’ THE essays on history are a confusing sort of literature. Whoever seeks in such writings a systematic philosophy of the past or a standard of values in human experience will be woefully disappointed. What is more surprising, if one inquire solely about the right method and the true purpose of historical studies, the enlightenment one gets is but slight and dubious. The treatises, while they all emphasize the difficulty of the historian’s task, do not seem to agree at all concerning the nature of it, or its aim, or its scope, or the best way to go practically about it. Even on what is perhaps the oldest of all the questions that ever have been raised concerning it, the question, namely, whether it should be philosophical and interpretative or merely narrative and accurate, there is no agreement reached ; some of the writers seeming to feel that the historian is bound to take upon himself the fairly godlike rôle of interpreter, that is to say, teleologist, of the past, while others seem to be equally firm that he ought to hold himself with a rigorous, impersonal modesty to his lesser function of investigator and chronicler of facts.
But it has been pointed out that his task, even in the least expanded acceptation of it, involves a daunting exercise of judgment. Through the obvious necessity to choose from the mass of his material he is driven upon a sort of interpretation. In the proportions of his work, in his allotments of space and emphasis, in countless unconscious manifestations of sympathy and repulsion, in his very restraints and forbearances, his attitude toward his subject is revealed. However he may strive to keep himself out of his work, he cannot do it. What he chooses to tell, and how he tells it, so much is his, is he. And yet, unavoidable as these questions of what and how are seen to be, quite apart from the whys and wherefores, there is no closer approach to a consensus on them than there is on the whole meaning and teaching of the past. In the entire field covered by the discussions of history there is scarcely to be found a single res adjudicata, a single universally accepted canon.
But the writers, differing as they do on all the specific points in controversy, seem to be agreed, nevertheless, that there are canons, if they could only be formulated, that there is a standard, if it could only be defined. Let any historian set to work attacking the contentions of another, or defending his own, and it is ten to one his language will imply that there is a way of dealing with the past which is “ history,” and that all other ways are wrong. The other historian’s work is interesting, brilliant perhaps, he will say; or, on the other hand, he will pronounce it undeniably accurate, unimpeachably respectable, and consonantly dull. But in either case he is sure it is not “ history.” When, for example, Buckle announced that he had formulated a “science of history,” Droysen was one of the first to explode his pretensions, and spared no ridicule in the refutation ; but in that very same essay Droysen himself advanced many of the ideas which afterwards, when he had collected and ordered them, he ventured to call The Principles of History.
Not long ago, it was because of inaccuracy in details that this true quality of history was most frequently denied to historical writings. Nowadays, one seems to hear more of insight, imagination, and sympathy ; even of skill in presentation, and of literary style. But there is no agreement, probably there would be no way to phrase an agreement if it were reached, concerning the relative importance of these two parts or aspects of the historian’s work. Perhaps we shall never get a better saying on the matter than a quiet remark of Parkman in his introduction to what is still, on the whole, the best performance any American has ever made in history. The utmost care and patience in the study of all sources of information is, he said, indispensable — and inadequate. The philosophers will, no doubt, continue to find fault with the story-tellers, and the “ dryas-dusts ” to debate with the “ romancers,” so long as history shall continue to be written.
Three books 1 which have appeared within the year invite Americans who care about the history of their country to consider anew the question of the best way to write it. President Woodrow Wilson of Princeton has essayed to cover the entire field in a single narrative of moderate length. A number of English and American scholars have collaborated to the same end in a group of essays and narratives which make up the seventh volume of The Cambridge Modern History. With the posthumous publication of John Fiske’s Essays, Historical and Literary, we have before us, it seems, all that we shall ever have from the pen of a very pleasing writer who has left untouched scarcely a single period of our American past. It happens, also, that President Wilson, in an essay published several years ago, Lord Acton, who planned The Cambridge Modern History, in his inaugural discourse as Regius Professor at Cambridge, and Fiske, in one of the papers in these last two volumes of his, have all three set forth at some length their views of historical work.
