1902 Encyclopedia > William Hickling Prescott

William Hickling Prescott
American historian
(1796-1859)




WILLIAM HICKLING PRESCOTT (1796-1859), historian, was born in Salem, Massachusetts, on 4th May 1796, his ancestors, of the old Puritan stock, having migrated from Lancashire about 1640 and established themselves in Middlesex county, Massachusetts. He received his earlier education in his native city until the removal of his family in 1808 to Boston, where he was placed under the tuition of Dr Gardiner, a pupil of Dr Parr. His schooldays appear to have been in the main typical rather than prophetic, though in his passion for mimic warfare and for the narration of original stories some indication of the historical bias may perhaps be discerned. A healthy aversion to persistent work, which even in later years broke at times through his rigorous system of self-discipline, did not hinder him from making a good if somewhat desultory use of his permission to read at the Boston athenaeum,—an exceptional advantage at a time when the best books were by no means readily accessible in any part of the United States. He entered Harvard College in the autumn of 1811, therefore, with a fairly thorough mental equipment, but almost at the outset his career was interrupted by an accident which affected the whole subsequent course of his life. A hard piece of bread, flung at random in the Commons Hall, struck his left eye with such force that he fell to the ground; and, though the first shock speedily passed, the sight was irremediably destroyed. He resumed his college work, however, with success in classics and literature, though he abandoned the study of mathematics as one in which he could not attain even an average proficiency. After graduating honourably in 1814 he entered his father's office as a student of law; but in January 1815 the uninjured eye showed dangerous symptoms of inflammation, which for some time refused to yield to remedies. When at last in the autumn he was in condition to travel, it was determined that he should pass the winter at St Michael's and in the spring obtain medical advice in Europe. His visit to the Azores, which was constantly broken by confinement to a darkened room, is chiefly noteworthy from the fact that he there began the mental discipline which enabled him to compose and retain in memory long passages for subsequent dictation; and, apart from the gain in culture, his journey to England, France, and Italy (April 1816 to July 1817) was scarcely more satisfactory. The verdict of the physicians consulted by him was that the injured eye was hopelessly paralysed, and that the preservation of the sight of the other depended upon the maintenance of his general health. His further pursuit of the legal profession seemed out of the question, and on his return to Boston he remained quietly at home listening to a great deal of reading, but with no fixed object in view. On 4th May 1820 he was married to Miss Susan Amory. Prior to his marriage he had made a few experiments in composition which had obtained no further publicity than that of his own circle of friends, but he now finally decided to devote his life to literature. It must be admitted that he had not hitherto displayed any remarkable aptitude; but having once determined his future occupation he set himself strenuously to the task of self-preparation. With almost amusing thoroughness he commenced the study of Murray's Grammar, the prefatory matter of Johnson's Dictionary, and Blair's Rhetoric, reading at the same time for general purposes of style a series of the standard English writers from the period of Elizabeth onwards. A review of Byron's Letters on Pope in 1821 constituted his first contribution to the North American Review, to which he continued for many years to send the results of his slighter researches. He next turned to French literature, the irksomeness with which he regarded his studies in this subject being mitigated by incursions into the early English drama and ballad literature. Of the direction and quality of his thought at this time he has left indications in his papers on Essay-Writing (1822) and on French and English Tragedy (1823). In pursuance of his method of successive studies he began in 1823 the study of Italian literature, passing over German as demanding more labour than he could afford; and so strongly did he feel the fascination of the language that for some time he thought of selecting it as his chief sphere of work. In the following year, however, he made his first acquaintance with the literature of Spain under the influence of his friend and biographer, Ticknor, who was then lecturing upon it; and, while its attractiveness proved greater than he had at the outset anticipated, the comparative novelty of the subject as a field for research served as an additional stimulus.





