The Cambridge History of American Literature/Book II/Chapter XVIII
§ 1. Youth.Edit
To write, his first resolve; to select a topic, his second—herein lies a cardinal difference between William Hickling Prescott (1796–1859) and the typical research student who only at last commits the results of his labours to paper. Not that Prescott plunged into his task without preparation. His self-training was long and minute, but the methods were so exceptional as to be well worth noting in some detail.
§ 2. Ill Health.Edit
Prescott’s choice of a career was hampered at the outset by defective eyesight and fragile health. A seemingly trivial incident had left a permanent mark upon his life. When he was a junior at Harvard, a crust of bread thrown by one of a careless group of skylarking students hit Prescott in the very disk of the left eye, the blow being so sudden that the lid did not have time to protect its charge. The victim’s whole system received a nervous shock. Later it was discovered that the one eye was destroyed and that the sight of the other could be preserved only by assiduous watchfulness. Prescott was able, however, to complete his college course, and maintained his standing so well that he received the appointment as Latin poet at Commencement and amidst applause delivered his hexameters Ad Spem. That was in August, 1814. He had all that a young Bostonian of a century ago could wish for, except health. He was handsome, with good and sound inheritance, cultivated surroundings, sympathetic and congenial parents and well-to-do family circumstances, and he was as well equipped for intellectual life as Harvard could make him. But ill-health barred the way to active life. All the capacity for work, for the steady occupation that enriched forty years of quiet student pursuits, had to be resolutely wooed. What was won needed careful husbanding to ensure the maximum return for the minimum nerve expenditure. But, shackled by physical limitations as he was, Prescott was fortunate in not being a prisoner of poverty. His was a case where an assured income made the labour he delighted in physic pain and then grow profitable in its turn. Far from the harvest he wanted, he was able to gather expensive source material without financial limitations.
§ 3. Self-training.Edit
Seven years after graduation, Prescott was still on the eve of setting himself to serious work within his capacity. By that date he had been married a year to Susan Amory, found in the circle of cultivated, prosperous Bostonians in which the Prescotts moved, and he was wonderfully fortunate in his wife. She was a splendid comrade for her husband in the sheltered life that had to be his lot. Prescott’s early ventures at travelling, while they gave him a little experience of life in the Azores and slight glimpses of England and Paris, proved conclusively that changes exposed him to the risk of incapacitating suffering, though with favourable conditions he might exert himself to good effect. Thus it was, in 1821, that he decided to take up his pen as an occupation. Very deliberately he proceeded to examine the tools of expression that were ready to his hand. He found them very defective. He had no well-based accurate knowledge of English, let alone modern languages. Accordingly, on 30 October, 1821, he planned a preliminary course to lay accurate foundations for a literary career. Blair’s Rhetoric, Lindley Murray, the introductory chapter of Johnson’s Dictionary were studied as though the student were a small schoolboy instead of a Harvard graduate of seven years standing. At the same time he ploughed through a long course of English literature. Ascham, Bacon, Browne, Raleigh, and Milton, besides the sermons of eminent divines, were read to him in chronological series, while he used his own sight for an hour of Latin daily. At the end of the year he felt he had broken ground only. A temporary improvement in his eye enabled him to plunge into French authors from Froissart to Chateaubriand, still devoting a part of each day to hearing English drama from Heywood to Dryden. With his friend Ticknor, Prescott kept up a third line of English reading, connected with Scandinavian and Teutonic themes and compositions. In 1823, Sismondi’s Littérature du Midi prepared him for Italian letters, which he proceeded to explore systematically and intelligently. Two articles in The North American Review contained his impressions on this field; they were written con amore, as the change from French to Italian had been to him especially stimulating and refreshing. The latter language was far more to his taste than the former. German was his next desire, but it had to be abandoned as too difficult for his partial eyesight.
§ 4. Choice of a Spanish Theme.Edit
Then, through Ticknor’s interest in things Spanish, Prescott turned to that language as his next venture. Once embarked, he sailed on in Spanish interests until his death, although he was not attracted immediately. “I am battling with the Spanish,” he wrote to Bancroft in 1824, “but I have not the heart for it that I had for the Italian. I doubt whether there are many valuable things that the key of knowledge will unlock in that language.” Still he continued to play with the key for a long time until, out of a list of subjects for a book, he made his choice. “What new and interesting topics may be admitted—not forced into—the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella?” he noted in 1825. In 1847 he endorsed the entry, “A fortunate choice.”
The whole sweep of events taking place on the Peninsula seems to have flashed before his vision: the constitutions of Castile and of Aragon, of the Moorish dynasties, the causes of their decay and dissolution, the Inquisition, the conquest of Granada, the discoveries in the unknown West, monarchical power versus aristocracy; and he saw their relation to the whole world. Prescott had assimilated literary expression in its best forms in order to fit himself to express something in his turn; when that something had crystallized into definite form, it was as a narrator that he entered on his task of giving it a proper treatment. He began to see his story in episodes for the framing of which he had already provided the material.
A tentative bibliography was despatched to Edward Everett, United States Minister at Madrid, on 29 January, 1826. To Everett’s natural suggestion that Prescott would be wise to come to Spain and look over the ground for himself, the latter answered in some detail that his one chance of success was to work even with limited resources at home rather than to jeopardize his future by groping with half sight in archives abroad. The explanation, written by his own hand, brought on an access of misery to his eye, and he recovered lost ground very slowly.
