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

§ 12. Novels

When the wanderer returned to Boston he continued his preparation for law, but it never became his serious profession. He had to write, and his first venture was a novel called Morton’s Hope. Published anonymously, it fell flat. Nor did it deserve success, although, at first view, the writer seems to have had both the training and the qualifications for a romancer. Foreign travel and study had widened his vision; he had really studied languages on the basis of a good preliminary education; and he had a fertile and graphic imagination. Moreover, at the time of writing, he was fairly bubbling over with personal happiness. The novel appeared in 1839, two years after his marriage to the sister of Park Benjamin, an intimate friend of Motley, while another intimate friend, Joseph Lewis Stackpole, married Mrs. Motley’s sister. A close circle of friends was thus formed—affectionate yet all critical of each other. Mary Benjamin Motley seems, from all testimoney, to have been a very rare person, whose comradeship with her husband was singularly perfect throughout her life. But despite such good auspices, Morton’s Hope failed. The critics scarcely noticed the book, although one did admit that it must have been “written by a person of uncommon resources of mind and scholarship.” As a work of art the story deserved oblivion. It is full of chronological anachronisms, the diction is bombastic and strained, the composition is faulty. The one interest in the book is that there are certain autobiographical suggestions in the reflections and self-contemplations of the hero. There is an underlying thread of aspirations, “disguised,” says Dr. Holmes, “under a series of incidents, which are flung together with no more regard to the unities than a pack of cards.”

The failure of his first venture did not deter Motley from making another trial in the same direction. His second novel Merry Mount, not published until 1849, was semi-historic in character. The scene is laid in Massachusetts in 1628—“in that crepuscular period which immediately preceded the rise of the Massachusetts Colony and possesses more of the elements of romance than any subsequent epoch,” writes the author in his preface. The book plays with theological revolt and separatist movements, and introduces adventurers of somewhat dime-novel calibre to shock Puritan sentiments and to impress Indians by aristocratic hauteur.

But with all his knowledge of fundamental facts and of local colour, the author failed to command attention. Merry Mount is not bad, but it is dull. The characters do not carry the slightest conviction. They are simple bundles of attributes, and some of the bundles have a sensational taint. Contemporary reviews did not slight the book. The North American Review actually devoted seventeen pages to an abstract of the tale, in order to prove that the early settlement of New England was not a good field for fiction: “Later events only make the period interesting,” “The conditions are too hard,” “Romantic elements are lacking.” The reviewer concludes with saying that he has been agreeably disappointed, on the whole, but he does not consider the romance a fair specimen of what the writer can achieve.