A Brief Survey of Recent Historical Work
AN account of recent historical work, of the past year, for instance, could hardly be made a study in literature. Many histories have been literary achievements of the first order, and of course it is always open to the historical student to make of his results a genuine book, but such is not the tendency at present. To employ once again the hackneyed classification of De Quincey, it is to the literature of knowledge, not to the literature of power, that the industry of the average worker in history now chiefly contributes. His watchword is “ original research; ” his main endeavor is to discover, in no sense to create.
Even the briefest survey must take into account the activity of associations and agencies as well as of individuals. Some of the most important agencies are governmental. The national government, for example, has just completed, at a cost of about two millions of dollars, the series of Rebellion Records dealing with the movements of the Federal and Confederate armies. These ponderous volumes are not history, if history is a thing to be read, but they contribute to the store of historical knowledge, and they are as close akin to literature as many other publications that are offered to us as books. Several of the departments at Washington have printed historical documents during the year, and the Venezuelan Commission, happily relieved of its task of determining whether or not we shall go to war with Great Britain, has yet accomplished, in its first report, work of undeniable if purely historical value.
The number of state governments more or less committed to the printing of their own earlier records has increased. The Carolinas have made a beginning of this work, and Rhode Island has set a new precedent by authorizing a commission to search for documents in the custody of towns, of parishes and churches, and even of other states. Mr. Goodell, in his deliberate edition of the Province Laws of Massachusetts, seemed to be setting the standard for such publications, until the Pennsylvania Commission, by undertaking a history of each statute, afforded the scholarship of its members a still wider opportunity.
Of the societies, the National Historical Association is foremost in dignity, if not, perhaps, in actual achievement. Its Historical Manuscripts Commission, aiming especially at papers in private hands, is a new departure, in line with the Royal Manuscripts Commission of Great Britain. The American Historical Review, which has been printing documents gathered from private sources, should prove a valuable ally in the enterprise. The announced financial success of this periodical is matter of congratulation to its editor and to the gentlemen by whose disinterested efforts it was established three years ago. A promising recent development is the entrance into the historical field of societies — such as the Scotch-Irish, the Huguenot, and the Jewish-American — which aim to make plain the part that particular race elements have played in the upbuilding of the republic.
The dignified position some of the state societies have attained is well attested by the complaint that membership in them has become a social distinction, and not merely a reward of scholarship. The Texas society, formed within the year to deal with the rich material awaiting the future historian of the extreme Southwest, has endeavored to guard against this tendency by constitutional provision looking to the permanent dominance of the historical purpose in its councils and composition. The Massachusetts society, the oldest of all, and long the most active, is finding its premiership challenged by the comparatively youthful Wisconsin society, whose library is a workshop for the scholars of the Northwest, and whose secretary, Mr. Reuben Gold Thwaites, is winning an enviable reputation as a handler of historical material. Mr. Thwaites’s edition of the Jesuit Relations, of which the first nine volumes have been published, should doubtless be ranked as the most notable editorial enterprise of the year. The work of the Virginia society, under the thoroughly sane guidance of its secretary, Mr. Philip A. Bruce, is particularly gratifying to those who have been patiently waiting for the Old Dominion to do justice to her heroic past. The labors of such Virginians as President Tyler of William and Mary, Mr. William Wirt Henry, and Mr. Bruce give evidence that the task is to be neglected no longer. A like hopefulness as to the South in general is encouraged by the formation, within the year, of the Southern Historical Association, and by the appearance of several numbers of its publications. It is a good sign, too, that purely local societies, already common in the East, are growing numerous throughout the South and West. As to the private collectors, one knows not where to begin, and having begun, one Would not know where to end; but the practical completion of Mr. Benjamin F. Stevens’s costly series of facsimiles of documents in European archives pertaining to America, and the announcement by Mr. Alexander Brown, of Virginia, of a companion volume to his Genesis of the United States, to be called The First Republic in America, are important enough to justify us in singling them out for especial mention.
But after all, the gathering and editing of material is not writing history. One takes a step higher and finds the monograph ; and the monograph is mainly an academic product. Scarcely one of the leading universities has failed to contribute during the year to the ever growing stock of careful studies in history. The University of Toronto is the latest to enter the field. The greater number of these studies are concerned with the institutional side of history, and their value is not to be denied. A few of them have a place among the books one cares to read ; others, like Professor Gross’s Bibliography of British Municipal History, are examples of the minutest scholarship ; but very many will find their place, in the ordinary library, alongside the encyclopædias.
