« 이전계속 »
ART. I.-1. History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic. By WILLIAM H. PREscott. Tenth edition, 3 vols. 8vo. New-York: Harper & Brothers. 2. History of the Conquest of Merico; with a Preliminary View of the Ancient Mearican Civilization, and the Life of the Conqueror, Hernando Cortés. By WILLIAM. H. PREscott. Eighth edition, 3 vols. 8vo. New-York: Harper & Brothers. 3. Biographical and Critical Miscellanies. By WILLIAM H. PREscott. 1 vol. 8vo. New-York: Harper & Brothers. 4. History of the Conquest of Peru; with a Preliminary View of the Civilization of the Incas. By WILLIAM H. PREscott. 2 vols. 8vo. New-York: Harper & Brothers.
THE publication of Mr. Prescott's “Peru” affords us an opportunity for which we have long waited, to attempt an estimate of his powers as an historian, and to give some account of his works. To him belongs the rare distinction of uniting solid merit with extensive popularity. He has been exalted to the first class of historians, both by the popular voice and the suffrages of the learned. By avoiding all tricks of flippancy or profundity to court any class of readers, he has pleased all. His last history is devoured with as much avidity as the last novel; while, at the same time, it occupies the first place in the pages of the reviews. His fame, also, is not merely local, or even national. It is as great at London, Paris, and Berlin, as at Boston or New-York. His works have been translated into Spanish, German, French, and Italian; and into whatever region they have penetrated they have met a cordial welcome, and done much to raise the character of American letters and scholarship. In England his success has probably been beyond that of any other American author. The tone of the En
glish press toward our publications has too often been either patronizing or insolent. But Mr. Prescott's histories have been spared both the impertinence of condescension and the impertinence of abuse, and judged according to their intrinsic merits. The best evidence, perhaps, of his transatlantic reputation is to be found in his membership of numerous literary associations abroad. We perceive that since the publication of “The Conquest of Peru,” he has been chosen a member of the Royal Society of Literature, and also of the Society of Antiquaries. The last honor he shares with but one other American. It is needless to say that a reputation so extensive could only result from sterling excellences. Some of Mr. Prescott's popularity may, doubtless, be attributed to the peculiar disadvantages under which he has prosecuted his historical researches. That a man nearly blind should collect a large mass of rare chronicles and MSS., and attempt the composition of histories requiring the utmost industry, sagacity, and toil, is of itself sufficient to awaken attention and almost to confer fame. But Mr. Prescott's works require no apology founded on the obstacles he has surmounted. They can stand the tests we apply to similar compositions without any call upon the charity of reader or reviewer. Indeed, though the historian cannot dispense with the use of his eyes without being subjected to numberless annoyances which might well discourage the most patient and energetic of men, the value of his history must come, after all, from his own mind and character. It is not the channel through which facts and authorities pass into the head, but the shape in which they come out of the head, which is of the most importance. The real difficulties which Mr. Prescott has surmounted are intellectual, and inherent in his subjects and materials. These difficulties can hardly be appreciated by a superficial reader of his histories. They are not perceived until we consider out of what obstinate materials he has drawn his consistent, animated, and picturesque narrative, and reflected upon that peculiar combination of qualities by which he has been enabled to perform it with such splendid success. The distinguishing merit of Mr. Prescott is his power of vividly representing characters and events in their just relations, and applying to them their proper principles. He thus presents a true exhibition of the period of time he has chosen for his subject, enabling the reader to comprehend its peculiar character, to realize its passions and prejudices, and at once to observe it with the eye of a contemporary, and judge it with the calmness of a philosopher. To succeed in this difficult object of historical art, requires not only mental powers of a high order, but a general healthiness of moral and intellectual constitution which is uncommon, even among historians who evince no lack of forcible thought and intense conception. History is false not only when the historian willfully lies, but also when facts, true in themselves, are forced out of their proper relations through the unconscious operation of the historian's feelings, prejudices, or modes of thought. He thus represents, not his subject, but his subject as