An Introduction to William H. Prescott

The grandson of Col. William Prescott, like his father – also William – but now with a middle initial H, for Hickling after his maternal grandfather Thomas Hickling. [See my posts here, here, and here.] He was subsequently known simply as “William Prescott, the historian.”

The Massachusetts Historical Society has a very good, very concise, biographical overview of William H. Prescott. They based it on the massive work by Prescott’s friend, George Tichnor, Prescott’s Life, 1864.

 

126

William Hickling Prescott

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The URL for this short essay is: http://www.masshist.org/collection-guides/view/fa0222

William Hickling Prescott was an historian and author distinguished for his writings about the rise and fall of the Spanish Empire. His most well-known books include The History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella the Catholic (1837), History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843), History of the Conquest of Peru (1847), and his unfinished History of the Reign of Philip the Second (Vol. I and II, 1855; Vol. III, 1858). Prescott’s histories received critical and popular success during his lifetime, and today, although outdated, they are still widely known and read in the historical community.

 

Born on 4 May 1796 in Salem, Mass., Prescott was the son of William Prescott (1762-1844), a prominent Boston attorney, and Catherine Greene Hickling Prescott, and the grandson of William Prescott (1726-1795), a United States colonel at the Battle of Bunker Hill during the Revolutionary War. Prescott spent his early school years in Salem studying under Jacob Newman Knapp until his father moved the family to Boston in 1808. In Boston, he studied first under Eleazer Moody of Drummer Academy and later under Dr. John Gardner, rector of Trinity Church in Boston.

In 1812, Prescott entered Harvard University with the intention of becoming an attorney like his father. In 1815, he was blinded in the left eye by a hard piece of bread thrown in a dining hall ruckus. Soon after the accident, he began to suffer from “rheumatism” and inflammation in his right eye, an ailment that would plague him for the rest of his life. Prescott graduated from Harvard in 1815, but it was already apparent that he would not study for the bar.

In September 1815, Prescott set sail from Boston to visit his maternal grandfather Thomas Hickling, a Boston merchant and United States consul, on St. Michael’s Island in the Azores, and to focus on improving the condition of his eyes. He suffered greatly during the voyage from the “rheumatism” and inflammation in his right eye and subsequently spent most of his time on St. Michael’s in a darkened room. In April 1816, he sailed from the Azores for London, where he met with several expert oculists who determined that the blindness in his left eye was permanent and the ailment in his right eye incurable. After visiting England, Italy, and France, he returned to Boston in the summer of 1817, with little improvement to his condition. Unable to pursue a law career, Prescott spent the next several years in leisure, being read history and the classics by family and friends.

During this time, Prescott and several friends began a literary and social group that they named “The Club.” They wrote essays and met frequently to critique each other’s writings, and in early 1820, they began producing a periodical called The Club Room, with Prescott as the editor. The periodical lasted only four issues, but made a strong impression on Prescott that ultimately led him to a “life of letters.”

On 4 May 1820, Prescott married Susan Amory. The marriage of nearly 50 years produced three children: Elizabeth, William Amory, and William Gardner Prescott. Soon after his marriage and the demise of his periodical, Prescott began his literary career. Due to the problems with his eyes, Prescott was a fastidious planner and created elaborate short-term and long-term study schedules for himself. With the help of a personal assistant and his noctograph, a writing apparatus for the blind, he began his studies in 1821 with English and American history, moving on to French in 1822 and Italian in 1823. The next step in Prescott’s plan was to study German, but after just a short while he found German not to his liking, and he abandoned his studies in frustration. At this time, Prescott’s long-time friend George Ticknor had been teaching Spanish literature at Harvard University for several years. To merely “amuse and occupy” his friend, Ticknor spent the fall of 1824 reading his lectures to Prescott, and that November, Prescott replaced his German studies with Spanish.

Although always social, Prescott spent the majority of the rest of his life writing letters, doing research, and composing his histories at his three homes in Boston, Nahant, and Pepperell, Mass. He traveled occasionally but, because of his eye problems, rarely ventured outside of the United States. To find and obtain the Spanish, Mexican, and Peruvian books and manuscripts needed for his research, he frequently corresponded with friends, colleagues, and booksellers living or visiting outside the United States to assist him. Prescott maintained long-term correspondence with many famous people, including Charles Dickens, whom Prescott supported in his crusade for international copyright laws. Prescott maintained his strict schedule for his entire career, and because he was so diligent in the care of his eye, never lost his eyesight completely.

Prescott suffered a small stroke in January 1858 and died a year later on 28 January 1859 from another more massive stroke.

 

SOURCE:

Ticknor, George. Prescott’s Life. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1864.

 

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