Century Magazine/Volume 45/Issue 1/Note on the Completion of Francis Parkman's Work
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Volume 45, Issue 1 (November, 1892)Note on the Completion of Mr. Parkman's Work
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But it is possible that the historian of the last quarter of the nineteenth century in America will find few events more notable than the completion of the work of Mr. Francis Parkman—that series of historical narratives, now at last grown to one whole, in which the romantic story of the rise, the marvelous expansion, and the ill-fated ending of the French power in North America is for the first time adequately told. Since its charms have been set before us in Mr. Parkman's picturesque pages, it is easy to understand that it is one of the finest themes that ever engaged the pen of the historian. But before a creative spirit had brooded upon it, while it yet lay formless and void, none but a man of original genius could have discovered a theme fit for a master in the history of a remote and provincial failure. And yet in no episode of human history is the nature of man seen in more varied action than in this story of the struggles of France and England in the new world. Here is the reaction of an old and civilized world on a new and barbarous continent, here are the far-reaching travels and breathless adventures of devoted missionaries, ambitious explorers and soldiers, money-getting traders, and coureurs des bois. What a network of motives—religious, patriotic, and personal—is displayed in this emulation of races, religions, of savage tribes, of European nationalities, of military and commercial adventurers, of intriguing statesmen and provincial magnates. The reader lives in the very effervescence that produced our modern America. In these contests were decided the mastery of the white man and the extinction of the red, the dominance of the Anglo-Saxon on the continent, and the prevalence of the English tongue, and these conflicts played an important part in the evolution of institutions that are neither English nor French.
A great writer, like any other great character, is the offspring of two things: the man, and an opportunity suited to the outfit of the man. Francis Parkman gravitated to the wilderness in his early manhood, and lived among the savages as an acute observer of their customs and their spirit. His literary life has followed the trend of his individuality. He early began to write of frontier adventure and character, at first in fiction, and then in the remarkable series of historic compositions that now forms one of the great monuments of our literature. Never has the very soul of the wilderness been better understood and reproduced than in some of these histories.
There has arisen in our time a new school of historians, men of large and accurate scholarship, who are destitute of skill in literary structure, and who hold style in contempt. They dump the crude ore of history into their ponderous sentences, and leave the reader to struggle with it as he can. There are writers of a higher type who fail, through no fault of their own, to acquire an attractive style of narration. The late George Bancroft, with all his vast erudition, and his ambitious manner, will never be read for pleasure, and Mr. Freeman's diffuse and journalistic diction is an eddying tide that only a courageous reader cares to stem. Away over on the other hand are the books of Mr. Froude, which are interesting enough to people willing to read narratives "founded on fact." Mr. Parkman belongs distinctly to the class of learned historical scholars who are also skilful and charming writers. His books, to borrow a phrase from Augustin Thierry, are important "additions to historical science, and at the same time works of literary art."
It is no part of my purpose to write a criticism of Mr. Parkman's books. I write only to celebrate the completion of a work that is a lasting honor to our age and nation. In his forty-five years of work Mr. Parkman has ripened his judgment and matured his style, and the later books show a fuller mastery of the art of writing history, and a more severe taste, than the earlier productions of the same series. I do not believe that the literature of America can show any historical composition at once so valuable and so delightful as the two volumes, entitled "Wolfe and Montcalm," with which the whole work culminates.