Prescott the American Thucydides

The author of the definitive life of Columbus, ADMIRAL OF THE OCEAN SEA, a historian renowned for his history of the American Navy in the Second World War, a sailor who saw active duty on eleven different ships and who retired with the rank of rear admiral, SAMUEL ELIOT MORISON is a Bostonian skilled in the great tradition of Prescott and Parkman.

IN 1774 Horace Walpole wrote to Sir Horace Mann, “The next Augustan age will dawn on the other side of the Atlantic. There will perhaps be a Thucydides at Boston.”

There was; and three quarters of a century later Walpole’s friend Miss Berry, then a venerable vestal of eighty-seven, had the satisfaction of meeting him in London. His name was William Hickling Prescott, and he was being received by political, social, and literary England in a manner that no American writer has experienced before or since. Macaulay gave him a breakfast party at the Albany; the Lyells took him to Royal Ascot; Oxford conferred on him an honorary D.C.L.; and the Earl of Carlisle entertained him and Queen Victoria at Castle Howard. Prescott sat next but one to her at dinner, and described her in a letter to his wife as “very plain, with fine eyes and teeth, but short and dumpy, with a skin that reddens easily with the heat of the room. I observed that the Queen did great justice to the bread and cheese.”

This “American Thucydides,” as people were beginning to call him, was then at the height of his fame. His three greatest works, Ferdinand and Isabella, The Conquest of Mexico, and The Conquest of Peru, had appeared, greeted with enthusiasm by the critics of both continents including even the snooty Scots reviewers, and they had been eagerly bought by the public. Prescott was then a tall, well-built gentleman of fifty-four, with an infectious smile and hearty laugh that charmed everyone. A pair of well-trimmed sideburns, in the fashion of the day, framed a strong, handsome countenance with a fine Roman nose, brown eyes, and a ruddy complexion. He was lively, agile, an excellent horseman, and a fast walker; few except his intimate friends suspected that for long intervals he was racked by rheumatism and that one of his eyes was artificial.

This was in 1850, when Prescott was reaping the fruits of thirty-five years of courageous struggle to overcome a grave physical disability. It is a curious coincidence that the only other American historian, Francis Parkman, to be mentioned in the same breath with Prescott, had to undergo a similar experience.

Let us take a look at him at almost the start of the struggle. It is the year 1817. Son of a Federalist lawyer and judge, grandson of Colonel William Prescott of Bunker Hill fame, young William had gone through Harvard College gaily and easily, but lost an eye as a result of a brawl in college commons. The infection had spread to the other eye and acute rheumatism set in. After the local physicians had almost killed him with “copious bleedings and other depletions,” he had been sent to Europe in search of better medical aid than could be had in America. First he spent a winter with his maternal grandfather, Thomas Hickling, the United States consul at St. Michael’s in the Azores, and there he became sensible of the beauty and mystery of the Old World. He then made an attenuated grand tour of Europe, consulted the best eye specialists in Paris, and returned to live in his parents’ house, a big square mansion with a garden on Pearl Street, Boston. There the old malady returned. We may picture Prescott confined for days, sometimes weeks, to a dark room on the top story, a devoted sister reading aloud to him by lying on the floor where she could catch the light that came in over the threshold, since any stronger light gave the young man excruciating pain.

Yet Prescott refused to admit defeat, and gave careful thought to what he should do for a profession. And he wooed and won a girl of his own social circle, Susan Amory. They were married on his twenty-fourth birthday, and for the next twenty-four years lived with the elder Prescotts. The Amorys were one of those American Loyalist families — more numerous than is generally supposed — who managed to retain their property and social position through the turmoil of the American Revolution. Susan was a beautiful girl with a somewhat bovine character. “She didn’t go out much — as an Amory she didn’t have to,” as a granddaughter remarked; she was content to rear a family and to watch tenderly over her husband’s health and interests. He was completely and romantically devoted to her. She inherited the sword of her grandfather, who had served in the Royal Navy on board one of the British ships that supported the assault on Bunker Hill, and William inherited that of his grandfather, who commanded the provincial troops in that battle; so they had the two mounted and placed on the wall of the Prescott library. These were the famous “crossed swords” which Thackeray saw on his visit to Boston and which inspired The Virginians, as the opening paragraph of that novel relates.

