Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Who Are These Writers? #5

William Hickling Prescott, a native of Salem, Massachusetts, grandson of Colonel William Prescott, commander of rebel forces at the Battle of Bunker Hill (the "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes" battle), is a noted historian who lived from 1796 to 1859.

Prescott suffered a rather unusual injury during his time as a student at Harvard around 1811 which threatened his future as a writer & derailed his career ambition of becoming a lawyer. Richard B. Morris in Dictionary of American Biography [1935, volume 8, page 196] tells us of an "accident which was to determine his career; leaving the Commons one day after dinner, he turned his head to observe the course of a frolic which had broken out behind his back, and was struck by a hard crust of bread in the left eye, whose sight was thereby immediately and permanently destroyed." [The bizarre & unusual nature of this incident can be a major reason it is recounted throughout the Internet in all most all the Prescott articles I've found in my research]. Let this be a cautionary tale to all of us about how we handle our bread & protect our eyes in public settings.

Though cautioned by doctors about the difficulty of a literary career, Prescott pursued one anyway, even after the inflammation from the accident spread to his other eye. He was assisted by secretaries who would read to him during his research & he utilized a noctograph to assist him in writing. What is a noctograph? It is a writing frame designed for use by blind people. Below is a picture described by Castle Freeman Jr. (credited later in this post) as Prescott employing the noctograph, which unfortunately, does not greatly illuminate what the device looks like or how it works (and I looked extensively on the Internet for a more promising image of a noctograph -- but to no avail):In 1821, Prescott's commitment to writing began to pay off, as he began to have articles & reviews about literary and historical subjects appear in North American Review. This success continued for the next fifteen years, resulting in the publication of Biographical and Critical Miscellanies in 1845, a collection of many of the articles previously in North American Review. These articles ranged from an extended look at early American novelist Charles Brockden Brown to an article entitled "Asylum for the Blind" to several articles about Spanish history and literature.Prescott had found a topic to devote his life's work to in those early short articles about Spanish history. For the rest of his writing career, he was engaged in the research & publication books about Spanish history. From 1829 to 1836, Prescott worked extensively on his first book, the three volume, History of Ferdinand and Isabella. Though Prescott had misgivings about publication of the book, persuasion of friends & colleagues resulted in him selling the work for $1000, with about 1250 copies being published.
Good reviews & strong sales of Ferdinand and Isabella paved the way for his second book in 1843, The Conquest of Mexico. This time, Prescott, pocket seven & a half times the fee for publication, with four times as many copies being published. Another three volume set, Conquest of Mexico further solidified as a valued historian & as a valuable & a marketable writer.
Prescott's later publications continued this preoccupation with Spanish imperial efforts in the New World. The Conquest of Peru was released in 1847 & History of Philip II came in 1855, each matching Prescott's earlier works in both regard by the public & sales in the marketplace. The popularity & influence Prescott commanded are illustrated in these two facts: 1) by 1860 more than ninety-one thousand copies of his works had been sold & 2) both Ferdinand & Isabella and Conquest of Mexico each had at least 140 editions & printings (source: Casper, Scott E. "William Hickling Prescott." The American Renaissance in New England: Third Series. Ed. Wesley T. Mott. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 235).

Still, as with any historian of the 19th century, Prescott has met criticism over time for romanticized interpretations of the Spanish conquistadors & of biased representations of the conquered natives of the New World. Also, as Castle Freeman curiously, but perhaps accurately, notes, a portion of Prescott's success may have "had to do with the notion that Prescott was a blind genius, conjuring in utter darkness the vivid scenes of his great histories. In fact he was never completely blind, but the obstacle to his chosen work was not much less than total blindness would have been. "[Source: Castle Freeman Jr. http://harvardmagazine.com/1996/11/vita.html].

Now, I know all of you are not going to rush to the Bangor Public Library to check out & engross yourself in the voluminous collections of Prescott publications, which our library does own. If, though, you would like to read the highlights of Prescott's work, you may consider the Irwin R. Blacker book pictured below, which contains Prescott's works in much short forms.
Next up in this series, well, I am not sure yet. I believe the last seven writers shown on the library's rotunda are recognizable. So, Prescott may be our last. Or, I may decide to blog about those seven writers anyway. Let me know what you think.

Feel welcome to leave any comments you'd like here or you can email me directly at playne@bpl.lib.me.us.

Patrick Layne

Bangor Public Library

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