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How (and Why) to Read Francis Parkman

“If, as Jennings argued, Parkman offers bad history, then why plow through thousands of pages of the stuff?”

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.

 

Fig. 1. Francis Parkman. Charles Haight Farnham, A Life of Francis Parkman, frontispiece. Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.
Fig. 1. Francis Parkman. Charles Haight Farnham, A Life of Francis Parkman, frontispiece. Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.

But why should historians read Parkman in the twenty-first century? If, as Jennings argued, Parkman offers bad history, then why plow through thousands of pages of the stuff? Jennings and his fellow ethnohistorians have so transformed the study of early American history that reading Parkman now is like reading William Paley’s Natural Theology in the wake of the Darwinian Revolution; some of the factual descriptions may be accurate enough, but the interpretations are so outmoded that only creationists and specialists in the history of science would bother. But if Parkman is untrustworthy as “science,” he remains an exemplar of style. In a review of Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War (New York, 2000), Edmund Morgan recommended Parkman for just that reason when he compared Anderson’s narrative of the Seven Years’ War to Montcalm and Wolfe (1884). As Morgan put it, the difference between Anderson and Parkman “lies as much in style as in content. Parkman had his eye on the drama of the conflict and made the American wilderness, which he knew at first hand, into a backdrop for theatrical encounters . . . Anderson [has] neither the talent nor the taste for theatrics. Parkman made great reading in his time and still does, but he has to be read as a period piece.” As proof, Morgan offers a passage from Montcalm and Wolfe in which Parkman describes the wilderness in autumn: “that festal evening of the year, when jocund Nature disrobes herself, to wake again refreshed in the joy of her undying spring.” As theatrics, jocund disrobing would have been banned from any stage in Boston in Parkman’s day; nowadays, it’s a passage that, in Morgan’s words, “Anderson could not have written and could not have got published if he had.”

Morgan’s comparison is not so much an indictment of Anderson as a comment on how much the packaging of history has changed since 1884. But if we think in terms of literary style, then Montcalm and Wolfe is a very curious kind of “great reading.” The experience of reading Parkman is not like reading the best American novels from his era. Mark Twain published Huckleberry Finn in the same year as Montcalm and Wolfe, and Twain’s work is not a period piece. It displays a sensibility that we instantly recognize, and it dwells on matters of vital importance to us today. Huck’s voice is beguiling, and part of its appeal is that it mocks exactly the kind of literary theatrics that Parkman employs.

Like Twain, Parkman frequently uses ugly epithets (“squaw,” “savage”), but unlike Twain, he does it without irony. Still, as far as I know there have been no attempts to ban Parkman from school libraries, perhaps because he seems quainter, older, more a man of his times. (In an unscientific poll conducted among my departmental colleagues, Parkman [1823-93] was uniformly assumed to have been a closer contemporary of James Fenimore Cooper [1789-1851] than of Twain [1835-1910], who derided Cooper’s style mercilessly.)

Reading Parkman only for style is a way of acknowledging the distance between then and now. It has the effect of making the old history irrelevant to our current concerns, in much the way that historical re-enactors dressed in quaint costumes and speaking in funny dialects can distance the past from the present. If Parkman is bad history and a stylistic period piece as well, then reading Parkman today is little more than a dubious exercise in nostalgia.

Yet like Twain, Parkman ought to be relevant, very relevant, to our current concerns. By an odd set of coincidences, some of the most pronounced qualities of Parkman’s work are currently of great importance to scholars of early American life. Voice, for example. Parkman was self-consciously literary, even if his voice seems dated now, and his writerly concerns, his desire to reach a wide reading public, are common among historians today. (If these concerns did not exist, then neither would this journal.) With respect to his subject matter, too, Parkman was committed to writing history in which Indians figured as varied and independent agents in the history of North America. Finally, Parkman employed an Atlantic approach to American history. Though a resident of Boston and citizen of the United States, Parkman described the history of North America by exploring the interaction among French, Spanish, English, and Indian peoples, rather than by charting the rise of the United States. To accomplish this task, he immersed himself in archival materials in several languages from European sources, paying careful attention to sources that reveal Indian agency. He also spent time as a young man on various ethnographic adventures, absorbing Indian culture, tradition, and folkways while traveling the Oregon Trail, and experiencing Catholicism firsthand by entering a Passionist monastery in Rome. Given Parkman’s proximity to some of the most compelling (not to say trendy) developments in the study of early America today, surely there must be some way Parkman can still speak to us. To make Parkman relevant today means reading him against his own context in ways that might help us to be more aware of our own.

