William Hickling Prescott (1796-1859) was one of the greatest American historians. The theme that absorbed him for over 30 years was the rise and decline of the Spanish Empire.
William Hickling Prescott was born in Salem, Mass., on May 4, 1796. His father, Judge William Prescott, was a prominent Federalist. William graduated from Harvard in 1814; at college he lost sight in his left eye during a dining-hall fracas. Despite this disaster and illness (which plagued him all his life), he determined to follow a literary career. He began to contribute to the North American Review, the leading magazine in the country, in 1821. A former schoolmate and lifelong friend, George Ticknor, urged Prescott to devote himself to Spanish studies. Thus began a career which resulted in histories that still enchant.
Other scholars had been drawn to Spain's history before Prescott entered the field in 1826, but he gave it an unmatched sheen. At Christmas, 1837, his Ferdinand and Isabella (3 vols.) was published; it still holds its own as the classic of this period. He then turned to Spain's conquest of Mexico. In The Conquest of Mexico (3 vols., 1843) he narrated the exploits of Hernán Cortés in words never surpassed. The story, thought Prescott, was "an epic in prose, a romance of chivalry." The work was his masterpiece; its material was so drenched in an air of romanticism that it seemed difficult to treat it as sober history. But he carefully sought to distinguish fact from fiction. He had many heroes and heroines but few villains. "One likes a noble character for his canvas, " he said.
Prescott next published A History of the Conquest of Peru (2 vols., 1847). It included important material on the civilization of the Incas. Some scholars still consider it the standard authority.
The last installment of Prescott's project was A History of the Reign of Philip the Second (3 vols., 1855-1858). Although he tried to be impartial, he could not overcome his bias in favor of Protestant Christianity. To him the fall of the Aztecs was unregretted, for their civilization was inferior to that of their conquerors.
Critics dislike the excessive space Prescott gave to military affairs. But he believed his function as historian was storytelling, narrating the deeds of the chevalier, the swashbuckler, the statesman. His work, based on sound scholarship and clothed in gifted language, still entrances readers more than a century after his death in Boston on Jan. 28, 1859.
C. Harvey Gardiner edited Prescott's histories and also materials relating to Prescott in Literary Memoranda (2 vols., 1961) and Papers (1964). Roger Wolcott, ed., The Correspondence of William Hickling Prescott, 1833-1847 (1925), provides indispensable details. The standard biography is by Prescott's friend George Ticknor, Life of William Hickling Prescott (1864). A modern biography is C. Harvey Gardiner, William Hickling Prescott: A Biography (1969). Harry T. Peck, William Hickling Prescott (1905), gives important analyses of Prescott's works. William Charvat and Michael Kraus, William Hickling Prescott (1943), contains a biography, selections from Prescott's writings, a study of his attitudes toward history, his political ideas, and his literary style. □