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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
William Hickling Prescott (1796–1859)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Francis Newton Thorpe (1857–1926)
PRESCOTT had been at work on his ‘Ferdinand and Isabella’ about four years when he adopted the plan that distinguishes all his histories. To this he was led by his confidence in Mably, author of ‘Étude de l’Histoire,’ of whom he made this record:—“I like particularly his notion of the necessity of giving an interest as well as utility to history, by letting events tend to some obvious point or moral; in short, by paying such attention to the development of events tending to this leading result as one would in the construction of a romance or a drama.” All the world knows the success of the plan: Prescott is read as freely as the great novelists and dramatists. A critical, rather than a creative, age has charged him with being more interesting than accurate. This is the old charge against Herodotus, and against Thucydides; it is the charge made against Prescott’s great English contemporary, Macaulay. What critic of either of these has won an equal place in literature? It would be gratifying, though difficult, to explain why an interesting history provokes suspicion. Each generation revises the record. Learned specialists who venture to become critics, condemn an entire work because of a fault in relating an episode. The story of Philip the Second has been retold by one whose genius Prescott recognized and encouraged, just as his own had been recognized and encouraged by Washington Irving. The Spanish-American story has been retold by Sir Arthur Helps, by Markham, and by John Fiske.  1
  A history is variously judged. One reader estimates it by its authorities; another by its style. Of literary virtues, style is the first to be cultivated and the last to be formed.
          “With regard to the style of this work,” wrote Prescott of his ‘Ferdinand and Isabella,’ seven years after its completion, “I will only remark that most of the defects, such as they are, may be comprehended in the words trop soigné. At least they may be traced to this source. The only rule is, to write with freedom and nature, even with homeliness of expression occasionally, and with alternation of long and short sentences; for such variety is essential to harmony. But after all, it is not the construction of the sentence, but the tone of the coloring, which produces the effect. If the sentiment is warm, lively, forcible, the reader will be carried along without much heed to the arrangement of the periods, which differs exceedingly in different standard writers. Put life into the narrative, if you would have it take. Elaborate and artificial fastidiousness in the form of expression is highly detrimental to this. A book may be made up of perfect sentences and yet the general impression be very imperfect. In fine, be engrossed with the thought and not with the fashion of expressing it.”
His plan and his style harmonize, and are principal causes of the popularity of his books. There is another cause: the fortunes of the men and women whose lives are depicted on his pages become of personal interest to the reader. Emerson would call this making history subjective,—“doing away with this wild, savage, and preposterous Then or There, and introducing in its place the Here and the Now;” banishing the not-me and supplying the me. All this Prescott has done. Children are lost in his ‘Mexico’ and ‘Peru’ even more quickly than in Shakespeare or Scott. The dramatist is suddenly philosophical; the novelist now and then technical: but the historian takes them straight on from embarkation through shipwreck, battle, siege, conquest, and retreat, and all as real as the sights in the street. Here is a miracle like that Bunyan wrought, and even a greater; for it is the rare miracle of reality. Few are the historians who let us forget that their page is a paraphrase; their story, second-hand; their battles, sieges, and fortunes, only words.
