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Defeating The Enemy

March 2023
4min read

One of the benefits that come from the study of history, which after all is nothing more than the examination of assorted human lives, is the recurrent discovery that the human spirit is basically unconquerable. This is revealed in big ways and in little ways—in the story of a nation, and in the story of a single individual—and wherever it is met it is like a bright light glowing in the dark. Simple strength of will can win over the longest odds. Wish hard enough and what you wish for can come true. Possibly the moral, if a moral must be looked for, is that the dreams we serve had better be lofty; some day they may turn into realities.

One is bound to indulge in some such reflections when one examines the career of the greatest of all American historians, Francis Parkman. This man, who combined the very best in professional capacity and dedication with the talents of a superlative literary craftsman, pulled himself up by his own bootstraps. He had all the gifts a historian could wish for, but he also had handicaps enough to destroy all that had been given him. What finally made him and his work imperishable was nothing less than strength of will. Sheer determination beat the odds.

A good way to see what this man was like, and to understand how he did the splendid things he did, is to read the assembled Letters of Francis Parkman , edited and given a very fine introduction by Wilbur R. Jacobs. Covering the long span from his late teens in 1841 to the autumn of his death in 1893, these letters show Parkman driving on relentlessly to do, finally, what he set out to do—to describe the conflict in colonial America of English, French, and Indians which laid the foundation for the American nation, and to do it so accurately and with such narrative skill that no one since then has had to cover the same ground.

He got into this immense project in the simplest way imaginable—because it interested him. As a youth he was bookish, but he also liked the wilderness, hunting, camping, the Indians; and he quickly realized, as he himself wrote, that “these two preferences, books and the woods, could be reconciled, and could even help one another, in the field of Franco-American history. That is why I took it up.” He became, in fact, one of those supremely fortunate men who are able to spend their lives doing exactly what they always most wanted to do.

He had certain advantages. He was born a Boston Brahmin, heir to a comfortable fortune. He got, at Harvard, as good an education as the America of that day could provide—he became master of five languages, studied history under the stimulating Jared Sparks, got an excellent grounding in the classics, and all in all was as well prepared for the historian’s task as any young man could hope to be.

Letters of Francis Parkman, edited and with an introduction by Wilbur R. Jacobs. University of Oklahoma Press. 2 vols. 204 & 286 pp. $12.50.

But he had problems. Over and over, his letters refer to his unending struggle with “the enemy”—his own atrocious health; and here he had troubles enough to overthrow all of his advantages. Insistent on being an outdoorsman, he was miserably frail. His eyesight failed him and he nearly became blind, so that during his years of greatest effort he lived in a dim twilight, unable to endure daylight, unable to read—the worst of all handicaps for a man who must examine volumes of semi-legible documents—able to write only by dint of a contrivance of wires to guide his pen, suffering atrocious headaches, compelled at times to believe that he was going mad, made lame by some obscure affliction in his knees. The enemy was always with him, and this enemy was powerful enough to make any ordinary mortal abandon forever the demanding tasks of unending research and careful writing.

Parkman, of course, was not an ordinary man. He made himself do the things he wanted to do, overriding his physical handicaps by simple determination; and he was finally able to write, “If I had my life to live over again I would follow exactly the same course again, only with less vehemence.” The qualifying note should not, perhaps, be taken seriously; the vehemence was at the heart of the matter, and with less of it he probably could not have succeeded.

It comes out clearly in the letters he wrote in 1846, when he went out to old Fort Laramie to see the great migration along the Oregon Trail. Parkman’s “enemy” was at him, just then; his eyes were bothering him, and he was attacked with a miserable digestive complaint that almost incapacitated him. Nevertheless, he wanted to see something of Indian life, and so, with a trapper for company, he rode off into the mountains and spent several weeks in a Sioux village. This was a fairly stiff assignment for a sick man, and he confessed afterward that living on a meat diet was not the best thing for his deranged stomach; during much of the time he was too weak to saddle his horse, and he had to admit that “an Indian village is no place for an invalid.” Still, he saw what he wanted to see, and he noted gaily that “the experience of one season on the prairies will teach a man more than half a dozen in the settlements.”

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.

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