Prescott’s Conquests

“When you see Prescott, give him my cordial remembrances. You two are shelved together for immortality.” Over a century ago Washington Irving thus prophesied an eternity of readers for two New England scholars, George Ticknor, first American master of European literature, and his close friend, the historian William H. Prescott. It is a coincidence of America’s cultural flowering in the nineteenth century that three of its principal figures, Ticknor, Irving, and Prescott, should have been united by their devotion to the relatively unknown field of Spanish history and literature. Today, as Americans turn increasingly to rereading and revaluing their past and as the centenary of Prescott’s death in 1859 approaches, it is fitting to examine his claim upon the reading public, to see whether or not it is still valid, and to measure his stature as man and historian.

With Irving, Prescott was the first American to devote profound study to the Hispanic world, our first historian of Spain and Latin America, those old yet new lands. He wrote two books of particular interest to all Americans, the Conquest of Mexico, which he published in 1843, and the Conquest of Peru, which appeared four years later. Both were immediate best sellers in the United States and England. The first, and expensive, three-volume edition of the Conquest of Mexico sold 4,000 copies in four months in the United States. Both books were soon translated into several foreign languages.

There are good reasons for this early and continuing success, for each book is a brilliant account of the triumph of Spanish conquistadors over a rich, populous, and unknown Indian empire. Nor are all the courage and drama restricted to Prescott’s printed pages. There was much in his own life, and to know the man behind the works is to understand one of the finest artistic and moral triumphs in American letters.

Prescott was semiblind. One of his eyes was almost totally sightless as the result of a college prank in which he was an innocent bystander. Soon after he suffered this wound his other eye was afflicted by a rheumatoid inflammation; during the rest of his life his vision with this eye wavered between good and painfully feeble. He had planned to become a lawyer, but this misfortune forced him to abandon that hope and, indeed, hope of any career. After his slow recovery from the physical and mental shocks caused by the double attack on his sight, Prescott did no more than devote himself to the life of an idle and well-to-do young gentleman. He was wealthy and he had a famous name (one of his grandfathers was a hero of the battle of Bunker Hill). He traveled a little, went out much in society, and read, within the limits of his sight and his desultory interests. In short, he drifted.

In 1824, when he was 28 years old, he began to plan a more fruitful future. Much influenced by Ticknor, who frequently read his Harvard lectures on Spanish literature to his half-blind friend, Prescott came to the conclusion that he had a vocation in literature, then narrowed this down to the writing of history—history then was closer to literature than it usually is today—and finally to Spanish history.

Once Prescott had made up his mind to enter the laborious discipline of history, he did not automatically become a historian. He next gave two years to general preparation for the work ahead. He read political theory and studied the languages, literature, and history of the major western European countries. Then followed ten years of specific historical work: organizing a technique for study, accumulating and reading all relevant documents and books, and finally writing his first book, Ferdinand and Isabella. During that decade there were not ten people in the city of Boston who knew that the affable and apparently indolent Prescott, who kept up his long daily horseback rides to Jamaica Pond and went out much in the evening, was writing a book which was to bring him national and international acclaim when it was published in 1837.

Fewer still knew the author’s method of work. On some days his eyes would stand two hours of reading, on others, not ten minutes. To absorb and shape the vast amount of historical data and ideas which he compressed into his books he invented his own technique.

When he had selected a theme for a chapter he had his secretary arrange all the materials which had been obtained. These were read to him, in itself a difficult operation, for Spanish was practically an unknown tongue in a city where French and German and Italian had not long since been considered outlandish, and Prescott was compelled to teach his successive readers and secretaries to pronounce the Spanish words of his books and manuscripts so that he could understand them—so discouraging a task that more than once he thought of abandoning his chosen course. While the reading was in progress, Prescott sat with his back to the light (later he developed an intricate system of movable shades and drapes to direct and soften the daylight entering his study) taking notes on his noctograph. This was a frame crossed by guide wires and holding a sheet of carbon paper to be written on with a stylus. It obviated what Prescott termed “the two great difficulties in the way of a blind man’s writing … his not knowing when the ink is exhausted in his pen, and when his lines run into one another.”