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American Literature:



 The Later Historians





 Henry James


 Read More Articles About: American Literature

The Later Historians

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

According to the method which long prevailed in the study of history, attention is confined to wars, battles, sieges, changes of dynasties, actions of rulers and intrigues of courts, while the condition and desires of the mass of the people were disregarded. But in recent years the latter has come to be considered not only an essential element but the chief material of true history. It was probably first exemplified in a single notable chapter of Macaulay's "History of England." It was afterward fully presented in J. R. Green's "History of the English People." Its chief American representative is J. B. McMasters' "His-tory of the People of the United States," which aims to exhibit the social growth of the American people from the adoption of the Constitution in 1789 to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. The first volume appeared in 1883, and four more have been issued, bringing the his-tory down to 1821.

John Bach McMaster was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1852, and graduated from the College of the City of New York in 1872. He became instructor in civil engineering at Princeton College in 1877, and after the publication of the first volume of his history in 1883 was called to the University of Pennsylvania as professor of American history. Besides his chief work, he has published "Benjamin Franklin as a Man of Letters" (1887) and "With the Fathers" (1896), a series of historical portraits. He is thoroughly democratic in spirit, and objects to the hero-worship which has occupied so much space in records of the past. He believes that the true vitality of a nation consists in the general welfare of the plain people, whose combined efforts make the commonwealth.

John Fiske was noted as a linguist, an exponent of evolution, and a synthetic philosopher, before he devoted himself to writing the history of his country. He was born at Hartford, Connecticut, in 1842. His father was Edmund Brewster Green, but the son at the age of thirteen took his present name from one of his mother's ancestors. His extraordinary facility in acquiring languages was early displayed. He graduated from Harvard in 1863, and studied law, but soon devoted himself to literature. For some years he was assistant librarian at Harvard. Intending to prepare a work on the early Aryans, he wrote "Myths and Myth-Makers" (1874), but afterward laid the project aside, finding it necessary to know more about the barbaric world. In his "Cosmic Philosophy" (1874), the system of Herbert Spencer is fully expounded. His other philosophical writings are "Excursions of an Evolutionist" (1883) ; "The Destiny of Man" (1884) ; "The Idea of God as Affected by Modern Knowledge" (1884). The last were originally delivered as courses of lectures. Mr. Fiske holds that the Darwinian theory of natural selection, so far from lowering man in the scale of organic life, exalts him and his spiritual part as the goal toward which nature has been tending. Original sin is the brute inheritance from warring ancestors. Mr. Fiske declares his belief in a future life and the existence of God, maintaining that there is no necessary conflict between science and religion.

Another course of lectures was called for in aid of the presÚrvation of Old South Meeting House, in Boston. Mr. Fiske then discussed "American Political Ideas" (1885), and since its delivery, he has given attention chiefly to American history. In the "Discovery of America" he treated fully the condition of the aborigines found by Columbus and his successors, and traverses much of what Prescott had written on the authority of the Spanish explorers. His other historical works are "The Beginnings of New England," "The American Revolution," "The Critical Period of the American Revolution." All his writings are characterized by clearness and fluency. His vigor and skill are best displayed in the romantic incidents and dramatic crises.

Edward Eggleston had attained popularity as a writer of stories of Western life before he undertook to relate in a series of books the history of social life in the United States. He was born at Vevay, Indiana, in 1837, his father having come from Virginia. In youth he suffered from ill-health and went to Minnesota on this account. Here he became a Methodist preacher, and soon began writing for newspapers. In 187o he was made literary editor of the New York "Independent," and afterward he edited "Hearth and Home." In this was published "The Hoosier Schoolmaster," his most popular novel. It was soon followed by others, "The End of the World," "The Mystery of Metropolisville," "The Circuit Rider," "Roxy," "The Graysons." These were chiefly founded on his experiences in Indiana, but the last related to an incident in the life of Abraham Lincoln. Meantime Mr. Eggleston published a series of sketches of "Life in the Colonial Period," and a school "History of the United States" as preliminary to his larger work, which was not intended to be strict history, but descriptions of individual and social life at successive periods. The first volume, "The Beginners of a Nation," appeared in 1896. It treats of the various experiments in colonization, the various motives influencing the leaders, and the unexpected out-come of the several ventures. Mr. Eggleston's industry of research and realistic imagination are shown in these picturesque sketches. His style is simple, vigorous and natural. A strong moral enthusiasm is manifest in all his writing. In treating of the founders of New England he condemns their religious intolerance, and while admiring Roger Williams' noble plea for soul-liberty, does not conceal his scruples about insignificant trifles.

