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.
This form of narrative history Parkman inherited and built upon, beginning in 1851 with his earliest historical writing, The Conspiracy of Pontiac, and ending with A Half-Century of Conflict in 1892, shortly before his death. The ways in which Parkman elaborated the narrative history of his predecessors, changing both its methods and its substance, help to explain why he was its last great practitioner. For by bringing new concerns and strategies to his history, Parkman created tensions that were to tear narrative history apart.
A letter Henry James sent to Parkman from Rye after reading Montcalm and Wolfe leaves little doubt that James’s appreciation was literary and aesthetic:
Reading it here by the summer-smooth channel with the French coast, from my window, looking on some clear days only five miles distant & the guns of old England pointed seaward, from the rambling, historic castle perched above me on the downs; reading it, I say, among these influences has stirred all sorts of feelings—none of them, however, incompatible with a great satisfaction that the American land should have the credit of a production so solid and artistic.
James later added what was probably, for him, the highest praise of all: “The manner in which you have treated the prodigious theme is worthy of the theme itself and that says everything.”
In a way, Parkman succeeded in doing with narrative history what James was doing with the novel, complicating its formal character and turning it inward toward the historical equivalent of the roman psychologique, transforming its sources and its personal judgments and observations into felt experience. Parkman introduced into the narrative voice an implicit moral consciousness that replaced the moralism of previous historians such as Jared Sparks and J.L. Motley. It was this voice—judging, evoking, distancing, ironic, and empathetic by turns—that James must have singled out as Parkman’s “manner.”
The “prodigious theme” James referred to was twofold: the recovery of a lost past of French discovery, exploit, and rule on the American continent and the triumph of Anglo-American power in America after the French defeat at Quebec. The treatment given to these two thematic strands, however, was far from equal. Only a fraction of the history and many of its perfunctory pages are devoted to the triumph of Anglo-American power. Indeed, it appears that Parkman added England to his title late, almost from compunction. It was the tragic overtones in the rise and fall of French power that fired his imagination.
Parkman’s vision of French feudal power held at bay in the American wilderness altered the perspective historians had traditionally taken. Following Voltaire and Gibbon and even earlier writers, other historians had worked with settings close to the centers of power, in court or ecclesiastical domain. Parkman was among the first to follow the lines of power to the periphery of empire. It is this perspective that gives his history particular interest today. Unlike his fellow Bostonian Prescott, whose histories of the conquest of Mexico and Peru, though set in these countries, had placed a triumphant Spain in the foreground, and unlike both Bancroft and Motley, who had traced the rise of national sentiment domestically in the United States and in the Dutch republic, Parkman centered his histories on the course of French power as viewed from the colonial outposts in North America. The French monarchy and events in metropolitan France were portrayed and characterized by the way they were seen from afar. Only occasionally, as in the opening chapter of Montcalm and Wolfe, does Parkman describe the French court or events on the Continent in terms that would have proved familiar to Voltaire or Gibbon. The Seven Years’ War is seen, instead, through the wrong end of a telescope, as colonial eyes might have perceived it.
The circumstances that undermined the monarchy and brought about the defeat of France on the Plains of Abraham and, Parkman argues, the subsequent French Revolution, are present in France’s conduct of building its empire after the seventeenth century. It is the specter of an empire coming unstuck in a forest setting that is most arresting to us in Parkman’s histories. Indeed, the reactions of Europeans to the hardship and desolation in such surroundings appear to have fascinated him the most: the deepening mystery of the forest, and the way in which it transformed civilized behavior, as when a band of rebellious subordinates of La Salle on the rampage scrawled “Nous sommes tous sauvages” in impeccable French on the remains of a burned-out fort.
Modern readers will no doubt see in the Frenchmen Parkman described in the 1880s the French in Indochina sixty or seventy years later. If the historical line runs forward to Dien Bien Phu and the Algerian War, the literary line runs through modern writers from Kipling and Conrad to Orwell and Graham Greene, other writers who have subsequently taken the pulse of empire in jungle places.
No other history illustrated Parkman’s mature “manner” as fully as La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West, a work which contains almost all the qualities of Parkman’s historical work, and because it concerns itself largely with a single figure, it possesses the greatest coherence and dramatic force. It is a story of miscalculation and mischance, with ironies abounding. Nowhere else I know of is the almost insane grandiosity of French colonial ambition more apparent, and nowhere else, partly because of the close identity Parkman appears to have felt with La Salle, is its tragic failure more affectingly portrayed.
