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 …

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