It is scarcely to be believed, however, that the particular example of coöperation presented by this volume of the Cambridge series will help us in any positive way to a notion of what the best possible history of the United States will be like ; for the best possible history will not, one feels sure, prove to be a cooperative enterprise.2 Even the late Justin Winsor, though himself the editor of the most important coöperative work we have, freely admitted that no conceivable advantage of coöperation could ever compensate for the disappearance of the personal historian. After all, a coöperative history can be nothing more than a series of separate histories, or of separate essays, or of both. There is a great convenience in such a collection, so arranged as to make a complete survey of a subject or a period ; but it is preposterous to suppose that the extremely difficult problem of historical presentation has been solved by so simple and mechanical a device. It was the individual contributors to the seventh volume of The Cambridge Modern History who had to face that problem, not the editors of the series. To compare the several styles and methods of these contributors would be a more practical approach to it than to attempt a judgment of the entire volume. The principle of E pluribus unum will not deliver even an American historian from his vexations.
But the method and style of the better known of these contributors is more fully exhibited in books which are wholly their own. When we have made every possible concession to the encyclopædical plan, it remains true that a man will ordinarily write his own book better than he will write a part of a book which is not to be all his own. To consider carefully President Wilson’s narrative and the way he wrote it, to take account of that part of John Fiske’s lifework which began with his Old South Lectures and which ended, “ shorn and parceled,” in the fragmentary essays now before us, is no doubt a better way to approach the particular problem of the American historian than any we can find through the labors of Lord Acton and his successors.
One need not be of the number of those who, joining to a tithe of Fiske’s ability neither greater industry nor a higher purpose, have consistently decried his work in history, in order to perceive that these two volumes will not strengthen his claim to a high place among American historians. A sincere admirer may very well question the propriety of publishing in this form papers which were originally prepared for other uses and connections. One might even question the wisdom of publishing at all several which are apparently little more than working models. At least, however, their appearance may serve to assure us that nothing of Fiske’s which ought to be given to the public is withheld. The essay on New and Old Ways of Treating History is one of those which seem unfinished ; it can hardly be taken as a complete expression of Fiske’s ideas about his work. To treat it controversially would be unfair. Its principal value is in the light it throws, particularly if we consider it with a constant reference in our minds to his actual performance, on his own method in history. Fortunately, perhaps, for himself and for his work, Fiske, though much of his time was given to lecturing, did not at any time, I believe, conduct a seminary in history. We may well suppose, however, that if he ever had sat at the head of a seminary table and talked informally with the students gathered about him on the general aspects of their work and his, he would have talked as he has written in this paper.
It is significant, even though we take the discourse to be incomplete, that there is scarcely a word in it about the writing of history. So far, it confirms the strongest impression which the present writer got from Fiske’s conversation. For my instant reflection on first hearing him was that I understood at last how he wrote the way he did. He talked the same way. It is entirely probable that he could neither have talked nor written any other way if he had tried. Once, when he and Justin Winsor spoke in public on the same occasion, — a meeting held in memory of Parkman, — the contrast between the two in the matter of naturalness was very marked.
The contrast in the same respect between Fiske’s narrative style and President Wilson’s is scarcely less marked. In the final sentence of his essay on The Truth of the Matter, in Mere Literature, President Wilson said : “ There is an art of lying; there is equally an art — an infinitely more difficult art — of telling the truth.” One feels concerning Fiske, however, that if he exercised any art at all in writing history, it was an extraordinarily unconscious sort of art. If there was any conscious art whatsoever, then it must have been profoundly subtle — far too subtle to be reconciled with one’s impression of the man himself — to attain so completely the effect of artlessness. Several of these papers are, as I have said, mere rough sketches and outlines, based on incomplete investigation, which he would surely have amplified and changed in many details ; but no one in the least familiar with his finished work could doubt for a moment that they are his. The style is as unmistakable as his voice or his handwriting. To have written in any other style would have been, for him, like disguising his handwriting or his voice. In the presentation of his thought he was as free from artifice, not to speak of affectation, as a peasant or a king. There is neither straining nor restraint. He is never dull, but one would scarcely use such a word as brilliant to describe his happiest effects.
“ Brilliant ” is, on the other hand, the very first word one applies to the work of President Wilson. That praise cannot be denied — or spared. And it is impossible to believe that the effect is unconsciously attained, as a sort of unearned increment of his labors in the searching out and setting forth of the truth. One feels that, however well he has builded, he builded no better than he knew. Perhaps the quickest and keenest mind now at play on our American past, confessedly regardful of all that can be accomplished in the way of impressionistic statement, he was, one would say, the best writer we had among us to try, with a narrative of the whole course of our development, an experiment of that particular theory of historical composition which he himself had so eloquently advanced. For in the days when the German influence was at its height in all our academic circles, when the document threatened to win here the same dominance which it had already at the German universities, when the historians of both continents seemed to be trying, as Lord Acton acquiescingly explained, " to develop learning at the expense of writing,” and to elevate history by subduing the historian, President Wilson’s work was to many of us a source of comfort and of hope. He continued steadfastly to treat scholarship as a means, not an end, and to regard history as a branch of literature rather than of science. But a great and successful attempt in the writing of history would have done more to establish his position than any reasoning or eloquence could do. The attempt which he has made was certainly big enough. It was so big, in truth, that one might consider he was courting absolute success or failure when he set about it.
