1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Parkman, Francis
PARKMAN, FRANCIS (1823-1893), American historian, was born in Boston on the 16th of September 1823. His great-grandfather, Ebenezer Parkman, a graduate of Harvard in 1721, was for nearly sixty years minister of the Congregational Church in Westborough, and was noted for his devotion to the study of history. One of this good clergyman's sons, Samuel Parkman, became an eminent merchant in Boston, and exhibited much skill in horticulture. Samuel's son, Francis Parkman, a graduate of Harvard in 1807, was one of the most eminent of the Boston clergymen, a pupil and friend of Channing, and noted among Unitarians for a broadly tolerant disposition. This Dr Parkman, a man of rare sagacity and exquisite humour, was the father of Francis Parkman, the historian. His mother was a descendant of the celebrated John Cotton. She was the daughter of Nathaniel Hall of Medford, member of a family which was represented in the convention that framed the constitution of Massachusetts in 1780.
Francis Parkman was the eldest of her six children. As a boy his health was delicate, so that it was thought best for him to spend much of his time at his grandfather Hall's home in Medford rather than in the city. That home was situated on the border of the Middlesex Fells, a rough and rocky woodland, 4000 acres in extent, as wild and savage in many places as the primeval forest. The place is within 8 m. of Boston, and it may be doubted if anywhere else can be found another such magnificent piece of wilderness so near to a great city. There young Parkman spent his leisure hours in collecting eggs, insects and reptiles, trapping squirrels and woodchucks, and shooting birds with arrows. This breezy life saved him from the artificial stupidity which is too often superinduced in boys by their school training. At the age of fourteen Parkman began to show a strong taste for literary composition. In 1841, while a student at Harvard, he made a rough journey of exploration in the woods of northern New Hampshire, where he had a taste of adventure slightly spiced with hardship. About this time he made up his mind to write a history of the last French war in America, which ended in the conquest of Canada, and some time afterwards he enlarged the plan so as to include the whole course of the American conflict between France and Great Britain; or, to use his own words, “The history of the American forest; for this was the light in which I regarded it. My theme fascinated me, and I was haunted with wilderness images day and night.” The way in which true genius works could not be more happily described. In the course of 1842 an attack of illness led to his making a journey in Italy, where he spent some time in a monastery belonging to one of the strictest of all the monastic orders, the Passionists, brethren addicted to wearing hair shirts and scourging themselves without mercy. In the young historian's eyes these good brethren were of much value as living and breathing historic material. In 1844 he graduated at Harvard with high rank.
He now made up his mind to study the real wilderness in its gloom and vastness, and to meet face to face the dusky warriors of the Stone Age. To-day such a thing can hardly be done within the United States, for nowhere does the primitive wilderness exist save here and there in shreds and patches. So recently as the middle of the 19th century, however, it covered the western half of the continent, and could be reached by a journey of 1600 or 1700 miles from Boston to the plains of Nebraska. Parkman had become an adept in woodcraft and a dead shot with the rifle, and could do such things with horses, tame or wild, as civilized people never see done except in a circus. In company with his friend and classmate, Mr Quincy Shaw, he passed several months with the Ogillalah band of Sioux. Knowledge, intrepidity and tact carried Parkman through these experiences unscathed, and good luck kept him clear of encounters with hostile Indians, in which these qualities might not have sufficed to avert destruction. It was a very important experience in relation to his life-work. This outdoor life, however, did not suffice to recruit Parkman's health, and by 1848, when he began writing The Conspiracy of Pontiac, he had reached a truly pitiable condition. The trouble seems to have been some form of nervous exhaustion, accompanied with such hypersensitiveness of the eyes that it was impossible to keep them open except in a dark room. Against these difficulties he struggled with characteristic obstinacy. He invented a machine which so supported his hand that he could write legibly with closed eyes. Books and documents were read aloud to him, while notes were made by him with eyes shut, and were afterwards deciphered and read aloud to him till he had mastered them. After half an hour his strength would give out, and in these circumstances his rate of composition for a long time averaged scarcely six lines a day. The superb historical monograph composed under such difficulties was published in 1851. It had but a small sale, as the American public was then too ignorant to feel much interest in American history.
Undeterred by this inhospitable reception, Parkman took up at the beginning his great work on France and England in the New World, to which the book just mentioned was in reality the sequel. This work obliged him to trace out, collect, arrange, and digest a great mass of incongruous material scattered on both sides of the Atlantic, a large portion of which was in manuscript, and required much tedious exploration and the employment of trained copyists. This work involved several journeys to Europe, and was performed with a thoroughness approaching finality. In 1865 the first volume of the great work appeared, under the title of Pioneers of France in the New World; and then seven-and-twenty years more elapsed before the final volumes came out in 1892. Nowhere can we find a better illustration of the French critic's definition of a great life — a thought conceived in youth, and realized in later years. After the Pioneers the sequence is The Jesuits in North America, La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West, The Old Régime in Canada, Frontenac and New France and Louis XIV., Montcalm and Wolfe, A Half Century of Conflict. As one obstacle after another was surmounted, as one grand division of the work after another became an accomplished fact, the effect upon Parkman's condition seems to have been bracing, and he acquired fresh impetus as he approached the goal. There can be little doubt that his physical condition was much improved by his habit of cultivating plants in garden and conservatory. He was a horticulturist of profound attainments, and himself originated several new varieties of flowers. His work in this department made him an enthusiastic adherent of the views of Darwin. He was professor of horticulture in the agricultural school of Harvard in 1871-1872, and published a few books on the subject of gardening. He died at Jamaica Plain, near Boston, on the 8th of November 1893.
The significance of Parkman's work consists partly in the success with which he has depicted the North-American Indians, those belated children of the Stone Age, who have been so persistently misunderstood alike by romancers, such as Cooper, and by detractors like Dr Palfrey. Parkman was the first great literary author who really understood the Indian's character and motives. Against this savage background of the forest Parkman shows the rise, progress and dramatic termination of the colossal struggle between France and Great Britain for colonial empire. With true philosophic insight he shows that France failed in the struggle not because of any inferiority in the ability and character of the men to whom the work was entrusted, but chiefly by reason of her despotic and protective régime. There is no more eloquent commentary upon the wholesome results of British self-government than is to be found in Parkman's book. But while the author deals with history philosophically, he does not, like Buckle, hurl at the reader's head huge generalizations, or, like Carlyle, preach him into somnolence. With all its manifold instructiveness, his book is a narrative as entertaining as those of Macaulay or Froude. In judicial impartiality Parkman may be compared with Gardiner, and for accuracy of learning with Stubbs.
There is a good Life by G. H. Farnham (Boston, 1900).