The following biographical sketch by Castle Freeman appeared in HARVARD magazine, in 1996, and is a very nice, almost conversational, immensely readable introduction to this man. (Used here by kind permission of the author.)
Best remembered as the author of The Conquest of Mexico, W.H. Prescott was the preeminent American historian in an age when works of history took up more space in the literary world than they do today. The son of a well-to-do lawyer prominent in civic affairs, whose own father was one of the heroes of the Battle of Bunker Hill, Prescott received the expected Greek and Latin schooling as a boy and entered Harvard at 15.
It was at Harvard that Prescott suffered the injury that did so much to shape his life and work. He was hit in the left eye by a piece of hard bread during a food fight. Eventually the other eye was also affected. For the rest of his life, his weak and painful vision meant that he could seldom read for more than a couple of hours a day and couldn’t see to write. A part of his fame has had to do with the notion that Prescott was a blind genius, conjuring in utter darkness the vivid scenes of his great histories. In fact he was never completely blind, but the obstacle to his chosen work was not much less than total blindness would have been.
Prescott used family members, friends, and hired secretaries to read aloud to him to aid his historical studies. With their help he learned Spanish, digested thousands of pages of documents on old Spain and her outposts in the New World, and produced over the space of about 20 years his three major histories: The History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella (1837), and the “Conquests” of Mexico (1843) and Peru (1847).
In Prescott’s time, history was regarded very much as literature, perhaps, indeed, the sovereign form, at least in prose. For his generation, novels were inferior—enjoyable, but not sufficiently improving. Histories, on the other hand, might offer all the color and drama of fiction yet also be weighty with instruction. The essential modern authors in English included Gibbon, Macaulay, and Hume—all British. It was important that the young United States produce its own great historian. Despite his troubled vision, Prescott set out to make himself that historian.
It remained for him to select a subject. Spain suggested itself for several reasons. Spain and America were thought to have a certain historical affinity because Spain had sponsored Columbus’s voyages. Spain was also in the mind of Prescott’s contemporaries owing to the recent promulgation of the Monroe Doctrine. In addition, Prescott discovered that both Harvard and the Boston Athenaeum had collections relating to Spanish history. Furthermore, a friend of his was a diplomat in Madrid and agreed to find books, manuscripts, and other materials he would need.
Prescott’s first book, Ferdinand and Isabella, 10 years in the making, met with an encouraging success. His second, the three-volume Conquest of Mexico, was Prescott’s masterpiece, an epic telling of the discovery and exploration, between 1519 and 1522, by the Spanish captain Cortez and a band of a few hundred followers, of the territory of present-day Mexico City and the subduing of its people, the gifted and warlike Aztecs.
Prescott succeeded in writing history that displayed exhaustive research and meticulous detail yet was also full of life. He seems to have taken equal pains over the accuracy of his narratives and over their energy, for he planned each of his long books down to the page and was careful to furnish not only historical exposition but also plenty of wild scenery, battle-pieces, ordeals-by-nature, plots, and massacres. He was a master at picking out details to give vitality to his scenes. In Mexico, the reader accepts Prescott’s cast-the noble Cortez, his haughty and violent lieutenants, the doomed, dignified Aztec ruler Montezuma-because their historian has both authority as a scholar and art as a storyteller.
Too much art for some latter-day readers, perhaps. Prescott has come to be thought of as a Romantic historian, more devoted to highly colored, dramatic narrative than to careful analysis of the economic, social, and political life of his period. That criticism underestimates the author. His books would hardly have survived if they amounted to no more than scene-painting. Indeed, the most striking thing about them today is their scrupulous historiography. Prescott invents nothing. His accounts of the old Spanish authors who were his sources, his effort always to weigh the evidence, and the measured, judicious tone this gives to his writing, are the most characteristic qualities of his books.
The historian himself was no less popular than his histories. He lived the agreeable life of the aristocratic scholar, surrounded by books, friends, and family. A man of great personal charm, he was known all his life for his cheer and good companionship; one biographer suggests that his devotion to dining out may have posed as effective a threat to his work as did his failing eyes.
However readers in different eras react to Prescott’s characteristic blend of sober history and entertaining story, the place of his books among the American classics is secure. Prescott’s “Conquests” are among the most widely read histories in our language. On his bicentennial, their author deserves to be celebrated as one of the principal figures in America’s first great literary generation.
Castle Freeman Jr. is a writer interested in American History.