« AnkstesnisTęsti »
ART. IV.-1. The History of the Reign of Ferdinand
and Isabella the Catholic. By WILLIAM H. PRESCOTT, &c., &c. Boston. 1838. 3 vols. 8vo.
2. History of the Conquest of Mexico, with a Preliminary View of the Ancient Mexican Civilization and the Life of the Conqueror, Hernando Cortes. By WILLIAM H. PRESCOTT, &c., &c. New York. 1845. 3 vols. 8vo.
3. History of the Conquest of Peru, with a Preliminary View of the Civilization of the Incas. By WILLIAM H. PRESCOTT, &c., &c. New York. 1847. 2 vols. 8vo.
It is now more than eleven years since our accomplished and distinguished countryman, Mr. Prescott, appeared before the world as a writer of history. Within that period he has sent forth three independent historical works, which have found a wide circle of readers in the New World and the Old. His works have been translated into all the tongues of Europe, we think, which claim to be languages of literature; they have won for the author a brilliant renown, which few men attain to in their lifetime ; few, even, after their death. No American author has received such distinction from abroad. The most eminent learned societies of Europe have honored themselves by writing his name among their own distinguished historians. He has helped strengthen the common bond of all civilized nations, by writing books which all nations can read. Yet while he has received this attention and gained this renown, he has not found hitherto a philosophical critic to investigate his works carefully, confess the merits which are there, to point out the defects, if such there be, and coolly announce the value of these writings. Mr. Prescott has found eulogists on either continent; he has found, also, one critic, who adds to national bigotry the spirit of a cockney in literature; whose stand-point of criticism is the church of Bowbell; a man who degrades the lofty calling of a critic by the puerile vanities of a literary fop. I'he article we refer to would have disgraced any journal which pretended to common fairness. We often find articles in the minor journals of America, written in a little and narrow spirit, but remember nothing of the kind so little as the paper we speak of in the London Quarterly Review, No. CXXVII., Art. 1. We have waited long for some one free from national prejudice to come, with enlarged views of the duty of a historian, having suitable acquaintance with the philosophy of history, a competent knowledge of the subjects to be treated of, and enough of the spirit of Humanity, and carefully examine these works in all the light of modern philosophy. We have waited in vain ; and now, conscious of our own defects, knowing that every qualification above hinted may easily be denied us, we address ourselves to the work.
The department of history does not belong to our special study; it is, therefore, as a layman that we shall speak, not aspiring to pronounce the high cathedral judgment of a professor in that craft; the History, Literature, and General Development of the Spanish nation fall still less within the special range of the writer of this article. We are students of history only in common with all men who love liberal studies and pursue history only in the pauses from other toils. However, the remarkable phenomena offered by the Spanish nation in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries long ago attracted our attention and study. Still, it is with reluctance we approach our task; had any of the able men whose business it more properly is, girded himself and applied to the work, we would have held our peace; but in the silence of such we feel constrained to speak.
Before we proceed to examine the works of Mr. Prescott, let a word be said of the office and duty of an Historian- - to indicate the stand-point whence his books are to be looked upon. The writer of Annals, or of Chronicles, is to record events in the order in which they occur; he is not an Historian, but a Narrator; not an Architect, but a Lumberer, or Stonecutter of History. It does not necessarily belong to his calling to elaborate his materials into a regular and complete work of art, which shall fully and philosophically represent the Life of the nation he describes.
The Biographer is to give an idea of his hero, complete in all its parts, and perfect in each; to show how the world and the age with their manifold influences acted on the man, and he on his age and the world, and what they jointly produced. It is one thing to write the Memoirs or Annals of a man, and a matter quite different to write his Life. Mr. Lockhart has collected many memorials of Sir Walter Scott ; laboriously written annals, but the Life of Sir Walter he has by no means written. In telling what his hero suffered, did, and was, and how all was brought to pass, the Biographer must be a critic also, and tell what his hero ought to have been and have done. Hence comes the deeper interest and the more instructive character of a true Biography; Memoirs may entertain, but a Biography must instruct.