In the meantime his aims had been gradually concentrating. History had always been a favourite study with him, and Mably's Observations sur I'Histoire appears to have had considerable influence in determining him to the choice of some special period for historic research. The selection, however, was not finally made without prolonged hesitation. The project of a history of Italian literature held a prominent place in his thought and found some tentative expression in his article on Italian Narrative Poetry (1824) and in the reply to Da Ponte's criticism (1825); but he had also in contemplation a history of the revolution which converted republican Borne into a monarchy, a series of biographical and critical sketches of eminent men, and a Spanish history from the invasion of the Arabs to the consolidation of the monarchy under Charles V. It was not till the 19th of January 1826 that he recorded in the private memoranda begun by him in 1820 his decision "to embrace the gift of the Spanish subject." The choice was certainly a bold one. On the one hand, he had no great liking for, if he had not, as he alleged, an absolute detestation of the investigation of latent and barren antiquities, while, on the other, he had not the visual power which others besides Milton have deemed indispensable to an historian. The first he might and did overcome, but the second seemed likely to prove a permanent disqualification. He could only use the eye which remained to him for brief and intermittent periods, and as travelling affected his sight prejudicially he could not anticipate any personal research amongst unpublished records and historic scenes. He wras happy, however, in the possession both of ample means and admirable friends to supply so far as might be the necessary materials, and of a wide leisure in which to give them literary shape and polish; and he sketched with no undue restriction or hesitancy the plan of the History of tlie Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella—his first great work. Mr English, one of his secretaries, has furnished a picture of him at this period seated in a study lined on two sides with books and darkened by green screens and curtains of blue muslin, which required readjustment with almost every cloud that passed across the sky. His writing apparatus—a noctograph—lay before him, and he kept his ivory style in his hand to jot down notes as the reading progressed. In accordance with his general method these notes were in turn read over to him until he had completely mastered them, when they were worked up in his memory to their final shape. So proficient did he become that he was able to retain the equivalent of sixty pages of printed matter in his memory, turning and returning them as he walked or drove. The rate of progress in preparation was therefore necessarily slow, apart from any liability to interruption by other undertakings and failures in bodily health. He still continued his yearly experimental contributions to the North American Review, elaborating them with a view as much to ultimate historical proficiency as to immediate literary effect, the essays on Scottish Song (1826), Novel-Writing (1827); Molière (1828), and Irving's Granada (1829) belonging to this preparatory period. The death of his eldest daughter in 1828 also led him aside to the study— afterwards renewed in the interval between the Ferdinand and Isabella and the Conquest of Mexico—of Christian evidences, with the result that he convinced himself of the fundamental truth of Christianity, though he did not accept all the tenets of orthodoxy. On the 6th of October 1829 he began the actual work of composition, which was continued without more serious interruptions than those occasioned by the essays on Asylums for the Blind (1830), Poetry and Romance of the Italians (1831), and English Literature of the 19th Century (1832), until 25th June 1836, when the concluding note was written. Another year, during which his essay on Cervantes appeared, was spent in the final revision of the History for the press, in which the author was ably assisted by two friends, of whom Gardiner, the son of his old schoolmaster, criticized the style and Folsom verified the facts. Its success upon its publication in Boston was immediate, the five years' contract being discharged in a few months. Arrangements were speedily made for its publication in England, and there its success was not less marked. Erom the position of an obscure reviewer Prescott suddenly found himself elevated to the first rank of contemporary historians. Daniel Webster Spoke of him as a comet which had suddenly blazed out upon the world in full splendour, and American, British, and Continental reviewers were equally laudatory. Its reception determined the nature of all his subsequent work. Hitherto he had still inclined towards the history of literature rather than to that of polity and action, on the ground that the former was more consonant with his previous studies and a more suitable sphere for the display of his special powers. A close examination of his work jn the department of literary criticism does not, however, bear out this estimate of his own genius, and the popular voice in approving his narrative faculty gave him the required impetus in the right direction. After coquetting for a short time with the project of a life of Molière he decided to follow in the track of his first work with a History of the Conquest of Mexico. Washington Irving, who had already made preparations to occupy the same field, generously withdrew in his favour ; and in May 1838 Prescott began his first reading in the subject. The work was completed in August 184S, the five years' labour having been broken by the composition of reviews of Lockhart's Life of Scott (1838), Kenyon's Poems (1839), Chateaubriand (1839), Bancroft's United States (1841), Mariotti's Italy (1842), and Madame Calderon's Life in Mexico (1843), and by the preparation of an abridgment of his Ferdinand and Isabella in anticipation of its threatened abridgment by another hand. On 6th December 1843 the Conquest of Mexico was published with a success proportionate to the wide reputation won by his previous work, the contracted number being sold off in four months and London and Paris editions meeting with a similar reception. The careful methods of work which he had adopted from the outset had borne admirable fruit. While the consultation of authorities had been no less thorough, his style had become more free and less self-conscious; and the epic qualities of the theme were such as to call forth in the highest degree his powers of picturesque narration. It was only a step from the conquest of Mexico to that of Peru, and scarcely three months elapsed before he began to break ground on the latter subject, though the actual composition was not commenced until the autumn of 1844. While the work was in progress and before the close of the year his father died,—a heavy blow to him, inasmuch as the elder and younger members of the family had continued to share the same home upon almost patriarchal terms, and the breach was