The Adams family has always been prominent in the history of the United States, and its diaries and othet records are part of the national archives. Henry Adams, son of Charles Francis Adams, who was the American Minister in England during the Civil War, has devoted himself specially to historical writing. He was born in 1838, graduated from Harvard in 1858, and served as his father's private secretary in England. He was after-ward editor of the "North American Review" and professor of history at Harvard, where he introduced the new methods and inspired his pupils with enthusiasm for research. Besides many essays, he has written valuable biographies of Albert Gallatin (1879) and John Randolph (1882). But his most important and characteristic work is his "History of the United States, 1801-17" (9 vols., 1889-91). To this subject he was drawn by the fact that while President John Adams had been the head and front of the Federal party, his son, John Quincy Adams, who also became President, went over to the Democratic party. The History presents an explanation, if not a justification, of the change. In preparation of it the author spent much time in Washington, London, and other foreign capitals, examining archives and studying every subject necessary for a complete understanding of the questions involved. The result is a remarkable reconstruction of a period long supposed to be perfectly understood. The account of the War of 1812, for instance, is entirely different from that of former historians, except in the general outline. As a work of art, the History deserves high praise for orderly arrangement and clear statement of a vast number of particulars, without obscuring the general effect of the whole. Every statement is carefully fortified by array of authorities. The author has enforced by example what he had before taught by precept.

Theodore Roosevelt has been so prominent as a maker of history that it excites wonder that he has also been diligent and productive as a writer. He was born in New York city in 1858, his father being a successful merchant. He graduated at Harvard in 188o, and three years later published his "Hunting Trips of a Ranchman." His direct interest in the West led to his study of its dramatic development which is shown in "The Winning of the West" (4 vols., 1895). These volumes exhibit careful investigation of original documents, as well as thorough sympathy with the subject. But they did not exhaust his energies. He wrote also lives of Thomas H. Benton (1887) and Gouverneur Morris (1888) and a "History of New York City" (1891), besides two or three new books on hunting. Yet during this period of book-making, the author was also busy in politics; he was member of the New York Assembly, 1882-84, United States Civil Service Commissioner, 1889-95, president of the New York Board of Police Commissioners, 1895-97, and Assistant Secretary of the Navy until the declaration of war with Spain. Then he resigned, raised a regiment of Rough Riders, went to Cuba, distinguished himself at Santiago, and returned to be elected Governor of New York. Throughout his career he has been conspicuous for stalwart independence, and a leader in behalf of civil service reform and the purification of politics. His thoroughly American spirit is as conspicuous in his writings as in his public life. His style is fresh, vigorous and manly. He is an honor to American literature as to American public life.

An epoch-making work in history was Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan's "Influence of Sea Power Upon History" (189o). This treatise was the first adequate literary statement of the importance of a navy, and even of the real meaning of its existence. It shows the precise force which maritime strength has had upon the fortunes of each nation from 166o to 1783. The revelation has had pro-found effect in every civilized country, and when the author visited Europe in command of the Chicago in 1893, he received many public honors in acknowledgment of his services. Captain Mahan was born in New York City in 1840, and entered the Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1856. He was made lieutenant in 1861, and served in the blockading squadrons during the Civil War. In 1872 he was made captain and he was President of the Naval War College at Newport in 1886-89 and 1890-93. Before publishing his great work he had written "The Gulf and Inland Waters" (1883). Afterward he wrote a "Life of Admiral Farragut" (1892), and continued his great work in the "Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire" (1893). From various magazines he has gathered his essays on "The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present and Future" (1897). His latest publication is an admirable "Life of Nelson" (1897) which has been received with the warmest welcome in England. The chief object of Captain Mahan's labors has been to prove that the interests of the United States require a departure from the traditional policy of neglecting the navy. He appears to have converted the whole world to his central idea, if not to its intended application.

Henry Cabot Lodge, United States Senator from Massachusetts, has been as active and distinguished in historical, as in political work. He was born in Boston in 185o, and after graduating from Harvard, edited the "North American Review" and "International Review." He served in the Massachusetts Legislature two years, in Congress eight, and was elected to the Senate in 1893. He published "Life and Letters of George Cabot" (1877), as a defense of New England Federalism; also lives of Alexander Hamilton, Daniel Webster, and Washington; also "Studies in History" (1884), "Political and Historical Essays" (1888), "Certain Accepted Heroes" (1897). Mr. Lodge is a painstaking investigator and brilliant writer, but somewhat disposed to inject into controversies of the past feeling derived from political conflicts of the present day.

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