 

Fig. 2. Francis Parkman at the Camp on the Batiscau River, Province of Quebec, c. 1886. Farnham, A Life of Francis Parkman, 37. Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.
Fig. 2. Francis Parkman at the Camp on the Batiscau River, Province of Quebec, c. 1886. Farnham, A Life of Francis Parkman, 37. Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.

For Parkman, such a reading is especially difficult because the mythology of the heroic historian gets in the way. When reviewers and critics discuss Parkman’s works, the context they most often describe is the personal one. Much has been made of how Parkman overcame nervous illness, crippling physical ailments, and near blindness. Parkman worked to promote his own legend, offering detailed descriptions of how he would listen in the darkness of his Beacon Hill home as family members and secretaries read documents from the archives of Paris or Madrid, and of how he would then write with a mechanical contraption, in red ink on orange paper, to shield his eyes from the light.

The packaging of the product of these herculean efforts in “classic” editions, with their matched bindings, gilt edges, and intimations of immortality, creates the illusion that these works must have sprung full blown into the world, complete yet isolated products of a singular genius, a detached mind commenting on the still more distant past. Such packaging makes it is hard to remember that these books were written over time—from 1851 to 1892—as Parkman’s project evolved in response to a changing world. If we are ever to see Parkman as anything more than a bundle of racial prejudices wrapped in the lush romantic prose of a bygone era, then it is vital that his works be read as an unfolding effort to make sense of the past in a way that would also make sense of the rapidly changing present. Francis Parkman’s world, for all its broad reach across the Atlantic and into the interior of North America, was profoundly local. Parkman was a Bostonian, and a Boston historian. As such, he was heir to a long tradition in which the city’s historians and writers placed themselves at the center of major world transformations. Winthrop: We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us. Mather: I write the Wonders of the Christian Religion, flying from the depravations of Europe, to the American Strand. Emerson: Here, once, the embattled farmers stood and fired the shot heard ’round the world. Born in 1823 to a genteel family of merchants and ministers, and graduating Harvard College in the class of 1844, Francis Parkman’s view of Boston’s place in the world was profoundly shaped by events and trends of his early life.

During Parkman’s youth, the interests of Boston’s ruling class were increasingly drawn to Europe. Young men such as George Ticknor, Charles Eliot Norton, George Bancroft, and John Lothrop Motley (there were many others as well) went abroad to study languages, to receive European degrees, and to cultivate continental approaches to intellectual endeavor. At the same time, Parkman came of age in the era of Manifest Destiny, when the lure of the West, the annexation of Texas, the Mexican War, Oregon Fever, and the California Gold Rush were remaking the map of the United States along with the nation’s sense of itself.

 

Fig. 3. Parkman in 1844, from a daguerrotype. Farnham, A Life of Francis Parkman, 145. Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.
Fig. 3. Parkman in 1844, from a daguerrotype. Farnham, A Life of Francis Parkman, 145. Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.

Francis Parkman was the rare young man who felt equally drawn by both orbits. In 1843-44, Parkman set out on a European grand tour, visiting the great capitals of the continent and making a lengthy stay in Italy, including an extended visit to a Passionist monastery in Rome. A year after his return to America, bored with studying law and fearing for his eyesight, Parkman set out on his better known excursion on the Oregon Trail. He returned broken and nearly blind, but with his youthful plan for writing the history of the American forest now fixed in his mind. His travels made it possible for him to realize his project as a history of both Europeans and Indians, played out against the backdrop of the primeval American forest, a great conflict fought between two competing models of European civilization—France and England, Catholicism and Protestantism, absolutism and liberty.

