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Repossessing America

France and England in North America Vol. I: Pioneers of France in the New World; The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century; La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West; The Old Régime in Canada

by Francis Parkman, edited by David Levin
1,504 pp.

France and England in North America Vol. II: Count Frontenac and New France under Louis XIV; A Half-Century of Conflict; Montcalm and Wolfe

by Francis Parkman, edited by David Levin
The Library of America, 1,620 pp., $30.00 each volume


Francis Parkman’s seven-part history, France and England in North America, the consuming work of the last twenty-seven years of his life, has now been made available by the Library of America to readers of the 1980s. There is little doubt that its publication will raise the question of Parkman’s standing both as a historian and as an imaginative writer. Indeed, the decision to bring out Parkman’s histories early in the series is the most interesting one the editors have so far made.

It is easy to forget that by the 1880s, when he published the climactic volume of his history, Montcalm and Wolfe, Parkman’s reputation as a writer probably equaled or exceeded that of many of the major nineteenth-century novelists. But as fiction emerged as the predominant literary form, historical writing declined as a literary genre. With the rise of professional, monographic historical writing at the close of Parkman’s life, those who wrote history were separated from those who studied and taught literature.

Parkman suffered, ironically, from the very success of his own efforts, as generations of students swarmed into the vast territory that he and other historian archivists had charted, staked out their claims, and brought his conclusions into question. I doubt very much that anyone today reads Parkman to find out about French Canada. His work has been relegated, instead, to a few pages in anthologies of American literature, together with his less interesting predecessors William Prescott, J. L. Motley, and George Bancroft.

If Parkman has enjoyed a popular following at all, it has been as the author of The Oregon Trail, not a history but rather an autobiographical account, published in 1849, when he was twenty-five, of a western journey among Sioux and bison. It is one of those engaging nineteenth-century tales, like Two Years Before the Mast, that describe cultivated young men enduring physical hardship in far-off, exotic places. The Oregon Trail has many fine moments, but it is the work of a young man just out of college and has little of the quality and complexity of the writings of some eighteen years later. To know Parkman only as the author of The Oregon Trail, as most American readers have, is a little like knowing Melville only as the author of Typee.

Twenty-five years ago not one volume of Parkman’s great history was in print, although editions of his letters, his notebooks, and several biographies were available. Although recently several of the histories were published separately and, in 1969, a limited facsimile edition of the entire history, Parkman has not had the readers he deserves. (I recently discovered that not a single volume of the facsimile edition has been withdrawn from the New York University library in the last five years.)

Parkman’s historical conclusions had proved controversial from the time of publication, especially among Canadian contemporaries who quickly detected his anti-French and anti-Jesuit bias. His standing as a historian continued to be examined critically throughout the 1960s. In perhaps the most comprehensive conventional reassessment of his work, “The History of New France According to Francis Parkman,” the Canadian historian W. J. Eccles1 concluded that very little of the edifice that Parkman had constructed remained intact.

Eccles found that Parkman’s histories were dominated by his belief in the inevitability of progress, by his acceptance of the Great Man theory of historical change, and by an anticlericalism so strong as to affect his judgment of events at crucial moments. His assumption that French rule was to give way to English allowed him to elaborate his tragic story without analyzing complicating or conflicting evidence. He passionately admired La Salle who followed the Mississippi to its mouth, took possession of much of North America for France, and finally was murdered by his own men. But his hatred of the Jesuits led him to take at face value denunciations of the Jesuits sent by La Salle and others to the French minister Colbert in the hope of exploiting Colbert’s own distaste for them.

Moreover, Parkman’s need for heroes led him to single out men whose historical importance has subsequently been questioned. He appears, for example, to have accepted uncritically the clever, self-promoting accounts of the leadership left behind by Frontenac, Louis XIV’s governor of New France, even while neglecting important figures like Champlain, who could be rightly called the founder and first colonizer of the new France. In his determination to find a selfless hero in the explorer La Salle, furthermore, Parkman overlooked La Salle’s involvement in court intrigue and played down his growing mental derangement. Most serious of all, according to Eccles, was Parkman’s tendency to see the Indian as little more than a pawn in the battle between Frenchman and Englishman. To Parkman the Indian, at his best, was a white man with brown skin, as in the opening chapter of A Half-Century of Conflict; at his worst, he was a savage beast venting his senseless rage on innocent settlers, as in the horrified account of the Deerfield massacre.

The authoritativeness of Parkman’s interpretation of events has been further undermined in recent studies that focus on Amerind cultures and on the North American environment as active forces in shaping events.2 In Parkman the Indian hardly seems to figure as much more than a colorful backdrop against which to stage a drama of European cultures in conflict. Alfred W. Crosby, Jr., in his important monograph, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492,3 argues persuasively that the complex, sometimes cataclysmic impact springing from the first discovery of the New World by Europeans changed the natural and cultural environments of both Europe and the Americas. New diseases such as syphilis were created on the spot, and epidemics of smallpox were unleashed on New World populations without immunity.