Even before he married, Prescott decided to fit himself for what he called “the literary life,” although as yet he had little inclination to any particular branch of that far-spreading tree. It was not really necessary that he do anything, considering his infirmity, his social position, and his father’s generosity. But in Boston every young man was supposed to “make an effort,” as the phrase went; Prescott himself later observed that an American who neither made money nor cultivated letters might “as well go hang himself; for as to a class of idle gentlemen, there is no such thing here.” That was true in general; but even in Boston there were young men of means who did nothing in particular, and not too well at that, flitting about between New York, Newport, and London. Henry James has immortalized the type of American who rejected his native country as a hopeless Boeotia and moved to Paris or Rome to dabble in the arts or pursue some pallid branch of scholarship. Prescott was made of stouter stuff.

As A scholar he had to start from scratch, having carried away from Harvard little more than a good knowledge of Latin and Greek. After many false starts and physical relapses, and with the guidance and advice of his older friend George Ticknor, he settled at the age of twenty-nine on a history of the reigns of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain.

There were two main reasons for this choice. He wished to show his compatriots that their history had a richer and more varied background than the Virginia Colony, the Pilgrim Fathers, and the Protestant Reformation. He wished to prove to the world that an American could produce a work at once scholarly and literary that would bear comparison with the best of England, France, Germany, and Spain. He was eager for the good opinion of European scholars. They might brush off anything he could write on United States history as inconsequential; but they would have to listen to a work which was the result of prolonged research, a nice weighing of conflicting authorities, and a thorough knowledge of classical and modern languages; especially if it were well presented.

When Prescott made the great decision for Ferdinand and Isabella in 1826, ten years of almost unremitting labor were ahead of him. The material difficulties that he surmounted were even greater than his physical handicap. The way to perform the task with the greatest economy would have been to have settled in Madrid, as his friend the American minister there advised him to do. He could have worked there, or in London or Paris, far more effectively than in Boston, and have been nearer to specialists who could have kept his one good eye working. But Prescott was determined not to be an expatriate, even temporarily. He felt that he owed it to the memory of Colonel Prescott, and to his family and friends, to prove that an American could produce a literary and scholarly work of the highest quality right in Boston.

Yet how could that be done in Boston? There were no collections of old Spanish books there or anywhere else in the United States. Ticknor, blessed with ample means, imported the essential books as rapidly as he could find them and gave Prescott the run of his library; but Prescott was not content to “make new books, as apothecaries make new mixtures, by pouring out of one vessel into another,” as Tristram Shandy once remarked. He must have the original sources, and with few exceptions these were still in manuscript. In those days there was no multi-volumed set of Documentos Inéditos; the Las Casas Historia General de las Indias had never been printed, nor the better part of Oviedo, nor Andres Bernaldez’s chronicle of the Catholic Kings. These and hundreds of other manuscripts had to be copied for him in longhand. The cost was not excessive, since there were plenty of unemployed intellectuals in Europe who were glad to do such work for starvation wages; the trouble was to find responsible scholars to direct research in public and private archives and to supervise the copying. Therein the United States consuls and diplomatic officials gave indispensable aid, and Dr. Friedrich Lembke, a German who had written a history of Spain to the year 800, consented to carry on vicariously for Prescott in return for a modest retainer.

Eventually, books and copies of manuscripts began to pour in to the paternal mansion on Pearl Street, where they were placed on shelves in the son’s attic study. And he managed to surmount his physical handicap by methodical living, by having most of the material read aloud to him by a secretary who learned to pronounce Spanish, and by a simple device called a noctograph, which had been invented in London to enable the blind to write. This was a sort of slate crossed by a grid of stout brass wires between which, with an ivorypointed stylus, one could write on carbon paper, which made an indelible impression on another sheet of paper placed underneath.

