Friday, August 26, 2016

Francis Parkman's France and England in North America, opinionated

I have finished Francis Parkman’s seven volume France and England in North America (1865-92), the “history of the American forest,” as the author called it.  The history of French Canada, really, from early exploration to English conquest, written by America’s greatest historian, or 19th century historian, at least.  I took about a decade to read it all, maybe 2,800 pages, plus I should add The Oregon Trail (1847, not a history but an exciting travel book) and The Conspiracy of Pontiac and the Indian War (1851, a warmup to the big series), which brings the total to 3,500 pages.

I am writing this post not so much because I have anything to say about the books, but rather to apply for my merit badge.  Parkman’s books are not as good as Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88), but my feeling of accomplishment was similar.

Parkman’s greatness was at least twofold.  First, with Gibbon as a model, he picked an ambitious subject early on – in college – and then stuck with it, even in the face of severe ill health, and was lucky to live long enough to complete a fifty-year project.  Second, he is not the prose writer that Gibbon was – in this way he resembles almost everyone who has ever written anything – he had the advantage of having not just Gibbon as a model but also Walter Scott.  No one would mistake Parkman for a novelist, but he absorbed Scott’s innovations in narrative history.  He is good with scenes, novelistic detail, characters, that sort of thing.

Third, he set a new evidentiary standard for historians, which is part of why he needed so much time.  Part of that new standard is described, incidentally, in The Oregon Trail, Parkman’s account of a youthful trip to the Rocky Mountains which he took partly for health, partly for fun, but largely so he could meet, interact, and even live with Native Americans.  He was acting as an early anthropologist, studying living native peoples in the hopes of understanding those of earlier centuries.

The Oregon Trail is a terrific adventure, as is La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West (1869).  Anyone who enjoys books about exploration will enjoy these.  At the far end of the series, Montcalm and Wolfe, which covers the entire French and Indian War and is quite exciting – George Washington, the expulsion of the Acadians, the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, etc.  The stretch of The Old Regime in Canada (1874), Count Frontenac and New France under Louis XIV (1877), and A Half Century of Conflict (1892) does not cover such interesting material, although it will all prove to be enormously useful during your vacation in Quebec City.

Parkman’s great weird masterpiece, though, is The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century (1867), a cruel and dark book about the meetings of two cultures alien to each other; they are also both alien to Parkman, the Jesuits much more so than the natives of the Canadian forest.  This book is not quite a narrative history, but it is certainly not fiction, or no more so than Parkman’s sources require.  I have never read anything quite like it.

There, that was some opinionating on Francis Parkman, which I believe meets the requirements of the badge.

What preposterously enormous history should I launch into next?  John Motley’s seven-volume history of the Netherlands (1856-67)?  Could that be as exciting as a history of Canada?  Theodor Mommsen’s three-volume History of Rome (1854-6) is tempting, too.  The most likely answer is that I’ll never read such a thing again, although I would like to re-read Gibbon.  Well, I’d like to re-read Parkman, too, someday, a long time from now.


  1. Much shorter - and far from scholarly - R. B. Cunninghame Graham's A Vanished Arcadia, about the Jesuits of Paraguay, would be an interesting comparison to The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century. Indeed, Cunninghame Graham's own memoirs, stories and histories are worth a read and are neglected now, but they aren't intellectual challenges like Parkman or Prescott's books on the Spanish conquest of America. I see Prescott doesn't appear in your labels so...

  2. Reading Prescott - that is a good idea, a better idea than the ones I mentioned.

    I had not heard of Cunningham Grahame - what a figure, what a life! A little hard to believe.

  3. A Brazilian mystic : being the life and miracles of Antonio Conselheiro
    by Cunninghame Grahame (a book Borges once listed as one of his favorites) is a lot more entertaining than (and about half as long as) Vargas Llosa's The World of the End of the World.

    Somehow the Gnostic redeemer keeps getting sacrificed by the archontes of this world, Yeshua ben Pandira (or Joshua ben Pantera, who was resurrected on the third day), the prophet Mani (who lives), the aforementioned Antonio Conselheiro, Liborio Mateo (who hasn't died, no), so many others...