Under fresh limitations, but now with his scene firmly set, he began a systematic course of international and legal history, in addition to a general survey of Spain, geographically, economically, ecclesiastically, and civilly, especially with reference to fifteenth-century conditions. This necessitated the consultation of several hundred volumes in working days of about four hours each, with actual reading power of an hour a day at best, a few minutes or nothing, at worst. The imported sources arrived, but the author lingered on at the threshold before plunging into Spanish details. He recurred to Montesquieu’s Ésprit des lois, to Voltaire, and to other philosophical considerations of history and human conditions; he heard governmental, theological, and chivalric works, many biographies and the classics, the last now in translation that they might be read aloud. Much of this was, of course, mere intellectual pabulum, never to be concretely adapted to his expressed results. By this time he had acquired a capacity of holding firmly in his mind the portions he saw he could use, while putting aside the non-essential. Such methods have rarely been applied so deliberately and consciously by an historical writer.
Having decided that he would use secondary material when a phase of his subject had been adequately treated by French or Spanish writers, Prescott began original work by mastering the chronicles of Andres Bernaldez as a first-hand source. Luckily the secretary devoted to his service was an able young Harvard graduate, a Mr. English, capable of supplementing the author’s eyes, and sympathetic with his methods. The copy of Bernaldez obtained was in manuscript of no easy style.
§ 5. Ferdinand and Isabella.Edit
The actual composition of Ferdinand and Isabella began in 1829, after eight years of preliminary reading, both general and special, at large and with the goal in mind. When it came to the literary form of the narrative, Prescott followed Mably as a guide, having read his Étude de l’histoire ten times. He would think out a chapter on the same structural plan as for a romance or a drama, letting the events develop towards some obvious point or conclusion. Count d’Haussonville thinks this tendency to group transactions artistically a defect in historical narration, but other critics are more lenient, finding the result very readable. For six years the author worked on. Everything pertinent to his subject, and accessible at that time, that could be taken out of Spain, was imported in original or in transcript and digested very slowly. Prescott worked his direct quotations into his text, as a rule, instead of giving excerpts thrown or jerked into the narrative. At the same time, his references are precise and accurate. When the three volumes were concluded, the author again reaped an advantage from his full purse. No typewriting was available to break the fall from handwriting to the pitiless printed page, and to read handwriting was forbidden to Prescott. Feeling the need of meeting his copy face to face, he had four copies printed in large type on one side of the page. Then he was able to go over the whole, little by little, with his own sight.
§ 6. Its Reception.Edit
Submitted to the criticism of various friends, the book excited only delighted approval and stimulating comment, encouraging the author to have 1250 copies printed at his own expense by the American Stationers’ Company (1836–37). Such a success America had never before seen or heard of. The edition was exhausted in five weeks. It was not surprising that the American reviews were favourable. There was no one capable of passing upon the sources. That the style was easy and the story illuminating was sufficient to make people gratefully acknowledge the introduction to Spanish history at a moment when Spanish eyes were turned anxiously towards the west. But in England there were at least two scholars who knew the subject and could pass a competent opinion on the American’s work: Don Pascal de Gayangos, Spaniard and archivist in London, and Richard Forest, author of a handbook on Spain. Both accepted the new book with some puzzled queries as to how it could emanate from America. Basil Hall and Mrs. Trollope had given forth their impressions of the United States, and their readers were not prepared for scholarly yet graceful and novel historical work.
Yet such was the rating of Ferdinand and Isabella pronounced by these competent specialists in Spanish lore. One sympathetic and appreciative review came from the hand of Count de Circourt, a man described by Lamartine as “a living chest of human knowledge,” which gave the unknown and modest American immense satisfaction. He was actually received at once into the international circle of authoritative scholarship. Hallam, Guizot, Milman, Sismondi, Thierry, were among those to give Prescott not condescending but cordial welcome as one of their own rank. Such an authority as C. P. Gooch states in 1913 that the work published in 1837 has not been superseded to this day. Research has brought, indeed, masses of documents to light that Prescott never heard of. Critics differ from him in conclusions—strange if they did not. Yet there is more serious difference of opinion between Vignaud and Harrisse, both writing on Columbus in the twentieth century, than between Prescott and Justin Winsor, in the first and second halves of the nineteenth.
§ 7. The Conquest of Mexico; The Conquest of Peru.Edit
Stimulated by the prompt recognition accorded to him, Prescott turned to his next venture, The Conquest of Mexico. It is characteristic of his methods that his first step towards beginning the narration in which one figure, Hernando Cortes, was to hold the centre of the stage, was the examination of certain celebrated biographical records of exploits—Voltaire’s Charles XII, Livy’s Hannibal, Irving’s Columbus. His criticism of the last is that the interest flags at the end. That is just what can be said of his own Mexico, finished in 1844. Where the glow of achievement is ahead of his hero, the narrative marches and carries the reader on. Or is it that Bernal Diaz carries the story triumphantly up to the Aztec city? Prescott’s method of assimilating his authority, instead of giving excerpts, was used to good purpose here, and his paraphrases are very vivid. For instance, in describing the Spanish army as it came in sight of the lake-city: “A scene so new and wonderful filled their rude hearts with amazement. It seemed like enchantment and they could find nothing to compare it with but the magic pictures in Amadis de Gaula.” This is a clever turn to the simple statement by the chronicler of the Spaniards’ first impressions of the Aztec city. Bernal Diaz, the veteran soldier, unskilled in letters, moved to set down his recollections of the great events in which he had participated half a century back, because Gomara’s official history gave Cortes undue, and his comrades insufficient, credit for the Conquest, was a delightful guide to follow. His untaught phrases are alive and Prescott makes them more so. While later judgment discounts some of the conquistadore’s statements, it cannot deny the fact that it was these glowing descriptions that affected the European imagination of the sixteenth century. For the ultimate rating of the veracity of the complaisant adventurer archæology has brought its later contribution, and of that science Prescott was ignorant, as was the rest of the world when he wrote. He almost relinquished the idea of his Mexico on hearing that Washington Irving had a similar scheme in mind. This would have been a real loss, as Irving’s gentle raking over of unknown ground could not have produced as good fruit as Prescott’s digging certainly did. Both The Conquest of Mexico and The Conquest of Peru were important works in the development of American literature and the American attitude towards knowledge. Neither the reputation nor the libraries of New England could have spared them.
