William Hickling Prescott: A Sketch from 1911

The following biographical sketch appeared in The 1911 Encyclopedia, based on a century-old version of Encyclopedia Brittanica. The original URL is now broken.





American historian, was born in Salem, Massachusetts, on the 4th of May 1796. His grandfather was Colonel William Prescott (1726 -1795), who commanded at the battle of Bunker Hill; and his father was a well-known lawyer. He received his earlier education in his native city, until the removal of his family in 1808 to Boston. He entered Harvard College in the autumn of 1811, but almost at the outset his career was interrupted by an accident which affected the subsequent course of his life. A hard piece of bread, flung at random in the Commons Hall, struck his left eye and destroyed the sight. After graduating honorably in 1814 he entered his fathers office as a student of law; but in January 1815 the uninjured eye showed dangerous symptoms of inflammation. When at last in the autumn he was in condition to travel, it was determined that he should pass the winter at St Michaels and in the spring obtain medical advice in Europe. His visit to the Azores, which was constantly broken by confinement to a darkened room, is chiefly noteworthy from the fact that he there began the mental discipline which enabled him to compose and retain in memory long passages for subsequent dictation; and, apart from the gain in culture, his journey to England, France, and Italy (April 1816 to July 1817) was scarcely satisfactory. The verdict of the physicians was that the injured eye was hopelessly paralysed, and that the preservation of the sight of the other depended upon the maintenance of his general health. His further pursuit of the legal profession seemed to be out of the question, and on his return to Boston he remained quietly at home. On 4th May 1820 he was married to Miss Susan Amory. Prior to his marriage he had made a few experiments in composition, but he now finally decided to devote his life to literature. A review of Byron’s Letters on Pope in 1821 constituted his first contribution to the North American Review, to which he continued for many years to send the results of his slighter researches. He next turned to French literature, and to the early English drama and ballad literature. Of the direction and quality of his thought at this time he has left indications in his papers on Essay-Writing (1822) and on French and English Tragedy (1823). In pursuance of his method of successive studies he began in 1823 the study of Italian literature, passing over German as demanding more labor than he could afford. In the following year he made his first acquaintance with the literature of Spain under the influence of his friend and biographer, Ticknor; and, while its attractiveness proved greater than he had at the outset anticipated, the comparative novelty of the subject as a fie]d for research served as an additional stimulus.

In the meantime his aims had been gradually concentrating. History had always been a favorite study with him, and Mably’s Observations sur L’Histoire appears to have had considerable influence in determining him to the choice of some special period for historic research. The selection, however, was not finally made without prolonged hesitation. It was not till the 19th of January 1826 that he recorded in the private memoranda begun by him in 1820 his decision to embrace the gift of the Spanish subject. The choice was certainly a bold one. He could only use the eye which remained to him for brief and intermittent periods, and as travelling affected his sight prejudicially he could not anticipate any personal research amongst unpublished records and historic scenes. He was happy, however, in the possession of ample means and admirable friends; and he sketched with no undue restriction or hesitancy the plan of the History of tile reign of Ferdinand and Isabella’s first great work. Mr. English, one of his secretaries, has furnished a picture of him at this period seated in a study lined on two sides with books and darkened by green screens and curtains of blue muslin, which required readjustment with almost every cloud that passed across the sky. His writing apparatus a noctograph lay before him, and he kept his ivory style in his hand to jot down notes as the reading progressed. In accordance with his general method these notes were in turn read over to him until he had completely mastered them, when they were worked up in his memory to their final shape. So proficient did he become that he was able to retain the equivalent of sixty pages of printed matter in his memory, turning and returning them as he walked or drove. The rate of progress was necessarily slow, apart from any liability to interruption by other undertakings and failures in bodily health. He still continued his yearly experimental contributions to the North American Review, elaborating them with a view as much to ultimate historical proficiency as to immediate literary effect, the essays on Scottish Song (1826), Novel-Writing (1827), Moliere (1828), and Irving’s Granada (1829) belonging to this preparatory period. On the 6th of October 1829 he began the actual work of composition, which was continued without more serious interruptions than those occasioned by the essays on Asylums for the Blind (1830), Poetry and Romance of the Italians (1831), and English Literature of the 19th Century (1832), until the 25th of June 1836, when the concluding note was written. Another year, during which his essay on Cervantes appeared, was spent in the final revision of the history for the press. Its success upon its publication in Boston was immediate. Arrangements were speedily made for its publication in England, and there its success was not less marked. From the position of an obscure reviewer Prescott suddenly found himself elevated to the first rank of contemporary historians.