Both sets of interests, Europe and the American West, pulled Parkman away from Boston, but in a curious way, his work remained centered there. The city of Boston, like Parkman himself, was pulled between these two orbits, and slowly shifted from one to the other. Traditionally, Boston had been America’s most Eurocentric city. Compared with New York and Philadelphia, Boston’s hinterland was shallow, and it looked toward the Atlantic for its economic and cultural development. As the metropolis of New England, Boston’s connection to the continental project of the early United States was tenuous at best. Boston’s Federalist elites detested the Jeffersonian vision of an agrarian republic that dominated the politics of the young nation, and during Jefferson’s embargo of 1807-09 and “Mr. Madison’s” War of 1812, they made their opposition known to the point of their own embarrassment at the quasi-secessionist Hartford Convention in 1814.

 

Fig. 4. Cover page of The Boston Slave Riot, and Trial of Anthony Burns (Boston, 1854). Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.
Fig. 4. Cover page of The Boston Slave Riot, and Trial of Anthony Burns (Boston, 1854). Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.

Yet by the 1840s, when Francis Parkman came of age and began his first historical works, his city’s orientation was changing. Migrants from New England’s cultural hearth had spread across the Midwest and beyond, replicating New England villages, churches, and colleges throughout the Old Northwest Territory and on into Iowa and Minnesota. The city’s commercial leaders had rounded the horn from the Atlantic to the Pacific, giving Boston a vital interest in the development of Oregon and California. The political crises of the 1850s, likewise a time of crisis in Parkman’s own life, brought on moments of uncertainty, such as the violent rendition of the fugitive slave Anthony Burns. In 1854, some might have predicted that Massachusetts, not South Carolina, would be the first state to secede from the union.

The Civil War would prove to be a decisive turning point in the life of Parkman’s city. A diplomatic delegation, led by Boston’s Charles Francis Adams, managed to keep Britain from joining the war on the Confederacy’s behalf, which would have embroiled Boston in a new and disastrous chapter in its Atlantic history. The ultimate victory of the Union, symbolized by the dramatic deeds of the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth Regiment of African American soldiers, led by Parkman’s cousin Robert Gould Shaw, meant that Boston’s interests became more firmly national and continental than ever before.

If we look at Parkman’s historical writings as a whole, it becomes clear that on one level, his massive histories of France and England in North America were meant to negotiate, to subtly account for, and to naturalize this transition in the life of his native city. The works in the series were published over a forty-year time span, with the first, The Conspiracy of Pontiac, appearing in 1851. Parkman claimed that his design to write a history of France and England in America was a long cherished dream formed in boyhood rambles in the forest. If so, then Pontiac’s War, the pan-Indian rebellions against British occupation of the trans-Appalachian West that emerged in the wake of the Seven Years’ War, was a strange place to begin, for it meant beginning the story at its end.

And, not surprisingly, The Conspiracy of Pontiac is an odd book. Although its ostensible focus is on the native rebellions of 1763, it reads as a draft of Parkman’s entire project. In its first two hundred pages, Parkman analyzes in ethnographic terms the Indian nations of eastern North America and summarizes the entire history of French and English colonization and conflict, concluding with a brief narrative of the Seven Years’ War. Only then does the book settle into an account of a conspiracy, led by an Indian mastermind, “a great and daring champion” encouraged by the recently vanquished French to deter “the advancing waves of Anglo-American power” (ix-x).

Despite his bold title, Parkman’s idea of calling the Indian rebellions a “conspiracy” never quite seems to work. The strain of fashioning the uprisings into the organized plot of a single leader shows repeatedly through the work, as events keep wandering away from Pontiac. To keep his antihero at the center of a conspiracy, Parkman has to tell some “stretchers,” as Huck Finn would say. Even Theodore Parker, the radical Boston abolitionist clergyman and Parkman’s erstwhile travelling companion in Italy, was hard-pressed to see how the label of conspiracy applied, and Parker was a man who could find conspiracies everywhere. But for Parkman, the title was deliberate and carefully chosen, and one reason why he may have settled on it is the prevalence of conspiratorial thinking in American political culture at the time. National events from the Mexican War onward, and in particular the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, had vaulted to the forefront of Northern antislavery discourse the idea that a conspiratorial slave power was the actual ruling force in the United States, standing in the way of the natural progress and development of Anglo-American liberties. John Gorham Palfrey, another Boston historian, published a series of essays arguing this point in the Boston Commonwealth in the summer of 1851, just as Parkman was sending Pontiac to press.