§ 8. Philip II.Edit
The courtesy that Irving showed to a younger aspirant in his field was repeated by Prescott himself towards Motley, the latter ready to abandon his Rise of the Dutch Republic for fear lest Prescott’s Philip II would fill the whole field adequately. There was a division of labour, again lucky, as Prescott’s biography would have been a meagre substitute for the glowing partisan book. Count d’Haussonville ranks the incomplete Philip II as Prescott’s best work. That is a dictum hard to accept. The author’s attitude towards his central figure is less slashing than Motley’s, less appreciative than Martin Hume’s. In so much it may be called just, but there is a certain meagreness in the treatment. Robertson seems to have affected his style, although his work on that author’s Charles V was not done until two volumes of Philip II had seen the light in 1855.
Between Peru and Philip II Prescott made a journey to England, where he was wonderfully received and fêted during his four months’ visit. Oxford gave him a doctorate. In 1845 the French Institute and the Royal Society of Berlin, and in 1847 two learned societies of England, had made him a member, so that his status as a scholar was perfectly assured, and his own charm gained him permanent friendship after formal courtesy had made connecting links. During the remainder of his life, noted English scholars and statesmen kept up a correspondence with him. Perhaps the friendship accorded to him by Alexander von Humboldt on account of Mexico and Peru was one of the most grateful of the many won by the real merit of his literary labours. Fortunately he never lost the powers of enjoyment or of active occupation as death came very suddenly in 1859.
§ 9. Style and Methods; His Aloofness from Current Affairs.Edit
Prescott has been called a great amateur in the historical field, and in one sense, the term applies. Born only a year after Leopold Ranke, Prescott missed the influence spread abroad, eventually far beyond German university circles, by the great German scholar. The very vocabulary now used had not come into being. Prescott made his own standards. Nor did he have the incidental training that has been the strength of many an historian. Not trained in the methods of the École des Chartes, nor in the precise legal knowledge of jurisprudence, like Maitland, nor in active political service for his own state, nor in a school of philosophy, still less in the academic methods of research, Prescott simply assimilated language first and then events, and painted pictures of the past by a skilful union of the two. His style is a fine instrument of expression. His language plays him no tricks. He holds it in his own control, firmly, like a well-wrought, highly-tempered tool. His own temperament manifests itself very little in his writing. Nor is there any echo of contemporary politics in his treatment of the past. He is as aloof from the events passing in the United States as from those that he depicts. Possibly this is due to the peculiar state of affairs in those ante-bellum decades of the nineteenth century. He was a Bostonian who hated strife and felt that agitation was disagreeable. Thus nothing of his personal opinions and experience peeps out from between his lines as do those of Bancroft, Motley, and a score of French and Netherland writers whose pages are coloured by their attitude towards their immediate present. Perhaps had Prescott survived the outbreak of the Civil War his sentiments would have changed. Those of many compromisers did. But he passed from the scene before the outbreak, and thus is crystallized as a figure detached from strife, a non-partisan, hard-working yet leisurely historian, sheltered from the hard things of life, almost untouched by his generation, endowed with the best New England could give to a few of her sons, and with the type of New England conscience that led him to use the talents he had but which also permitted him to hold aloof from his country’s troubles as from something almost unclean.
Yet how many of his fellow-countrymen found his work grateful can be seen from the number of his books that were scattered over the land. Since 1837, editions of his books have appeared at frequent intervals. Exact figures seem difficult to obtain, but many thousand copies have been sold, while several editions of translations have appeared in Spain, in France, in Italy, in Germany, and in Holland.
§ 10. Youthful Energy.Edit
John Lothrop Motley (1814–77) was like Prescott in being a son of Massachusetts and born with a silver spoon of pure Boston metal in his mouth. In each case New England gave to her child a heritage of sturdy character, of convinced opinions of the Channing school, of the finest lineage she had woven from British material; to birth-right she added the best quality of education that had thus far been evolved on her soil. Of this late post-colonial education it can be said that, full of short-comings as it was, it usually had this characteristic—its disciples were inspired with a desire for more. To each of these Bostonians fate granted the boon of remarkable personal beauty. These endowments fell, however, upon characters of somewhat different tendencies, while their lives took them over different courses. Prescott was a prisoner within the bounds of congenial private life, his professional activity limited to the area of his own book-room filled with the imported source-material which he could not go to seek; while Motley made his own researches, touched the past with his own fingers, so close did he come to the documents, and had, in addition, the stimulus of world contact, of hearing statesmen’s voices, of activities of which Prescott was wholly ignorant. Moreover, Prescott died in 1859, just too soon to fling off the shackles of repression which choked the free speech of Americans of his temperament before the Civil War. On the other hand, Motley, in every line of his later work on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, shows the exhilarating effect produced by the casting of the die and the ending of the compromise restraint. Born the very year Prescott finished his Harvard course, Motley was two-thirds of a generation behind the elder historian. Thus, though the immediate environment of the two Bostonians was the same, the storm brewing beyond the confines of Massachusetts had burst and had forced her conservative citizens out of their aloofness, and the Commonwealth was involved in a close bond with the other units of the Union, while Motley and his labours were still in a stage to be affected, as Prescott and his work never were, by contemporaneous politics.