But history is no more the domain of the absolute than politics — or life. We need not use such a word as failure when we admit that the adherents of the document will possibly find in minor inaccuracies of the work more to confirm them in their loyalty than we can find in its larger merits to fortify us in our different faith. To contribute fresh details of knowledge was, apparently, no part of the design, nor can it have been a principal ambition of the author to keep his work immaculately free from little mistakes. But the book, fair as it is on points of controversy, spacious and catholic and guiltless of conscious partisanship, and everywhere of a lively intelligence, is nowhere profoundly philosophical and sagacious. Readable it is, also, particularly if one take it by episodes and topics, less so if one go on steadily to the end ; but it does not stir, absorb, elevate, depress. It is welcome, for no other book at all comparable to it covers the whole great field ; welcome even in the cheapening dress, garish with frippery, unedifying illustrations, in which the publishers have clothed it. But if we try it by the simplest test, the only test which the mass of readers ever employ, the test by which we all form our genuine opinions of books, however we may afterward elaborate and explain them, — the test of its hold on our own attention, the appeal it makes to our own intelligence and sympathies, — we shall not think of setting it beside the work say of Parkman in American, or of Green in English history.
If we go on to account for our feeling, we may very well reflect that these two, like other still more famous historians, gave themselves to their tasks with an extraordinarily complete devotion, pursuing them through years of patient toil; and it is but fair to consider that in so singularly varied and active an academic career as President Wilson’s — the academic career in America being what it is — such absorption in a single task may have been simply impossible. The fame of a historian is not to be won but by the longest of wooings. It is scarcely too much to say that no really great work in history was ever less than a lifework. Even a lifetime may be vainly devoted to this ambition, and the highest powers wasted upon it, unless either Fate vouchsafe the man his share of ordinary human incitements to do his best, and spare him the worst temptations to despair, or else there be in the man himself a singular tenacity and fixedness of purpose. So much of good fortune or of character being granted, it is not alone in the erudition of his work, but in the entire quality of it, that the sacrifice of his years will be found to have availed. Even for the uninstructed reader, careless of footnotes, it will not have been made in vain. It will be manifest not merely in the impregnable accuracy of the narrative, but in the tone and elevation of it, as in that “air of matured power, of grave and melancholy reflection,” which Macaulay praised in Thucydides.
The mere fact that he cannot have been long about it goes far, no doubt, to account for our disappointment in President Wilson’s performance. But when all has been said that can be said on that score, his manner and style in narrative, particularly if one contrast it with the manner and style of Fiske, is a matter of much interest. For it is not merely that these two, whom many of us would choose from the mass of our recent historians to compare with the historians of other countries who have written as men of letters, may have held differing views concerning the best way to write about the past. We should, no doubt, be very careful not to over-estimate the part which any theories of composition they may have held actually played in this work; for we know too well that good writers very often break the rules they set themselves, and to the bettering of their books. Here, however, we have not merely two plans, two theories of historical composition, but two manners and styles, two ways of writing history, which differ quite plainly. It should not be entirely impracticable to take account of the difference with a reasonable sureness of one’s ground, notwithstanding that there are many other things which should enter into a complete comparison of the two writers.
A comparison on that point alone must, I think, prove favorable to Fiske. Taken paragraph by paragraph, President Wilson’s writing is more likely to impress one with the writer’s skill than Fiske’s is. That is why we call it brilliant. It shines. But the narrative, meanwhile, does not hold the reader as Fiske’s does. The continuous flow of skillful sentences actually tends to draw one’s attention away from the matter in them. They sometimes come between the reader and the story which they tell; and, after all, it is the story, not the English, which one means to read. One naturally asks, therefore, why it is that a writer of such gifts and sympathies as President Wilson has shown, certainly not unmindful that brilliancy may be a fault, and bent, no doubt, on suiting the manner to the matter, the tone to the occasions, the pace to the progress of the theme,— why he has not succeeded better in a thing which he had so carefully studied out the best way to do ? To put the matter as simply as possible, why is it that his way of telling us the history of our country is not on the whole so good a way as Fiske’s, whose way was, apparently, to tell it as he talked ?
