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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Henry Hallam (1777–1859)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
THE WORK of Henry Hallam as a historian was timely. He filled a distinct want, and he seems likely to hold his place for decades to come. His security rests not upon his power of philosophizing from the great events, crises, and epochs in human affairs; not upon broad generalizations regarding the development and trend of civilization: but rather upon his clear and comprehensive vision of the all-important facts of history, upon his calm and legal-like presentation of these facts. He walks forth in the vast valley of crumbling bones and dust, the chaos of the ages, and with painstaking care and unerring judgment takes up on this side and on that, from the heap of rubbish, the few perfect parts that go to make up a complete framework. He compels us to clothe the skeleton, and construct a body of our own fashioning; to form our own theories, to deduce our own philosophy. That, then, is the reason that Hallam will remain a source of profit and inspiration to his readers.  1
  In his great work ‘The Middle Ages,’ as it is commonly known (though its fuller title is ‘View of the State of Europe during the Middle Ages’), published in 1818, Hallam adopted a method to such an end, that was peculiarly his own. At the risk of repetition and retracing, he took up first one country after another and sketched in outline its growth into a nation, devoting to each a chapter that was a complete book in itself, and bringing in the doings of near-by countries only so much as was absolutely necessary. In this way Hallam traces, with admirable arrangement and sense of proportion, the main lines in the history of France, Italy, Spain, Germany, and of the Greeks and Saracens. To give a detailed narration is furthest from his thought and furthest from his achievement. He deals primarily with results; and with him, as he himself has said, “a single sentence or paragraph is often sufficient to give the character of entire generations.” He takes the continent in magnificent sweeps, casting aside legend, tradition, intrigue, and disaster, and catching up only those greater facts and results which he puts together dexterously and accurately to form indeed the framework of the long story of the Middle Ages.  2
  This brief summary of Hallam’s methods and system applies, it should be said, more to his ‘Middle Ages’ than to any other work of his. In fact, it would seem that his name for the future rests upon this work almost wholly; for while his compendious and careful ‘Introduction to the Literature of Europe in the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Centuries’ (published in 1838–9), shows immense erudition and amazingly wide reading, one cannot help getting the impression of confusion and clumsiness in its construction. In it Hallam’s opinions are discriminating, as in everything he ever wrote, but they are by no means profound, and to the average student his ‘Literature’ can hardly fail to be dispiriting and dull.  3
  It is not surprising that a legal acumen and a logical arrangement of his facts should characterize Hallam’s historical writings. Born at Windsor, July 9th, 1777, and a Christ Church College graduate in 1799, he studied for the law at Christ College, Oxford, and practiced industriously for some years on the Oxford Circuit. Of independent means, he relinquished the law and devoted himself to his literary life and to his important personal interests and his friends. Of the latter he had many, and they were among the most distinguished of his contemporaries. He was a member of the famous Holland House circle and a guest at Bowood; and Sydney Smith, Macaulay, and other social and literary lights esteemed his society. He passed most of his time, season by season, in his London house in Wimpole Street,—an uninteresting and retired neighborhood, as pictured in a line of that ‘In Memoriam’ which Lord Tennyson wrote as his tribute to a friendship with Hallam’s beloved son Arthur. Various societies, British and foreign, honored his works emphatically; he was a member of the Institute of France, and it is interesting to Americans to know that he and Washington Irving received in 1830 the medals offered by King George IV. for eminence in historical writings.  4
  His life was relatively quiet and uneventful. It is somewhat curious that we have not more reminiscences and pen pictures of him, especially as his contemporaries held him in such affection. He had almost nothing to say to political life, though his prime came to him during the Corn Law agitations. Indeed, he kept himself, during all his busy years until his death in 1859, a student of the past rather than a worker of his day. We owe much to his profound studies of the centuries preceding his own; yet a real admirer of Hallam could wish that he had been less concentrated on his analysis of the past, and bolder to cope with questions of the present. As he himself says, he ended his ‘Constitutional History of England’ (published in 1827) at the accession of George III., because he had “been influenced by unwillingness to excite the prejudices of modern politics.” It must be a matter of regret that Hallam should thus stop (ingloriously, we might almost say!) just at the threshold of what was a most interesting part of England’s modern Constitutional history.  5
  In this twentieth century, every student and historian specializes,—takes up some one period and attempts to exhaust it. Those were not the methods of Hallam’s time. Some of the advantages of those methods Hallam undoubtedly missed. This weakness shows occasionally on points which seemed to be so obscure in Hallam’s thought as to render his expression blind and ambiguous. On the whole, however, such instances are infrequent. It is sufficient praise to say that Hallam has done what he set out to do: to furnish for the intelligent and seeking reader a just and accurate outline; to point out the landmarks and beacons on the way that will guide him unfailingly in his future search. In these respects Hallam’s achievements are remarkable and incomparable.  6
 
 
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