www.common-place.org · vol. 3 · no. 1 · October 2002
Mark Peterson teaches history at the University of Iowa, and is the author of The Price of Redemption: The Spiritual Economy of Puritan New England (Stanford, 1997) and "Puritanism and Refinement in Early New England: Reflections on Communion Silver," William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 58 (April 2001): 307-46. He currently seems to be working backwards on a history of Boston in the Atlantic world.
"If, as Jennings argued, Parkman offers bad history, then why plow through thousands of pages of the stuff?"
How (and Why) to Read Francis Parkman
In 1885, Francis Parkman reached the summit of his brilliant career. He had just published Montcalm and Wolfe, the culminating volume of a series of works on France and England in North America that he had begun in the 1840s. Now reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic were proclaiming him to be America's greatest historian. The Nation called Montcalm and Wolfe Parkman's "masterpiece," and the Atlantic Monthly admired his perfect blend of literary art and rigorous scientific scholarship. The Spectator compared him favorably to Macaulay—high praise indeed. In his remaining years, as he tied up the last loose ends in his life's work, Parkman continued to watch the accolades pour in. Theodore Roosevelt dedicated The Winning of the West (1889) to him, proclaiming that Parkman's "works stand alone, . . . they must be models for all historical treatment of the founding of new communities and the growth of the frontier here in the wilderness."
A century after Parkman's heyday, Roosevelt's confidence seemed badly misplaced. At that moment, the "new Indian history" that has revolutionized early American scholarship was just coming into its own, and its most vociferous advocate, Francis Jennings, dealt Parkman a death blow in a critical essay published in 1985. Two years earlier, the Library of America had unearthed Parkman's writings from the seventeen volumes of the nineteenth-century Frontenac edition and re-embalmed them in a new two-volume set, weighing in at over three thousand pages. Jennings countered the canonical authority of the Library of America imprimatur with an assault on Parkman's much vaunted historical accuracy—"his 'facts' cannot be relied on and are sometimes fabricated"—and on the assumptions, biases, and outright prejudices that "poisoned" his approach to the past.
In the wake of Jennings's diatribe, however, Parkman seems to have experienced a renaissance. Simon Schama featured the Boston historian as a tortured, self-pitying, yet still heroic muse in Dead Certainties. Parkman's capacity to blend his own identity with that of his historical subjects—in Jennings's eyes, the root of all evil—made Parkman an enabling figure in Schama's own transition from academic historian to television raconteur. Meanwhile, the University of Nebraska Press has been issuing paperback reprints of Parkman's works with eye-catching jacket covers and with new introductions by academic historians. The Modern Library has done the same, but has chosen popular writers like the adventure guru Jon Krakauer to introduce new audiences to Parkman's work. Judging by reader responses on Amazon.com, Parkman remains a steady if not a best seller, appreciated by those who enjoy a ripping good yarn, who feel comfortable within the clarity of his narrative framework, and who value the visual imagery that Parkman's prose evokes. If the History Channel's producers are not already paying attention, they should be.
But why should historians read Parkman in the twenty-first century? If, as Jennings argued, Parkman offers bad history, then why plow through thousands of pages of the stuff? Jennings and his fellow ethnohistorians have so transformed the study of early American history that reading Parkman now is like reading William Paley's Natural Theology in the wake of the Darwinian Revolution; some of the factual descriptions may be accurate enough, but the interpretations are so outmoded that only creationists and specialists in the history of science would bother. But if Parkman is untrustworthy as "science," he remains an exemplar of style. In a review of Fred Anderson's Crucible of War (New York, 2000), Edmund Morgan recommended Parkman for just that reason when he compared Anderson's narrative of the Seven Years' War to Montcalm and Wolfe (1884). As Morgan put it, the difference between Anderson and Parkman "lies as much in style as in content. Parkman had his eye on the drama of the conflict and made the American wilderness, which he knew at first hand, into a backdrop for theatrical encounters . . . Anderson [has] neither the talent nor the taste for theatrics. Parkman made great reading in his time and still does, but he has to be read as a period piece." As proof, Morgan offers a passage from Montcalm and Wolfe in which Parkman describes the wilderness in autumn: "that festal evening of the year, when jocund Nature disrobes herself, to wake again refreshed in the joy of her undying spring." As theatrics, jocund disrobing would have been banned from any stage in Boston in Parkman's day; nowadays, it's a passage that, in Morgan's words, "Anderson could not have written and could not have got published if he had."
Morgan's comparison is not so much an indictment of Anderson as a comment on how much the packaging of history has changed since 1884. But if we think in terms of literary style, then Montcalm and Wolfe is a very curious kind of "great reading." The experience of reading Parkman is not like reading the best American novels from his era. Mark Twain published Huckleberry Finn in the same year as Montcalm and Wolfe, and Twain's work is not a period piece. It displays a sensibility that we instantly recognize, and it dwells on matters of vital importance to us today. Huck's voice is beguiling, and part of its appeal is that it mocks exactly the kind of literary theatrics that Parkman employs.
Like Twain, Parkman frequently uses ugly epithets ("squaw," "savage"), but unlike Twain, he does it without irony. Still, as far as I know there have been no attempts to ban Parkman from school libraries, perhaps because he seems quainter, older, more a man of his times. (In an unscientific poll conducted among my departmental colleagues, Parkman [1823-93] was uniformly assumed to have been a closer contemporary of James Fenimore Cooper [1789-1851] than of Twain [1835-1910], who derided Cooper's style mercilessly.)
Reading Parkman only for style is a way of acknowledging the distance between then and now. It has the effect of making the old history irrelevant to our current concerns, in much the way that historical re-enactors dressed in quaint costumes and speaking in funny dialects can distance the past from the present. If Parkman is bad history and a stylistic period piece as well, then reading Parkman today is little more than a dubious exercise in nostalgia.
