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

§ 15. Its Reception and Influence

The reviews were not, however, as uniformly favourable as in Prescott’s case. The Saturday Review brought heavy artillery to bear on the ambitious American in the same number with a censorious attack upon Browning’s Men and Women and three columns upon the lack of interest in Miss Yonge’s unpretentious domestic tale, The Daisy Chain. The Review’s slashing denunciation of his flashy chapter headings was peculiarly annoying to Motley, because he had disapproved of their adoption. He comments upon this in a letter to his father, in connection with the remark that every book notice had condemned them unequivocally. The Literary Gazette found virtues in the volumes, but added: “The book is far too ponderous both in matter and style to be popular,” and commiserated Motley because his literary skill fell so far short of his diligence and learning that other writers would enter into the fruits of his labours and write more popular histories out of his store. The sequence of the prophecy proved singularly true. Motley’s Rise of the Dutch Republic has been quarried and retold in every conceivable form. One has only to glance along the shelves in the Library of Congress to see how many books are based on Motley, with due credit to him, while many more volumes, serious and romantic, less frankly owe their being to his pages. At the same time, this use of fragments has not been due to the unpopular character of the full work, as is proved by the continued sales of the three volumes.

As a compensation for the Saturday’s strictures on his work, The Westminster Review for the month following (April, 1856), had as its leading article a comprehensive paper by J. A. Froude which did full justice to the unknown American writer.

  • A history as complete as industry and genius can make it now lies before us of the first twenty years of the Revolt of the United Provinces.… It has been the result of many years of silent, thoughtful, unobtrusive labour, and unless we are strangely mistaken, unless we are ourselves altogether unfit for this office of criticising which we have undertaken, the book is one which will take its place among the finest histories in this or in any language.… All the essentials of a great writer Mr. Motley eminently possesses. His mind is broad, his industry unwearied.