Thursday, November 24, 2011

William Hickling Prescott!



Our book today is Roger Wolcott's gigantic 1925 volume The Correspondence of William Hickling Prescott, 1833-1847, featuring not only heaping piles of letters and notes by the great Boston historian but also a great deal of exposition, scene-setting, and explanatory footnoting - easily enough to constitute a life-and-times, despite the book's unassuming title.

The fact that there's so much Prescott correspondence to assemble is a testament not only to the man's die-hard Yankee work ethic but also to the long-suffering forbearance of his friends and associates - Prescott maintained the typical 19th Century voluminous flow of letters, but he was never able to simply sit at his writing desk and dash off a quick three pages. Instead, he was a member in good standing of that odd literary sub-set: historians who persevere despite near-crippling ailments.

In Prescott's case, there was no gradual decline: the fateful change happened in a moment - a moment neither he nor anybody else present would ever forget. During a raucous and very hard-fought food-fight with some of his fellow students at Harvard in 1812, Prescott was hit hard directly on his open left eye by a knot-tough little crust of bread. The pain and impact stunned him, and for the rest of his life, that eye was very nearly useless. According to the legend that sprang up around that day, the accident changed Prescott from a feckless boy to a conscientious adult, but even if that weren't true, when illness threatened his other eye three years later, the near chance of total blindness galvanized him as nothing else would have. He came from a wealthy family and wasn't expected to do much beyond the socializing he loved (and the production of some heirs to the line, which he loved perhaps less), especially since his eyes were crippled and often painful. But he decided to become a historian. He chose Spain as his subject and attacked the task with a will.

Wolcott's impressive volume here reprints a vast chunk of his correspondence from his working years, and it's fascinating to become reacquainted with all the routine impediments that were once a part of active scholarship. Prescott is forever importuning correspondents to hunt down certain obscure volumes for his research, constantly hectoring foreign friends to ransack their local libraries for works of possible interest to his researches. When such treasures are found, he's always obliged to shell out money for scriveners, hordes of scriveners, to make copies of the material - after which needs to find reliable couriers to get the material all the way to his library at Beacon Street in Boston (or his wonderful seaside house, Fitful Head, at Nahant). After publication, there are all sorts of new problems: international copyright is in its infancy, for example, and friends are needed in foreign countries to watch over the work at every stage. The world scholars take for granted in 2011 - a world of computerized libraries, searchable databases, scanning and photocopying - would have seemed to William Prescott to be the very secular image of paradise.

Likewise our ophthalmology departments. The horrible state of Prescott's eyes forced him to live big stretches of his life in darkened rooms, the tedium broken only by his sister reading to him (she often had to lay down on the floor and read by the light coming in at the foot of the closed door, and she never once complained about it). Even at its strongest, his good eye became painfully fatigued after more than an hour or two of reading a day. He had a zestfully powerful mind and a prodigious recall, luckily, and for much of his correspondence he used a device called a noctograph - a writing-slate with horizontal wire guide-lines designed to align handwriting the writer himself couldn't see ... essentially, a means of writing legibly in the dark. The noctograph gave Prescott a palpable (though illusory - he still needed copyists) sense of independence, and it was besides an oddly elegant-looking thing (it was a prized possession of Wolcott's for years).

The noctograph, helpful friends, many an unstinting amanuensis, and boundless amounts of self-discipline: through a combination of all these things, Prescott got his work done (needless to say, he would have been less than charitable to all those poor 21st century writers and would-be writers who moan over how hard it is to generate prose, despite having youth, perfect vision, ample leisure, and 24-hour access to the greatest research library in the history of the world). His History of Ferdinand and Isabella appeared in Boston bookstores on Christmas Day 1837 and promptly sold like griddle-cakes. There followed his The Conquest of Mexico, The Conquest of Peru, and he was working on his monumental work on Philip II when he died in 1859. His books set research standards on much the same level as Gibbon's - so high as to be virtually unimpeachable even in later, more politically correct ages. And his literary ability was nothing short of mesmerizing - whenever I find a young reader willing to tackle such obscure old volumes, they're always surprised to find such life in the pages (I get the same reaction about Francis Parkman as well, of course). They tend to have the same reactions as did priggish old Charles Sumner, who wrote about it to Prescott in 1843:
I hardly know how to express on paper the delight and instruction with which I have read your work. Since I first devoured the Waverley Novels, I have read nothing by which I have been so entirely entraine; sitting at my desk for hours, then trimming my lamp and still sitting on, and finally with the book under my arm adjourning home, where I read on until after midnight. The introduction was interesting and instructive, exciting thought and requiring attention, at the same time that it was clear and copious. Perhaps this will afford to enlightened minds a field of interest of a higher character than the other portions of the work; but these cannot fail to charm everybody.

