Home  »  Volume XVI: American EARLY NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART I  »  § 7. The Conquest of Mexico; The Conquest of Peru

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

§ 7. The Conquest of Mexico; The Conquest of Peru

Stimulated by the prompt recognition accorded to him, Prescott turned to his next venture, The Conquest of Mexico. It is characteristic of his methods that his first step towards beginning the narration in which one figure, Hernando Cortes, was to hold the centre of the stage, was the examination of certain celebrated biographical records of exploits—Voltaire’s Charles XII, Livy’s Hannibal, Irving’s Columbus. His criticism of the last is that the interest flags at the end. That is just what can be said of his own Mexico, finished in 1844. Where the glow of achievement is ahead of his hero, the narrative marches and carries the reader on. Or is it that Bernal Diaz carries the story triumphantly up to the Aztec city? Prescott’s method of assimilating his authority, instead of giving excerpts, was used to good purpose here, and his paraphrases are very vivid. For instance, in describing the Spanish army as it came in sight of the lake-city: “A scene so new and wonderful filled their rude hearts with amazement. It seemed like enchantment and they could find nothing to compare it with but the magic pictures in Amadis de Gaula.” This is a clever turn to the simple statement by the chronicler of the Spaniards’ first impressions of the Aztec city. Bernal Diaz, the veteran soldier, unskilled in letters, moved to set down his recollections of the great events in which he had participated half a century back, because Gomara’s official history gave Cortes undue, and his comrades insufficient, credit for the Conquest, was a delightful guide to follow. His untaught phrases are alive and Prescott makes them more so. While later judgment discounts some of the conquistadore’s statements, it cannot deny the fact that it was these glowing descriptions that affected the European imagination of the sixteenth century. For the ultimate rating of the veracity of the complaisant adventurer archæology has brought its later contribution, and of that science Prescott was ignorant, as was the rest of the world when he wrote. He almost relinquished the idea of his Mexico on hearing that Washington Irving had a similar scheme in mind. This would have been a real loss, as Irving’s gentle raking over of unknown ground could not have produced as good fruit as Prescott’s digging certainly did. Both The Conquest of Mexico and The Conquest of Peru were important works in the development of American literature and the American attitude towards knowledge. Neither the reputation nor the libraries of New England could have spared them.