La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West was published in its final form in 1879 at the midpoint in the histories, its central epoch France under Louis XIV. The “Great West” of the title was the vast continental expanse between the Allegheny and Rocky mountains and between Canada and the Gulf of Mexico, the “Louisiana” claimed by La Salle in the name of his monarch. The unity of Parkman’s histories has in part to do with their preoccupation with the exploration and preemption of this domain by La Salle and others. The very language used by these explorers in describing this territory and claiming it for France provided Parkman with the basis for his graphic portrayal of the times. All the diverse aspects of this saga—the narratives of French exploit, the portrayals of Indian life, the descriptions of landscape and wildlife—are thus fused into an imaginative act of repossession, as if for his time and for his country.
The narrative begins with La Salle’s first efforts to establish a feudal holding for himself in New France. It recounts his personal and political frustrations as he sets about trying to win political and logistical support for his increasingly ambitious schemes. It describes his alliance with the charismatic governor Count Frontenac and his two voyages to France to acquire the support of the king. It also explores the hostility and suspicion La Salle seems to have aroused wherever he went, and the dangers and hardships he endured as he and his party inched their way south toward the mouth of the Mississippi. In the climactic section of the narrative, La Salle makes the tragic and misguided effort to relocate the mouth of the river by way of the bleak gulf coast. The book concludes with La Salle’s ill-fated and sequestered Texas colony, and his growing madness and eventual murder at the hands of his own men.
La Salle is certainly the central figure in this part of the narrative. Indeed Parkman, who compared him at his death to Coriolanus, seems to have conceived of him as a tragic hero. But Parkman also thought of himself as writing a history of the land. Substantial parts of La Salle are therefore devoted to the discoveries and claims of others: Louis Joliet, Jacques Marquette, Louis Hennepin. It was characteristic of Parkman to drop his account of La Salle at key moments and to “cut,” in almost cinematic fashion, to the parallel or related explorations of others. Because they were all in a quest for the land, Parkman is able to do this without losing the momentum of his narrative.
La Salle also reveals in still another way the relationship that Parkman, at his best, expresses between the seventeenth century and his own nineteenth century world. In a chapter entitled “La Salle Painted by Himself,” Parkman, working from an interview La Salle once gave in Paris and biographical sketches from other sources, draws a complex psychological portrait of introverted ambition which depends almost entirely on seventeenth-century documents. But if the language is from another time, its selection and conceptual frame are from Parkman’s. Behind La Salle’s outer reserve, Parkman’s quotations from these documents suggest, was his determination neither to succumb to temptations, whether of worldly ambition or material comfort, nor to be defeated by physical pain or hardship. La Salle is perceived as having been able to hold the judgments of others at a distance without wholly disregarding them, as having an almost instinctive distrust of any but his most intimate associates. La Salle is quoted as claiming for himself “a timidity which is natural to me,” and to it he attributes his preference for solitary pursuits.
While these traits apply to the historical La Salle, they also seem part of an act of projection in which Parkman revealed his own character across a long span of history and in the language of another society and age. In his portrait of La Salle Parkman himself emerges as a figure torn between two centuries. While he was convinced that something of great value, unblemished forests and in men “hardihood,” had been lost in bringing his nineteenth-century American world into being, Parkman was impatient and contemptuous, like La Salle himself, of much that he found in the seventeenth century, its cruelties and its religious superstition most of all.
The closing chapter of Montcalm and Wolfe even more powerfully dramatizes Parkman’s uncertainty whether the victory of bourgeois commercial society in America represents an advance over what it had replaced, whether, to quote his final sentence,
the rule of the masses is consistent with the highest growth of the individual; [whether] democracy can give the world a civilization as mature and pregnant, ideas as energetic and vitalizing, and types of manhood as lofty and strong, as any of the systems which it boasts to supplant.
Throughout, with his ambivalence toward the past and the present, his histories express an uncomfortable equilibrium between the seventeenth and the nineteenth centuries.
Parkman’s voluminous notes in Montcalm and Wolfe and elsewhere reveal a mind in marked contrast to that of the characters he describes in his narrative: a nineteenth-century skeptical and scientific mind schooled in exactitude of description and measurement, and rigorously insistent on accuracy and the detailed verification of claims made by others. He closely scrutinizes the chronicles of explorers, checking whether their accounts of their travels are plausible.
