Francis Parkman

Only a few nineteenth-century American novelists outrank several historians of the same period as literary artists, as minds of power, depth and scope. Unfortunately, the nineteenth century was more leisurely than this one, and so their works are long, and length alone has made them inaccessible to many modern readers who, book by book, at odd intervals have managed to get through the complete works of Hawthorne, Mark Twain and Henry James. Parkman’s great history fills fourteen volumes in the most common edition. I do not believe in pocket-book abridgments and selected passages, but nowadays only a limited number of adults are likely to take the time to read it all.

Samuel Eliot Morison, as one might guess from his name alone, is a product of the same milieu as Parkman. He shares many of his prejudices, and is as unaware of them. If there has to be a Parkman Reader, he is certainly as good a man as any to put it together. It is necessary, however, to take his preface with a grain of salt. He speaks of Parkman as a literary stylist worthy of respect. As a matter of fact, only when he was caught up in the circumstantial rush of his narrative did Parkman write well. His set pieces on the beauties of the forest primeval, the savagery of an Indian war dance or the vices of the little provincial court at Montreal are rather comic reading today. Although he set out to deflate the legend of the noble savage, whole pages might well have come from Chateaubriand’s Atala — illustrated by Gustave DorĂ©.

John Fiske, who introduced the last collected edition, speaks of Parkman’s people as being far more real than Prescott’s. Morison shares this view. Prescott’s Mexico and Montezuma resemble The Arabian Nights, it is true. But this is realism. They really were like that. Parkman’s heroes are moved by the highly stereotyped motives of a sort of Puritan Ivanhoe.

Again, Morison speaks of Parkman as a gentleman and an aristocrat. He may have been a gentleman, but he was certainly not an aristocrat. He was a bourgeois valetudinarian. Whether it be Procopius, H.G. Wells or Motley, the historian usually injects much of himself between the lines of his history. But Parkman comes close to having written a fourteen-volume invisible autobiography. He came from a rich, upper-middle-class family of Boston Brahmins. He seems to have been thoroughly indoctrinated in the liberal but nonetheless “puritan” Puritanism of Unitarianism and advanced Congregationalism. He was expected to make his way in the world, but early in youth he started going off to the woods. In college days he took several long trips in the New England and New York backwoods; then a walking trip across Sicily and much of Italy as the beginning of a year on the Grand Tour; then a trip far out on the Oregon Trail, where he traveled as a guest with the Sioux.

In later life Parkman was to attribute his variously described incapacitating illness to incidents on all three of these excursions. One way or another he always blamed his poor health on the strenuous life of his youth. What seems to have happened is that, first casually in Sicily and Naples, and then in all its glory at the headwaters of the Missouri, he met his Id, and it was too much for him. The memory of the abandoned, dark-eyed signorine by the Porta Capuana and the naked Sioux belles disporting themselves in the waters of the Missouri prostrated him for the rest of his life. For forty years he devoted himself to justifying the triumph of anal over oral sexuality — or, in the words of another great Puritan, the ways of God to man.

The thesis of France and England in North America is that drinking, running around with women, rising late and loafing in the woods must go down to disaster before the righteous onslaught of the forty-eight-hour day, the well-kept savings account, patriarchal domesticity, well-shined shoes and cold baths. During the nineteenth century this was probably true, but the nineteenth century is a very brief period in the long history of man. It is doubtful if this moral struggle had much to do with the defeat of France in the New World. French America was lost in Europe.

Parkman was not horrified and fascinated only by Frenchmen. He speaks of the quasi-aristocratic Dutch on the upper Hudson as boors (aristocrats, of course, are always pretty boorish in the eyes of merchants). That thoroughly feudal personality of his period, Sir William Johnson, the “Father of the Iroquois,” he looks on as nothing but a rascal. He never mentions the Quakers without losing his temper over their obstinacy and pacifism. The type that wins is the go-getter. Now that New England is a dying land gradually filling up with Poles and French Canadians, we forget that once almost everyone who lived there was a go-getter.

Recently we have seen in American history “the rehabilitation of the Business Community.” The Business Community is the avowed hero of Parkman’s history. In his pages appear the archetypes of the nineteenth-century robber barons and the twentieth-century hippomaniacs who grace the covers of the newsweeklies and who, alas, to judge by the newsweeklies, rule America.

But Parkman didn’t break down and become a lifelong neurotic because he was a good businessman. He was a man in profound conflict with himself. As with Milton, his heroes are unconvincing and his villains are heroic. Except at the top, where no sane men want to be, it is doubtful if the Puritan tradition has really been as determinative in American culture as the scholars of Yale and Harvard would like us to believe.

All Americans are not those monsters portrayed by Artzybasheff who rise at 4 a.m. and bring home a brief case full of homework at 3 a.m. the next morning. The systematic conquest of the old Northwest by red-coated soldiers and land speculators has moved few boyish hearts, even in New England. But the story of the boats of Champlain poking their way into the dark, leafy wilderness, the heroic death of Father Jorgues, the pathetic death of La Salle, the joyful portages of Marquette and Joliet — even the cognac, riot and abandoned women in besieged Montreal — are as moving as the tribulations and defiance of Milton’s Satan. And these traditions are still powerful, however quiet, in the land.

It is the spiritual conflict in the author, as well as his reading of history as a war between two basic types of personality, which gives Parkman’s work its power. The archetypal struggle gives it an epic character. The personal conflict gives it the intricacy and ambiguity of a psychological novel. The real subject and background — redskins, redcoats and chevaliers — give it the fanfare of high romance.

Parkman is very far from being Homer or Proust or even Scott, but he does combine — perhaps in cheaper colors but on a canvas of tremendous scope — the virtues of all three. I first read Parkman with a chill along my scalp when I was but in skirts — or at least in short pants — and I’ve read him all several times since. Opening Morison’s reader to the map of Quebec and seeing the words “The Plains of Abraham,” and then rereading the words of Montcalm and Wolfe, the same old chill comes back.

Near the end of the last volume, The Conspiracy of Pontiac, in lines that echo Melville, Parkman sums up the real, not the putative, moral of his life work:

. . . To him who has once tasted the reckless independence, the haughty self-reliance, the sense of irresponsible freedom, which the forest life engenders, civilization thenceforth seems flat and stale. Its pleasures are insipid, its pursuits wearisome, its conventionalities, duties, and mutual dependence alike tedious and disgusting. The entrapped wanderer grows fierce and restless, and pants for breathing-room. His path, it is true, was choked with difficulties, but his body and soul were hardened to meet them; it was beset with dangers, but these were the very spice of his life, gladdening his heart with exulting self-confidence, and sending the blood through his veins with a livelier current. The wilderness, rough, harsh, and inexorable, has charms more potent in their seductive influence than all the lures of luxury and sloth. And often he on whom it has cast its magic finds no heart to dissolve the spell, and remains a wanderer and an Ishmaelite to the hour of his death.

Mr. Morison does not include this passage or anything like it in his selection.



This review of The Parkman Reader (ed. Samuel Eliot Morison, Little Brown, 1955) originally appeared in The Nation (2 July 1955) and was reprinted in Assays (New Directions, 1961). Copyright 1955. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust. Another Rexroth essay on Parkman’s history is included in More Classics Revisited (New Directions, 1989).

Other Rexroth Essays