Francis Parkman: as Historian in American Literature

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      Francis Parkman (1823-1893)—The youngest and greatest of this group of historians was born of Puritan blood in Boston in 1823. Parkman's life from early childhood was a preparation for his future work, and when a mere lad at college, he had decided to write a history of the French and Indian War. He was a delicate child, and at the age of eight was sent to live with his grandfather, who owned at Medway, near Boston, a vast tract of woodland. The boy roamed at will through these forests, and began to amass that wood lore of which his histories hold such rich stores. At Harvard he overworked in the gymnasium with the mistaken purpose of strengthening himself for a life on the frontier.

Francis Parkman Historian in American Literature
Francis Parkman

      In 1846, two years after graduation, he took his famous trip out west over the Oregon Trail, where he hunted buffalo on the plains, dragged his horse through the canyons to escape hostile Indians, lived in the camp of the warlike Dacota tribe, and learned by bitter experience the privations of primitive life.

      His health was permanently impaired by the trip. He was threatened with absolute blindness, and was compelled to have all his notes read to him and to dictate his histories. For years he was forbidden literary work on account of insomnia and intense cerebral pain which threatened insanity, and on account of lameness he was long confined to a wheel chair. He rose above every obstacle, however, and with silent fortitude bore his sufferings, working whenever he could, if for only a bare half hour at a time.

      His amazing activity during his trips, both in America and abroad, is shown in the Massachusetts Historical Society Library, which contains almost two hundred folio volumes, which he had experts copy from original sources. With few exceptions, he visited every spot which he described, and saw the life of nearly every tribe of Indians. His battle with ill health, his strength of character, and his energetic first-hand study of Indian and pioneer life are remarkable in the history of American men of letters. He died near Boston in 1893.

      Because of their subject matter, Parkman's works are of unusual interest to Americans. When he returned from his pioneer western trip, he wrote a simple, straightforward account, which was in 1849 published in book form, under the title of The California and Oregon Trail. This book remains the most trustworthy, as well as the most entertaining, account of travel in the unsettled Northwest of that time. Indians, big game, and adventures enough to satisfy any reasonable boy may be found in this book.

      His histories cover the period from the early French settlements in the New World to the victory of the English over the French and Indian allies. The titles of his separate works, given in their chronological order, are as follows :—

      The Pioneers of France in the New World (1865) describes the experiences of the early French sailors and explorers off the Newfoundland coast and along the St. Lawrence River.

      The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century (1867) tells of the work of the self-forgetting Jesuit Fathers in their mission of mercy and conversion among the Indians. Fifty pages of the Introduction give an account of the religion, festivities, superstitions, burials, sacrifices, and military organization of the Indians.

      La Salle, or the Discovery of the Great West (1869), is the story of La Salle's heroic endeavors and sufferings while exploring the West and the Mississippi River.

      The Old Regime in Canada (1874) presents the internal conflicts and the social development of Canada in the seventeenth century.

      Count Frontenac and New France under Louis XIV. (1877) continues the history of Canada as a French dependency, and paints in a lively manner Count Frontenac's character, his popularity with the Indians, and his methods of winning laurels for France.

      A Half Century of Conflict (1892) depicts the sharp encounter between the French and English for the possession of the country, and the terrible deeds of the Indians against their hated foes, the English.

      Montcalm and Wolfe (1884) paints the final scenes of the struggle between France and England, closing practically with the fall of Quebec.

      The History of the Conspiracy of Pontiac (1851) shows one more desperate attempt of a great Indian chief to combine the tribes of his people and drive out the English. The volume closes with the general smoking of the pipe of peace and the swearing of allegiance to England. The first forty-five pages describe the manners and customs of the Indian tribes east of the Mississippi.

      The general title, France and England in North America, indicates the subject matter of all this historical work. The central theme of the whole series is the struggle between the French and English for this great American continent. The trackless forests, the Great Lakes, the untenanted shores of the St. Lawrence and the Mississippi form an impressive background for the actors in this drama,—the Indians, traders, self-sacrificing priests, and the French and English contending for one of the greatest prizes of the world.

      In his manner of presenting the different ideals and civilizations of England and France in this struggle, he shows keen analytical power and strong philosophical grasp. He is accurate in his details, and he summarizes the results of economic and religious forces in the strictly modern spirit. At the same time, these histories read like novels of adventure, so vivid and lively is the action. While scholars commend his reliability in dealing with facts, boys enjoy his vivid stories of heroism, sacrifice, religious enthusiasm, Indian craft, and military maneuvering. The one who begins with The Conspiracy of Pontiac, for instance, will be inclined to read more of Parkman.

      In the first volumes the style is clear, nervous, and a trifle ornate. His facility in expression increased with his years, so that in Montcalm and Wolfe he has a mellowness and dignity that place him beside the best American prose writers. Although Prescott's work is more full of color, he does not surpass Parkman in the presentation of graphic pictures, Parkman has neither the solemn grandeur of Prescott nor the rapid eloquence of Motley, but Parkman has unique merits of his own,—the freshness of the pine woods, the reality and vividness of an eyewitness, an elemental strength inherent in the primitive nature of his novel subject. He secured his material at first hand in a way that cannot be repeated. Parkman's prose presents in a simple, lucid, but vigorous manner the story of the overthrow of the French by the English in the struggle for a mighty continent. As a result of this contest, Puritan England left its lasting impress upon this new land.

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