Above all Parkman sought to reassure his readers that his histories were founded on incontrovertible fact. Montcalm and Wolfe, like the earlier histories, contained a preface in which Parkman listed the many different sources, printed and in manuscript, that he had consulted. “The papers copied for the present work,” he began, “in France alone exceed six thousand folio pages…. The copies made in England form ten volumes.” He remarks with assurance: “I believe I may safely say that nothing in it of much consequence has escaped me.” To this boast was added a claim that belies the myth of Parkman as a lifelong invalid: “I have visited and examined every spot where events of any importance in connection with the contest took place.”
Not infrequently his forays into the truthfulness or motivation of his informants reveal their dishonesty and treachery; he shows how the French friar Louis Hennepin carefully manufactured his account of discovering the mouth of the Mississippi before La Salle, concocting a documentary fraud of almost heroic proportions.
Parkman is just as rigorous with himself. Often, if he has translated a statement made by a historical figure, he will quote the original French in a note. This counterpoint to the narrative events themselves, when it is continued over thousands of pages, results in an effect very different from the monolinear narrative thread that Parkman announces as his intention. His histories are crammed with what might appear to be digressions, anecdotes, descriptions of natural life, ethnographic detail, topographic annotations, and analyses of illustrations from the period. Literally hundreds of historical figures are singled out by name, a great many of them characterized, some of them at length. In sum, Parkman’s histories are a vast miscellany that would have shattered into fragments in the hands of other historians with a less certain purpose.
The voices that Parkman employs in his narration can seem almost as numerous as his details. They are sometimes (often only potentially) dissonant or conflicting. There are long stretches in which Parkman synthesizes the conclusions drawn by other contemporary historians, like Jared Sparks, that read like stylish versions of present-day textbook history, as in the opening chapter of Montcalm and Wolfe. Sometimes such passages are followed by the kind of subtle psychological characterizations that are contained in his La Salle, or by verbal landscapes of closely observed detail. Paragraphs of unsurpassed lyricism and great literary complexity are followed by others that seem little more than routine paraphrases of sources. There are clear lapses now and then in rhetoric, and the use of detail often verges upon clutter, but the remarkable feature of the histories is the degree to which, diverse and disparate though they seem, they cohere, and can be experienced as a whole.
How did he achieve this? A recent study by Richard Vitzhum compares Parkman’s methods to those of George Bancroft and Henry Adams, pointing out that while Parkman’s method was scarcely different from Bancroft’s, no one would claim for Bancroft the kind of literary power that Parkman’s histories possess.9 The source of that power seems to me to lie in the cadenced voice that runs throughout the work, setting a pace that varies but never slackens, and that sustains the momentum of the background story through many digressions and asides by keeping the reader in suspense.
At the same time the voice has a quality of omniscience that gives unity to diverse material and makes the reader feel that the narrator is masterfully unfolding very different kinds of knowledge as his story moves forward, as in the long “detours” from his account of La Salle’s discoveries in which parallel accounts of discoveries by Hennepin and others add suspense and meaning to the central narrative. Parkman can also hold up narrative action while building suspense, as when, within the narrative, he meticulously examines and rejects claims made by the family of La Salle that he had first discovered the Mississippi, and he gives brilliant descriptions of the landscape that other explorers saw, descriptions that invariably become charged with human significance. Thus, when Joliet and Marquette set out on a voyage that is to discover the Mississippi, Parkman comments:
They glided calmly down the tranquil stream, by islands choked with trees and matted with entangling grape-vines; by forests, groves, and prairies, the parks and pleasure grounds of a prodigal nature; by thickets and marshes and broad bare sand-bars; under the shadowing trees, between whose tops looked down from afar the bold brow of some woody bluff.
Here his travelers are portrayed as ensnared in a gargantuan natural world which is perceived as looming over them as they proceed, a preparation for the moment of discovery a few pages later.
