Francis Parkman's Historical

( Originally Published 1916 )


OF ALL American historian's Francis Parkman seems to me to deserve first place because of a peculiar combination of gifts and because he had the good fortune to select for his subject the most picturesque episode in our history. Parkman himself is always associated in my mind with Stevenson as a literary worker. No two men ever differed more widely in character or in work;, but both were invalids, both struggled against tremendous handicaps of physical disability and both produced an amount of good literature that would have done credit to the strongest man of letters. Parkman, in fact, was in worse case than the author of Treasure Island, because in addition to his other physical ailments he was practically blind for years and was forced to depend upon others to do his reading. Nearly all his work was dictated, yet it bears no evidence of such literary method. At one time his literary work was set aside for several years while he devoted himself to the culture of roses. It takes a robust will and iron determination to pursue a literary scheme in the face of constant illness; yet this Parkman accomplished with so little outward sign of suffering that John Fiske, one of his friends who met him frequently at club dinners, never knew that he was an invalid until after his death.

It is seldom that a college boy in his sophomore year decides definitely upon his life work and begins to prepare himself for it. Yet this was what Parkman did at Harvard when he was eighteen years old. He came to the conclusion that he would write the history of the conflict in America between France and England — the "Old French War," as it was called, which ended in the conquest of Canada. This was really the history of the American forest, which from his boyhood had a strong fascination for Parkman. To write this history adequately demanded intimate knowledge of the Indian tribes, then pushed westward beyond the Mississippi, and of the Canadian habitant and voyageur. During his college vacations and for several years after Parkman devoted himself to gaining first-hand information in regard to the scenes of this great conflict and the Indians who were the most picturesque actors in the struggle.

Parkman came of good old Devonshire stock, his ancestors migrating to New England from the same shire that produced Raleigh, Gilbert, Drake, Hawkins, and other great English adventurers. All his portraits show a massive chin which contrasts strangely with his refined face. This chin betrayed his leading trait — an iron determination which lifelong disease and pain could not shake. Parkman has been well described as a "passionate Puritan." He had all the stoicism of the Puritan, with an eager spirit which flamed into sudden enthusiasms. A natural aristocrat, this feeling did not breed any contempt for the working class, but rather a determination to prove that not even illness should exempt him from a man's work in the world. His favorite book was the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. He was as great a stoic as the Roman Emperor, and much of his outlook on life was purely pagan, though no man had keener sympathy with the poor and the unfortunate.

When a gymnasium was opened in Harvard during his junior year, young Parkman made the great mistake of trying to crowd into six months the athletic work which should have been spread over six years. He injured his health so badly that he was unable to begin his senior year with his class. Instead he spent the time abroad, but returned in time to take his degree and begin the study of law. The following year Parkman took a trip to Detroit to study the scenes of The Conspiracy of Pontiac, the first of his studies of the great conflict between the French and the English for this huge Western Empire. He interviewed everyone of antiquarian tastes, made topographical studies, and gathered a mass of notes which gave life to his history.

This trip showed Parkman that he must go further west if he would see the Indian before the vices of civilization robbed him of his ancient traits and customs. So the next year, in company with Quincy A. Shaw, a fellow-enthusiast in the study of Cooper and Catlin, Parkman set out for a trip to California and Oregon. This was in the Spring of 1846, three years before the great gold rush to California. The whole country west of the Rocky Mountains was then the territory of Oregon, and Parkman saw thoroughly only the region now known as Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming. He and Shaw lived with the Ogillallah tribe and accompanied the chiefs on hunting expeditions and even upon a war raid on the Snake Indians. It was a fine opportunity to study the Indian as he lived, but it cost Parkman very dear, for living exclusively on a meat diet he was attacked by dysentery and reduced to great weakness. Only his iron will kept him in the saddle and led him to undertake alone a hard trip in order to see two Indian tribes on the warpath. He accumulated a mass of material and in early fall returned to the East.

The poor food, exposure and violent exertion of this trip resulted in an affection of the eyes which threatened blindness. For two years Parkman was greatly reduced, but during this heavy siege of illness he dictated The Oregon Trail, the fine record of his Western trip, which aroused little interest at the time, although it has since been recognized as one of the best studies of the blanket Indians of the plains.

From this time the story of Parkman's life is the record of an unwearied fight against disease and pain. In the spring of 1848, when, his sufferings were at their worst, he decided to begin the story of The Conspiracy of Pontiac at Detroit, which, had it succeeded, would have changed the history of France in the New World. To permit him to write he had a wired frame constructed, of the size of a sheet of letter-paper, with a pasteboard back. The paper was inserted between the pasteboard and the wires and, guided by these wires, Parkman could write with a black lead crayon, with closed eyes. Part of the first volume of his history was composed in this way and part was dictated. The authorities which he had gathered were read to him. In this painful way, during two and a half years, the book was slowly prepared. It betrays no sign of the author's hard work. In picturesque description, in freshness of interest, and in a certain charm of style, it scored a great success. The best critics declared that the book was as readable as a novel, because Parkman's Indians were real flesh and blood, and Pontiac was a leader who aroused the reader's keen interest.

After the publication of his first book troubles fell upon Parkman thick and fast. He lost his wife and his little boy and was left with two young daughters. His maladies increased so that he could do no work for two years. But his fortitude remained unbroken and at his country home at Jamaica Pond he devoted himself to the culture of roses. When, finally, he was able to resume his literary work he found that his rose garden had saved him from bitterness.

So he set about his chosen work which engrossed him for nearly thirty years. The first volume was The Pioneers of France in the New World and this was followed by The Jesuits in North America, La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West, The Old Régime, Frontenac, A Half Century of Conflict and Montcalm and Wolfe. For each of these Parkman made laborious researches, having thousands of pages of manuscript copied from the archives in Paris and London and from letters found in Montreal and Quebec. He read all the Jesuit Relations one hundred volumes of the manuscript reports of French missionaries in Canada to the home office in Paris.

The reader who does not know Parkman may begin safely with any of the series, but I would recommend either Pontiac or Montcalm and Wolfe, after a reading of The Oregon Trail. In any of Parkman's histories the reader will be impressed by the clearness of the narrative, the splendid portraits of the great characters, the graphic pictures of wild life in the Western wilderness and the scholarly fair-minded conclusions that he reaches after close study of all the facts. His sympathies, naturally, were with the English, and he came in for some sharp criticism from French-Canadians, but he had warm friends among this race who believed in his impartiality. From English critics Parkman received unstinted praise. To the sympathetic reader Parkman's real self will be seen in the ardor with which he described the bravery and endurance of such heroes as Champlain and La Salle, Tonty and Wolfe.

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