Of course, we are speaking now of two literary styles, and for the moment our consideration of them need not be affected by the circumstance that they are employed in history. All that we can decide, perhaps, is what one so frequently decides when a similar question is raised, — that the simpler, the more natural style proves in the long run the more acceptable. We might, however, go a little further, and find in the present comparison another instance favorable to the definition of literary style as a gift, a characteristic; as a thing comparable to one’s physical bearing, to the trick of one’s gait. President Wilson, who could probably come nearer telling us why and how he writes as he does than Fiske could have told us the same things about himself, who is, perhaps, more of a stylist than Fiske was, has a less distinctive and habitual style of his own than Fiske had. What he writes to-day is not so sure to be like what he wrote yesterday or ten years ago.
But the point which is of most value seems to be this : one may indorse every dictum in President Wilson’s essay on The Truth of the Matter that bears on style in history, and still conclude that the truth of that matter, like “ the truth of history” itself, is — beyond our ken. Take, for example, his general proposition that what the historian as a matter of fact does is to convey impressions of the past. It can hardly be gainsaid. But when we go on to argue that his method should therefore be impressionistic, what we know of the method of great narrators, great story-tellers, makes us doubtful lest we be leaving something out of the reckoning ; and that something, I should be inclined to say, is nature. Was Walter Scott an impressionist — with his “big bow-wow ” ? Or Macaulay, who was so lacking in subtlety ? Or Froissart? Or Herodotus ? If our reasoning were correct, should we not have to decide that even to the historian a marked style of his own must prove, in fact, an encumbrance, a thing to be got rid of altogether? Must not he also, like the dramatist, make use of all styles, but have none of his own ?
Here, I think, the peculiar nature of the historian’s task, the distinctive characteristics of history as a branch of literature, come into the argument. For the historian’s aim is not, after all, purely literary, purely artistic. Granted that to do his work the best way he must be an artist, there is always upon him the duty of loyalty to another sort of truth than the truth of art. He is bound to tell the plain truth also. His imagination must serve, not control. He must tell what actually happened in former times; it is not enough to show what might have happened. Committed thus to the known facts, he is also hedged about by ignorance. Granted that through the power of imagination he may see his subject as the artist does, that he may see the past as a sort of whole, he has not the freedom to deal with it as if he were entirely artist, and nothing more. The difference between his task and the tasks of his fellows, the novelists, the dramatists, the poets, consists chiefly in the obligation he is under to distinguish between so much of the whole as he knows in ordinary ways and so much as he can only imagine or divine. His conscience will be forever telling him so ; and the effect will be to keep within comparatively narrow bounds whatever impressionism he may employ. Carlyle’s observation concerning narrative as a means to represent the past — that it is only a line, and must go straight on, while life stretches out in all directions — is also of moment. Whatever impressionism is possible to the mere teller, the mere narrator, must be accomplished with little of reproduction, little of verisimilitude, since his representation of the past lacks two dimensions. In any attempt to define the sort of writing about the past which is history, we must, I think, begin by admitting that history can only represent the past by the use of facts which are known in ordinary ways. The narrative falls short of history if it fails to convey a real knowledge and sense of the past; but it goes beyond the privilege and function of history if it displays for facts things that are not known in ordinary ways.
And the peculiar obligation and restraint of the historian affects the manner as well as the matter of his discourse. He is bound to be frank with his readers as the poet or novelist is not. He will find, or his readers will, that he serves them best, his limitations being what they are, by speaking with his own voice and in his natural manner; by giving to all his own impressions of the past a natural expression, and trusting them in turn to work, in a natural way, their right impression on other minds. He is at too great a disadvantage, as compared with other artists in literature, in respect of his rights with his subject, to take such liberties with his readers as they take with theirs.