From his early childhood, Motley was overflowing with expression. He was possessed to act out what he read; he made miniature theatres; he declaimed in season and out. His zeal for dramatic effect was in his blood—even though he did not evince the slightest histrionic ability or tendency. That is, he could not possibly have been an actor. It was literary expression that attracted him. He was so precocious that it would not have been surprising had his promise died out. Luckily, the colonial energy of the race was also in his blood and a New England strain well woven into the woof of his conscience so that his abilities found enduring record when, at last, he developed the powers of industry. His Harvard career was begun at the age of thirteen and completed at seventeen—an age young even for the time—and it is not surprising that his election to Phi Beta Kappa was gained only by stretching a point in his favour and including one more than the sixteen men legitimately chosen as the maximum number to be taken from each class. His class work did not give him high rank—indeed, he was rusticated for negligence—but his personality was so charming and his kind of cultivated human interest so convincing, that he could not be passed over. His facility in grasping the gist of a book was marvellous, but as it did not presage minute and accurate research, there was natural astonishment among his contemporaries over the industry evinced by his later work.
§ 11. Studies in Germany.Edit
Harvard was followed by two years of study at Göttingen and Berlin and of foreign travel. George Bancroft, then fresh from his own German experience, had been a teacher in Motley’s school at Northampton. Probably it was due to his influence that German was taught, as it was not a usual subject in the school curricula of the twenties. The young student was thus partially prepared for his plunge into Hanoverian university life and did not lose his first months in struggling over linguistic elements. Perhaps the most interesting contribution to his training given by the Göttingen episode was his acquaintance and intimate association with Count Bismarck, the foundations of a life-long friendship. The American had an exceptional opportunity to know a contemporary from an environment totally different from his own by heritage and tendency. Later, he had the still rarer chance of glimpses at the inside happenings or intentions of Prussian politics. He saw a master mind in the making and in the doing, as few of his generation could. The friendship has, moreover, permitted posterity some peeps at the Iron Chancellor in his moments of relaxation, a few of his intimate letters to the American having been published among those of Motley. Most delightful are the young student’s own letters home during his Wanderjahre. He worked hard, indeed, at law in both universities, but it was the glimpses of Europe and the human side of its life, both past and present, that were the really vital part of the educational results for the young American. Intellectual Germany was still palpitating with the influence of Goethe, whom he was just too late to see, and he was deeply impressed by the atmosphere. He met scholars, such as Tieck, then at work on his translation of Shakespeare, and he learned what minute research could be. At the same time Motley retained an impressionistic attitude towards history which was wholly un-German. He always saw the past instinct with life. He is constantly reconstructing. “If you will allow me to mount my hobby, as Tristram Shandy would say,” he writes from Rome in 1834, “and call fancy to the aid of history, the scene will be different, at least more lively.” Thus he and his imagination travelled together, congenial companions.
§ 12. Novels.Edit
When the wanderer returned to Boston he continued his preparation for law, but it never became his serious profession. He had to write, and his first venture was a novel called Morton’s Hope. Published anonymously, it fell flat. Nor did it deserve success, although, at first view, the writer seems to have had both the training and the qualifications for a romancer. Foreign travel and study had widened his vision; he had really studied languages on the basis of a good preliminary education; and he had a fertile and graphic imagination. Moreover, at the time of writing, he was fairly bubbling over with personal happiness. The novel appeared in 1839, two years after his marriage to the sister of Park Benjamin, an intimate friend of Motley, while another intimate friend, Joseph Lewis Stackpole, married Mrs. Motley’s sister. A close circle of friends was thus formed—affectionate yet all critical of each other. Mary Benjamin Motley seems, from all testimoney, to have been a very rare person, whose comradeship with her husband was singularly perfect throughout her life. But despite such good auspices, Morton’s Hope failed. The critics scarcely noticed the book, although one did admit that it must have been “written by a person of uncommon resources of mind and scholarship.” As a work of art the story deserved oblivion. It is full of chronological anachronisms, the diction is bombastic and strained, the composition is faulty. The one interest in the book is that there are certain autobiographical suggestions in the reflections and self-contemplations of the hero. There is an underlying thread of aspirations, “disguised,” says Dr. Holmes, “under a series of incidents, which are flung together with no more regard to the unities than a pack of cards.”
The failure of his first venture did not deter Motley from making another trial in the same direction. His second novel Merry Mount, not published until 1849, was semi-historic in character. The scene is laid in Massachusetts in 1628—“in that crepuscular period which immediately preceded the rise of the Massachusetts Colony and possesses more of the elements of romance than any subsequent epoch,” writes the author in his preface. The book plays with theological revolt and separatist movements, and introduces adventurers of somewhat dime-novel calibre to shock Puritan sentiments and to impress Indians by aristocratic hauteur.
But with all his knowledge of fundamental facts and of local colour, the author failed to command attention. Merry Mount is not bad, but it is dull. The characters do not carry the slightest conviction. They are simple bundles of attributes, and some of the bundles have a sensational taint. Contemporary reviews did not slight the book. The North American Review actually devoted seventeen pages to an abstract of the tale, in order to prove that the early settlement of New England was not a good field for fiction: “Later events only make the period interesting,” “The conditions are too hard,” “Romantic elements are lacking.” The reviewer concludes with saying that he has been agreeably disappointed, on the whole, but he does not consider the romance a fair specimen of what the writer can achieve.