The Annalist of a nation or a man works mainly in an objective way, and his own character appears only in the selection or omission of events to record, in referring events to causes, or in deducing consequences from causes supposed to be in action. There is little which is personal in his work. On the other hand, the personality of the Biographer continually appears. The lumberer's character or the stonecutter's does not report itself in the oak or travertine of Saint Peter's, while the genius of the architect confronts you as you gaze upon his colossal work. Now as the less cannot of itself comprehend the greater, so a Biographer cannot directly, and of himself, comprehend a man nobler than himself. All the Oysters in the world would be incompetent to write the Life of a single Eagle. It is easy for a great man to understand the little man; impossible to be directly comprehended thereby. It is not hard to understand the position of a city, the mutual relation of its parts, when we look down thereon from a high tower. Now while this is so, by the advance of mankind in a few centuries, it comes to pass that a man of but common abilities, having the culture of his age, may stand on a higher platform than the man of genius occupied a short time before. In this way the Biography of a great man, which none of his contemporaries could undertake,
because he so far overmastered them, soon becomes possible to men of marked ability, and in time to men of ordinary powers of comprehension. At this day it would not be very difficult to find men competent to write the Life of Alexander or of Charlemagne, "yet by no means so easy to find one who could do justice to Napoleon. Lord Bacon was right in leaving his “ name and memory" “ to foreign nations and to mine own countrymen after some time be passed over.” We are far from thinking Lord Bacon so great as many men esteem him, but at his death there was no man among his own countrymen, or in foreign nations, meet to be his judge. The followers of Jesus collected only a few scanty memorials of the man, and they who have since undertaken his life are proofs that the world has not caught up with his thoughts, nor its foremost men risen high enough to examine, to criticize, and to judge a spirit so commanding. But after all, no advance of mankind, no culture however nice and extensive, will ever enable a Hobbes or a Hume to write the Life of a Jesus or even a Plato. It NO. VI.
would be hard, even now, to find a man, in England or out of it, competent to give us the Biography of Shakspeare, even if he had all that Annals and Memoirs might furnish.
Now an Historian is to a Nation what a Biographer is to a Man: he is not a bare chronicler, to indite the memoirs of a nation and tickle his reader with a mere panorama of events, however great and brilliantly colored, - events which have a connection of time and place, but no meaning, coming from no recognized cause and leading to no conclusion ; he is to give us the Nation's Life, -its Outer Life in the civil, military, and commercial transactions ; its Inner Life in the thought and feeling of the people. If the Historian undertake the entire history of a nation that has completed its career of existence, then he must describe the country as it was when the people first appeared to take possession thereof, and poirt out the successive changes which they effected therein ; the geographical position of the country, its natural features - its waters, mountains, plains, its soil, climate, and productions — all are important elements which help modify the character of the nation. The Historian is to tell of the origin of the people, of their rise, their decline, their fall and end ; to show how they acted on the world, and the world on them, - what was mutually given and received. The causes which advanced or retarded the nation are to be sought, and their action explained. He is to inquire what Sentiments and Ideas prevailed in the nation; whence they came, from without the people or from within ; how they got organized, and with what result. Hence, not merely are the civil and military transactions to be looked after, but the Philosophy which prevails in the nation is to be ascertained and discoursed of; the Liter-, ature, Laws, and Religion. The Historian is to describe the industrial condition of the people, — the state of Agriculture, Commerce, and the Arts — both the useful and the beautiful; to inform us of the means of internal communication, of the intercourse with other nations — military, commercial, literary, or religious. He must tell of the Social State of the people, the relation of the cultivator to the soil, the relation of class to class. It is important to know how the Revenues of the state are raised; how the taxes are levied on person or property, directly or indirectly; in what manner they are collected, and how a particular tax affects the welfare of the people. The writer of a Nation's Life must look at the whole people, not merely at any one class, noble or plebeian, and
must give the net result of their entire action, so that at the end of his book we can say: “This people had such sentiments and ideas, which led to this and the other deeds and institutions, which have been attended by such and such results; they added this or that to the general achievement of the Human Race."
Now in the history of each nation there are some Eminent Men, in whom the spirit of the nation seems to culminate – either because they are more the nation than the nation is itself, or because by their eminent power they constrain the nation to take the form of these individuals ; such men are to be distinctly studied and carefully portrayed; for while embodying the nation's genius they are an epitome of its history. In a first survey, we know a nation best by its great men, as a coumtry by its mountains and its plains, its waters and its shores, - by its great characters. Still, while these eminent men are to be put in the foreground of the picture, the humblest class is by no means to be neglected. In the Family of Man there are elder and younger brothers ; it is a poor history which neglects either class. A few facts from the everyday life of the merchant, the slave, the peasant, the mechanic, are often worth more, as signs of the times, than a chapter which relates the intrigues of a courtier, though these are not to be overlooked. It is well to know what songs the peasant sung; what prayers he prayed; what food he ate ; what tools he wrought with ; what tax he payed ; how he stood connected with the soil; how he was brought to war, and what weapons armed him for the fight. It is not very important to know whether General Breakpate commanded on the right or the left; whether he charged uphill or downhill ; whether he rode a bright chestnut horse or a dapple gray, nor whether he got dismounted by the breaking of his saddle-girth or the stumbling of his beast. But it is important to know whether the soldiers were accoutred well or ill, and whether they came voluntarily to the war, and fought in battle with a will, or were brought to the conflict against their own consent, not much caring which side was victorious.
In telling what has been, the Historian is also to tell what ought to be, for he is to pass judgment on events, and try counsels by their causes first and their consequences not less. When all these things are told, History ceases to be a mere panorama of events having no unity but time and place; it becomes Philosophy teaching by experience, and has a profound