The Life of William Hickling Prescott

BY GEORGE TICKNOR. Boston : Ticknor & Fields.
THIS third edition of Mr. Ticknor’s “History of Spanish Literature" was noticed with due commendation in our number for November last. That was a work drawn exclusively from the region of the intellect, and written by the “ dry light” of the understanding. The author appeared throughout in a purely judicial capacity. His task was to summon before his literary tribunal the writers of a foreign country, and mostly of past generations, and pronounce sentence upon their claims and merits. Learning, method, sound judgment, and good taste are displayed in it; but the subject afforded no chance for the expression of those personal traits which are shown in daily life, and make up a man’s reputation in the community where he dwells.
But the Life of Prescott is a book of another mood, and drawn from other fountains than those of the understanding. It glows with human sympathies, and is warm with human feeling. It is the record of a long and faithful friendship, which began in youth and continued unbroken to the last. It is the elder of the two that discharges this last office of affection to his younger brother. Mr. Ticknor could not write the life of Mr. Prescott without showing how worthy he himself was of having so true, so loving, and so faithful a friend. But he has done this unconsciously and unintentionally. For it is one of the charms of this delightful hook — one of the most attractive of the attractive class of literary biography to which it belongs that we have ever read — that the biographer never intrudes himself between his subject and the reader. The story of Mr. Prescott’s life is told simply and naturally, and as far as possible in Mr. Prescott’s own words, drawn from his diaries and letters. Whatever Mr. Ticknor has occasion to say is said with good taste and good feeling, and he has shown a fine judgment in making his portraiture of his friend so life-like and so true in detail, and yet in never overstepping the line of that inner circle into which the public has no right to enter. We have in these pages a record of Mr. Prescott’s life from his cradle to his grave, sufficiently minute to show what manner of man he was, and what influences went to make up his mind and character; and it is a record of more than common value, as well as interest.
For the last twenty years of his life Mr. Prescott was one of the most eminent and widely known of the residents of Boston. He was universally beloved, esteemed, and admired. He was one of the first persons whom a stranger coming among us wished to see. His person and countenance were familiar to many who had no further acquaintance with him ; and as he walked about our streets, many a glance of interest was turned upon him of which he himself was unconscious. The general knowledge that his literary honors had been won under no common difficulties, owing to his defective sight, invested his name and presence with a peculiar feeling of admiration and regard. The public at large, including those persons who had but a slight acquaintance with him, saw in him a man very attractive in personal appearance. and of manners singularly frank and engaging. There was the same charm in his conversation, his aspect, the expression of his countenance, that was felt in his writings. Everything that he did seemed to have been done easily, spontaneously, and without effort. There were no marks of toil and endurance, of temptations resisted and seductions overcome. His graceful and limpid style seemed to flow along with the natural movement of a running stream, and to those who saw his winning smile and listened to his gay and animated talk he appeared like one who had basked in sunshine all his days and never known the iron discipline of life.
But this was not true; at least, it was not the whole truth. Besides this external, superficial aspect, there was an inner life which was known only to the few who knew him intimately, and which his biography has now revealed to the world. This memoir sets the author of “ Ferdinand and Isabella ” before the public, as Mr. Ticknor says in his preface, “ as a man whose life for more than forty years was one of almost constant struggle, — of an almost constant sacrifice of impulse to duty, of the present to the future.” Take Mr. Prescott as he was at the age of twenty-five, and see what the chances are, as the world goes, of his becoming a laborious and successful man of letters. He was handsome in person, attractive in manners, possessed of a competent property, very happy in his domestic relations, with one eye destroyed and the other impaired by a cruel accident; what was more probable, more natural, than that he should become a mere man of wit and pleasure about town, and never write anything beyond a newspaper-article or a review ? And we should remember that defective sight was not the only disability under which he labored. His health was never robust, and he was a frequent sufferer from rheumatism and dyspepsia, — the former a winter visitor, and the latter a summer. And not only this, but there was yet another lion in his path. His temperament was naturally indolent. He was fond of social gayety, of light reading, of domestic chat. He had that love of lounging which Sydney Smith said no Scotchman but Sir James Mackintosh ever had. But there was a stoical element in him, lying beneath this easy and pleasure - loving temperament, and subduing and controlling it. He had a vigilant conscience and a very strong will. He had early come to the conclusion that not only no honor and no usefulness, but no happiness, could be secured without a regular and daily recurring occupation. He made up his mind, after due reflection and consideration, to make literature his profession ; and not only that, but be further made up his mind to toil in this, his chosen and voluntary vocation, with the patient and uninterrupted industry of a professional man whose daily bread depends upon his daily labor,
And the biography before us reveals that inner life of struggle and conquest which, while Mr. Prescott was living, was known only to his most intimate friends. We see here how resolutely and steadily he contended, not only against defective sight and indifferent health, but also against the love of ease and the seductions of indolence. We see with what strenuous effort his literary honors were won, as well as with what gentleness they were worn. And thus the work has a distinct moral value, and is full of encouragement to those who, under similar or inferior disabilities, have determined to make the choice of Hercules, and prefer a life of labor to a life of pleasure. And this moral lesson is conveyed in a most winning and engaging way. The iuterest of the narrative is kept up to the end with the freshness of a well-constructed work of fiction. It is an interest not derived from stirring adventures, for Mr. Prescott’s life was very uneventful, but from its happy portraiture of those delightful qualities of mind and character of which his life was a revelation. Though it tells of constant struggle and not a little suffering, the tone of the book is genial, sunny, and cheerful, as was the temperament of the historian himself. For it is a remarkable fact that Mr. Prescott’s bodily infirmities never had any effect in making his mind or his character morbid. His spiritual nature was eminently healthy. His leading intellectual trait was sound good sense and the power of seeing men and things as they were. He had no whims, no paradoxes, no prejudices. His histories reflect the aggregate judgment of mankind upon the personages he describes and the events he narrates, without extravagance or overstatement in any direction. And it was the same with his character, as shown in daily life ; it was frank, generous, cordial, and manly. No man was less querulous, less irritable, less exacting than he. His social nature was warm ; discriminating, but not fastidious. He liked men for the good there was in them, and his taste in friendship was wide and catholic. He was rich in friends, and this book proves how just a title to such wealth he could show. We shall be surprised, if this biography does not attain a popularity as wide and as enduring as that enjoyed by any of Mr. Prescott’s historical works. It is largely made up of extracts from his letters and private journals, which are full of the playful humor, the ready sympathy, the sunny temper, the kindly judgment of men and things, which made the historian so dear to his friends and so popular among his acquaintances.
We cannot dismiss this book without saying a word or two in praise of its externals. Handsome books are, happily, no longer so rare a product of the American press as to require heralding when they do appear, but this is so beautiful a specimen of the art of book-manufacturing that it deserves special commendation. The type, paper, press-work, and illustrations are all admirable, and the whole is a result not easily to be surpassed in any part of the world.