§ 13. St. Petersburg; Massachusetts Legislature.Edit
Between the production of the two novels, Motley had had fresh experiences. In 1841 he was appointed secretary to the legation at St. Petersburg and spent some months in the Russian capital, long enough to be convinced that he did not wish to have his wife and children join him. So he resigned his post before his year was out. Once again in America, he began to give utterance to his opinions on political events, the failure of Henry Clay to secure the presidential nomination having roused him to mournful expressions of his conviction that all that was fine in American public life had been overpowered by mediocrity if not by evil. He had a little taste of public life himself; he served in the Massachusetts legislature for one term (1849). The one measure he seems to have worked for was an endowment of higher education at the expense of the common schools. “Failure was inevitable,” says George S. Boutwell, a fellow legislator. “Neither Webster nor Choate could have carried the bill.” Motley had written a report as Chairman of the Committee on Education, thinking that he had achieved a fine document, and was much surprised at the unanimity of its condemnation. He had no more desire for Massachusetts political life. By this date, Motley was thirty-five, no longer a youth, yet all his failures seem those of immaturity. It sometimes happens when a boy is precocious that the reputation of being in advance of his years lingers about him after the time when a man of more normal powers makes his public appearance. But Motley began to show himself in another light than that of romancer or legislator; his essays were proving that he could conquer some of the glaring faults of his style and write on sober themes. His articles on Peter the Great, on Balzac, and on Talvi’s Geschichte der Colonisation von New England were scholarly and original. He had no desire, however, to dissipate his store of energy in ephemeral reviews. Before the publication of his half-historical Merry Mount he had selected the theme of the contest between the Netherlands and Spain for an extensive work, had been checked momentarily by the news of Prescott’s projected Philip II, had been spurred on by the kindly words of the elder American, and had then devoted himself to going to the foundations of the story of the events. He says in reference to hearing of Prescott’s work:
- It seemed to me that I had nothing to do but to renounce authorship. For I had not at first made up my mind to write a history and then cast about to take up a subject. My subject had taken me up, drawn me on, and absorbed me into itself. It was necessary for me, it seemed, to write the book I had been thinking much of, even if it were destined to fall dead from the press, and I had no inclination or interest to write any other.
§ 14. The Rise of the Dutch Republic.Edit
Thus Prescott’s courtesy did as much service to Motley as Washington Irving’s did to the author of The Conquest of Mexico. To the world, too, it would have been a loss had The Rise of the Dutch Republic never come to light. It was indeed a work of love. Motley gave up every other thought and worked to one end only. He made no such preliminary preparation as did Prescott. Yet in a way, his whole career had been leading up to it. He had burned to express himself. He planted source-material in his mind, and the story flowered from it, naturally. For nearly ten years he plodded on, at first in Boston and then in archives abroad, in Berlin, Dresden, The Hague, and Brussels. He bathed in local colour. In 1855 he had his three volumes ready for the printer. Then came a difficulty. No publisher would look at the formidable mass of manuscript with the slightest interest. No one would believe in the chances of returns from such an expensive undertaking as its publication. Like his compatriot, Motley was obliged to take his own risks, and The Rise of the Dutch Republic was published at the author’s expense by John Chapman in London, and by Harpers in New York. The sale of fifteen thousand copies in two years proved the fallibility of human judgment.
§ 15. Its Reception and Influence.Edit
The reviews were not, however, as uniformly favourable as in Prescott’s case. The Saturday Review brought heavy artillery to bear on the ambitious American in the same number with a censorious attack upon Browning’s Men and Women and three columns upon the lack of interest in Miss Yonge’s unpretentious domestic tale, The Daisy Chain. The Review’s slashing denunciation of his flashy chapter headings was peculiarly annoying to Motley, because he had disapproved of their adoption. He comments upon this in a letter to his father, in connection with the remark that every book notice had condemned them unequivocally. The Literary Gazette found virtues in the volumes, but added: “The book is far too ponderous both in matter and style to be popular,” and commiserated Motley because his literary skill fell so far short of his diligence and learning that other writers would enter into the fruits of his labours and write more popular histories out of his store. The sequence of the prophecy proved singularly true. Motley’s Rise of the Dutch Republic has been quarried and retold in every conceivable form. One has only to glance along the shelves in the Library of Congress to see how many books are based on Motley, with due credit to him, while many more volumes, serious and romantic, less frankly owe their being to his pages. At the same time, this use of fragments has not been due to the unpopular character of the full work, as is proved by the continued sales of the three volumes.
As a compensation for the Saturday’s strictures on his work, The Westminster Review for the month following (April, 1856), had as its leading article a comprehensive paper by J. A. Froude which did full justice to the unknown American writer.
- A history as complete as industry and genius can make it now lies before us of the first twenty years of the Revolt of the United Provinces…. It has been the result of many years of silent, thoughtful, unobtrusive labour, and unless we are strangely mistaken, unless we are ourselves altogether unfit for this office of criticising which we have undertaken, the book is one which will take its place among the finest histories in this or in any language…. All the essentials of a great writer Mr. Motley eminently possesses. His mind is broad, his industry unwearied.