therefore in a chain of constant association extending over a period of forty-eight years. In February 1845 he received the announcement of his election as corresponding member of the French Institute in place of the Spanish historian Navarrete, and also of the Royal Society of Berlin. The winter found him arranging for the publication in England of the selection from his articles and reviews which appeared in 1845 under the title of Critical and Historical Essays, and which was issued almost contemporaneously at New York under the title of Biographical and Critical Miscellanies. After some minor interruptions—his removal from the old mansion-house in Bedford Street to the house in Beacon Street, visits to friends, and a renewed failure of sight— the Conquest of Peru was completed in November 1846 and published in March following. His misgivings as to its reception were at once set at rest, and it was speedily issued in translations into French, Spanish, German, and Dutch, in addition to the English editions of New York, London, and Paris. He wras now over fifty and his sight showed serious symptoms of enfeeblement. Although during the composition of the Ferdinand and Isabella it had been of very intermittent service to him, it had by his careful regimen so far improved that he could read with a certain amount of regularity during the writing of the Conquest of Mexico, and also, though in a less degree, during the years devoted to the Conquest of Peru. Now, however, the use of his remaining eye had been reduced to an hour a day, divided into portions at wide intervals, and he was driven to the conclusion that whatever plans he made for future work must be formed on the same calculations as those of a blind man. He had been for many years collecting materials for a history of Philip II., but he hesitated for some time to attempt a work of such magnitude, occupying himself in the meantime with the slighter labours of a memoir of Mr John Pickering for the Massachusetts Historical Society and the revision of Ticknor's History of Spanish Literature. But in March 1848 he set himself with characteristic courage to the accomplishment of the larger project, though with the intention of writing memoirs rather than a history, as admitting a more rambling style and less elaborate research. He had been fortunate in obtaining the aid of Don Pascual de Gayangos, then professor of Arabic literature at Madrid, by whose offices he was enabled to obtain material not only from the public archives of Spain but from the muniment rooms of the great Spanish families. AVith an exceptional range of information thus afforded him, he wrote the opening of his history at Nahant, his summer residence, in July 1849 ; but, finding himself still unsettled in his work, he decided in the spring of the following year to carry out a long projected visit to England. His reception there was of the most cordial and gratifying kind, and he returned reinvigorated to his work. The idea of writing memoirs was dismissed in favour of the more elaborate form, and in November 1855 the first two volumes of his uncompleted History of Philip II. were issued from the press, their sale eclipsing that of any of his earlier books. This was his last great undertaking; but as Robertson's Charles V., in the light of new sources of information, was inadequate to take its place as a link in the series, he republished it in an improved and extended form in December 1856. A slight attack of apoplexy on the 4th of February 1858 foretold the end, though he persevered with the preparation of the third volume of Philip II. for the press, and with the emendation and annotation of his Conquest of Mexico. On the morning of the 27th of January 1859 a second attack occurred, and he died in the afternoon of the same day in his sixty-third year. In personal character Prescott possessed many admirable and amiable qualities, his courageous bearing and persistent labour being by no means without their heroic element, though the greater portion of his life was passed with his friends and his books. A certain habit of striving to be habitual is curiously prominent from his boyhood till his death, the desire for an objective stimulus rinding expression in numberless formal resolutions and in frequent wagers with his secretaries or friends. Necessarily a valetudinarian, the smallest details of life had to be considered by him, even to the adjustment of the weight of his dress to the state of the weather and the thermometer. Yet the formalism, whether voluntary or enforced, was never obtrusive, and the final impression made upon his contemporaries was that of a frank, spontaneous, and thoroughly manly life. As an historian he stands in the direct line of literary descent from Robertson, whose influence is clearly discernible both in his method and style. But, while Robertson was in some measure the initiator of a movement, Prescott came to his task when the range of information was incomparably wider and when progress in sociologic theory had thrown innumerable convergent lights upon the progress of events. He worked, therefore, upon more assured ground ; his sifting of authorities was more thorough and his method less restricted both in the selection of details and in their graphic presentation. At the same time he cannot be classed as in the highest sense a philosophic historian. His power lies chiefly in the clear grasp of fact, in selection and synthesis, in the vivid narration of incident. For extended analysis he had small liking and faculty ; his critical insight is limited in range, and heconfines himself almost wholly to the concrete elements of history. When he does venture upon more abstract criticism his standards are often commonplace and superficial, and the world-scheme to which he relates events is less profound than the thought of his time altogether warranted. If these things, however, indicate failure from the point of view of ideal history, they at least make for popularity. Few historians have had in a higher degree that artistic feeling in the broad arrangement of materials which ensures interest. The course of his narrative is unperplexed by doubtful or insoluble problems ; no pretence at profundity or subtlety saps the vitality of his characters or interrupts the flow of incident with dissertation and digression. The painting is filled in with primary colours and with a free hand ; and any sense of crudity which may be awakened by close inspection is compensated by the vigour and massive effectiveness of the whole. Though he did not bring to his work the highest scientific grasp, he brought to it scientific conscientiousness and thoroughness within his limitations, while his dominant pictorial faculty gave to his treatment a super-scientific brilliancy. The romance of history has seldom had an abler exponent, and the large number of editions and translations of his works attests their undiminished fascination at certain stages of popular culture. (R. M. W.)






The above article was written by: R. Montague Wheeler.



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