 

Fig. 5. Parkman in 1865. Source: Farnham, p. 312. Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.
Fig. 5. Parkman in 1865. Source: Farnham, p. 312. Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.

To make the “doomed” Indians of Pontiac’s uprising the metaphorical equivalents of the slave power of the 1850s was an inspired bit of wishful thinking on Parkman’s part: perhaps the slavocracy would also melt away in the face of Northern antislavery or free-soil values. Before the Civil War, Parkman was no abolitionist, but he was no less convinced than Parker that the slave system was destined to die out, and that only the desperate acts of tyrants might avert its demise. Parkman’s letters from this era reveal how deeply the notion of a South ruled by an anachronistic band of planter autocrats shaped his thinking on the great national conflict—and the national past. In 1865, as the war came to an end, Parkman, despite his physical debilities, traveled to Richmond to collect Confederate documents for the Boston Athenaeum, the victor claiming the records of the vanquished much as he had during his sojourns into French archives in search of material for his own stories of France’s demise and the Indians’ doom.

The other great oddity of The Conspiracy of Pontiac lies in Parkman’s choice to end his narrative there, in 1763, on the cusp of the great upheavals in the British Empire that would bring France back to the North American scene for one more episode. Rather than advancing the chronology forward toward the American Revolution, Parkman made in his future work the extraordinary decision to go back over ground already covered and do it all again. Having written an eight-hundred-page tome on the subject, he felt the need to rewrite it in fine detail.

After debilitating health problems during the 1850s, and after the national crises of these years as well, Parkman was reinvigorated by the Civil War. His health partially restored, he resumed his life’s work in earnest. Between 1865 and 1892, Parkman published seven major volumes (and revised and republished several more), producing the series that he eventually came to call “France and England in North America,” the name by which it has been known ever since. But when he embarked upon the first volume, Parkman’s working title for the series was “France in the New World,” and he continued to refer to it as “a connected history of France in the New World” for some time to come.

The reason for the more limited title is quite natural; after The Conspiracy of Pontiac, England and its American colonies recede from the focus of Parkman’s work. In the five subsequent volumes, Pioneers of France in the New World (1865), The Jesuits in North America (1867), LaSalle and the Discovery of the Great West (1869), The Old Regime in Canada (1874), and Count Frontenac and New France under Louis XIV (1877), England, its colonies, and its armies play an extremely limited role in the narrative. Indeed, Parkman rarely mentions them. More significantly, to the extent that an English presence in North America is acknowledged in these volumes, Parkman attends almost exclusively to New England, as, for instance, in The Jesuits in North America, which devotes a single chapter to “Priest and Puritan,” or The Old Regime in Canada, in which a quarrel between French Canadian claimants to Acadia briefly spills over into Boston in the 1640s. For these five volumes, then, Parkman’s series might more accurately have been called “France and Greater Boston in North America.” This narrow focus allowed Parkman to use New England as his sole reference point when comparing the French and the English, making it possible to conflate all of the English colonies with the characteristics of the New England ones. In Parkman’s view, New England formed the essence of English America, while New France was more fully and completely depicted across the broad sweep of French settlement and exploration. This brand of myopia gives an unusual geographic schema to Parkman’s volumes, offering detailed descriptions of the vast range of France’s continental claims, juxtaposed with New England’s cramped little corner of English America. Parkman’s America, in other words, might have looked like an inversion of the famous Saul Steinberg New Yorker cover, transposed onto nineteenth-century Boston.

 

Fig. 6. Parkman's America. Illustration by John McCoy.
Fig. 6. Parkman’s America. Illustration by John McCoy.