§ 16. Dutch and Belgian Critics.Edit
Froude did not like Motley’s estimate of Queen Elizabeth, adding: “It is ungracious, however, even to find so slight a fault with these admirable volumes.” This gentle animad-version is amusing, because all the eminent authorities on the period treated do just what Froude does. They like the way Motley has navigated the whole sea of difficulties but think he has lost his way on their private pools. In Holland and Belgium at the time of the appearance of The Rise of the Dutch Republic there were, among other scholars, three eminent archivists and one rising historian: Groen van Prinsterer, Bakhuysen van der Brink, and Professor Fruin in Holland, and Gachard in Brussels. They all received the book with pleasure as well as with profound surprise that any foreigner had cast his plummet down their deeps with so much assiduity. Mingled with their real and cordial approval there was a reserve on the part of each regarding the treatment of his own particular thesis. Groen thought that Motley did not really feel the Protestant impulse in all that happened; Bakhuysen considered that he did not understand phases of the relations with Germany; Gachard, himself less fervent in his opinions than the Hollanders, criticized Motley’s partisanship; while Fruin, the first man to hold a chair at Leyden University exclusively devoted to “Vaderlandsche Geschiedenis,” criticized the whole work on a larger and more ample scale. He thought that the author did not grasp fully the actual development of the congeries of provinces, found many weak spots in the generalizations, and held that, closely as Motley had followed original authorities, he had erred seriously in not testing the exact weight and authenticity of the witnesses whom he had summoned to help him tell his tale.
The English original excited immediate interest in Holland, but the most exhaustive reviews were reserved until the Dutch version appeared in 1859, made by no less an authority than Bakhuysen himself, who said: “Motley’s work seems to me to make such an excellent foundation for the history of the growth of the Commonwealth of the United Netherlands that it seems almost a duty to bring forth one’s own possessions in order to rear up a structure on this foundation.” Fruin repeated the words at the beginning of his review. He added a cordial appreciation of the industry and conscientiousness of the American.
- We have discovered no unused source…. I take it for granted that everyone has read the work of the American…. It would be a scandal if our countrymen neglected to read what the foreigner counted of sufficient importance to discuss…. Motley shines in narrative [Hij is een bekwam stylist] but he is less fortunate in his explanations of cause and effect. What the witnesses whom he summons testify, he narrates better than they can tell, but he fails to weigh their personality and trustworthiness with sufficient accuracy. The “how” is good, the “why” defective. He is far behind Ranke in his comprehension of the beginnings of the revolt.
Then the Dutch historian proceeded to write one of the most valuable articles that ever came from his pen, Het voorspel van den tachtigjarigen oorlog. Herein he carefully reviewed the ground with exact references to his authorities and gave a less passionate and less biassed picture than Motley of Philip’s relations to the Netherlands and to the thread of events that preceded the final outbreak. Motley could not complain of lack of appreciation in the Netherlands, and had reason to flatter himself that his work was a spur to the Netherlanders to look to their own dykes and consider carefully what was true among their writers of the sixteenth century and what needed to be winnowed. Besides, there was an interest aroused in the texts, and several valuable works, used by Motley in manuscript, were printed within a few years after the publication of his work. Now nearly everything important is in print, and the stimulus to the incessant output during the last half century was certainly largely due to the American.
§ 17. The United Netherlands; Its Critics.Edit
Scarcely taking breath after the publication of this first great effort, the author plunged into the sequel and brought out two volumes of The United Netherlands in 1860. This time neither publisher nor public was shy. The English reviews were very favourable, on the whole; even The Saturday Review was almost commendatory though it did not find the style satisfactory. Perhaps the most severe stricture was that the figurative language was uncultivated in tone, but the general attitude of the censor is quite different from that taken four years previous. The Westminster Review was more lavish in its praise. The Edinburgh Review was a trifle patronizing, but still Motley was given credit.
The American reviews had no reservations in their praise of both works. It is a trifle amusing to note the conclusion of the comments—a long and serious article—on The Rise of the Dutch Republic in the North American: “upon the whole it seems to us that the first William was a greater man than his great-grandson and namesake.” This sounds as though, indeed, the elder Prince of Orange had needed an introduction to the American public in 1856.
In Holland the second book received the same greeting as did the first, a greeting marked by pride and pleasure that a stranger had devoted so much of his life to their affairs, tempered by some careful and discriminating criticism. Professor Fruin wrote: “We have delayed too long in noticing this important work. No one can put down the book until it is finished. Through the beautiful style, the vivid narrative, the artistic descriptions, this work shines out above the works on history in our own language.” Fruin took Motley’s notes and verified every reference: “Even where we differ from his opinion, we must do honour to his good faith, to his keen perception, to his industrious and accurate investigation.” The review was another of Fruin’s fine essays on Dutch history. Fruin once more criticized Motley’s failure to differentiate the values of his authorities and considered him often tempted to expand a phase simply because he had a rich store of material bearing upon it, but without due regard to the need of that phase in the narrative. Letters between Leicester and his officers led him on to tell a detailed story of petty English quarrels which would have been more suitable for a separate publication. That Motley’s vivid imagination inspired him with interlinear visions, hardly substantiated by a strict construction of the text, was gently intimated by Fruin with one or two striking examples. Undoubtedly this is the same imagination that led the tourist to people the Rome before his eye with actors once within her walls. Life was, indeed, breathed into skeleton facts—some new joints being supplied—and life, too, into years of discussion as to the eternal verity of Motley’s conception. One item in The Rise of the Dutch Republic gave Fruin especial concern. That was the use of the term “William the Silent.” He wished that the American had lent his weight towards eliminating the unsuitable adjective from the historical vocabulary. Criticism such as this of Fruin’s was the highest compliment that could have been paid to Motley.
