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William Hickling Prescott
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
William Hickling Prescott was not a profoundly philosophical historian, yet he became the most brilliant and famous of our historical writers. This was owing to his judicious selection of romantic themes, in which the American people felt an interest, as belonging to the New World, to his artistic arrangement of the events, and to his captivating style. His works are all the more remark-able because of the serious disadvantages under which he labored. Prescott was born at Salem, Massachusetts, in 1796, grandson of the Captain Prescott who commanded at Bunker Hill. He was educated at Harvard College, from which he graduated with honors in 1814. While a junior in his seventeenth year he was struck in the left eye with a piece of bread thrown in sport by a fellow-student. The sight of that eye was destroyed, and, after his graduation, the right eye was attacked with inflammation, so that it was feared he would lose his sight totally. The sight, however, improved after he had taken a Euro-pean tour, but for the rest of his life he was practically blind, and subject to frequent inflammatory attacks. Yet undismayed by this grievous affliction, Prescott, who was wealthy, set himself at the age of twenty-six, resolutely to work on a grand historical undertaking. He sought to present for the first time in English an adequate account of Ferdinand and Isabella, who laid the foundation of Spain's greatness. His life was arranged according to an exact programme; his work was performed with the aid of amanuenses and secretaries, and he used a mechanical contrivance for writing. His library was supplied with documents from the archives of Europe. His practice was to have the authorities read to him, then to make a careful mental digest of the material, dividing it into appropriate chapters, and then to shape his thoughts in literary form before the final dictation of writing.
The first installment of Prescott's life-work appeared in 1837, having cost him more than ten years' assiduous labor. It was the "History of Ferdinand and Isabella," printed at his own expense. The romantic nature of the subject, enhanced by the author's dignified yet charming style, gave it a popularity which it has retained to the present day. It was soon translated into several European languages, and caused the author to be ranked the fore-most of American historians. In 1843 appeared the "Con-quest of Mexico," which had an unparalleled reception, both from the general public and from the highest authorities. It won special praise from Wilhelm von Humboldt, who had visited that country. Four years later the "Con-quest of Peru" was published. In 185o Prescott, who had suffered domestic affliction, went abroad, visiting England and the Continent, and everywhere was received with the highest honor. He never visited the scenes of his histories. On his return he undertook the "History of Philip II," which, unfortunately, he did not live to complete; two volumes appeared in 1855 and a third in 1856. In the latter year his continuation of Robertson's "History of Charles V." was issued. He published also a volume of "Miscellanies," chiefly essays contributed to the "North American Review." Prescott died at Boston in 1859. His life was written by his friend, George Ticknor, the historian of Spanish literature.
As an historian Prescott excels in vigorous and pic, turesque narrative. His work was based on a thorough study of the original documents, so far as this could be effected by one who depended on the sight of others. Yet there can be no doubt about Prescott's broad and catholic scholarship, his carefulness in selecting facts, and the glowing style, which gives to his history the interest of romance. Prescott criticized his own work and admitted that his style might seem too studied. His rule was to alternate long and short sentences in order to produce harmony. Yet his chief object was to put liveliness into the narrative, believing that if the sentiment was lively and forcible, the reader would be carried along without much heed to the arrangement of periods. Emerson praised Prescott in comparison with other historians for rendering his work of such absorbing interest to his readers, for making them feel its reality, while the others make battles, sieges and fortunes only words. In later years there has been criticism on the value of the authorities which he exhibited so liberally in footnotes, especially in his "Mexico" and "Peru." It must be said in his defense that he used cautiously the evidence of the actors in the events he related. They may have misunderstood what they saw, interpreting it according to European notions of the time. Prescott had not the means of correcting their errors which archaeological investigation has since furnished. John Fiske and some English writers have retold the story of the Spanish Conquest of America.