Furthermore, recent studies by historians and anthropologists have focused on the motivation of Amerinds in different regions in an effort to understand their different responses to European incursions, from the vigorous pursuit of the fur trade by the Micmacs of the Northeast to the ferocious tactics of the Sioux to avoid extinction. The most important such study is probably Calvin Martin’s Keepers of the Game: Indian-Animal Relationships and the Fur Trade,4 which won the prestigious Beveridge Award of the American Historical Association in 1979. In this controversial study, Martin argued that the Indians’ response to the fur trade could be explained by examining their religious beliefs concerning animals. A religious crisis rather than economic self-interest, he insisted, explained the readiness of the Micmacs to cooperate with the commercial interests of New France. A series of epidemics, perceived by the Micmacs as inflicted on them by the animals, freed them to kill beaver without religious scruple and thus upset the delicate ecological balance that had obtained.

In the light of such criticism, it is hard to explain the extraordinary power these histories still retain. Rereading them today, even with these limitations in mind, we are caught up in them afresh. They have, to begin with, something of the quality one associates with what anthropologists call “contact history,” those arresting, enigmatic descriptions of the first encounters between a native population and outsiders who come to conquer or study them. Beyond that they take on some of the character of historical fiction, of novels such as The Scarlet Letter or A Tale of Two Cities, constructs of a past framed in a later time and shaped by its values. Then, too, we are held by the tension between Parkman’s wish to reenter the seventeenth-century world, which is at the center of his histories, and his nineteenth-century mind at work deciphering vestiges of that past.

The 1980s, for a number of reasons, should provide a more receptive climate for Parkman’s work than any other period since his death. The recent revival of interest in narrative history, in both its theory and its practice,5 the fresh attention given by art historians to the landscape paintings of Parkman’s contemporaries,6 and a renewed critical interest in nonfiction, texts7—to name only the more obvious reasons—suggest that Parkman will be examined by readers more sympathetic with his achievement. One is reminded, for example, that Roland Barthes not long ago included the French narrative historian Jules Michelet in the series Ecrivains de toujours.


The form of narrative history that Parkman employed with such distinction was the creation of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Its descent has been traced from the Renaissance idea of history as moral precept, through Hume’s History of England of 1762, to its near maturity in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.8 According to this view, it was influenced by the novel, especially such novels as Fielding’s Amelia, which contributed characterization and developed the larger social consequences of individual actions, and introduced the concept of continuous change over time—ideas foreign to earlier history. From Gibbon, who incorporated and enhanced Hume’s conception of the historian’s role, narrative history acquired its preoccupation with the sweep of events, with the tragic consequences of misdirection, virtue, vice, and mischance, that led to the fall of great empires. It acquired from Gibbon as well an emphasis on the historian as the supreme adjudicator of those who speak from the past. Following Gibbon, the historian evaluates not only figures in the past but previous historians and those who have provided his historical records, who become characters in their own right in the footnoted underworld of his narrative.

In the early nineteenth century this form of narrative history, with some modifications, was being written by historians almost everywhere—by Michelet, Thierry, and Barante in France, by Macaulay and others in England, and by Prescott, Motley, and Bancroft in the United States. An important shift in emphasis, apart from a growing patriotic temper in most of these writers, was the stress that began to be placed on “local color,” a term that was apparently first introduced by Barante in a lecture in 1806 to describe a new kind of interest in authenticity achieved through attention to historical setting.

There were, of course, many differences among these writers, but they had in common one characteristic: their continuous and acknowledged dependence on other writings, on texts that determined their points of view and often provided the very words they used. Since most of those who provided the records of the past had done so as participants or as witnesses to those in power, the new narrative historians, believing as most of them did in the moral superiority of the present, became adjudicators of the exercise of power. Large portions of human experience that now occupy historians escaped their attention—those experiences that Braudel has called “everyday life.” It was the exercise of leadership, the particular acts of rulers and their consequences, that most concerned them. They became critics of power, creators of their emerging national pasts. This point of view gave them an influence unknown to literary men; the power of the word was used to evolve a new form of national consciousness.

  1. 1

    The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 18 (April 1961).

  2. 2

    See, for example, William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England (Hill and Wang, 1983).

  3. 3

    Greenwood, 1972.

  4. 4

    University of California Press, 1978.

  5. 5

    Lawrence Stone, “The Revival of Narrative: Reflections on a New Old History,” Past and Present, vol. 85 (November 1979), pp. 3-24.

  6. 6

    Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825-1875 (Oxford University Press, 1980).

  7. 7

    Geoffrey H. Hartman, Criticism in the Wilderness: The Study of Literature Today (Yale University Press, 1980).

  8. 8

    Leo Braudy, Narrative Form in History and Fiction: Hume, Fielding, Gibbon (Princeton University Press, 1970).

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