Although Parkman claimed not to read novels himself and experienced literature mostly from being read to by his sister and others close to him, the narrative cadence of his work seems to me to owe much to the tone of the nineteenth-century novel. Indeed, it is Parkman’s ability to maintain the narrative that seems central to his achievement. His painstaking work on thousands of sources and authorities comes to us through a calmly authoritative persona that remains at the imaginative center of his histories, modulating their tone, arbitrating their shifts in strategy, carrying the reader forward less by explicit argument than by using again and again the same modes of storytelling. The narrative voice transforms the sources it works from, even when it cites them verbatim, as in the portrayal of La Salle. Vitzhum notes an instance of how this voice transformed the material, when Parkman converted Hennepin’s first-person narrative into the third person with very different effect.
We set out the next day, September 19th, with fourteen persons in four canoes, I directing the smallest, loaded with 500 pounds, with a carpenter just arrived from France, who did not know how to avoid the waves, during rough weather, I had difficulty to manage this little craft…. We took our course southerly toward the mainland four good leagues distant from the island of Portouatamis. In the middle of the traverse and amid the most beautiful calm in the world, a storm arose which endangered our lives…. We completed this great passage amid the darkness of night, calling to one another so as not to part company…. We nevertheless reached the shore in a little sandy bay.
Parkman’s Narrative Version
The parting was not auspicious. The lake, glassy and calm in the afternoon, was convulsed at night with a sudden storm, when the canoes were midway between the island and the main shore. It was with difficulty that they could keep together, the men shouting to each other through the darkness. Hennepin, who was in the smallest canoe, with a heavy load, and a carpenter for a companion, who was awkward with a paddle, found himself in jeopardy which demanded all his nerve. The voyagers thought themselves happy when they gained at last the shelter of a little sandy cove….
Hennepin’s men calling to one another are “shouting” in Parkman and the bay has become a cove, but the most significant change is in point of view. It was Parkman, judging from a distance, who decided that the situation demanded all of Hennepin’s “nerve.” Here personal experience recounted long ago becomes an episode in an intense literary landscape.
Barbara Novak has shown how something similar takes place in the landscape painting of Parkman’s contemporaries Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Church, and Winslow Homer. In contrast to most of their European mentors and peers, these Americans retained in their renderings of American nature a marked preoccupation with what Novak calls “the tactile identity of objects.” But their absorption with the unique features of the American world, or what Novak sometimes refers to as their “empiricism,” balances with the philosophical ideas or formal conceptions that required fogging the skies in their paintings, raising or lowering the horizon, or lengthening the perspective.
Parkman among all his other accomplishments had trained himself to be a naturalist, and he published in 1866 an important monograph, The Book of Roses. Several years later he was appointed to his only academic position, professor of horticulture at Harvard. Parkman’s writing on roses suggests that he had been caught up in the contemporary controversy between taxonomic and evolutionary scientific methods. The book is almost evenly divided between a discussion of cultivation and the breeding of hybrids, and a meticulous and detailed description of every variety of rose and most of the principal hybrids. But like some of the painters of his time, Parkman used his sense of the specific natural world as part of a larger imaginative strategy.
A striking example occurs early in Pioneers, when a small French force is sent up the St. Johns River in Florida on what is essentially a reconnaissance mission to report on the hostility between two local tribes of Indians. In the passage that follows, Parkman, in still another instance of characteristic narrative suspense, evokes for his explorers “a prolific wilderness which no European eye had ever yet beheld.” Then, invoking the names of his naturalist predecessors who had visited the scene—the Bartrams, father and son, and John James Audubon—Parkman sets before us a landscape that is both objective and symbolic, a godless, turbulent natural world, yet one where egret and ibis, blue and white heron are carefully distinguished:
Here was the haunt of bears, wildcats, lynxes, cougars, and the numberless deer of which they made their prey. In the sedges and the mud the alligator stretched his brutish length; turtles with outstretched necks basked on halfsunken legs; the rattlesnake sunned himself on the sandy bank, and the yet more dangerous moccasin lurked under water-lilies in inlets and sheltered coves. The air and water were populous as the earth. The river swarmed with fish, from the fierce and restless gar, cast in his horny armor, to the lazy catfish in the muddy depths. There were the golden eagle and whiteheaded eagle, the gray pelican and the white pelican, the blue heron and the white heron, the egret, the ibis, ducks of various sorts, the whooping crane, the black vulture, and the cormorant….
