The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XVIII. Prescott and Motley

§ 10. Youthful Energy

John Lothrop Motley (1814–77) was like Prescott in being a son of Massachusetts and born with a silver spoon of pure Boston metal in his mouth. In each case New England gave to her child a heritage of sturdy character, of convinced opinions of the Channing school, of the finest lineage she had woven from British material; to birth-right she added the best quality of education that had thus far been evolved on her soil. Of this late post-colonial education it can be said that, full of short-comings as it was, it usually had this characteristic—its disciples were inspired with a desire for more. To each of these Bostonians fate granted the boon of remarkable personal beauty. These endowments fell, however, upon characters of somewhat different tendencies, while their lives took them over different courses. Prescott was a prisoner within the bounds of congenial private life, his professional activity limited to the area of his own book-room filled with the imported source-material which he could not go to seek; while Motley made his own researches, touched the past with his own fingers, so close did he come to the documents, and had, in addition, the stimulus of world contact, of hearing statesmen’s voices, of activities of which Prescott was wholly ignorant. Moreover, Prescott died in 1859, just too soon to fling off the shackles of repression which choked the free speech of Americans of his temperament before the Civil War. On the other hand, Motley, in every line of his later work on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, shows the exhilarating effect produced by the casting of the die and the ending of the compromise restraint. Born the very year Prescott finished his Harvard course, Motley was two-thirds of a generation behind the elder historian. Thus, though the immediate environment of the two Bostonians was the same, the storm brewing beyond the confines of Massachusetts had burst and had forced her conservative citizens out of their aloofness, and the Commonwealth was involved in a close bond with the other units of the Union, while Motley and his labours were still in a stage to be affected, as Prescott and his work never were, by contemporaneous politics.

From his early childhood, Motley was overflowing with expression. He was possessed to act out what he read; he made miniature theatres; he declaimed in season and out. His zeal for dramatic effect was in his blood—even though he did not evince the slightest histrionic ability or tendency. That is, he could not possibly have been an actor. It was literary expression that attracted him. He was so precocious that it would not have been surprising had his promise died out. Luckily, the colonial energy of the race was also in his blood and a New England strain well woven into the woof of his conscience so that his abilities found enduring record when, at last, he developed the powers of industry. His Harvard career was begun at the age of thirteen and completed at seventeen—an age young even for the time—and it is not surprising that his election to Phi Beta Kappa was gained only by stretching a point in his favour and including one more than the sixteen men legitimately chosen as the maximum number to be taken from each class. His class work did not give him high rank—indeed, he was rusticated for negligence—but his personality was so charming and his kind of cultivated human interest so convincing, that he could not be passed over. His facility in grasping the gist of a book was marvellous, but as it did not presage minute and accurate research, there was natural astonishment among his contemporaries over the industry evinced by his later work.