After coquetting for a short time with the project of a life of Molière he decided to follow in the track of his first work with a History of the Conquest of Mexico. Washington Irving, who had already made preparations to occupy the same field, generously withdrew in his favor. The work was completed in August 1843, the five years labor having been broken by the composition of reviews of Lockhart’s Life of Scott (1838), Kenyon’s Poems (1839), Chateaubriand (1839), Bancroft’s United States (1841), Mariott’s Italy (1842), and Madame Calderon’s Life in Mexico (1843), and by, the preparation of an abridgment of his Ferdinand and Isabella in anticipation of its threatened abridgment by another hand. On the 6th of December 1843 the Conquest of Mexico was published with a success proportionate to a wide reputation won by his previous work. The careful methods of work which he had adopted from the outset had borne admirable fruit. While the consultation of authorities had been no less thorough, his style had become more free and less self-conscious; and the epic qualities of the theme were such as to call forth in the highest degree his powers of picturesque narration.

It was only a step from the conquest of Mexico to that of Peru, and scarcely three months elapsed before he began to break ground on the latter subject. In February 1845 he received the announcement of his election as corresponding member of the French Institute in place of the Spanish historian Navarrete, and also of the Royal Society of Berlin. The winter found him arranging for the publication in England of the selection from his articles and reviews which appeared in 1845, under the title of Critical and Historical Essays, and was issued almost contemporaneously at New York under the title of Biographical and Critical Miscellanies. The Conquest of Peru was completed in November 1846 and published in March following. His misgivings as to its reception were at once set at rest, and it was speedily issued in translations into French, Spanish, German and Dutch, in addition to the English editions of New York, London and Paris.

He was now over fifty and his sight showed serious symptoms of enfeeblement. Although during the composition of the Ferdinand and Isabella it had been of very intermittent service to him, it had so far improved that he could read with a certain amount of regularity during the writing of the Conquest of Mexico, and also, though in a less degree, during the years devoted to the Conquest of Peru. Now, however, the use of his remaining eye had been reduced to an hour a day, divided into portions at wide intervals, and he was driven to the conclusion that whatever plans he made must be formed on the same calculations as those of a blind man. He had been for many years collecting materials for a history of Philip II., but he hesitated for some time to attempt a work of such magnitude, occupying himself in the meantime with the slighter labors of a memoir of John Pickering for the Massachusetts Historical Society and the revision of Ticknor’s History of Spanish Literature. But in March 5848 he set himself with characteristic courage to the accomplishment of the larger project. He had been fortunate in obtaining the aid of Don Pascual de Gayangos, then professor of Arabic literature at Madrid, by whose offices he was enabled to obtain material not only from the public archives of Spain but from the muniment rooms of the great Spanish families. With an exceptional range of information thus afforded him, he wrote the opening of his history in July 1849; but, finding himself still unsettled in his work, he decided in the spring of the following year to carry out a long projected visit to England. The idea of writing memoirs was dismissed in favor of the more elaborate form, and in November 1855 the first two volumes of his uncompleted History of Philip II. were issued from the press, their sale eclipsing that of any of his earlier books. This was his last great undertaking; but as Robertson’s Charles V., in the light of new sources of information, was inadequate to take its place as a link in the series, he republished it in an improved and extended form in December 1856. A slight attack of apoplexy on the 4th of February 1858 foretold the end, though he persevered with the preparation of the third volume of Philip II. for the press, and with the emendation and annotation of his Conquest of Mexico. On the morning of the 27th of January 1859 a second attack occurred, and he died in the afternoon of the same day in his sixty-third year.

As an historian Prescott stands in the direct line of literary descent from Robertson, whose influence is clearly discernible both in his method and style. But, while Robertson was in some measure the initiator of a movement, Prescott came to his task when the range of information was incomparably wider and when progress in sociologic theory had thrown innumerable convergent lights upon the progress of events. He worked, therefore, upon more assured ground; his sifting of authorities was more thorough and his method less restricted. At the same time he cannot be classed as in the highest sense a philosophic historian. His power lies chiefly in the clear grasp of fact, in selection and synthesis, in the vivid narration of incident. For extended analysis he had small liking and faculty; his critical insight is limited in range, and he confines himself almost wholly to the concrete elements of history. When he does venture upon more abstract criticism his standards are often commonplace and superficial, and the world scheme to which he relates events is less profound than the thought of his time altogether warranted. Moreover, the authorities on whom he relied have had to be corrected since in many points of detail in the light of later archaeological research. If these things, however, indicate Prescott’s deficiencies from the point of view of ideal history, few historians have had in a higher degree that artistic feeling in the broad arrangement of materials which ensures popular interest. The course of his narrative is unperplexed by doubtful or insoluble problems. The painting is filled in with primary colors and with a free hand; and any sense of crudity which may be awakened by close inspection is compensated by the vigour and massive effectiveness of the whole.

Prescott’s works in 16 vols. were edited by J. F. Kirk in 1870-1874. His Life was written by George Ticknor (I864; revised 1875). There are later lives by R. Ogden (1904) and H. T. Peck (1905).


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