WHEN‚ after ten years of work, the manuscript of Ferdinand and Isabella was completed, it was set up in type at the author’s expense and four copies printed for his close friends to criticize. These privately printed copies were hawked about English and American publishing houses for months with slight success. Finally a short-lived firm called the American Stationers Company of Boston agreed, for a thousand dollars, to print 1250 copies of the three-volume set to be retailed at six dollars, if the author would foot the bills for the stereotype plates; and Richard Bentley agreed to publish a small edition in London.

Ferdinand and Isabella appeared in Boston on Christmas Day, 1837, and in London a month or two later. It was an immediate and astounding success on both sides of the water, partly because it came as a complete surprise. The author’s name was unknown in Europe; and so well had Prescott kept his secret in Boston, where everyone was supposed to know everyone else’s business, and so gay and unrestrained had been his social life, that not more than six persons outside the immediate family knew what he had been doing. It was commonly supposed that he was reading for his own amusement. Only a week before Ferdinand and Isabella came out, an elderly relative stopped Prescott on the street to upbraid him for frittering away his life, and to tell him it was high time he amounted to something!

Prescott could have boasted, like Lord Byron‚ “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.” To a German who had called it folly to publish Spanish history in the United States, “where the taste was for nothing higher than a periodical,” Prescott wrote that 3300 sets of Ferdinand and Isabella had been sold in the first sixteen months; “that is pretty well for ‘Brother Jonathan,’ is it not? . . . The publishers indeed are quite as much surprised as I am.”

He gained the favor of the critics by his vivid and spirited narrative style, arresting as a historical novel, yet with each detail authenticated in a footnote. I shall not attempt to analyze his style, because it is to be enjoyed and admired, not plucked apart. Certain modern critics regard it as artificial (of course every style, even Hemingway’s and Joyce’s, is that); and certainly nobody would think of imitating it today. But he was a master of narrative, which history essentially is, a fact which too many modern historians have forgotten. And the quality which gave his works permanent value, and which appealed most to the more discriminating critics, was (as Roger B. Merriman wrote) “the scrupulous care and integrity with which he used his materials, and the pains that he took to find the exact truth. All his statements are supported by abundant references; if there is any possible doubt as to the interpretation of his authorities, it is fairly expressed in the footnotes; in short, one may be certain of the source for every fact which Prescott gives, though one may differ with him over the significance of it.”

Before his first work appeared, Prescott had decided on the next two, The Conquest of Mexico and The Conquest of Peru. Washington Irving, who had planned to do a Mexico himself, magnanimously dropped it in favor of the younger historian. Prescott’s Conquest of Mexico, completed in 1843, was an even greater success than his first book, and has remained his best seller. Over 20,000 sets of it were sold during his lifetime; and as he had paid for the plates himself he collected substantial royalties. But the profits from each book were plowed into preparations for the next; into copying, salaries to secretaries and researchers, purchase of books and manuscripts. Only his inherited and invested income of somewhat over twelve thousand dollars a year enabled him to carry on.

Almost everyone who reads his works assumes that Prescott visited the scenes he wrote about, so vivid and convincing are his descriptions of scenery, battlefields, and the like. But, owing to his infirmities, he never went nearer South America than Washington, D.C. His lack of physical contact with these countries was compensated by a historical imagination, well controlled by the facts as related by Bernal Diaz and the early Spanish chronicles, and developed by correspondence with people who knew these countries at first hand. The most useful to him in that respect was Madame Calderón de la Barca, whose Life in Mexico has become a classic. She was Fanny Inglis, a charming and witty Scotswoman who had a private school in Boston and became a close friend of the Prescotts. After her marriage to the Spanish minister to the United States, who was later transferred to Mexico City, she continued to interchange letters with Prescott; and it is probably owing to her devotion that he was able to write his accurate and striking descriptions of Mexico City and Teotihuacan under the Aztecs.