And this, it appears, is the plan and method in narrative which the best examples likewise commend to us ; this is the way and wont of the best story-tellers who try to tell the truth, whether with the pen or by word of mouth. Nor does it, as matter of fact, make so very great a difference that the historian writes his story instead of reciting it, as he once did. Let it be read aloud, and it will not seem so changed as to indicate that the art of writing it down is essentially different from the art of telling it. The possibilities of illusion, of impressionism, are scarcely greater in the written discourse than in the spoken. They are probably not so great. In either case, the historian remains simply a narrator, a teller. Such devices, for example, as President Wilson suggests when he says that one ought to set forth the events of a past age as if one were living in the midst of them, seem to me as false art in the one case as in the other. That would be more like acting. To be consistent, ought not one also, if one were reciting before an audience, to wear the costume of one’s period, speak its language ? Speaking or writing, ought one not to discard all knowledge, and every habit of thought, which did not belong to the period ? With all these things which characterized his period the historian ought, no doubt, to be familiar. It were well, if it were possible, that he should be so familiar with them that he could, in imagination, live the very life which he portrays. But for him they are none the less things to be told, not to be lived, just as the events are also to be told, and not to be acted. Surely, recent writers of history have not gained, in comparison with the great and simple masters, by resorting to the devices of the novelist and of the playwright; devices which in fiction and the drama are no doubt right and proper, but which in history are like darkening the room in the daytime and bringing in the candles. Impressionism in history is too suggestive of the use of stimulants to heighten our interest, or of hypnotism to get us over time and space ; whereas the real masters move us profoundly without such artifice. They are entirely respectful to time and space. They spread no magic carpet for our feet, make no pretense of transporting us into other lands and ages. They stand frankly beside us in our own time, on our own ground, and look back with us “over the centuries and the seas.”
I cannot help questioning, therefore, whether it ever is advisable or even permissible to employ any sort of illusion in history. Attempts in that way to heighten the reader’s interest, or to vivify the representation of the past, or to convey subtly, by suggestion, what it may be hard to set forth plainly, will sometimes, and for a little while, seem to be successful. But in the repetition they are sure to grow tiresome. Effects so obtained fall short of the power and permanence which belong only to the natural. In so far as the discussions of history aim to increase the power of historical narrative by the discovery of new ways to tell the truth about the past, I am persuaded that they are vain.
The peculiar restraint which is imposed upon the historian as an artist, and which commends to him the frank and natural style in narrative, is scarcely less an ethical than an artistic restraint. To state what it is, clearly and precisely, is difficult; but the essence of it is, that he cannot exercise anything like authority over his subject. And that, certainly, is the feeling into which one comes after prolonged study of the past. No man can ever attain such a mastery of the past, or any part of it, as to justify him in departing entirely from that specific information concerning it, those facts and characteristics of it, through which he has arrived at his own understanding of it, in order to present it more convincingly to other minds. If he can only make his reader also aware of what happened, and from what reasonable causes, and after what fashion of occurrence, he will do well. Any such insight and hindsight and foresight as they attempt who would fain discover “ the meaning of history” would be nothing less than a complete mastery of life. It would cany along with it all science and all theology. And he who pretends to understand completely any considerable part of the past, to see a clear plan and meaning in it, pretends no less than if he claimed to understand the whole. For where is he to stop if he begin to interpret in that omniscient way ? Surely it is better, in any attempt at interpretation, to proceed after the modest, ever inquiring fashion of the real masters, not in history alone, but in science as well, neither assuming nor denying that there is a comprehensive plan. If the historian have a conviction, he will do better to state it as his conviction, and nothing more, than to work it so intimately into the narrative that it cannot be disentangled and considered by itself. To exercise so great an authority as that over his subject, to take so great a liberty with the mind of his reader, is not honest, even in a master: it matters not whether in that unfair way he seeks to establish more firmly the basis of the moral order, or, like Macaulay, to justify a party, or merely to make his narrative more impressive. The reader, if he discover the practice, will not condone it, however he may seem to profit by it. To rest upon authority is, no doubt, pleasant; but the sense of security one gets after a while from the perfect honesty of one’s guide is in the long run far better. It is the things that are told us in the simplest honesty, with whatever confessions of ignorance may be necessary, that help us most to understand the life about us; and I know not why the same thing should not be true of past life. A peculiar and extreme example of this sort of honesty in history is found in the career of the late Lord Acton. For he believed, it seems, in the deep moral significance of all history, and held the true goal of historical studies to be nothing less than a complete interpretation of the past, and the laying bare of the whole plan of human development. But though he himself spent his lifetime in all manner of diligent inquiry, in the investigation of countless sources, he never was satisfied, apparently, with his mastery of any subject or period, and never would publish a book. His modesty was no doubt excessive, hut one cannot live long in this world without coming to associate a degree of humility with any high form of honesty or of competency. It is they who see the deepest into life who keep the most of wonder in their eyes.
