Home  »  Volume XVI: American EARLY NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART I  »  § 9. Style and Methods; His Aloofness from Current Affairs

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

§ 9. Style and Methods; His Aloofness from Current Affairs

Prescott has been called a great amateur in the historical field, and in one sense, the term applies. Born only a year after Leopold Ranke, Prescott missed the influence spread abroad, eventually far beyond German university circles, by the great German scholar. The very vocabulary now used had not come into being. Prescott made his own standards. Nor did he have the incidental training that has been the strength of many an historian. Not trained in the methods of the École des Chartes, nor in the precise legal knowledge of jurisprudence, like Maitland, nor in active political service for his own state, nor in a school of philosophy, still less in the academic methods of research, Prescott simply assimilated language first and then events, and painted pictures of the past by a skilful union of the two. His style is a fine instrument of expression. His language plays him no tricks. He holds it in his own control, firmly, like a well-wrought, highly-tempered tool. His own temperament manifests itself very little in his writing. Nor is there any echo of contemporary politics in his treatment of the past. He is as aloof from the events passing in the United States as from those that he depicts. Possibly this is due to the peculiar state of affairs in those ante-bellum decades of the nineteenth century. He was a Bostonian who hated strife and felt that agitation was disagreeable. Thus nothing of his personal opinions and experience peeps out from between his lines as do those of Bancroft, Motley, and a score of French and Netherland writers whose pages are coloured by their attitude towards their immediate present. Perhaps had Prescott survived the outbreak of the Civil War his sentiments would have changed. Those of many compromisers did. But he passed from the scene before the outbreak, and thus is crystallized as a figure detached from strife, a non-partisan, hard-working yet leisurely historian, sheltered from the hard things of life, almost untouched by his generation, endowed with the best New England could give to a few of her sons, and with the type of New England conscience that led him to use the talents he had but which also permitted him to hold aloof from his country’s troubles as from something almost unclean.

Yet how many of his fellow-countrymen found his work grateful can be seen from the number of his books that were scattered over the land. Since 1837, editions of his books have appeared at frequent intervals. Exact figures seem difficult to obtain, but many thousand copies have been sold, while several editions of translations have appeared in Spain, in France, in Italy, in Germany, and in Holland.