Monday, March 14, 2016

Van Wyck Brooks, William Prescott and History

Almost 30 years ago, I bought a three-volume set of The History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella by William Prescott (1796-1859) from an antique shop in our local St. Louis suburb. I had been reading in depth in Spanish and Latin American history and literature, and I came across the set while browsing through the store’s books.

The volumes were the eighth edition, published in 1841 and priced at $80. At 175 years old today, the books are still in fine condition, slightly worn but with marbled pages, fine leather binding, and acid-free paper. We should all look so good at 175 tears old.

Imagine my surprise (and delight) to find an entire chapter on this work in The Flowering of New England (1815-1865) by Van Wyck Brooks (1886-1963), the writer and literary critic. Brooks won the 1936 National Book Award for Non-Fiction and the 1937 Pulitzer Prize for History for this work.

What he says about the Prescott work is illuminating. A number of writers, authors, and academics in the Boston area had been focused on writing history for some time, history having replaced religion as a main literary and cultural interest. But it wasn’t until 1837, with the publication of this work by Prescott, that Boston took its place on the nation’s world’s cultural and literary map. Within the next two to three years, the critics in Europe had weighed in, and declared the work an unmitigated success. The work would continue to be published throughout the 19th century.

Prescott was nearly blind, Brooks says, and he would often memorize draft chapters at a time, editing them in his head before having them written down. And only one or two of his friends knew he was working on his history. He would go on to write a considerable number of historical works, including The History of the Conquest of Peru and The History of the Conquest of Mexico. Bound sets of his collected works were well sold into the early 20th century.

Van Wyck Brooks
Prescott wrote the kind of history that is decidedly not popular today among academics – a broad, sweeping narrative that told a military and political story. But in 1837, it was an innovation in historical studies. “The freshness and freedom of the descriptions,” Brooks writes, “the unity and proportion of the structure, the quiet and modest authority of the apparatus, the lustre of the language were new notes in American history-writing…”

In other words, Prescott told a thumping good story.

We do have writers today that have this kind of historical sweep. Peter Ackroyd in Britain is one, David McCullough and the late Stephen Ambrose are others. When I was at LSU, the History Department was considered one of the best in country, and it was led by T. Harry Williams, an expert on the Civil War who also happened to write a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Huey Long.

We don’t see as much of the “big sweep” views of history as we did in earlier years. Our understanding seems to have become more specialized and atomized – knowing more and more about less and less. Part of that is a function of the information explosion.

But having more and more information available doesn’t necessarily seem to make us more knowledgeable, understanding, or wise.

Top photograph: William Prescott.

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