The spring of 1861, momentous in the history of the United States, found Motley still in London. He had been abroad at work in the archives ever since the winter of 1856–57, which he had spent in Boston. The first public news of the imminent Civil War must have come to him on Monday, 29 April. That was the day when the Earl of Malmesbury opened the session in the House of Lords with the assumption that “Almost all your Lordships must have read the account that arrived this morning from America, and must have learned with pain as well as astonishment that civil war has broken out.” Humanely rejoicing that no blood had been shed, the Earl proceeded to ask what the noble Lords were going to do towards settling this most unnatural quarrel. Lord Woodhouse replied that, after mature deliberation, the Government had decided that advice on internal matters would be intrusive unless solicited. From that Monday on, the London Times gave much space to comments on the terrible anachronism of war in general, on the horror of seeing thirty million Anglo-Saxons slaying each other like the Indians whom they had displaced, etc., etc. All civil wars known to history were reviewed. In each of these, asserted the Times, a vital principle had been at stake. Each had been justified by the crying needs of religion or civil liberty. But in the United States, no principle was involved. Day after day this statement was reiterated in varying forms. Admitting that, on the whole, they inclined rather to the Northern cause, they still declared that, nevertheless, the actual issue between the two sections was a mere shadow.
It is curious how long the idea of the causelessness of the strife prevailed in Europe. As late as April, 1863, Bismarck wrote to Motley in a familiar letter: “Do you all know exactly why you are waging furious war with each other? Certainly all do not know, but they kill each other con amore, that is the way the business comes to them. Your battles are bloody; ours are wordy.” This query was, perhaps, half humorous, but the Times was in dead earnest in its opinion that the war was unjustifiable. It went further, after a little, and declared that the spirit of George III had passed into Seward and that his reluctance to let the South go its own way was couched in language quite as tyrannical as that of the British monarch to his colonies when they desired “secession.”
§ 18. The Causes of the Civil War.Edit
Under the stimulus of these daily reiterations, Motley wrote two long letters, to which the Times gave prominent space, on The Causes of the Civil War. They appeared on Thursday, 23 May, and Friday, 24 May, and were reprinted in New York within a few weeks. The line of argument followed was that the United States was no confederacy from which a part could be lopped and both parts continue to live. A confederation of sovereign bodies had been tested and found wanting; then a more perfect government had been formed by the people themselves, at large, not in states as units. The government to which the Constitution of the United States gave birth was different in kind from its predecessor. It could not be divided any more than Scotland could be severed from the British Empire. It was a plea for the sacredness of the Union as an organic, vitalized whole. The tariff, as an irritating cause of division, was discussed, while slavery was touched on very lightly.
The Queen’s Proclamation of Neutrality had already checked the press in its references to President Davis as precisely on a par with President Lincoln, and Motley’s words were allowed to be worth noting, as coming from one already recognized as an historian of European reputation. For a time, at least, the English newspapers changed their tone, while in America there was warm appreciation of Motley’s statement of the case.
Shortly after this incident, Motley returned home and was in Boston when the first Massachusetts regiments left their camp at Brook Farm (singularly peaceful spot for a training ground!) and marched off to war. He regretted that his fortyseven years disqualified him from enlisting without previous training, but he was stirred to the depths of his being by the emotion of the summer months of 1861. That emotion, carried abroad, kept him a fervent American during his years of foreign residence. John Bigelow considers that he was denationalized, but he was not. He only tried to hold fast to ideals crystallized at a moment of high pressure. He did not feel the meaner elements that obtruded themselves during the long-drawn-out contest.
§ 19. Vienna.Edit
Although he did not enlist, he was summoned to do other work for the republic, and accepted the mission to Austria, where, it was felt, the sentiment he had shown in his London letters would be serviceable. His own historical work was put aside for the six years in which he lived at Vienna, upholding the dignity of the United States. A cultivated, polished, high-minded American official was a great asset to the United States at that juncture, when there was a disposition abroad to count the Northerners as commercial sordid folk. Here was a Yankee of the Yankees as a living witness that the name was not counted as a term of reproach by those who bore it.
§ 20. Resignation.Edit
His office was no sinecure. In addition to the complications arising from the war, there were others connected with Maximilian’s expedition to Mexico, in which he showed good judgment. The unexpected elevation of Andrew Johnson to the presidency in 1865 brought a new element to be reckoned with. It chanced that, just at a moment when Johnson was feeling very sore about the defection of Republicans from his support, a letter came to him from Paris accusing various official Americans abroad of malignant criticism towards the administration. A passage about Motley was as follows: “Mr. Motley does not pretend to conceal his ‘disgust’ as he terms it elegantly, at your whole conduct. He tells every traveller that Sumner is wholly justified and that you have deserted your principles in common with Mr. Seward, who, he says, is hopelessly degraded.” Under the influence of his general feeling of distrust and suspicion, the president told Seward to send a formal query to each person mentioned, asking the truth of the accusation against them. Later Seward told John Bigelow that no one resented the query, drawn up by a clerk and signed by himself as secretary of state, except Motley. In all other cases, it was taken as it was meant, a simple matter of office routine. Probably, had the President not been oversensitive about the attitude of his subordinates, the accusing document would have been put in the waste-paper basket. No one knew the “George McCrackin” from whom it purported to come. Motley, however, did not take it as a formula. Such a question addressed to him seemed an insult, and he lost no time in replying, perhaps only less hotly than he felt, offering his resignation at the end of his denial of the charge that he had maligned the new administration. The secretary of state would have taken no notice of a resignation offered under a momentary smart, but when Johnson said “Let him go,” Seward did not try to stay his hand. According to the story Seward told John Bigelow in 1869, it would seem a fair conclusion that the minister was too hot and the secretary too cold and too indifferent, when an effort on his part to interpose would have been natural under the circumstances. The result was that Motley left Vienna with a very sharp wound to his self-respect.