It was also a subject of astonished praise that a Boston Protestant like Prescott could write so understandingly of Catholics and Catholicism, even asserting that there was something to be said for the Inquisition. He was the first Englishspeaking historian of Spanish lands whom a loyal Spaniard could read without disgust. For, Unitarian though he might be by conviction, Prescott judged historical characters by the standards of their day, not by those of nineteenth-century liberalism. He regarded the Catholic Church as one of the world’s great religions, which was here to stay and not on the way out, as many liberals fondly imagined. And like other New Englanders who retained a “pious disbelief” after rejecting the Church, he found anticlericalism distasteful and the raillery of Voltaire disgusting.

Even more gratifying to Prescott than the acclaim of the critics was his popularity among all classes of American readers. When, shortly alter the Mexican War, he visited Washington, he was delighted to hear from the Secretary of the Navy that the bluejackets of the U.S.S. Delaware had petitioned him to add The Conquest of Mexico to their ship’s library; and that the secretary had not only done that, but ordered a set to be placed on board every ship of the United States Navy.

And there was one humble reader whom Prescott obtained many years after his death, whose story would have gratified him immensely. That was Edward E. Ayer, a young Middle Westerner in the First California Cavalry, U.S. Army, who in 1862 was guarding the Cerro Colorado silver mine in Arizona against attacks by the Apache. Colonel Colt, of revolver fame, had given the mine a small library, and in it trooper Ayer discovered The Conquest of Mexico, He read it through twice, “and was astonished to find that history could be so interesting.” After his discharge from the Army, Ayer was given by his father an interest in a country store in Illinois. On visiting Chicago to lay in a stock of goods he called at a bookshop and asked if they had a copy of this fascinating history. They had, and The Conquest of Peru as well, but the price was $17.50 for the set. Young Ayer — he was still only twenty-three years old — had only S3.50 to spare, but he offered to pay that for Volume I of the Mexico, and to buy a volume every month. The proprietor let him pay the $3.50 down and gave him the five volumes to take home. “My return was a triumphal procession,” wrote Mr. Ayer almost fifty years later. “I was certainly the happiest boy in the world.” And the world knows that Mr. Ayer became one of the greatest of American book collectors, to the ultimate benefit of the Newberry Library of Chicago. The place of honor in that library’s Ayer Collection is given to these identical copies, which the owner eventually had sumptuously rebound in London at a cost over tenfold that of his original investment.

PRESCOTT never wholly recovered from his physical disabilities, but he never let them get him down. Fortunately one of his secretaries recorded in detail his regimen, a Spartan one which would have crushed the life out of a less valiant and buoyant man. The scene of it is the house still numbered 55 Beacon Street, Boston, which the historian bought after the death of his father and where he wrote most of The Conquest of Peru. His atelier, as he called his study, was on the third floor, rear; one viewing the outside of it today from the little street that runs behind Beacon would suppose that a recent owner had installed a picture window there, but the two large panes of plate glass were put in by Prescott in order to afford his weak eye maximum light.

The historian rose before seven, winter or summer, mounted one of his saddle horses and rode for an hour and a half, to Jamaica Plain or Cambridge. This he called “winding himself up.” After breakfast he shaved, bathed, and changed, while Mrs. Prescott read aloud to him from a novel by Scott, Dickens, or Dumas. Prescott not only enjoyed a good novel; he learned from them how to make his histories tridimensional by including chapters on manners and morals — social history, as it is now called. At ten o’clock he went out for a half-hour walk and at ten thirty started work in his atelier. After glancing at the headlines of the morning paper, he had the secretary read aloud items that he thought would be interesting — but seldom found them so. Then came the correspondence. The secretary read letters that poured in from all parts of the world, and Prescott dictated the replies. Next came accounts. These were finished by noon, when the historian walked downtown to make purchases or talk to his friends; for all Boston, even the wharves, lay within twenty minutes walk of his house.

