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

§ 3. Self-training

Seven years after graduation, Prescott was still on the eve of setting himself to serious work within his capacity. By that date he had been married a year to Susan Amory, found in the circle of cultivated, prosperous Bostonians in which the Prescotts moved, and he was wonderfully fortunate in his wife. She was a splendid comrade for her husband in the sheltered life that had to be his lot. Prescott’s early ventures at travelling, while they gave him a little experience of life in the Azores and slight glimpses of England and Paris, proved conclusively that changes exposed him to the risk of incapacitating suffering, though with favourable conditions he might exert himself to good effect. Thus it was, in 1821, that he decided to take up his pen as an occupation. Very deliberately he proceeded to examine the tools of expression that were ready to his hand. He found them very defective. He had no well-based accurate knowledge of English, let alone modern languages. Accordingly, on 30 October, 1821, he planned a preliminary course to lay accurate foundations for a literary career. Blair’s Rhetoric, Lindley Murray, the introductory chapter of Johnson’s Dictionary were studied as though the student were a small schoolboy instead of a Harvard graduate of seven years standing. At the same time he ploughed through a long course of English literature. Ascham, Bacon, Browne, Raleigh, and Milton, besides the sermons of eminent divines, were read to him in chronological series, while he used his own sight for an hour of Latin daily. At the end of the year he felt he had broken ground only. A temporary improvement in his eye enabled him to plunge into French authors from Froissart to Chateaubriand, still devoting a part of each day to hearing English drama from Heywood to Dryden. With his friend Ticknor, Prescott kept up a third line of English reading, connected with Scandinavian and Teutonic themes and compositions. In 1823, Sismondi’s Littérature du Midi prepared him for Italian letters, which he proceeded to explore systematically and intelligently. Two articles in The North American Review contained his impressions on this field; they were written con amore, as the change from French to Italian had been to him especially stimulating and refreshing. The latter language was far more to his taste than the former. German was his next desire, but it had to be abandoned as too difficult for his partial eyesight.