Above the collection and the monograph is the book ; and here one reaches the altitude where the historian emerges from the crowd of scholars into the view of a larger public. Of him the larger public demands that he interpret and justify the multitudinous labors on which his own are based. It has the right to expect that he will add imagination and literary art to mere industry and intelligence ; that he will enlarge accuracy into truth.
It is doubtless too early to say that during the past year no new name has been added to the brief list of those who have successfully attempted this difficult task. Captain Mahan’s Nelson and his The Interest of the United States in Sea Power have indeed strengthened his claim to a place ; but the claim has been a strong one ever since his first book was hailed as marking the achievement of a new point of view in the study of modern history. The philosophical merit of that earlier work belongs in almost equal measure to the Nelson, which has in addition the charm of the biographical method and motive. Professor Sloane’s Napoleon is indeed a performance of sufficient weight to challenge our attention. In point of industry, if one compares it only with other works in English on the same subject, it even invites the epithet “ monumental; ” while its abundance of pictorial illustration will doubtless win for it an examination, if not a reading, in quarters where its scholarship might repel. It is to be feared, however, that the heaviness of its style will tend to make of it an authority rather than a guide. Mr. James Breck Perkins, another American who has ventured into French fields, has given us in his France under Louis XV. a useful account of a period by no means unimportant in itself, but apt to be neglected by reason of the exceptional interest that belongs alike to the period that preceded and the period that followed it.
Of the Americans who have dealt with American topics, not many have made any formidable show of attempting to write history in the grand style. Mr. Schouler, Mr. Lodge, and Professor William P. Trent have published volumes of brief papers. At any rate, some of these papers are very well worth the reading, and Professor Trent’s lectures — for such they were at first — are particularly interesting as a critical study, by a Southerner of the newest school, of certain Southern statesmen whom Southern writers of the older school have been wont to approach with more of reverence than of understanding. Professor Woodrow Wilson and Mr. Paul Leicester Ford have written each a pleasant little book about Washington, both trying to make the stately figure seem, not less stately, but more human, and both succeeding admirably. Other notable books of a biographical or autobiographical sort are Mrs. Rowland’s Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the lives of Lee and Grant in the Great Commanders series, and the reminiscences of Generals Miles and Schofield. Not an ordinary history, but a historical work of much value, is Dr. J. M. Buckley’s account of Methodism in America. It is doubtful if any one was better qualified for this particular task, for Dr. Buckley is a Methodist, a practiced investigator of extraordinary psychological phenomena, and a clear and forcible writer.
There remain three especially notable books. Professor Moses Coit Tyler’s Literary History of the Revolution is not, indeed, a narrative, but as a picture of past times it deserves a place with Mr. Winsor’s Westward Movement and Mr. Fiske’s Old Virginia and her Neighbours as one of the three foremost books of the year in the department of American history. Never before has the intellectual side of the Revolutionary movement been so fully exhibited as in these two volumes.
Mr. Winsor’s book, apart from its intrinsic merit, has a special interest because it is the last we shall ever have from his pen, and because he himself regarded it as the completion of the particular task he had undertaken. When he had written the last word of it, he is said to have exclaimed, “ I have told my story; now I am willing to take a rest.” The rest was other than he thought, for his death was almost simultaneous with the appearance of the book. One is naturally inclined to speak less of it than of the life-work that ended with it. But to speak of that would lead us far afield, for our master of historical inquiry was also a master librarian, and did more than any other to make the care of books a learned profession. The Westward Movement is a companion volume to The Mississippi Basin, distinguished by the same breadth of view and the same minuteness of knowledge. It brings the story of our Western expansion down to the close of the last century, and establishes more firmly than ever the author’s right to be considered preëminently the historian of the geography of the continent. It must be admitted, however, that the style is not adapted to the ordinary reader ; these meaty paragraphs are suited only to a vigorous digestion.
The appearance at the same time of a book on a kindred subject by a different hand serves to remind us of another phase of Mr. Winsor’s ceaseless activity. He was the most tireless of helpers to other workers in history. Mr. Peter J. Hamilton, in his Colonial Mobile, has made an important contribution to the history of our Southwestern beginnings, and his indebtedness to Mr. Winsor would be evident without the full acknowledgment he makes of it. The similarity of the two books in point of style is remarkable.