Returning at one, he began the real business of the day. The secretary read aloud from memoirs and other documents pertaining to the book then being written, Prescott interrupting frequently to dictate notes or to discuss the persons and events described. After all sources for the chapter at hand had been gone through, the secretary read aloud repeatedly the notes he had taken, and was often called upon to reread some of the sources. This process went on for days. Prescott was then ready to compose. He outlined the entire chapter in his mind, sometimes while sitting silent in his study, but more often when walking or riding. He wrote the first draft very rapidly, on his noctograph. The secretary numbered each sheet as it was finished and copied it in a large, round hand so that Prescott could read it himself. His memory was so remarkable that he could commit a chapter of forty or fifty printed pages to memory, mull it over on horseback, and decide on alterations and improvements. He would then dictate to his secretary the changes to be made in the manuscript and have the whole reread to him. Finally he dictated the footnotes.

This same secretary, Robert Carter, wrote after the historian’s death, “Mr. Prescott’s cheerfulness and amiability were truly admirable. He had a finely-wrought, sensitive organization; he was high-spirited, courageous, resolute, independent; was free from cant or affectation of any sort. . . . He was always gay, good-humored and manly; most gentle and affectionate to his family, most kind and gracious to all around him. . . . Though not at all diffident, he was singularly modest and unassuming. He had not a particle of arrogance or haughtiness. . . . Praise did not elate him, nor censure disturb him. . . . He was totally free from the jealousy and envy so common among authors, and was always eager, in conversation, as in print, to point out the merits of the great contemporary historians, whom many men in his position would look upon as rivals.”

Prescott dined at home at two thirty or, if with friends, at three o’clock, the then fashionable hour. He enjoyed good food, well cooked, and limited himself to exactly two and a half glasses of sherry or Madeira. At dinner he relaxed, drew out his family and friends in conversation, and never talked shop. After dinner he smoked one of the Havana cigars with which he was kept supplied by his Cuban admirers, while Mrs. Prescott read aloud again. Another half-hour solitary walk followed, and at six o’clock the secretary returned for a two-hour evening session in the study. At eight the family had supper, and at ten thirty the historian retired.

The evening session of work was omitted if Prescott attended one of his club meetings or went to an evening party with his wife. The memory of one of these was preserved by President Charles W. Eliot of Harvard. “Prexy,” in his old age, was asked by a young man whether he had ever heard Daniel Webster speak.

“Yes, once,” said Dr. Eliot. “I was six or eight years old. My father was entertaining him at dinner, and I hid in a corner of the hall on Beacon Street to catch a sight of the great man. In the procession to the dining room Mr. Webster led in Mrs. Prescott, a remarkably handsome lady; and just behind them were Mr. Prescott with Mrs. Webster, who was exceedingly plain. As they passed me, Mr. Webster, who had been talking with great animation to Mrs. Prescott, turned half around and said in his booming voice, ‘Prescott, what do you say to our swapping wives for this evening?’ ”

BESIDES the Beacon Street mansion, Prescott maintained two other homes — the ancestral farmhouse at Pepperell and a summer place at Nahant. At Pepperell he spent the spring and fall of each year, drawing strength from the soil that his ancestors had tilled for over a century; here the final chapter of The Conquest of Peru was composed. The house was rambling and unpretentious, but Prescott’s friends and their children and his children’s friends were often entertained there; life was free and easy, with riding, driving, and long walks, and charades and games in the evening. Prescott’s favorite spot was a hill behind the house, with a superb view across the Nashua Valley to the rolling country of New Hampshire, dominated by the grand Monadnock. He had a seat built on the hill and used to sit there for hours, meditating and mentally composing; Monadnock had the same fascination for him as for Emerson and Thoreau. This mansion still stands.

