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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Francis Parkman (1823–1893)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Sir Charles George Douglas Roberts (1860–1943)
FRANCIS PARKMAN was born in Boston, on what is now Allston Street, then called Somerset Place, on September 16th, 1823. His father, the Rev. Francis Parkman, was a member of an old colonial family that came from Sidmouth in Devonshire, England. His mother was a direct descendant of John Cotton of Plymouth. At Chauncey Hall School, in Boston, he was prepared for college; and in 1840 he entered Harvard as a freshman. In 1844 he took his degree of B. A., after a course of some distinction, particularly in history. His first book, ‘The Oregon Trail,’ appeared in 1849. In 1851 he issued ‘The Conspiracy of Pontiac.’ His one work of fiction, ‘Vassall Morton,’ was published in 1856. In 1865 came ‘The Pioneers of France in the New World,’ the first of the series ‘France and England in North America.’ The rest of the series appeared as follows:—‘The Jesuits in North America,’ in 1867; ‘La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West,’ in 1869; ‘The Old Régime in Canada,’ in 1874; ‘Count Frontenac and New France under Louis XIV.,’ in 1877; ‘Montcalm and Wolfe,’ in 1884, concluding the series, but leaving an important period untreated. This gap was filled by ‘A Half-Century of Conflict,’ issued in 1892.  1
  In 1866 his hobby of horticulture, which made beautiful his home at Jamaica Plain, had found expression in a practical little work called ‘The Book of Roses.’ He died on the 8th of November, 1893.  2
  In Parkman’s life the great events are the choice of his life work, the preparation for it, its execution, and its triumphant accomplishment. In spite of obstacles which would have daunted any one less than heroic in resolution, the career of Francis Parkman may be regarded as an ideal type of what a man of letters should aspire to. Singularly fortunate in finding a theme exactly fitted to his genius, yet so vast as to require a lifetime for its treatment, he was given length of days in which to see the triumphant completion of his task.  3
  The story of the struggle of France and England in the New World was—when as a youth Parkman discerned its importance and marked it for his pen—perhaps the one theme of truly epic proportions then remaining untouched by the historian. It is no wonder that the eager and ambitious boy was possessed by it from the moment when it presented itself to his imagination. It is no wonder that he jealously kept his design a secret, lest others should awake to its fascination and forestall him. The subject had many advantages besides that of sheer greatness. Its setting was one reasonably accessible to a New-Englander, and he could therefore resolve to know his landscapes and his backgrounds all at first hand. It afforded an endlessly shifting succession of adventure and incident, whence he could count upon making his narrative interesting from page to page. The material from which to spin the story existed in peculiar abundance: its period being one when the pen was busy, when annals and chronicles were much in vogue, and when men of action often found time to keep voluminous records. Parkman knew that in libraries of Rome, Paris, Quebec, Boston, Halifax, in archive offices and cloistered corners, lurked manuscripts innumerable, from which the tale he planned to tell might be patiently unraveled. He knew that inexhaustible treasure-house of North American history, the Jesuit Relations.  4
  The magnitude and significance of the subject which he chose can hardly be exaggerated. That struggle which ended upon the Plains of Abraham was going on all over the world. It was to decide a vaster question than the dominance of the New World, that France and England throughout the course of two centuries were ever at each other’s throats. The question at issue, fought out upon the Ganges as well as upon the St. Lawrence, was whether the English or the French stock should replenish the waste places of the earth. The subject to which Parkman set himself was the duel for world-empire. The result of this duel not only secured the supremacy of English institutions, ideals, and speech on this continent, but established beyond cavil England’s place as the colonizer of the world.  5
  Born with a passion for adventure, for the life of the wilderness, for the companionship of wild nature and half-wild man, Parkman thus found awaiting him a great historical subject for the sympathetic handling of which this passion was essential. History as a rule is largely a matter of courts, and cities, and action working at the centers of civilization. But the history of the struggle of France and England in North America is a tale of elemental impulses, of forests and frontiers, of adventurous rivalries on the shadowy outskirts of life. It moved in primitive conditions, such as the academic student is apt to look upon with the cool eyes of the observer, rather than with the vital comprehension of one who has played his part among them. In his delighted wanderings as a boy over the Middlesex Fells, in the long backwoods excursions with canoeing, fishing, shooting, that occupied his college vacations, Parkman was fitting himself, at first unconsciously and afterwards doubtless of set purpose, for one side of his great enterprise. In the vehement delight, moreover, which he took in action, in feats of athletics, and in all strenuous outdoor effort, he still further widened his sympathies for the comprehension of a story of incessant effort of the same description.  6