And if frankness, straightforwardness, naturalness, do conduce to the value of historical narrative, and conduce also, on the whole, to the interest and the charm of it, they are not less conducive to another effect of it which is scarcely less important: an effect which it has in common with every other sort of work that is at all artistic. I mean, the effect of making life and humanity more impressive than we ordinarily find them: of enlarging and ennobling them. For it is true that we take life and humanity in art otherwise than we take them in our daily experience. It is not our wont — unless we ourselves are artists — to invest the men and women about us with all that dignity and mystery and largeness which human figures wear in great pictures and statues and great books. Of course, the observation is far from new; but it deserves to be considered when one inquires how it is best to treat the past. For it can scarcely be questioned that in this respect the historian may and frequently does accomplish what artists of other sorts commonly accomplish.
Apart from the question of how he does it, the question of whether he ought to do it, the question of truthfulness, may not unreasonably be raised. Is it not incumbent on him, we might ask, to avoid this particular effect altogether, as he must avoid other delusions and illusions, and to keep humanity and life in that perspective in which we habitually see them, and to portray them in the light and on the scale of every day ? Will not the duty of fairness, of impartiality which forbids him to champion particular men and causes, forbid him likewise even this partisanship, as one might say, of his whole subject ?
If it were so judged, he might, indeed, together with the whole company of artists of every sort, of them that in any way reproduce life, plead, in excuse, a very high temptation. For it cannot be doubted that in this effect art plays to our nobleness and not to our vileness. To derive that sense of things from history is to be peculiarly fortified in all the worthier part of our natures. It is tonical to our bravest aspirations. And, conversely, there is no other way to weaken the high purposes of men half so effective as to induce in them the habit of seeing life as a mean affair of chance and physical reactions. Even to reason that there is no moral order whatsoever in the universe is not so hurtful to the moral standards of individual men as to make them see themselves and all their fellows alike as but little things.
But perhaps a better defense for the historian who seems thus to enlarge his subject would be to point out that any serious study and careful record of the past of the race is absurd, and a waste of time, unless one has already a high conception of humanity, and finds, or at least wills to find, a great nobleness in life. For however considerable may be the practical uses of a knowledge of the past, I am persuaded that men do not, as a rule, give themselves to the study of it for any merely practical purpose whatsoever. It is rather from a grave curiosity that the historian sticks to his endless task. There are historical writers, it is true, but chiefly of the documentary and institutional school, whose work reflects no such feeling as this, and has no such effect as that we are considering. But these men are not historians in the sense that they reproduce the past, or portray mankind, at all. And this, perhaps, is also part of the distinction we may make between those writers on history who are, and those who are not, historians : that the one sort do, and the other sort do not, pursue their labors from the deep and natural concern they have about humanity and all that pertains to it, from that reverent and wondering curiosity about life which is the motive and inspiration of all art.
However that may be, the great narrative historians certainly do make us see life as tremendous and full of interest, and men, even in their follies and their weakness, as after all entirely noteworthy creatures. The effect is as clear after reading Thucydides or Gibbon as it is after reading Homer or Dante, or when one gazes upon great pictures. Perhaps a little reflection will enable us to see that, right or wrong, it is a natural, an inevitable effect of seeing life and humanity well portrayed. For what the portrayal, the reproduction, does for us is to arrest for our completer observation what in ordinary experience we see but partially, or when we ourselves are so distracted that we cannot scrutinize and contemplate it. That in us which approves or disapproves the artist’s work, so that, as has often been remarked, the artistic truth of it is a thing to be recognized, not proved, is probably memory. For memory does also enlarge and ennoble in the same way the artist does. The incidents of yesterday, of a year ago, of one’s childhood, have not, in one’s thought of them now, the pettiness and formlessness of what is happening before one’s eyes to-day. In yesterday’s meeting with my friend, nothing he said seemed notable, and there was little in his look and bearing even to suggest the immensity of his individual experience or the great mystery of his existence and of mine ; but all that will be in my thought of him if memory bring him again before me, or if I look upon his portrait. Surely, then, we can ask no more of the narrative historian than that he deal with past life as faithfully as our memories do. We cannot blame him for magnifying his subject, since our minds, obedient to a law of their own, are constantly playing us the same trick — if, indeed, it is a trick. On the contrary, we ought to recognize in this very thing — a thing to be found in all accepted art, and most apparent in the highest — a sign of his membership in the brotherhood of artists.