The summer place was a flimsy wooden cottage, long since torn down, on the rocky peninsula of Nahant, north of Boston. In the eighteen-thirties and forties Nahant was a leading American summer resort, where many of Prescott’s friends such as Longfellow, Sumner, Eliot, and Appleton passed the season, together with hundreds of visitors from New York, Philadelphia, and the South. Life at Nahant was no unmixed blessing for Prescott. He was pestered by visitors in working hours. The cottage, which he named “Fitful Head” after the dwelling of Norna in Scott’s Pirate, lay on a cliff overhanging Swallows’ Cave and so near the water that the piazza was sprinkled with spray in every gale. “It is a wild spot,” he wrote to his friend Fanny, “and the winds at this moment whistle an accompaniment to the breakers that might fill a poet’s cranium with the sublime. But I am no poet. I imagine myself however in some such place as the bold headland in the Algarve, on which Prince Henry of Portugal established his residence when he sent out his voyages of discovery.”

The Conquest of Peru was completed by the end of 1846. The reviews were even more favorable than those of Mexico. But this historian was not one to rest on his laurels. He started promptly on Philip the Second. The work was interrupted by eye trouble and rheumatism, by tours to Albany, New York, and Washington, and by his visit to England in 1850. His English friends had long been urging him to come; but remembering the rigors of his early voyage to Europe in a sailing vessel, “bumping and thumping over the qualmish billows,” he put it off until he could sail in a Cunarder, which made the voyage in only twelve days. One of his sons accompanied him, but Mrs. Prescott could not face an ocean voyage.

Prescott, like Irving and other American writers of his day, has been accused of being too deferential to the English by critics who mistake good manners for obsequiousness and regard a rude arrogance as the mark of sound Americanism. His letters are full of racy Americanisms like “OK,” but for publication he tried to write the King’s English, since he sought English-speaking readers all over the world. And to an English correspondent who sent him a long list of alleged Americanisms in The Conquest of Peru he replied, politely but firmly, that “realize” had become a verb, that “snarl” was a perfectly good noun for a tangle, and that “counterblast,” to which his friend objected, had been taken from the famous tract of King James I against tobacco. Prescott was always sturdily American; if anyone doubts that, let him read in his collected Miscellanies his gently sarcastic remarks on Englishmen visiting America or his letters describing the scenery of England, which he thought “too tame.” He longed to see “a ragged fence, or an old stump,” as in his “own, dear, wild America.”

In politics he was a steadfast liberal. His father had been a high Federalist, a member of the Hartford Convention; and the son, like almost everyone of his social standing in Boston, started as a Federalist and became a Whig. Boston society then took politics very hard and ostracized anyone who deviated from the accepted doctrine; George Bancroft, for example, was regarded as little better than a traitor after he joined the Democrats and accepted office under Polk, and Charles Sumner, until Brooks’s assault made him a martyr, was generally looked upon as the most dangerous sort of radical. But Prescott always maintained an intimate friendship with both men. Instead of becoming a reactionary late in life, in 1856 he voted for the first Republican presidential candidate, John C. Frémont, and for Anson Burlingame for Congress, although his friend and neighbor Nathan Appleton was the Whig candidate. There is no doubt that he would have supported Lincoln in 1860 if he had lived.

The first two volumes of Philip the Second, published in 1855, met with the same favorable reception as did Prescott’s earlier works. Work on the third volume was interrupted by a stroke, but it was finally published in 1858. He had started on the fourth and last when on January 27, 1859, he suffered a second stroke in his Beacon Street home and died within a few hours.

The entire community was moved by grief. Memorial meetings in Prescott’s honor were held by the historical societies and academies of which he had been a member, as far West as Illinois and as far South as Maryland; all the noted orators, from Edward Everett down, held forth. He died “a man without an enemy; beloved by all and mourned by all,” as Longfellow wrote in his diary. And Charles Sumner, writing from France, said. “There is a charm taken from Boston. Its east winds whistle more coldly around Park Street corner.”

Yet in Boston, where Prescott had so splendidly fulfilled Horace Walpole’s prophecy of an American Thucydides, there is not now, almost a century after his death, a statue, a tablet, or even an inscription to tell the visitor that here lived and worked the greatest of American historians.