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26 June, 2013
Outlines of English and American Literature
The Historians
by Long, William J.


The honored names of Bancroft, Sparks, Prescott, Motley and Parkman are indicative of the importance attached to history-writing in America ever since Colonial days, and of the remarkably fine and sometimes heroic quality of American historians. Another matter suggested by these names is the changing standard or ideal of historical writing. In an earlier time history was a dry chronicle of important events, or of such events as seemed important to the chronicler; at the present day it threatens to degenerate into an equally dry chronicle of economic forces; and between these thirsty extremes are various highly colored records glorifying kings or conquerors or political parties as the chief things of history.

The Epic of History

These American historians had a different standard. They first consulted all available records to be sure of the facts or events. Then they closely examined the scene in which the event had come to pass, knowing that environment is always a factor in human history. Finally they studied historical personages, not as others had described them but as they revealed themselves in letters, diaries, speeches,--personal records revealing human motives that all men understand, because man is everywhere the same. From such a combination of event, scene and characters our historians wrote a dramatic narrative, giving it the heroic cast without which history, the prose epic of liberty, is little better than a dull catalogue. Another very important matter was that they cultivated their style as well as their knowledge; they were literary men no less than historians, and in the conviction that the first object of literature is to give pleasure they produced works that have charmed as well as instructed a multitude of readers. There are chapters in Prescott's Conquest of Mexico and Conquest of Peru over which one must sit up late, as over a novel of Scott; in Motley's Rise of the Dutch Republic and History of the United Netherlands there are scores of glowing passages dealing with great characters or great events which stir the reader like a tale of gallant adventure.

Prescott deals with force in action, and the action at times seems to be an exaltation of violence and cruelty. Motley also delights in action; but he is at heart an apostle of liberty, or perhaps we should say, of the American ideal of liberty, and his narrative often assumes the character of a partisan chant of freedom.

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