It is a power which he has because he is an artist and a man of genius, a power not to be won by conformity to any rule of composition ; but I think little question can be made that the effect is best accomplished by those historians who write of the past in that straightforward, natural way which on other grounds also we find to be the best. Honesty and simplicity are in themselves a sort of reverence for one’s subject. He who builds in perfect sincerity will always build better than he knows. He will make his subject seem larger that way than he can by any sort of authoritative manipulation of it, or any rhetorical parading to and fro before it. In these ways it may perhaps be magnified out of proportion to other parts of the past, but it is the simple, the natural, the entirely honest historian who invests it with the most of that magnitude and nobleness which life takes on in memory and in art. Compare the narratives of Homer, of Thucydides, of John Bunyan—to take three good examples of the manner I have in mind — with the best of the elaborative writing of our own time, and no one can fail to see how much more impressive incidents and characters are in the hands of these three than they are in the hands of our contemporaries. Of course, these three were great masters of narrative, and perhaps it is not fair to compare work which has come down to us only by reason of its extraordinary excellence with any but the work of other masters. But there is more in the matter than the disparity between genius and ordinary talents. Few would think of mentioning Fiske’s Discovery of America in the same breath with these great narratives. But read his direct, simple, almost entirely circumstantial account of the first voyage of Columbus, and see if it does not surpass, in the largeness of the effect, as well as in the breathless interest of it, while one reads, any of the more elaborate and conscious attempts to impress one with the mighty issues committed to those little caravels. The manner and style of it is what is probably best described as natural; and in that respect, though not in the entire execution, it is not unlike the story of the Sicilian expedition in Thucydides.
It is from his constant use of this manner and style, scarcely less than from his extraordinary memory, his industry, and his considerable powers of imagination, that Fiske doubtless deserves a higher rank among the writers of history than any other American since Parkman, notwithstanding that Mr. Henry Adams and Mr. James Ford Rhodes have both mastered their special periods as he probably never did master any period. Little that is not praise can be said of Mr. Rhodes’s work on the score of honesty and diligence, nor is there any lack of feeling; but his reasoning is little helped by imagination, and his characteristic manner is not easy or graceful. Mr. Adams has a better gift of speech and much insight of a critical, intellectual sort, but he is lacking in sympathy and in warmth.
If, however, we compare Fiske’s work with the work of such men as Parkman and Green, his achievement must be accounted less than theirs. He has not made any subject his own as Parkman did, nor is any part of his work wrought out with that unmeasured devotion of talents and of time which was so characteristic of Green. History, indeed, was not his lifework quite as it was the lifework of the other two. His gifts were not imperiously controlled and marshaled by any such deep, quiet passion as we find informing the serious literature that lasts. Right as he was to present the past as simply as he could, one sometimes feels that his vision was so clear and undisturbed because there were things —dark things of the human spirit, contrarieties and puzzles and mysteries in men’s lives and natures, and things poetical and inspiring— which he did not see at all. He was right also to tell it all in his own natural way, but even that pleasing manner of his is not a particularly distinguished manner. There is a fine dignity which it lacks. And when one reflects on the whole view and notion of the past which he presents, one finds it too easy-going. The matter seems always a little too plain. Everything, apparently, is explained, or at least is explicable. The course of events is too regular, too processional, too like the course of nature undisturbed by human nature. When we consider how constantly we are bewildered by what happens among our fellows, before our very eyes, we have difficulty in believing that there was so little of the marvelous, the inexplicable, in all this life which glides before us in his pages. He does not entirely convince us because he does not wonder. Perhaps he never found the limitations of that scientific impulse which took so strong a hold of our intellectual life about the time when he began to write. Herbert Spencer’s influence was still upon him when he turned from science and philosophy to the history of bis country.
