Prescott using a noctograph, a kind of mechanical ruled slate on which he did most of his writing. Illustration courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society
Best remembered as the author of The Conquest of Mexico, W.H. Prescott
was the preeminent American historian in an age when works of history took
up more space in the literary world than they do today. The son of a well-to-do
lawyer prominent in civic affairs, whose own father was one of the heroes
of the Battle of Bunker Hill, Prescott received the expected Greek and Latin
schooling as a boy and entered Harvard at 15.
It was at Harvard that Prescott suffered the injury that did so much to
shape his life and work. He was hit in the left eye by a piece of hard bread
during a food fight. Eventually the other eye was also affected. For the
rest of his life, his weak and painful vision meant that he could seldom
read for more than a couple of hours a day and couldn't see to write. A
part of his fame has had to do with the notion that Prescott was a blind
genius, conjuring in utter darkness the vivid scenes of his great histories.
In fact he was never completely blind, but the obstacle to his chosen work
was not much less than total blindness would have been.
Prescott used family members, friends, and hired secretaries to read aloud
to him to aid his historical studies. With their help he learned Spanish,
digested thousands of pages of documents on old Spain and her outposts in
the New World, and produced over the space of about 20 years his three major
histories: The History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella (1837),
and the "Conquests" of Mexico (1843) and Peru (1847).
In Prescott's time, history was regarded very much as literature, perhaps,
indeed, the sovereign form, at least in prose. For his generation, novels
were inferior-enjoyable, but not sufficiently improving. Histories, on the
other hand, might offer all the color and drama of fiction yet also be weighty
with instruction. The essential modern authors in English included Gibbon,
Macaulay, and Hume-all British. It was important that the young United States
produce its own great historian. Despite his troubled vision, Prescott set
out to make himself that historian.
It remained for him to select a subject. Spain suggested itself for several
reasons. Spain and America were thought to have a certain historical affinity
because Spain had sponsored Columbus's voyages. Spain was also in the mind
of Prescott's contemporaries owing to the recent promulgation of the Monroe
Doctrine. In addition, Prescott discovered that both Harvard and the Boston
Athenaeum had collections relating to Spanish history. Furthermore, a friend
of his was a diplomat in Madrid and agreed to find books, manuscripts, and
other materials he would need.
Prescott's first book, Ferdinand and Isabella, 10 years in the making,
met with an encouraging success. His second, the three-volume Conquest
of Mexico, was Prescott's masterpiece, an epic telling of the discovery
and exploration, between 1519 and 1522, by the Spanish captain Cortez and
a band of a few hundred followers, of the territory of present-day Mexico
City and the subduing of its people, the gifted and warlike Aztecs.
Prescott succeeded in writing history that displayed exhaustive research
and meticulous detail yet was also full of life. He seems to have taken
equal pains over the accuracy of his narratives and over their energy, for
he planned each of his long books down to the page and was careful to furnish
not only historical exposition but also plenty of wild scenery, battle-pieces,
ordeals-by-nature, plots, and massacres. He was a master at picking out
details to give vitality to his scenes. In Mexico, the reader accepts Prescott's
cast-the noble Cortez, his haughty and violent lieutenants, the doomed,
dignified Aztec ruler Montezuma-because their historian has both authority
as a scholar and art as a storyteller.
Too much art for some latter-day readers, perhaps. Prescott has come to
be thought of as a Romantic historian, more devoted to highly colored, dramatic
narrative than to careful analysis of the economic, social, and political
life of his period. That criticism underestimates the author. His books
would hardly have survived if they amounted to no more than scene-painting.
Indeed, the most striking thing about them today is their scrupulous historiography.
Prescott invents nothing. His accounts of the old Spanish authors who were
his sources, his effort always to weigh the evidence, and the measured,
judicious tone this gives to his writing, are the most characteristic qualities
of his books.
The historian himself was no less popular than his histories. He lived the
agreeable life of the aristocratic scholar, surrounded by books, friends,
and family. A man of great personal charm, he was known all his life for
his cheer and good companionship; one biographer suggests that his devotion
to dining out may have posed as effective a threat to his work as did his
However readers in different eras react to Prescott's characteristic blend
of sober history and entertaining story, the place of his books among the
American classics is secure. Prescott's "Conquests" are among
the most widely read histories in our language. On his bicentennial, their
author deserves to be celebrated as one of the principal figures in America's
first great literary generation. Castle Freeman Jr. is a writer interested in American History.