    Since nobody is going to read that old book, anyway, let me quote its beautiful ending:

    Under a covering of earth, in a grave, shallow, and dug in haste, the conquerers, after a search, came upon the body of Antonio Conselheiro. Dressed in his long, blue tunic, his hands crossed piously, clasping a crucifix against his breast, he lay, waiting the coming of the King, that Don Sebastian who he believed should come to rule the world in glory, blot out injustice, cast down the mighty, and exalt the poor in spirit, giving them the world as their inheritance.

    Some of the faithful had placed some withered flowers upon his breast. His body lay upon a ragged piece of matting, and both his eyes were full of sand.

    1. Both Cunninghame Graham and Vargas Llosa relied on Euclides da Cunha's Os Sertões in their accounts of Antonio Conselheiro. Another big history book that's worth reading.
      Incidentally, I used to sign on as "Roger", but my nice new computer refuses to allow me to use my google account at the moment. The last few anonymous posts were mine.

  4. parkman sounds like a good read; another one that i just finished is "astoria" and "captain bonneville", about the trepidations and adventures of early trappers and their dealings with the Crows and Blackfeet indians; quite exciting and informative, although i have read that Washington Irving is not so factually reliable as Parkman..

  5. "What preposterously enormous history should I launch into next?"

    Hume's history of England; Michelet's Histoire de France; Ranke's Weltgeschichte; Niebuhr's Roman history (after you've breezed through Mommsen); Henry Adams's History of the United States during the Jefferson Administration. I love enormous, out-dated histories. Never read Parkman. Prescott is good though!

  6. Mommsen is interesting, both in terms of his biography (he was a politician as well as a historian) and in terms of his work-- I haven't read a significant amount of it, but he has this remarkable passage on Cato the Younger (whom he rather disliked, being very fond of Caesar):

    "There was more nobility, and above all more judgment, in the death of Cato than there had been in his life. Cato was anything but a great man; but with all that short-sightedness, that perversity, that dry prolixity, and those spurious phrases which have stamped him, for his own and for all time, as the ideal of unreflecting republicanism and the favourite of all who make it their hobby, he was yet the only man who honourably and courageously championed in the last struggle the great system doomed to destruction…. It only heightens the deep and tragic significance of his death that he was himself a fool; in truth it is just because Don Quixote is a fool that he is a tragic figure…. It was a fearfully striking protest of the republic against the monarchy, that the last republican went as the first monarch came—a protest which tore asunder like gossamer all that so-called constitutional character with which Caesar invested his monarchy, and exposed in all its hypocritical falsehood the shibboleth of the reconciliation of all parties, under the aegis of which despotism grew up. The unrelenting warfare which the ghost of the legitimate republic waged for centuries, from Cassius and Brutus down to Thrasea and Tacitus, nay, even far later, against the Caesarian monarchy—a warfare of plots and of literature— was the legacy which the dying Cato bequeathed to his enemies. This republican opposition derived from Cato its whole attitude— stately, transcendental in its rhetoric, pretentiously rigid, hopeless, and faithful to death; and accordingly it began even immediately after his death to revere as a saint the man who in his lifetime was not unfrequently its laughing-stock and its scandal."

  7. This Os Sertões digression is surprising, and highly interesting. The Euclides book tops my "I meant to get to that" list from my Portuguese literature year.

    I've read enough about Mommsen, and enough excerpts, that I was not joking about reading him, maybe, and Maya's quotation shows exactly why. Really good. Thanks!

    Having said that, Michelet is a good suggestion, too. Adams, too. Robert, you should get not a badge but a medal. What reading.

    Mudpuddle, I've read Captain Bonneville, which is very good. Parkman covers some of the same ground but 10 years later. You are right that the book is partly fiction, but it is Captain Bonneville that supplied the fiction, so Irving did what he could.

    If you have a taste for more of the same, try John Kirk Townsend's Narrative of a Journey across the Rocky Mountains to the Columbia River. His expedition actually meets the Bonneville expedition by chance. It was getting crowded out there.

  8. Just make sure you read Elizabeth Lowe's Penguin translation when you get around to reading the great Euclides da Cunha. In the meantime, you deserve your Parkman merit badge. I feel like I need to get back to The Conspiracy of Pontiac before I take on anything having to do with the seven-volume series, but you now have me looking forward to that Jesuit tome (esp. after what little I know of their wacky adventures in Paraguay).

  9. Oh yes, you'll find Jesuits in North America to be of high interest.

    I should mention that the long scope of Parkman's history means that the books can be read independently, in any order.