§ 21. John of Barneveld; Court of St. James; Autobiographical Colouring in Motley’s Histories.Edit
Luckily for the ex-diplomat, the seventeenth century was waiting till he should be released from the claims of the nineteenth, and he plunged at once into the next period of his Netherland story. The History of the United Netherlands was concluded by two more volumes issued in 1868. A continuation centred about John of Barneveld was finally published in 1874. Motley returned from Vienna to Boston and was settled there at the time of Grant’s first campaign, into which he entered with much interest. At the suggestion of Sumner, he was honoured by Grant with the appointment to the Court of St. James, the highest diplomatic post in his gift. That was pleasant after the Vienna incident. Unfortunately, Grant identified him with Sumner, and when a breach came between the president and the senator from Massachusetts, the former found a pretext to recall Motley, and again a secretary of state failed to protect the minister. Moreover, the explanatory letter written by Hamilton Fish was not phrased in a manner to soothe the diplomat’s feelings, so that the incident ended with added discomfiture for Motley. Again work was the refuge from the annoyances to which he had been subjected, but they were not forgotten. It is rather curious to note how the author’s unpleasant experience colours the story of the relations between Maurice of Nassau and John of Barneveld. The inability of the soldier, acting as statesman, to understand the diplomat is dwelt on in a fashion to show that General Grant was in the historian’s thoughts when he wrote of Count Maurice. Indeed, John of Barneveld is a reflection of autobiography almost as much as Morton’s Hope. Every point having to do with the ambitions of the individual province and the needs of the United Netherlands is coloured by the crisis through which the United States had just passed. Sometimes the implied parallel is apt, sometimes both strained and forced. It was Motley’s tendency, in general, to indulge in comparisons and metaphor that once more troubled The Saturday Review. The carping critic evidently thought that all the expressions to which he objected were American. He did not realize that any worker in sixteenth century historical sources is living in the midst of just such language as was found objectionable. Sober documents are permeated with idioms not to be counted Americanisms; the letters of Elizabethan statesmen overflow with quaint twists and turns. Thus Motley’s natural tendency in this direction was constantly fed during his researches into contemporary material. It was natural for him, writing from Vienna during a terrible drought, to declare that there was nothing green in Austria but the Archduke Maximilian, dreaming of an American empire (1863). It was phrases like that in history which shocked the reviewer. Other reviews in Great Britain and America were almost unanimous in their high praise for John of Barneveld. The Edinburgh Review said: “We can hardly give too much praise to the subtle alchemy of the brain which has enabled him [Motley] to produce out of dull, crabbed, and often illegible State-papers, the vivid, graphic, and sparkling narrative which he has given to the world.”
§ 22. Sectarian Animosities.Edit
In the Netherlands, the book was viewed from a different standpoint. The period treated was one marked by the bitterest kind of theological disputes. Motley thought he could discuss these impartially, but his attempt only brought down upon his head a flood of pained criticism from the heirs to both sides of the controversy,—no dead question in Holland. The old archivist, Groen van Prinsterer, fervent Calvinist as he was, declared that only an Arminian, such as an American Unitarian was, could be so antagonistic to the principles of the Reformation espoused by Maurice. (Perhaps Groen did not believe that Maurice had once declared that he did not know whether Predestination was green or blue!) Motley had become the ardent apologist of Barneveld and latitudinarian doctrine, the orthodox Hollanders felt, and a battle was started that raged for years. Groen devoted a whole book to the topic. At the same time, Dutch scholars paid warm tributes to the American’s conscientious use of sources, though they might not accept his interpretation. No one accused him of neglecting what was obtainable. They only thought “He cannot understand.” By that time the handsome American with his air of distinction was a well-known figure in The Hague. In 1871, the Queen of the Netherlands offered him a house in the Dutch capital, where he spent part of the years when he was working at John of Barneveld.
The death of Mrs. Motley in 1874 was a blow from which her husband never recovered, although he tried to resume his work and complete the story of the Eighty Years’ War. The sub-title of the Barneveld volumes had been A View of the Primary Causes and Movements of the Thirty Years’ War. But Motley was never to take the public with him beyond that view. His own death came in 1877, and he was buried in England.
What is the judgment of posterity upon the work into which Motley poured so much vigorous painstaking effort? This much can be said: he was first a brilliant searchlight, sweeping over an unknown field, and then an able draughtsman in describing the scene. Every new generation claims to have a light in its own hand which enables it to judge the past with greater accuracy than its predecessors. Scholars of today in Holland, Blok, Japikse, Colenbrander, all consider that the American failed to treat Netherland history on scientific lines. He did not understand Europe at large, he did not understand the Church. In his hands Philip II was treated too severely, as was Maurice in his conflict with Barneveld. There was a lack of perspective in his every estimate. Not only that, but in making one period so dominant, he dislocated the perspective of the whole history of the Netherlands. For the last thirty years scholars in Belgium as well as Holland have been working over the ground, bringing small dark places into sober light, shading down other points too highly illuminated. A fair result will be reached at last. But the great light was a pleasant thing.