Saturday, November 21, 2009

Who Are These Writers? #4

Our fourth arguably-long-forgotten writer commemorated on the library's rotunda is Francis Parkman. Parkman was an American historian from Boston who lived from 1823 to 1893.

One of Parkman's more widely-known works is The California and Oregon trail: being sketches of prairie and Rocky mountain life. This book, more commonly known as The California and Oregon Trail or The Oregon Trail, is an eyewitness account of his 1846 trek across the West. Parkman in this, his introduction to the reading public, revealed a writer of sharp focus on detail & one of great literary style & accessibility. The work also established him as an important historian and chronicler of soon-lost societies and traditions.

While this book is still highly regarded for its vivid depiction of the landscape of the West & as a record of the peoples of that era, the book has also met criticism for its stereotypical representation of Native Americans & for an overarching contention of the supremacy of European or civilized people which lead to the inevitable demise of the less civilized native peoples.

Of course, part of these difficulties with this work are simply the result of the prevailing attitudes of the time. Many critics & scholars note these deficiencies & biases in reviewing Parkman's writing here (and in other works), but these reviewers still hold high esteem for The Oregon Trail and other Parkman publications.You can judge The Oregon Trail yourself by checking out a copy at Bangor Public Library or from another library in state. The book continues to be reissued 160 plus years after original release and remains readily available. Alternately, you can view the book online at

Parkman's crowning achievement as a writer & historian, however, are his multivolume France and England in North America. This work is now available in many forms, but upon original release, was published as follows:

Pioneers of France in the New World

The Jesuits in North America
La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West
The Old Regime in Canada
Count Frontenac
A Half Century of Conflict

Montcalm and Wolfe

According to Michael J. Mullin,
France and England in North America "shaped the conventions of colonial, frontier, and Native American history until World War II." Mullin acknowledges Parkman as the first scholar to seriously investigate the colonial frontier as a subject for historical review. Further, Mullin concludes that "his writing illustrated the continuity between America's attempt to subdue the area west of the Mississippi and England's effort at taming the American continent east of the Mississippi a century earlier." Mullin further notes that "his strength as a writer lay in his ability to convey the immediacy of historical events to the reader" (source for all: Dictionary of Literary Biography volume 186, 1997).France and England in North America faces historical criticism as well. Many scholars have found Parkman staunchly pro-Protestant, decidedly anti-Catholic. He also has been criticized for writing centered upon what is called "the great man theory" of history.

However, as with The Oregon Trail, most of the faults of France and England in North America are superseded by its strengths in the minds of most historical scholars. Richard Vitzthum, in an exhaustive review of each of the books in this series, notes that the "strength is its extraordinary unity of subject matter, style, and argument. From beginning to end, it is dominated by a conservative, romantic artist who is writing for an assumed audience of conservative, romantic readers about a gallery of conservative, romantic heroes. Its setting is a wilderness of virgin forest and water, of primal sun, sky, and storm, that will be no less vibrant and appealing a century hence than it is today" (Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 30, 1984).
France and England in North America remains readily available in various editions at the Bangor Public Library and at other libraries in Maine. A few volumes of the work are also available online through Project Gutenberg.

One last quick note about Parkman:

The Society of American Historians offers a yearly award for
the best nonfiction book in American history known as the Francis Parkman Prize. For a list of past winners dating to 1957 & how to nominate a book, visit

The next post in this series will shed light on who Prescott is.
Feel welcome to post any comments or questions about this & other Bangor Public Library Blog posts.

Patrick Layne

Bangor Public Library

Bangor Public Library
Bangor Public Library,
145 Harlow Street,
Bangor ME 04401