The larger impact of this skewed, asymmetrical focus becomes clearer as Parkman reaches his last volumes. Count Frontenac and New France under Louis XIV (1877) brought Parkman’s story up to 1700. By its end, the brutal conflict of the 1690s between New France and New England has emerged as a central element in the narrative. At this point, Parkman, now fifty-five years old and fearing, as always, for his health, became concerned that he might not live long enough to finish the series. So he skipped ahead, passing by the Half Century of Conflict from 1700 to 1750 (to which he would later return) and proceeded straight to the conclusion he had always aimed to reach in Montcalm and Wolfe, the climactic account of the Seven Years’ War and the expulsion of France from the North American continent. The effect of this move is to make Montcalm and Wolfe, following on the heels of Frontenac, seem like a direct continuation of the story, so that New England’s war with New France becomes the precursor to Britain’s total war against France. Once again, American history was Boston’s history writ large. Montcalm and Wolfe was written on a grand scale, and the English presence on the continent now had to be treated in full. Given the significance of Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York to the conflict, New England could no longer remain Parkman’s eccentric center of English America. But by this time, more than two thousand pages into the series, Parkman’s theatrical habits, his tendency to ascribe character traits to whole societies, and then embody those traits in representative individuals, had firmly planted a New England character on all of English America and its imperial agents, or at least on all the successful ones.

 

Fig. 7. Louis Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm-Gozon de Saint-Veran. Parkman, Montcalm and Wolfe, vol 1. frontispiece. Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.
Fig. 7. Louis Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm-Gozon de Saint-Veran. Parkman, Montcalm and Wolfe, vol 1. frontispiece. Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.

Parkman paints Edward Braddock, the British general who blundered his way to disastrous defeat at Fort Duquesne in 1755, as the antithesis of Yankee virtue: a gambler, a duelist, a rake, conceited, insolent, bullying, rude, and utterly lacking in family feeling. By contrast, General James Wolfe, the heroic figure who brings Parkman’s great drama to a close, has Yankee virtues in spades. Vigorous and active, despite a “delicate” sensibility, “his martial instincts were balanced by strong domestic inclinations.” He was fond of children and devoted to his parents. Wolfe had a very modest opinion of himself and his own abilities, but he was not lacking in self-confidence and he “delighted in every kind of hardihood.” As a military officer, he sought to cultivate “civility and mildness of character,” and maintained a “fear of becoming a mere ruffian and of imbibing the tyrannical principles of an absolute commander” (1322-26). As Simon Schama rightly pointed out, Parkman’s Wolfe was the mirror image of Parkman, a man who would have been at home in any drawing room on Beacon Hill.

 

Fig. 8. James Wolfe, from a painting by Joseph Highmore. Source: Parkman, Montcalm and Wolfe, frontispiece, vol. 2.Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.
Fig. 8. James Wolfe, from a painting by Joseph Highmore. Source: Parkman, Montcalm and Wolfe, frontispiece, vol. 2.Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.

For Parkman, Wolfe’s victory over Montcalm at the Plains of Abraham sealed the triumph of Yankee virtues over the entire American continent. Nothing remained but for the “advancing waves of Anglo-American power” to sweep aside the desperate but ultimately futile conspiracies of proud but doomed opponents, be they Indians or slave-holding oligarchs. In his introduction to Pioneers of France in the New World, written in January 1865, Parkman had projected just such a conclusion to the entire series. In that volume, dedicated to the memory of Theodore Parkman, Robert Gould Shaw, and Henry Ware Hall, his kinsmen slain in Civil War battles, Parkman explicitly linked England’s vanquishing of “Feudalism, Monarchy, and Rome” in New France to the moment “at this hour, [when] half a million of bayonets are vindicating the ascendancy of a regulated freedom,” a freedom for which New England was the model and the source (14).

Collapsing the century between 1763 and 1865 into a single sentence, Parkman performed the neat trick of projecting an implicit history of the United States without ever directly addressing the American Revolution. This was no accident. By avoiding the Revolution, Parkman avoided having to address the messy realities of the intense conflict between his native city and the British Empire in the 1760s and ’70s, along with the fateful role of France on the patriots’ behalf. In Boston, concerted resistance efforts against the advancing wave of British power, a movement more plausibly conspiratorial than Pontiac’s rebellion, had dramatically altered the course of the Anglo-American imperial project. And in that effort, Boston’s revolutionaries had advanced a series of radical possibilities that Parkman wanted nothing to do with.

 

Fig. 9. Cover page of Francis Parkman, Some of the Reasons Against Woman Suffrage (Boston, 1884). Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.
Fig. 9. Cover page of Francis Parkman, Some of the Reasons Against Woman Suffrage (Boston, 1884). Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.

