Prescott’s Conquests


The notes, often difficult to decipher from the uncertainty with which the letters and words were formed, were then copied by the secretary in a large hand. Prescott read the notes, if his eyes were up to it, or had the secretary read them as often as necessary for the author to fix them in his memory. Then he composed, wholly in his mind, for written drafts were luxuries which his sight would not permit. He concentrated and arranged and rearranged his thoughts into sentences, paragraphs, pages, until the chapter he was working on was formed in his mind as clearly as though in print.

Some chapters he thus mentally constructed and reconstituted as many as sixteen times; sometimes as many as sixty future printed pages were composed and gripped in his powerful mind—not only remarkable feats of memory but also superb achievements of artistic creation. Then he would begin to write on his noctograph, swiftly, exhausting the stored-up words. The finished work was read to him, corrected, copied by the secretary, and laid away for the printer.

It few knew Prescott’s working habits, many knew the man about town. He was handsome, with a square jaw, a shock of curly brown hair, and a prominent, well-shaped nose which not only conformed to his other features but also to the local suspicion that in more than one way Boston’s leaders resembled the Romans. Gay and kindly, generous with quietly given charity to the city’s poor, immensely popular as a dinner companion, Prescott was devoted to his family and to his pattern of life: winter and spring in town, summer at the shore at Nahant and the beloved fall at Pepperell, thirty miles northwest of Boston, at the family homestead standing on land held by the original Indian title.

Behind the affable exterior Prescott waged with himself a lifelong struggle. By disposition indolent, by inclination gregarious, he had a sufficiently large income to be free of the need to work. And his damaged vision afforded more than enough physical and psychological excuse for idleness.

His battle for self-mastery—a New England battle of conscience—is revealed in a combination of traits which form an odd counterpoint to his apparently harmonious character. He had a nervous laugh, often merely infectious, but sometimes uncontrollable, hysterical. He was a person of uncounted good resolutions, secret, childish goads to labor, resolutions verbally made or written down and sealed away, only to be broken, amended, reamended, and finally rescinded for a new set. He placed curious wagers on his ability to keep his resolutions, calling on a friend to make the bet against him but giving his opponent no information as to what he was betting on. In due time Prescott would appear to pay or to collect the amount of the wager, leaving his friend no wiser, but a little richer or poorer.

The historian doted upon his parents, both of whom lived on into his middle life. He resided in their home even after his own marriage and, indeed, had no home of his own until his father died, when the younger Prescott was 48 years old. Nor did he have money of his own earning, being dependent upon the family income, although in later years his book royalties brought in a considerable sum. As his parents protected him, they also had to prod him. When the manuscript of his first book was ready for the printer, Prescott was stricken by fear of its inadequacy and of becoming the laughingstock of his circle. He did not release the manuscript until goaded by his father, who told him, “The man who writes a book which he is afraid to publish is a coward.”

On the December day when his father was buried, as Prescott was closely following the bier into the crypt, his eyes were brushed by the coffin’s drapes. “Yes,” he sadly told Ticknor that evening, “my eye suffered very much from the wind and dust that came out of the passage, and he protected me to the last, as he always had.” The historian himself had a deep fear of being mistakenly interred alive and ordered that at his death a principal vein be severed before his coffin was finally closed.

One may see these traits as the traumatic effects of his years of physical suffering and incapacitation, and find in his literary labors a compulsion to overcome frustration and weakness. But this is Prescott in a minor key—not the man of courage who nearly always presented his lighter side to his family and friends, who was unafraid to risk his crippled sight with each hour spent in reading or writing, and who could write wryly of himself to a Spanish friend, “As I have only half an eye of my own, and that more for show than use, my progress is necessarily no more than a snail’s gallop.”

Prescott never saw Spain or Latin America. His collection of manuscript copies—eight thousand folio pages for the Conquest of Mexico alone—he gathered in Europe entirely by proxy and by means of a vast correspondence, through friends or paid agents or from helpful foreign scholars. The historian Jared Sparks, Edward Everett, George Ticknor on his extensive Continental travels, and many others searched on Prescott’s behalf into archives and libraries in half a dozen European nations.