Yet like Twain, Parkman ought to be relevant, very relevant, to our current concerns. By an odd set of coincidences, some of the most pronounced qualities of Parkman's work are currently of great importance to scholars of early American life. Voice, for example. Parkman was self-consciously literary, even if his voice seems dated now, and his writerly concerns, his desire to reach a wide reading public, are common among historians today. (If these concerns did not exist, then neither would this journal.) With respect to his subject matter, too, Parkman was committed to writing history in which Indians figured as varied and independent agents in the history of North America. Finally, Parkman employed an Atlantic approach to American history. Though a resident of Boston and citizen of the United States, Parkman described the history of North America by exploring the interaction among French, Spanish, English, and Indian peoples, rather than by charting the rise of the United States. To accomplish this task, he immersed himself in archival materials in several languages from European sources, paying careful attention to sources that reveal Indian agency. He also spent time as a young man on various ethnographic adventures, absorbing Indian culture, tradition, and folkways while traveling the Oregon Trail, and experiencing Catholicism firsthand by entering a Passionist monastery in Rome. Given Parkman's proximity to some of the most compelling (not to say trendy) developments in the study of early America today, surely there must be some way Parkman can still speak to us. To make Parkman relevant today means reading him against his own context in ways that might help us to be more aware of our own.
For Parkman, such a reading is especially difficult because the mythology of the heroic historian gets in the way. When reviewers and critics discuss Parkman's works, the context they most often describe is the personal one. Much has been made of how Parkman overcame nervous illness, crippling physical ailments, and near blindness. Parkman worked to promote his own legend, offering detailed descriptions of how he would listen in the darkness of his Beacon Hill home as family members and secretaries read documents from the archives of Paris or Madrid, and of how he would then write with a mechanical contraption, in red ink on orange paper, to shield his eyes from the light.
The packaging of the product of these herculean efforts in "classic" editions, with their matched bindings, gilt edges, and intimations of immortality, creates the illusion that these works must have sprung full blown into the world, complete yet isolated products of a singular genius, a detached mind commenting on the still more distant past. Such packaging makes it is hard to remember that these books were written over time—from 1851 to 1892—as Parkman's project evolved in response to a changing world. If we are ever to see Parkman as anything more than a bundle of racial prejudices wrapped in the lush romantic prose of a bygone era, then it is vital that his works be read as an unfolding effort to make sense of the past in a way that would also make sense of the rapidly changing present. Francis Parkman's world, for all its broad reach across the Atlantic and into the interior of North America, was profoundly local. Parkman was a Bostonian, and a Boston historian. As such, he was heir to a long tradition in which the city's historians and writers placed themselves at the center of major world transformations. Winthrop: We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us. Mather: I write the Wonders of the Christian Religion, flying from the depravations of Europe, to the American Strand. Emerson: Here, once, the embattled farmers stood and fired the shot heard 'round the world. Born in 1823 to a genteel family of merchants and ministers, and graduating Harvard College in the class of 1844, Francis Parkman's view of Boston's place in the world was profoundly shaped by events and trends of his early life.
During Parkman's youth, the interests of Boston's ruling class were increasingly drawn to Europe. Young men such as George Ticknor, Charles Eliot Norton, George Bancroft, and John Lothrop Motley (there were many others as well) went abroad to study languages, to receive European degrees, and to cultivate continental approaches to intellectual endeavor. At the same time, Parkman came of age in the era of Manifest Destiny, when the lure of the West, the annexation of Texas, the Mexican War, Oregon Fever, and the California Gold Rush were remaking the map of the United States along with the nation's sense of itself.
Francis Parkman was the rare young man who felt equally drawn by both orbits. In 1843-44, Parkman set out on a European grand tour, visiting the great capitals of the continent and making a lengthy stay in Italy, including an extended visit to a Passionist monastery in Rome. A year after his return to America, bored with studying law and fearing for his eyesight, Parkman set out on his better known excursion on the Oregon Trail. He returned broken and nearly blind, but with his youthful plan for writing the history of the American forest now fixed in his mind. His travels made it possible for him to realize his project as a history of both Europeans and Indians, played out against the backdrop of the primeval American forest, a great conflict fought between two competing models of European civilization—France and England, Catholicism and Protestantism, absolutism and liberty.
Both sets of interests, Europe and the American West, pulled Parkman away from Boston, but in a curious way, his work remained centered there. The city of Boston, like Parkman himself, was pulled between these two orbits, and slowly shifted from one to the other. Traditionally, Boston had been America's most Eurocentric city. Compared with New York and Philadelphia, Boston's hinterland was shallow, and it looked toward the Atlantic for its economic and cultural development. As the metropolis of New England, Boston's connection to the continental project of the early United States was tenuous at best. Boston's Federalist elites detested the Jeffersonian vision of an agrarian republic that dominated the politics of the young nation, and during Jefferson's embargo of 1807-09 and "Mr. Madison's" War of 1812, they made their opposition known to the point of their own embarrassment at the quasi-secessionist Hartford Convention in 1814.
Yet by the 1840s, when Francis Parkman came of age and began his first historical works, his city's orientation was changing. Migrants from New England's cultural hearth had spread across the Midwest and beyond, replicating New England villages, churches, and colleges throughout the Old Northwest Territory and on into Iowa and Minnesota. The city's commercial leaders had rounded the horn from the Atlantic to the Pacific, giving Boston a vital interest in the development of Oregon and California. The political crises of the 1850s, likewise a time of crisis in Parkman's own life, brought on moments of uncertainty, such as the violent rendition of the fugitive slave Anthony Burns. In 1854, some might have predicted that Massachusetts, not South Carolina, would be the first state to secede from the union.
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