But when we compare any American with any English or any Continental historian, we ought to keep in mind that the tasks are not altogether alike. It may not be entirely the fault of the story-teller if one story fall short of another in interest and charm. The truth is, that in many respects — in the atmosphere, in the variety of incidents and characters — the story which the Old World historian has to tell is a better story to tell than ours is. He is particularly fortunate in the ascendency of the human and biographical over the economic and geographical motives ; for the fortunes of these compact European states seem to have been continually turning on the fortunes of individual men, their heroisms, loves, ambitions ; and this has not been true of our widespread commonwealth. He is fortunate, also, in the glamour which the centuries cast upon his pages. Moreover, the artists of other sorts have prepared the way for him to the sympathy of his readers. Poets and dramatists, painters and sculptors, have given to many of his themes an accessory charm. Spread over the entire surface of his continent and its islands are countless monuments and ruins which forever turn the thoughts of men backward.
Writing in a land where nothing is so rare as ruins, for a people whose faces are set toward the future, and telling a story in which the vastness of the field of action and the play of great material forces tend to dwarf the human figures, in which it is seldom permissible to introduce the entire lives and portray the complete characters of individuals, the American historian has not so good an opportunity for many of the effects which have been as common in history as in other forms of literature. The range of motives is not so wide. Human nature is not, perhaps, so variously exhibited. The interest of it all is less intense and passionate. To many of our deepest individual experiences it scarcely relates itself at all. The springs of laughter and of tears are seldom reached. Now and then, as in Franklin, Washington, Hamilton, Lincoln, we encounter fascinating or impressive characters, but for the most part the men who come before us arouse our interest rather for their causes than for themselves. Women and children we hardly ever see at all. Our concern is less with incidents than with movements and conditions, less with individuals than with the mass. We feel ourselves to be studying races and mankind. The fact that hardly a single good play or poem, and until recent years hardly a single good statue or monument, has dealt with an episode of American history, may mean more than that the arts are backward in America. For one thing, it means to the American historian that he will not yet find the popular imagination quickened to his themes. Perhaps it means also that his material is not so good for any sort of artistic treatment as the history of older lands.
But until a master has dealt with it we cannot know that this is true. If there were a master, he might convince us that the interest and the charm of the story is only different. For indeed it does not seem altogether reasonable to suppose that in the discovery, peopling, and partitioning of a whole continent, in the founding of so many states, in our revolutions, wars, and swift upgrowth to a colossal stature of nationality, there is any dearth of material for art. Perhaps, under wise tutelage, we shall come to see in the magnitude of the theme, the spaciousness of the field, the epical directness and simplicity of the action, full compensation for any lack of that dramatic intensity which belongs to the history of France, let us say, or of Greece. For the mystery which antiquity sheds upon the stories of these older lands we have, everywhere throughout the story of our own land, prophetic intimations of things to come in our future which shall he greater than any in their past. It is through a fixed habit of thought, but a habit which we in America may conceivably change, that human affairs seem to derive a greater dignity from the dimness of their origins than from the equal twilight of their ends and outcomes. There is no sufficient reason why memorials should impress us more deeply than harbingers and portents. Life is but life, nor does it greatly matter with which of the two eternities it is shadowed.
But whatever difference of values there may be in his themes as compared with others, the American historian is unwise if lie attempts to set them forth with any new method and manner. For him, as for all historians of comparatively recent times, it is necessary, no doubt, to take account of many things which the historians of other stages of civilization, when science had made but little progress, did not need to consider. He will be drawn to generalize as they, with their scanter means of information, could not. He will also have to treat of material forces, of institutions, and of races, far more extensively than the historians of smaller and more homogeneous states. For these reasons, he may very likely find Gibbon a better model, on the whole, than Thucydides. But that he will need any new art, or any way of telling about the past essentially different from the way of the earliest and best narrators, I cannot believe. Though he will have more to tell than they had, the addition will be of little moment as compared with those great permanent elements of all history with which they also dealt. His story, like theirs, will be of the men that lived before our time ; of what manner of men they were, and what they did; and of what sort of world they lived in, and how they changed it into the world we live in now. He will do best, he will do supremely well, if he tell his story as they told theirs : simply, so that we may understand ; honestly and truthfully, so that we may profit by it; naturally, because we shall like it best if he tell it in his own way; seriously and reverently, because he will be speaking of the dead.
William Garrott Brown.
- A History of the American People. By WOODROW WILSON. 5vol3. New York ; Harper & Brothers. 1903.↩
- The. Cambridge Modern History. Vol. VII. The United States. New York: The Macmillan Co. 1903. Essays, Historical and Literary. By JOHN FISKE. 2 vols. New York: The Macmillan Co. 1903.↩
- In the Atlantic for February, 1903, Professor Emerton pointed out, very simply and convincingly, some of the reasons why.↩