Defeating The Enemy

PrintPrintEmailEmail

On a different scale, his struggle with his physical ailments continued during his years of most active work, when he was putting together the classic volumes of France and England in North America . Wholly characteristic is the remark he made after spending a month in seclusion to get treatments for his failing sight. He had had enough idleness, and he was going to go back to work, and “my eyes may go to the devil if they like.” Not for him was what he called “that pallid and emasculate scholarship of which New England has had too many examples.” His frail body might indeed be weak, but there was nothing pallid about the determination that drove it.

He believed that his books owed much to the fact that “their subjects were largely studied from real life.” No historian, however, ever worked more painstakingly with the written sources. Near the end of his life he recalled that his work had involved “a prodigious amount of mousing in libraries and archives,” and he used the same figure of speech to express his professional creed—admiration for “the cool historian mousing among the litter of centuries in search of the truth.” The high literary quality of his own books was of course the result of a conscious striving for literary excellence, and he had the artistic imagination that enabled him to bring men and events of a bygone age into clear focus for the modern reader; but no historian ever insisted more completely that historical writing must always rest on a solid base of scholarship.

In his introduction to this collection of letters Mr. Jacobs remarks that the main figures in Parkman’s books—Pontiac, Frontenac, La Salle, Wolfe, Montcalm, and the rest—”are not remembered primarily because of their accomplishments but because Parkman wrote about them.” True enough; but what a struggle it took to produce those books! The determination that took a sick man into the Indian wilds, and that kept an almost blind man burrowing about year after year in dusty books on the unending quest for facts, seems fully as remarkable and as admirable as the artistic skill that produced enduring classics.