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

§ 2. Ill Health

Prescott’s choice of a career was hampered at the outset by defective eyesight and fragile health. A seemingly trivial incident had left a permanent mark upon his life. When he was a junior at Harvard, a crust of bread thrown by one of a careless group of skylarking students hit Prescott in the very disk of the left eye, the blow being so sudden that the lid did not have time to protect its charge. The victim’s whole system received a nervous shock. Later it was discovered that the one eye was destroyed and that the sight of the other could be preserved only by assiduous watchfulness. Prescott was able, however, to complete his college course, and maintained his standing so well that he received the appointment as Latin poet at Commencement and amidst applause delivered his hexameters Ad Spem. That was in August, 1814. He had all that a young Bostonian of a century ago could wish for, except health. He was handsome, with good and sound inheritance, cultivated surroundings, sympathetic and congenial parents and well-to-do family circumstances, and he was as well equipped for intellectual life as Harvard could make him. But ill-health barred the way to active life. All the capacity for work, for the steady occupation that enriched forty years of quiet student pursuits, had to be resolutely wooed. What was won needed careful husbanding to ensure the maximum return for the minimum nerve expenditure. But, shackled by physical limitations as he was, Prescott was fortunate in not being a prisoner of poverty. His was a case where an assured income made the labour he delighted in physic pain and then grow profitable in its turn. Far from the harvest he wanted, he was able to gather expensive source material without financial limitations.