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Quote of the Day: Francis Parkman
“If any pale student, glued to his desk, here seeks an apology for a way of life whose natural fruits is that pallid and emasculate scholarship of which New England has had too many examples, it will be far better that this sketch had not been written. For the student there is, in its season, no better place than the saddle, and no better companion than the rifle or the oar.”
— American historian Francis Parkman (1823-1893)
My favorite era of American history is the first. Europeans arriving on the shores of a primeval wilderness, wondering if it’s a second Eden or a green hell. Native Americans stumbling upon pale creatures in bizarre clothes rowing to shore from floating wooden islands.
The earliest historian to fully document these encounters is Francis Parkman, a Harvard-educated Boston scion who set aside Yankee comforts to tramp over snowcapped mountains and muddy battlefields.
Like his younger admirer, Teddy Roosevelt, a generation later, Parkman headed west to live among Indians, shelter in frontier forts, and hunt buffalo. He documented this fading way of life in The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life (1847). Toward the end of his travels, he was struck by a neurological malady that hunted him for the rest of his life.
Twenty years later, he began the seven-volume France and England in North America, which covers everything from the discovery of the continent to the French and Indian War. His writing isn’t a jumble of dates and data, but a literary epic covering the rise and fall of empires in the emerging New World.
Needless to say, Parkman’s unpopular among most historians today. He had the audacity to characterize all the people in his work as a mixture of good and bad. He even used the common language of the day (and refused to mention critical gender theory).
Sometimes the Indians are brutal oppressors; at other times, the oppressed. Some French Jesuits were near-divine, others grasping and cruel. The English settlers too, offered pros and cons. He’s definitely not a fan of the Spanish, though:
In the middle of the sixteenth century, Spain was the incubus of Europe. Gloomy and portentous, she chilled the world with her baneful shadow…. Mistress of the Indies, Spain swarmed with beggars. Yet, verging to decay, she had an ominous and appalling strength. Her condition was that of an athletic man penetrated with disease, which had not yet unstrung the thews and sinews formed in his days of vigor.
Told ya. But he summarized the three empires vying for land and treasure better than anyone, all with a literary flourish:
Day was breaking on the world. Light, hope, and freedom pierced with vitalizing ray the clouds and the miasma that hung so thick over the prostrate Middle Age, once noble and mighty, now a foul image of decay and death. Kindled with new life, the nations gave birth to a progeny of heroes, and the stormy glories of the sixteenth century rose on awakened Europe….
Spanish civilization crushed the Indian. English civilization scorned and neglected him. French civilization embraced and cherished him.
The English arrived as freemen, at least in their own eyes, far from the caprices of a royal tyrant. They decided what to do and got on with it. The French acted as mere subjects of their monarch and did nothing without his clear command.
The growth of New England was a result of the aggregate efforts of a busy multitude, each in his narrow circle toiling for himself, to gather competence or wealth. The expansion of New France was the achievement of a gigantic ambition striving to grasp a continent. It was a vain attempt.
French Canada was finally extinguished when a dithering king had neither the competence nor nerve to confine the Brits to the Atlantic shore.
Her manifold ills were summed up in the King. Since the Valois, she had had no monarch so worthless. He did not want understanding, still less the graces of person. In his youth the people called him the “Well-beloved”; but by the middle of the century they so detested him that he dared not pass through Paris, lest the mob should execrate him. He had not the vigor of the true tyrant; but his languor, his hatred of all effort, his profound selfishness, his listless disregard of public duty, and his effeminate libertinism, mixed with superstitious devotion, made him no less a national curse.
Why don’t historians write like this today?!
As we all know, the Anglo-Saxons finally sent the French packing and Parkman summarizes the Gallic legacy:
The French dominion is a memory of the past, and when we evoke its departed shades they rise upon us from their graves in strange, romantic guise. Again their ghostly camp fires seem to burn, and the fitful light is cast around on lord and vassal and black-robed priest, mingled with wild forms of savage warriors, knit in close fellowship on the same stern errand.
A boundless vision grows upon us: an untamed continent; vast wastes of forest verdure; mountains silent in primeval sleep; river, lake, and glimmering pool; wilderness oceans mingling with the sky.
