (1839); and this was followed ten years later by a colonial romance, Merry
After a brief period
of residence in St. Petersburg as a secretary of legation (1841-1842), he returned
to America and soon became interested in historical themes. A series of articles
contributed to the North American Review attracted general notice. In
1850, he became absorbed in his study of the Protestant struggle in Holland
against the tyranny of Philip II. Motley had not, like Prescott, determined
to be an historian and then searched for a theme. "My subject had taken
me up, drawn me on, and absorbed me into itself," he wrote; "it was
necessary for me, it seemed, to write the book I had been thinking much of,
even if it were destined to fall dead from the press, and I had no inclination
or interest to write any other." After receiving the hearty approval and
encouragement of the older historian, Motley set himself at the task.
The Dutch Republic.
Searching the archives
of Europe and counting his labor a joy, -- so filled with enthusiasm was he
over his theme, -- Motley completed the major portion of his work in 1856. The
Rise of the Dutch Republic was received, as Prescott's volumes had been,
with universal applause. The History of the United Netherlands
was published, the first two volumes in 1860, the last two in 1868. The Life
of John of Barneveld (1874) was preliminary to the final work of the
series, a history of the Thirty Years' War; but this work was never written.
Much of Motley's
life was spent abroad. Besides his early service as secretary at St. Petersburg,
he held two important appointments. He was minister to Austria during the Civil
War period, and was appointed by President Grant minister to England in 1869.
His recall, however, -- for which no satisfactory reason has ever been given,
-- came in 1870. After the publication of John of Barneveld, in 1874,
a year marked also by domestic sorrow in the loss of his wife, Motley undertook
no further literary work. He died in England in 1877, and was buried just outside
are characterized, like those of his predecessor, by the dramatic quality of
the narrative and by eloquence of style. His intense sympathy with the oppressed
and gallant Hollanders in their struggle for independence, and his hearty admiration
for their great hero, William the Silent, permitted him to take no impartial
ground. He writes as an acknowledged partisan, and in this respect his historical
method is rather the method of the past than of the present.
the youngest of the group, and thoroughly modern in his method of investigation
and presentation, was of Boston birth. His father was a clergyman; his grandfather,
a prosperous merchant, had established the family fortunes upon a basis which
gave the family financial independence. A love of outdoor life was early bred
in the boy, whose health was delicate and who on that account allowed unusual
freedom. He lived much in the open air and conducted youthful explorations in
the surrounding woods. Preparation.
During his student
days at Harvard, Parkman was seized with the desire to write the history of
the French and Indian War, and he determined to study the life of the Indian
at first hand. Two years after graduation, he started from St. Louis, in 1846,
upon the emigrant trail for the Dakota country. The summer that followed was
replete with adventure, and productive of hardship from the effects of which
the historian never recovered. But Parkman had lived among trappers and Indians;
he had traversed the plains, hunted the buffalo, dwelt for weeks in the lodges
of a tribe of Sioux, and gained by rough experience the knowledge that he sought.
The narrative of his adventure is told in a fascinating volume, The
California and Oregon Trail (1849).
France in the New
Conspiracy of Pontiac (1851) was the first of Parkman's historical volumes
to appear, although it describes the culmination rather than the opening of
the epoch which he chronicles. It was fourteen years before his Pioneers
of France in the New World (1865) really began the story of the struggle
between France and England for the possession of America. The
Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century (1867), La
Salle; or the Discovery of the Great West (1869), The
Old Régime (1874), Count Frontenac and New France
under Louis XIV (1877), Montcalm and Wolfe (1884), and a supplementary volume, A Half-Century of Conflict (1892), constitute the impressive series of his works. Parkman's style does
not fall below that of Prescott in picturesqueness and realism. His accuracy
may be safely assumed. Copyists were constantly at work for him over manuscript
records of the past, and he himself visited Europe five times to gather material.
The localities he described were usually traversed in person.
which Parkman overcame in the accomplishment of his purpose were strikingly
similar to those which had confronted the historian of Ferdinand and Isabella.
With vision sadly impaired by some obscure trouble of the brain which affected
also the action of the heart and the control of the limbs, he was terribly handicapped.
His working time was frequently reduced to less than half an hour a day and
there were long periods of utter helplessness. He was noted for his cheerful,
sunny disposition. At his pleasant home on the shore of Jamaica Pond, he found
recreation in the culture of roses, a pursuit of which he was extremely fond.
He published a Book of Roses in 1866; for two years
he held the chair of horticulture in Harvard.
Histories of the
With this record
of our more famous literary historians there should be some account of those
who have dealt most effectively with the theme of our national life. The most
notable of these writers is George Bancroft (1800-1891), another Massachusetts
scholar, who after graduation from Harvard studied at Göttingen and there received
his doctor's degree in 1820. For a time he conducted a private school in Boston.
The first volume of his History of the United States
was published in 1834, the second in 1837. The author was then drawn into political
life and served successively as collector of the port of Boston, Secretary of
the Navy, minister to England, minister to Prussia, and then to Germany. The
volumes of his history appeared at intervals until the tenth, in 1874, brought
the narrative down to the close of the Revolution. Two later volumes (1882)
were added to include the formation of the Constitution. In 1885, the historian
completed a revision of his work, and condensed the narrative within the limits
of six volumes. Bancroft's History has always been recognized as a work
of value, although it does not hold a place in literature with those of Parkman,
Motley, and Prescott. Its author was a stanch Democrat, and this political bias
is obvious in the work. Richard Hildreth (1807-1865),
also a citizen of Massachusetts, and a Whig, produced a History
of the United States (1849-1852) in six volumes; it does not measure
up to the standard of Bancroft's work. A scholarly History
of New England (1858) by John Gorham Palfrey (1796-1881),
and two noteworthy volumes dealing with the history of Louisiana (1851-1852)
by Charles Étienne Gayarré (1805-1895) may well be mentioned
here, although local rather than national in scope. The youngest, and not the
least important among recent historical writers in this field is John
Fiske (1842-1901), a brilliant and popular essayist upon philosophical and
religious themes, whose first historical study, The Critical
Period of American History, appeared in 1888. Jared
Sparks (1789-1866) was a pioneer in the field of national biography. Sparks
was a Unitarian clergyman, a professor of history at Harvard, and president
of that college. He wrote the lives of Washington and Franklin
and edited their writings: the Washington, in
1834-1838, the Franklin, in 1836-1840. He also edited a great Library
of American Biography in twenty-five volumes which was completed in
student is referred to the William Hickling Prescott, by Rollo Ogden,
and the Francis Parkman, by Henry D. Sedgwick, in the American Men
of Letters Series. The Life of Motley, by his close friend, Oliver
Wendell Holmes, is the best available biography at present.