Prescott's ability to make the past come alive is vividly on display in these letters, naturally. In 1840 he writes to a correspondent about his famous grandfather Colonel William Prescott, who fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill:
The moral courage demanded for the opening of the war of the Revolution was of a much higher order than what is required for an ordinary conflict, where the memory of the brave if he falls is covered with glory; but an unsuccessful rebellion brings only ignominy, and in case of capture an ignominious death. Yet strange to say historians have hardly touched on these circumstances. It is so true however that my grandfather even expressed his own determination before going on the field not to fall alive into the enemy's hands. It happened, singularly enough, that my wife's grandfather was a commander of a British ship of war, lying in an arm of the sea and firing on Bunker Hill, which my own ancestor was defending. The swords of the two belligerents are now peacefully crossed over my book cases, and there tell me silently, but not ineloquently, the tale of other years.

He adds a note that might make Bostonians smile: "A granite obelisk to be two hundred and twenty feet high is now erecting on the battleground, and it will be completed in a couple of years, probably ..."

Wolcott does a wonderful job mixing business with pleasure. For every two letters detailing text-corrections or making manuscript-requests, there's one of a purely chatty nature, catching up on the activities of friends, like the quick aside to Fanny Calderon de la Barca in 1841:
Summer divides friends as far asunder as politics or religion, or any other good cause for quarreling. Mrs. Ritchie is staying at Roxbury with her children. Her caro sposo has gone to France again. He usually touches at home on his peregrinations. Le pauvre homme, where is his home? His boys are in Germany at school. The Ticknors are at a place called Woods Hole, near Martha's Vineyard, where I propose to pass next week with them. The Appletons you know are in England ...

(Fanny wrote a little book of her own - a travel memoir, if memory serves - and the chivalrous Prescott tirelessly pushed its interests with every literary person he knew ... poor Charles Dickens got the worst of it, and in this instance he bore up magnanimously under the pressure)

And in addition to the personal and the professional, there was also the political, since despite the isolating nature of his eye-problems, Prescott was very much a man of the world. His letters are peppered with invaluable asides on the events of the day, and they often prove Prescott as shrewd a judge of the present as he was of the past. He certainly sizes up his commander-in-chief in 1846 rather tellingly:
We don't comprehend here the politics of President Polk. It is probable he doesn't perfectly comprehend them himself. He seems to be playing at fast and loose, and I rather think that it will prove a loosing game with him. HE stands on two crutches. the South and the West, but they will not walk the same way it seems. The South dreads a war with England as much as the North, though in the North there may be a warmer feeling of sympathy for our fatherland.

Prescott married a timid wife whose greatest delight was to help him with his work (and he genially adored her, starting several letters with variations on "My dear Wife, It is after ten and I am as tired as a cat. But I don't like to go to bed without telling you where and how I am ..."), and he was surrounded by friends and friendly rivals in the all-things-Spanish vogue that was then sweeping England and the United States. Prescott corresponded with Washington Irving while that gentleman was researching his big biography of Columbus, and of course Prescott kept up close contact with his fellow Boston Atheneum patron George Ticknor, who was also engaged in a massive, life-long work about Spain (his was a huge study of Spanish, Portuguese, and Castilian literature, a marvel of easy-going erudition that's now entirely forgotten) - indeed, the quasi-rivalry between the two of them is the basis for an entertaining novella called Ticknor that you should read if you can find it.

Needless to add, you should read Prescott too. I'd direct you to the pertinent Library of America volumes, but although there exist many volumes for such artistically negligible figurines as Saul Bellow and Philip K. Dick, there don't appear to be any for poor squinting Prescott, one of the greatest historians America has ever produced. There was a Modern Library volume from years ago, but I believe it only contained The Conquest of Mexico. No, the best volume to find is even older still: Irwin Blacker's fantastic 1963 Viking Portable edition, a compression of (what Blacker, that irrepressible man, called "the essence of") all four histories he called The Rise and Decline of the Spanish Empire. If you can read that abridgement and not come out of it hungry to read more Prescott, there's something medically - even spiritually - wrong with you.

 

 

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