Century Magazine/Volume 45/Issue 1/Francis Parkman

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Francis Parkman was born in Boston, September 16, 1823, in a fine old house of the colonial period, fronting on Bowdoin Square, with a grass-plot before it, shaded by tall horse-chestnut trees, and a garden behind it full of fruit-trees and honest old-fashioned flowers. Like many other eminent New Englanders, he came of a clerical ancestry. His great-grandfather, by birth a Bostonian, was the first minister of Westborough, Massachusetts.

It is worth mentioning that a son of this clergyman, at the age of seventeen, served as private in a Massachusetts regiment during that old French war, as it used to be called, to which his grandnephew has given a deeper meaning, and which he has made alive to us again in all its vivid picturesqueness of hardihood and adventure. Another of his sons, returning to Boston, became a successful merchant there, a man of marked character and public spirit, whose fortune, patiently acquired in the wise fashion of those days, would have secured for his grandson a life of lettered ease had he not made the nobler choice of spending it in strenuous literary labor. One of this merchant’s sons, a clergyman, was our author’s father. He still survives in traditions of an abundant and exquisite humor, provoked to wilder hazards, and set in stronger relief (as in Sterne) by the decorum of his cloth. Two professorships in Harvard College perpetuate the munificence of Mr. Parkman’s family. Energy of character and aptitude for culture were a natural inheritance from such ancestors, and both have been abundantly illustrated in the life of their descendant.

Whether through deliberate forethought or unconscious instinct, Mr. Parkman entered early into an apprenticeship for what was to be the work of his life. While yet in college, as we are informed by a note in his "Montcalm and Wolfe," he followed on foot the trail of Rogers the Ranger in his retreat from Lake Memphremagog to the Connecticut in 1759. In 1846, two years after taking his degree at Harvard, he made an expedition, demanding as much courage as endurance, to what was still the Wild West, penetrating as far as the Rocky Mountains, and living for months among the Dakotas, as yet untainted in their savage ways by the pale-face. Since Major Jonathan Carver, no cultivated man of English blood has had such opportunities for studying the character and habits of the North American Indian.

The exposures and privations of this journey were too much even for Mr. Parkman’s vigorous constitution, and left him a partial cripple for life. As if this were not enough, another calamity befell him in after years,—the most dire of all for a scholar,—in a disease of the eyes which made the use of them often impossible and at best precarious. But such was his inward and spiritual energy, that, in spite of these hopeless impediments, he has studied on the spot the scenery of all his narratives, and has contrived to sift all the wearisome rubbish heaps of documents, printed or manuscript, public or private, where he could hope to find a scrap of evidence to his purpose.

It is rare, indeed, to find, as they are found in him, a passion for the picturesque and a native predilection for rapidity and dash of movement in helpful society with patience in drudgery and a scrupulous deference to the rights of facts, however disconcerting, as at least sleeping-partners in the business of history. Though never putting on the airs of the philosophic historian, or assuming his privilege to be tiresome, Mr. Parkman never loses sight of those links of cause and effect, whether to be sought in political theory, religious belief, or mortal incompleteness, which give to the story of Man a moral, and reduce the fortuitous to the narrow limits where it properly belongs.

There was a time, perhaps more fortunate than ours, when Clio, if her own stylus seemed too blunt, borrowed that of Calliope, that she might "submit the shews of things to the desires of the mind," and give an epic completeness to her story. Nature had not yet refused her sympathy to men of heroic breed, and earth still shuddered, sun and moon still veiled their faces at the right tragical crisis. The historian could then draw on the accumulated fancy of mankind in the legend, or on the sympathy of old religion in the myth. He was not only permitted, but it was a prime function of his office that he should fuse together and stamp in one shining medal of ideal truth all that shabby small change of particulars, each bearing her debased and diminished image, which we in our day are compelled to accept as an equivalent. Then the expected word was always spoken by the right man at the culminating moment, while now it is only when Fortune sends us a master of speech like Lincoln that we cease to regret the princely largess of Thucydides, Livy, and Tacitus.

Surely it was a piece of good luck for us that a man of genius should do the speaking for those who were readier with deeds than with the phrases to trick them out heroically. Shakspere is the last who has dealt thus generously with history in our own tongue. But since we can no longer have the speech that ought to have been spoken, it is no small compensation to get that which was spoken; for there is apt to be a downrightness and simplicity in the man of action’s words that drive his meaning home as no eloquence could.

It is a great merit in Mr. Parkman that he has sedulously culled from his ample store of documents every warranted piece of evidence of this kind that could fortify or enliven his narrative, so that we at least come to know the actors in his various dramas as well as the events in which they shared. And thus the curiosity of the imagination and that of the understanding are together satisfied. We follow the casualties of battle with the intense interest of one who has friends or acquaintance there. Mr. Parkman’s familiarity also with the scenery of his narratives is so intimate, his memory of the eye is so vivid, as almost to persuade us that ourselves have seen what he describes. We forget ourselves to swim in the canoe down rivers that flow out of one primeval silence to lose themselves in another, or to thread those expectant solitudes of forest (insuetum nemus) that seem listening with stayed breath for the inevitable ax, and then launch our birchen eggshells again on lakes that stretch beyond vision into the fairyland of conjecture. The world into which we are led touches the imagination with pathetic interest. It is mainly a world of silence and of expectation, awaiting the masters who are to subdue it and to fill it with the tumult of human life, and of almost more than human energy.

One of the convincing tests of genius is the choice of a theme, and no greater felicity can befall it than to find one both familiar and fresh. All the better if tradition, however attenuated, have made it already friendly with our fancy. In the instinct that led him straight to subjects that seemed waiting for him so long, Mr. Parkman gave no uncertain proof of his fitness for an adequate treatment of them.

Notes[edit]

  1. This essay was undertaken at our request by Mr. Lowell, and was left unfinished at his death. It has the melancholy interest of being the last piece of writing prepared by him for publication.—Editor of The Century.