Such was the domain which France conquered for civilization. Plumed helmets gleamed in the shade of its forests, priestly vestments in its dens and fastnesses of ancient barbarism. Men steeped in antique learning, pale with the close breath of the cloister, here spent the noon and evening of their lives, ruled savage hordes with a mild, parental sway, and stood serene before the direst shapes of death. Men of courtly nurture, heirs to the polish of a far-reaching ancestry, here, with their dauntless hardihood, put to shame the boldest sons of toil.
As you can see, nothing Parkman writes is woke. Thus, he is out of favor. He writes from a late 19th-century perspective at the close of Manifest Destiny and the death of the frontier. And he does it with style.
Theodore Roosevelt began his own multi-volume epic, The Winning of the West (1889), with a dedication to the man:
This book is dedicated with his permission to Francis Parkman to whom Americans who feel a pride in the pioneer history of their country are so greatly indebted.
Go ye and read of it. Dip into “The Oregon Trail” first. If you like what you see, keep on reading.Published in History, Literature
I took your advice and have requested The Oregon Trail from the local library system.
How refreshing! To hear of a man who writes with clarity, objectivity and truth! Sounds wonderful.
Thank you Jon. They’re all available in Kindle for free or $0.99. I just downloaded the lot.
Thanks, Jon Gabriel.
Never heard of him prior to your post. Am looking forward to reading him.
Included with an Audible.com membership:
Excellent article. Let me offer a painful suggestion…read this along with Zinn’s book to see why many of today’s school grads have light-weight skulls full of mush. I will be reading this book as soon as I can download it. My daughters would love it, too, on audible.
Prager turned me on to the Zinnfestation almost twenty years ago. Horrifying, and now we’re soaking in it.
Having dug into what currently qualifies as “scholarship” at an Ivy League university earlier this morning, I think Parkman’s admonition against cloistered academia holds up. I did learn a few new terms, like alterity and heteropessimism, but I very much doubt that students of these ideas could have survived on the American frontier. Perhaps universities should require wilderness survival courses?
This post is part of the Quote of the Day group writing project at Ricochet. Please join us and signup here for May!
Thanks for your advice, Jon. I just ordered The Oregon Trail, as you suggested..
You’re gonna die of dysentery!
Told ya so.
Languorous, selfish, faithless, idolatrous libertines who live in ivory towers don’t throw certain stones?
This guy and Paul Johnson remind me of how incredibly bad Academic writing has now become.
My mother was Rosemary Parkman and descended from a brother of Francis. The Parkmans were part of the aristocratic tradition of the Boston Brahmins. I believe the founder of Harvard university was a Parkman and the first president of Harvard Medical school was also a Parkman. If you look at the lineage of those Boston Brahmins you see the seed which became America. If you look more closely you see that within almost every generation there was both genius and madness.
Robert Lowell was a direct descendent of a Boston Brahmin. The Parkman family has had genius and madness in almost every generation. Francis Parkman was a truthful historian and writer which makes him unaccessible today.
My sister has explored the genealogy of our family and claims that there was a Parkman relative in the latter part of the Nineteenth century who toured around carnivals as the smartest man in the world because he could multiply any 41 digit number in his head with another 41 number and quickly come up with the right answer. I think I can multiply any two digit number with another and if my life were dependent on it I might manage two three digit numbers.
He was also a scholar. His volume Jesuits in North America is based on the records and letters of the Jesuit priests. (Written in French.) He had to travel to Europe to access them. If anyone is interested in how savage the Indians could be, dip into that volume.
I have the fortune to have inherited from my grandfather the complete works of Parkman, in 15 volumes, plus his biography.
I’ll be at your place in an hour!
Looks like there’s about a week’s worth of Parkman’s books to listen to at Librivox.com until I can get some hard copies. Thanks, @jon
Remember at the end of the Nineteenth Century, Coca Cola had cocaine embedded in it.
Clears the fuzz out of one’s brain very nicely, as long as it is used sparingly. (Decent, pure cocaine. Not the toilet bowl cleaner crap that has been sold for the past 40 years to people unable to filch the pure stuff from pharmacies.)
Rough and ready Teddy at Harvard