Unlike Darwin, whose own account of the teeming struggle within a “tangled bank” at the close of Origin of Species seems in comparison a pastoral, Parkman imposes human characteristics on the “brutish,” “dangerous,” and “lazy” creatures he describes. One senses in his proprietary, foreboding itemization an attempt to repossess America’s wild nature for the imagination, to reclaim what had been eroded by time. Many of these lyrical passages, one must remember, have their origin in descriptive accounts left by explorers like La Salle to establish French proprietary claims on the North American continent.
It says something about both Parkman and Parkman’s time that he carried about with him in civilized nineteenth-century Boston this image of a savage, virgin wilderness. Indeed, the unique and arresting qualities of American nature could be said to have reastonished the nineteenth century just as they had first amazed the seventeenth. “It is impossible,” Darwin wrote in 1866, “to reflect on the changed state of the American continent without the deepest astonishment. Certainly no fact in the long history of the world is so startling as the wide and repeated extermination of its inhabitants.”
Both Parkman and Darwin, as well as many other major figures of the time, seem preoccupied with the affinities between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. It was not just that the discovery of the mysterious and unique New World set Western evolutionary and historical thought in motion, changing forever the cultural and natural environment both in Europe and America in ways that only began to become clear in the nineteenth century. What was also taking place was a kind of colonization of nineteenth-century culture by the literary and rhetorical modes of the seventeenth, a process one can imagine at work as Parkman pored over the Jesuit Relations and other chronicles of two centuries before.
The involvement of nineteenth-century Americans with the culture of seventeenth-century England, the rediscovery of Puritanism quite apart, seems incontrovertible. The first edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, for example, published in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1855, devotes close to half its pages to seventeenth-century writings, even without counting Milton. The rhythms of Shakespeare and the Bible, no one now needs to be reminded, can be heard throughout American literature during much of the nineteenth century.10 In this Parkman was no exception. His devices of listing and naming, as in the passage I have quoted, echo Biblical rhythms as he tries to recover in America’s wild and virgin landscape a lost seventeenth-century world that no historical mind could fully recapture.
To recover was to repossess. What drove Parkman to elaborate the form of narrative history was the need to perform such an act of repossession. In this quest he had allies in other historical thinkers and many of the major theorists of the day. Where some turned to theory, Parkman resorted to his version of the historical narrative. They were all aware that the social changes that had taken place since the seventeenth century were of a magnitude difficult to comprehend. We now tend to forget that their writings and speculations spoke less to the secure conviction that society was evolving in an orderly way than to a sense of the unsettling mystery of what had passed. For on that mystery depended an even more uncertain future. The conundrum invited ambitious forays into the past, such as those Parkman undertook.
It is important to realize how singular Parkman was in his time. The speculative temper of Marx, or even of John Fiske, was foreign to his nature. Half verbal artist, half naturalist—he sometimes referred to his work as “a history of the American forest”—Parkman was denied an explanation to the problem of anomalous historical change that plagued him and his age. In everything he wrote the exactions of a scientific temperament pressed hard upon him, separating him both psychologically and stylistically from the events and the historical figures that were his lifelong preoccupation. Parkman, believing as he did in the inevitability of progress, must have sensed as he worked through the closing years of his life, battered by illness, that his great work was, in a certain way, as doomed as the French domain in America.
This premonition, I suspect, will soon prove unwarranted. The republication of the histories should assure them a place among such classics as Walden, The Education of Henry Adams, and The Theory of the Leisure Class, maverick works whose idiosyncratic voice and troubled vision of the future have characterized the main tradition of American letters.
October 13, 1983
The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 18 (April 1961). ↩
See, for example, William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England (Hill and Wang, 1983). ↩
Greenwood, 1972. ↩
University of California Press, 1978. ↩
Lawrence Stone, “The Revival of Narrative: Reflections on a New Old History,” Past and Present, vol. 85 (November 1979), pp. 3-24. ↩
Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825-1875 (Oxford University Press, 1980). ↩
Geoffrey H. Hartman, Criticism in the Wilderness: The Study of Literature Today (Yale University Press, 1980). ↩
Leo Braudy, Narrative Form in History and Fiction: Hume, Fielding, Gibbon (Princeton University Press, 1970). ↩
Richard C. Vitzhum, The American Compromise: Theme and Method in the Histories of Bancroft, Parkman, and Adams (University of Oklahoma Press, 1974). ↩
Lawrence W. Levine, “William Shakespeare and the Transformation of American Culture” (unpublished colloquium paper presented at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, DC, February 15, 1983). ↩