November 3, 2002
THE BLIND LEADING US TO THE BLIND:How (and Why) to Read Francis Parkman (Mark Peterson, October 2002, Common-Place)
In 1885, Francis Parkman reached the summit of his brilliant career. He had just published Montcalm and Wolfe, the culminating volume of a series of works on France and England in North America that he had begun in the 1840s. Now reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic were proclaiming him to be America's greatest historian. The Nation called Montcalm and Wolfe Parkman's "masterpiece," and the Atlantic Monthly admired his perfect blend of literary art and rigorous scientific scholarship. The Spectator compared him favorably to Macaulay-high praise indeed. In his remaining years, as he tied up the last loose ends in his life's work, Parkman continued to watch the accolades pour in. Theodore Roosevelt dedicated The Winning of the West (1889) to him, proclaiming that Parkman's "works stand alone, . . . they must be models for all historical treatment of the founding of new communities and the growth of the frontier here in the wilderness."
A century after Parkman's heyday, Roosevelt's confidence seemed badly misplaced. At that moment, the "new Indian history" that has revolutionized early American scholarship was just coming into its own, and its most vociferous advocate, Francis Jennings, dealt Parkman a death blow in a critical essay published in 1985. Two years earlier, the Library of America had unearthed Parkman's writings from the seventeen volumes of the nineteenth-century Frontenac edition and re-embalmed them in a new two-volume set, weighing in at over three thousand pages. Jennings countered the canonical authority of the Library of America imprimatur with an assault on Parkman's much vaunted historical accuracy-"his 'facts' cannot be relied on and are sometimes fabricated"-and on the assumptions, biases, and outright prejudices that "poisoned" his approach to the past.
In the wake of Jennings's diatribe, however, Parkman seems to have experienced a renaissance. Simon Schama featured the Boston historian as a tortured, self-pitying, yet still heroic muse in Dead Certainties. Parkman's capacity to blend his own identity with that of his historical subjects-in Jennings's eyes, the root of all evil-made Parkman an enabling figure in Schama's own transition from academic historian to television raconteur. Meanwhile, the University of Nebraska Press has been issuing paperback reprints of Parkman's works with eye-catching jacket covers and with new introductions by academic historians. The Modern Library has done the same, but has chosen popular writers like the adventure guru Jon Krakauer to introduce new audiences to Parkman's work. Judging by reader responses on Amazon.com, Parkman remains a steady if not a best seller, appreciated by those who enjoy a ripping good yarn, who feel comfortable within the clarity of his narrative framework, and who value the visual imagery that Parkman's prose evokes. If the History Channel's producers are not already paying attention, they should be.
Francis Jennings? How does an obscure Marxist deal a deathblow to our Edward Gibbon?
Posted by Orrin Judd at November 3, 2002 6:37 AM