We are left with Mr. Fiske ; and if his name should seem to be placed at the end of our survey by way of climax, the place is deserved. When all is said, he seems to many the only American now living who can give to the results of historical inquiry a form so satisfying to the reader as to justify a word like “ final.” He writes of Virginia as delightfully as he has ever written of anything ; adding nothing, perhaps, to the knowledge of the scholars, but shaping the common mass after a fashion at once philosophical and artistic. His power of generalization, his conspicuous fairness, his singularly lucid style, are endowments of the highest order. In narrative charm there is none to rival him, unless one goes back to Parkman.
A glance at recent historical work in England is sufficient to discover the same general tendencies we have observed in America. The fondness for forming associations is even greater there than here, and the historical associations, as a rule, surpass our own in age and dignity. To mention only the foremost of these, one notes that the Royal Society has within the year absorbed the Camden Society ; that the Hakluyt Society is devoting much attention to the annals of Arctic exploration, and the Selden Society to select pleas in the Courts of Admiralty, — an enterprise in which it is trying to enlist the interest of Americans. A peculiarly English form of cooperation is exhibited in the sumptuous History of Northumberland County, now in process of publication under the management of a committee which is fitly headed by Earl Percy. The death of Mr. W. Noël Santsbury has deprived the Calendar of State Papers, just now particularly interesting to Americans on account of the colonial documents, of an editor whose exceptional equipment was universally recognized.
Looking about for the more famous names, we find those of Lecky, Bryce, John Morley, and Professor Jebb associated in Lord Acton’s cooperative enterprise, The Cambridge Modern History. Mr. Bryce, in his Impressions of South Africa, does not emphasize any historical purpose, but the historical matter is as admirable as any other in a thoroughly admirable book. Mr. Samuel Rawson Gardiner, while still prosecuting the work on his Commonwealth and Protectorate, has found time to publish six lectures on Cromwell, and to engage in controversy with Father Gerard over the Gunpowder Plot. Mr. McCarthy has brought his entertaining History of Our Own Times to a conclusion, and has written a new life of Gladstone.
If we consider only the work of the recognized masters, Professor Maitland’s Domesday and Beyond is clearly the book of the year. Such, indeed, is Professor Maitland’s place among the students of early English institutions that whatever he writes is to other investigators second in importance only to the sources themselves. The views he has here set forth concerning the hide, the village community, the manor, and similar topics are bound to lead to controversy, and some of them are controverted already ; but none of his contentions will be dismissed without a careful investigation by every scholar whose studies extend into the period of which he treats.
From other practiced hands we have work of no mean value. Professor Mahaffy has written of The Empire of the Ptolemies, and Colonel C. R. Conder of The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. Mr. Traill has edited his Social England through the sixth and concluding volume. New numbers have been added to the Oxford Manuals of European History, to the Periods of European History series, and to Mr. Bury’s Foreign Statesmen series. Mr. Bury himself is progressing somewhat slowly with his edition of Gibbon, — a work to which additional interest is given by the appearance in their original form of Gibbon’s six autobiographical sketches, and of his letters, including some that were omitted by Lord Sheffield.
Two important biographies are, the Roebuck of Mr. R. E. Leader, and Mr. C. E. Lyne’s Sir Henry Parkes; while Mr. Wilfrid Ward’s Cardinal Wiseman, and the late Dr. Liddon’s Life of Dr. Pusey, completed by another hand, are valuable contributions to the religious history of the century.
In England, as in America, no absolutely new name has come into striking prominence ; but the re-publication, with copious additions, of the Reverend W. H. Fitchett’s Deeds that Made the Empire has strengthened the marked impression the book made on its first appearance. That a dissenting Australian clergyman should have written on such a subject more brilliantly than any other of all those whom the Jubilee stirred into eloquence grows significant as we reflect that the empire rests mainly on the loyalty of the colonists. Mr. Fitchett’s work is by some even compared to Macaulay’s for the interest it arouses. It would be pleasant to think that Englishmen everywhere may perhaps find in him a man fit to tell the whole splendid story of the empire’s rise, as we in America are finding in Mr. Fiske one fit to portray that part of this world-impulse which spent itself on our shores.