modified by his own character. Certain facts and persons are exaggerated into undue importance, while others are unduly depressed, in order that they may more readily fall within the range of his generalizations, or harmonize with his preconceived opinions. He may have a system so fixed in his mind, or a passion so lodged in his heart, as to see facts in relation to it, instead of seeing them in relation to each other. An honest sectarian or partisan, an admirable moralist or philanthropist, might make his history a tissue of fallacies and falsehoods, without being justly chargeable with intentional untruth. This is done by confounding individual impressions with objective facts and principles. Now Mr. Prescott's narrative of events and delineations of character are characterized by singular objectiveness. By a fine felicity of his nature he is content to consider his subject as everything, and himself as nothing. Objects stand out on his page in clear light, undiscolored by the hues of his own passions, unmixed with any peculiarities of his own character. This disposition and power to see things as they are in themselves, when joined to a corresponding capacity to convey them to other minds in their true proportions, indicates a finely balanced as well as largely endowed nature, and implies moral as well as intellectual strength. The moral qualities evinced in Mr. Prescott's histories, though they are seen in no ostentation of conscience and parade of noble sentiments, are still of a fine and rare order, and constitute no inconsiderable portion of his excellence as an historian. These are modesty, conscientiousness, candor, toleration,-a hatred of wrong, modified by charity for the wrong-doer, a love of truth, expressed not in resounding commonplaces, but in diligence in seeking it out, and a comprehension of heart which noiselessly embraces all degrees of the human family, just and merciful to all, looking at motives as well as actions, and finding its fit expression in a certain indescribable sweetness of tone pervading his style like an invisible essence. It is one of the greatest charms of his compositions, that these admirable qualities are so unostentatiously displayed that they can be best described in negatives. Thus we speak of his absence of egotism, of intolerance, of narrowness, of rancor, of exaggeration, rather than of the positive qualities through which such faults are avoided. The intellectual power displayed in Mr. Prescott's works has a similar character of unobtrusiveness and reserve. It would, doubtless, appear to many readers much greater were it asserted with more emphasis, and occasionally allowed to disport itself in the snapping contrasts of antithesis, or the cunning contortions of disputation. A writer may easily gain the reputation of a strong and striking thinker, by sacrificing artistical effect to momentary surprises, or by exhibiting his thoughts in their making, before they have attained precision and definiteness, and taken their place in the general plan of his work. To the generality of readers, depth of thought is confounded with confusion of thoughts. Events and ideas, heaped and huddled together, and lit up here and there with flashes of wit and imagination, are often received in their chaotic state as indications of greater mental power, than they would be if reduced to order and connection by the stringent exercise of a patient, penetrating, and comprehensive intellect. Now, pure force of understanding is principally shown in so grappling with the subject as to educe simplicity from complexity, and order from confusion. According to the perfection with which this is done will be the apparent ease of the achievement; and a thinker who follows this method rarely parades its processes. His mind, like that of Mr. Prescott, operates to the reader softly and without noise. Any strain or contortion in thought or expression would indicate imperfect comprehension of his subject, and exhibit the pains of labor instead of its results. Far from desiring to tickle attention by giving undue prominence to single thoughts or incidents, such a thinker would be chiefly solicitous to keep them in subjection to his general purpose; for it is violating the first principle of art to break up the unity of a subject into a series of exaggerated individual parts. The moment we consider the materials which form the foundation of Mr. Prescott's elaborate histories, we perceive the high degree of intellect they imply in the writer, and are able to estimate that healthiness of mind by which he shunned the numerous temptations to brilliant faults which beset his path. In the collection of these materials he has displayed all the industry and diligence of an antiquary. With the utmost indifference to labor and expense he has gathered from every quarter all books and MSS. which could elucidate or illustrate his subjects, and nothing which could cast the minutest thread of light into any unexplored corner