  Prescott’s life, like his books, was a development of events tending to a leading result. Yet this result was due to an accident while at Harvard, a junior in his seventeenth year. A piece of bread thoughtlessly thrown at random by a fellow student instantly destroyed the sight of one eye. The other speedily became affected, and he was never again able to use it, except at rare intervals and for a short time. Till the day of his death, forty-seven years after the accident, he suffered almost constantly. His life, without warning, became a strict construction of the law of compensation. He belonged to a distinguished family. His grandfather was that Captain Prescott who commanded at Bunker Hill. His father was an eminent lawyer, among whose closer friends were John Quincy Adams and Daniel Webster. His mother, from whom he inherited a large share of his hopeful temperament and generous affection, was a woman possessed of the qualities of Abigail Adams. He had wealth; he had rare physical beauty. The mental man was complete. He lacked only that which he had lost by accident. He completed his college course; spent some time in search of relief in Europe, and returned to Salem, his home and his native place. At twenty-four he married; at twenty-six he decided on a literary life. Other men had eyes. Could he not accomplish, though slowly, as much as others less persevering? From the day of his decision his life followed a programme. It was method. His will made real what his wealth, his powers, made possible. But all followed resolutions, many of which a strong love of ease made almost useless. First he must prepare for work, then choose. He began a critical, exhaustive study of the English language and literature. Like studies of the French, the Italian, the Spanish, followed. He employed capable readers; and at twenty-eight, with many misgivings respecting his own powers, planned a history of Ferdinand and Isabella. Ten years of labor followed, and the three volumes were published at Christmas, 1837. They were printed at the Cambridge press at his own expense, a method he adhered to for all his books.  3
  He was long in doubt whether to publish the history. His father’s judgment decided his own. Bentley brought it out in England after it had been declined by two publishers. Its reception was an event in English literature, and time has not yet set aside the original verdict. He had found his work: Spain, new and old, at the height of its power. In 1839 he began reading for his ‘Conquest of Mexico.’ Four years later it was published. It had an unparalleled reception. Five thousand copies were sold in America in four months. This was only the beginning of a popularity which has been renewed by successive generations of readers. No history more perfectly illustrates the harmony of subject and style.  4
  Early in 1844 he “broke ground,” as he says, on Peru. In twelve months its ‘Conquest’ was written. It was nearly two years in press, and issued in 1847. Though most quickly done of his works, it sustained his reputation. Editions in French, German, Dutch, and Spanish, almost immediately appeared. No American book had before been so received. The ‘Conquest of Peru’ closed his contribution to American history. He was in his fifty-first year, and the most famed American scholar. The mantle of Irving had fallen upon him. His friendships were worldwide, and among the great scholars of the age. Through these he was largely enabled to collect his vast mass of material. As Sismondi wrote him, he had attained rich sources interdicted to European scholars. No other man, certainly no other historian of his day, possessed and used such resources. His library contained the best from the archives of Europe, usually in copy; often the original. In the summer of 1849 he began reading for his history of Philip the Second. Frequent and afflicting interruptions, that would have vanquished a less resolute mind, beset him. Age was creeping on. Domestic sorrow bowed his spirit. In 1850, after many urgent requests, he visited England. His reception remained unique in the annals of society for thirty years. The England he knew was like that England that received James Russell Lowell in after years. The first volume of ‘Philip’ was completed in 1852; the second in 1854, when the two were published; and the third in 1858. A fourth was begun, but was carried no further than brief notes at the time of his sudden death at sixty-three.  5
  Prescott never visited the scenes of his histories. For over forty years—his literary life—he divided his time between his three homes, all near his birthplace: the summer at Nahant; the autumn at Pepperell; the winter and spring in Boston,—for some years at the house on Bedford Street, but after 1845 at the Beacon Street home. Here was his great library, and here he died. His infirmity forbade travel. With his mind’s eye he saw Mexico, Peru, and other regions in the vast Spanish empire,—all from the vantage-ground of his own library. Of his fidelity to his authorities no doubt has ever been hinted. He believed in footnotes, and he spread his vouchers before the world. In later years some critics have doubted the value of his authorities, especially for the ‘Mexico’ and the ‘Peru.’ If they erred he erred. If they, for their own purposes, read European civilization into the institutions of the Aztecs, Prescott had no means of correcting their vision. He faithfully followed the canons of history, and trusted the evidence brought forward by the actors themselves. What he saw in their records,—duly corrected one by the other,—was that panorama of the New World which was spread before the eyes of Europe by its conquerors, and which the Old World believed, and still believes, true. No historian is responsible for not using undiscovered evidence. Prescott wrote from the archives of Europe, just as others have written before and after him, confident of the accuracy of their evidence. If he moved his Aztec world on too high a plane of civilization, he moved it by authority. Since his death, the world has turned traveler; men of critical skill have explored Mexico and Peru, and each has produced his pamphlet. A mass of ethnological and archæological knowledge has been collected, much of which corrects the angle of Spanish vision of the sixteenth century. But all this is from the American side. Prescott wrote his ‘Mexico’ and ‘Peru’ from the European side—of the time of Isabella, Charles, and Philip. If one cares to know how the Old World first understood the New, he will read Prescott. If he wishes to know how the New World of to-day interprets that New World of four centuries ago, he will read Markham and Fiske. Prescott’s beautiful character is reflected in his style, and in his fidelity to his authorities. Archæology and ethnology may correct some of his descriptions; but as literature, his four histories will undoubtedly be read with pleasure as long as the English remains a living language.  6

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