  His tastes as a student at college led his reading in the direction best fitted to further his own aim. Romance and history appealed to him with almost equal force; and the task on which he was soon to enter was one which required for its execution a right blending of imagination with exact observation and severe deduction. The incidents of the story whose magic was to be revealed by his pen were full of romantic color, and of appeal to the heroic emotions. No one could write of them adequately who was not himself thrilled by them. At the same time the broad view was necessary, that events might be seen and set down in their just proportions; the analytic sense was necessary, that relevant might be separated from irrelevant details; the philosophic temper was necessary, that the torrential flow of the story might not carry the narrator off his feet; and above all, the capacious grasp was necessary, that an Indian raid on the Richelieu, or a brush between rival traders on the St. Clair, might be duly related to the great world-drama in which Indian and fur-trader alike were unconscious players. Not only had Parkman these qualities by native endowment, but his studies and discipline were such as to develop them. Yet other gifts were needed, to make his equipment complete. The command of an adequate prose style was indispensable if he would have his work fit to endure. And for prose expression he had a natural aptitude, which he cultivated assiduously by composition, and by study of the masters of English. An unrestricted catholicity of sympathy and judgment was equally indispensable, if he would do even justice between mutually destructive ideals, warring creeds, and races grappling for life and death. He could see the man behind all accidents of color, creed, or speech; and so his characters live. The savage from his wigwam, the black-robed scholar from his cloister, the cavalier from the salons of Versailles, the soldier from camp or foray,—each has some point of contact with Parkman’s sympathies, and is therefore presented from within, is recreated rather than depicted on his page.  7
  After Parkman had finished his arts course at Harvard, he studied law purely as a means of fitting himself for dealing with the constitutional questions which, as he realized, would confront him in the course of his proposed work. After two years of the law, his next step was to study the Indians as they were before the contact with civilization changed them. To find such Indians, in 1846, it was necessary to seek the Dakota and other wild tribes of the Far West. In that year he set out from St. Louis, with his cousin and comrade Quincy Shaw, and followed the track of the great migration then setting toward the Pacific coast. For some weeks he lived in the lodge of a Dakota chief. His hosts were exactly suited to his purpose. As he wrote afterwards:—“Neither their manners nor their ideas were in the slightest degree modified by contact with civilization…. They fought with the weapons that their fathers fought with, and wore the same garments of skins.” This trip, which lasted five months, gave him just that kind of first-hand knowledge which he desired. It bore immediate fruit in that fascinating book of travel, ‘The Oregon Trail.’ But the hardships and exposure which he endured on the expedition undermined a constitution never robust; and from this period date the beginnings of that ill-health with which the whole of his after life was to be a heroic struggle.  8
  It is one of the marvels of Parkman’s career that he was able to make so light of obstacles which most men would have accounted insurmountable. Works requiring the most prolonged, arduous, and minute research for their preparation, he wrote when his eyes were almost useless. Works requiring continuously sustained thought, he wrought to completion when often unable to work in any way for more than fifteen minutes at a time. During these long years of almost incessant ill-health, his achievements were just of the kind that fate seemed most determined to forbid.  9
  When three fourths of his great task was done, Parkman began to fear that he might not live to complete it. After finishing the story of Frontenac, therefore, he passed over a period of fifty years and entered upon the composition of those volumes which were to sum up and crown the whole,—the volumes dealing with Montcalm and Wolfe. With the completion of these, however, and under the stimulus of the acclaim which greeted them, he entered on a new lease of productive vigor; and with the two volumes called ‘A Half-Century of Conflict’ he filled in the perfect outline of his life’s work. This was in 1892, just long enough before his death to let the chorus of the world’s praise come to his ears, and assure him of the fullness of his triumph.  10
  Parkman’s style shows a steady growth in mastery from the ‘Conspiracy of Pontiac’ to the ‘Montcalm and Wolfe,’ which latter work marks the zenith of his powers. Vividness and clarity are qualities of his writing from the first. But the picturesque affluence which characterizes his earlier volumes sometimes lacks that simplicity which is the final touch of power.  11
  The prose style in which his later volumes are written is perhaps, taking it all in all, the most admirable medium that has been employed by any English-speaking historian. If to have treated a great theme with absolutely competent scholarship, as well as in a style of positive and essential beauty, constitutes a claim to rank among the world’s masters of history, then Parkman’s claim is beyond the reach of question.  12

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