During the years in which he was completing Montcalm and Wolfe, Parkman was also publishing essays in the North American Review, arguing vociferously against both women’s suffrage and universal male suffrage, at a time when American Revolutionary slogans were being used to promote these causes. On the eve of the hundredth anniversary of the Boston Tea Party in 1873, the Woman’s Suffrage Association met at Faneuil Hall under a banner reading, “Taxation Without Representation is Tyranny.” To Parkman, such arguments ran counter to natural law and to history, which he stated in his North American Review essays and implied in his conclusion to Montcalm and Wolfe. There, he moved rapidly, once again, from 1763 to the 1880s, and predicted a “majestic future” for the United States, but only “if she will shun the excess and perversion of the principles that made her great” and “resist the mob and the demagogue” (1478).

For Parkman to insist, through his whole long series, on the relevance of the Anglo-French conflict for America’s ongoing history and yet omit the American Revolution was a clever strategy. It allowed him to make Anglo-American dominance of the continent seem inevitable, and to connect Manifest Destiny with British sensibilities. It made it possible to understand Boston’s present position within that imperial project as though it were a natural process of evolution rather than a significant change from the early years of the republic. And it made it easy for him to dismiss the radical and egalitarian elements that emerged from Boston’s conflict with Britain as inconsequential to the larger story.

And what of our own context? In 1891, when Parkman finally ended his long narrative of France and England in America with projections (and doubts) about the future greatness of the United States, America remained but one among several great powers; Britain and France still played very large roles in the worldwide imperial contest.

However grand the scope of his vision, and however confident his moral center, it would have been difficult for Parkman to imagine a time at which the United States would be the only global imperial power. We don’t often use the word “empire” these days—”superpower” has displaced it—but since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Americans and American historians have clearly been in search of new narratives, new frameworks, to make sense of our rapidly changing world. No longer does it seem acceptable to offer a survey of early American history in which the principal aim is to describe the rise of an independent United States, complete and sufficient unto itself. Parkman’s insistence on seeing North America’s history as a process of imperial expansion rather than the story of the birth of an American nation has never seemed more apt.

The current popularity of Atlantic history is in some measure a response to the increased complexity of America’s interconnectedness to the rest of the world in terms of material goods, cultural influence, political power, economic might, military force; the list goes on, but it all points to our awareness of how porous, open, and malleable the nation state has become in an era of globalization. The Atlantic approach to early American history, together with the focus on Indians provided by ethnohistorians, reflects this changing awareness, and scholars in these fields have pushed aside the republican synthesis, the exclusive focus on the American Revolution as the essential event in early American history for understanding America’s subsequent evolution and identity. It seems likely, too, that the desire for literary or narrative history reflects a longing for moral clarity or at least coherence as an alternative to the continuing accumulation of detailed but unmanageable and disorganized knowledge. In this sense, Francis Parkman’s work can remain, if not a model, then at least an inspiration for future generations of scholars. We may not trust the accuracy of his research, and we may not admire his literary style, but we can respect and learn from Parkman’s method of negotiating context, his persistent application to the work of triangulation between himself, his world, and its connection to the past.

Further Reading: Francis Jennings’s critique can be found in “Francis Parkman: A Brahmin among Untouchables,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 42 (July 1985): 305-28. Edmund Morgan’s comments are in “How the French Lost America,” New York Review of Books, May 11, 2000. Valuable studies of Parkman’s life and works include Simon Schama, Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations (New York, 1991); David Levin, History as Romantic Art (New York, 1967); Mason Wade, Francis Parkman, Heroic Historian (New York, 1942), where Theodore Parker’s letter to Parkman on The Conspiracy of Pontiac is reprinted; and Wilbur R. Jacobs, Francis Parkman, Historian as Hero (Austin, 1991). For Parkman’s correspondence, see Jacobs, ed., Letters of Francis Parkman (Norman, Okla., 1960). All quotations in this essay from Parkman’s published works are taken from Francis Parkman, France and England in North America, 2 vols., (New York, 1983), that is, the Library of America edition, with the exception of those found in Francis Parkman, The Conspiracy of Pontiac, 2 vols., (Boston and New York, 1901), vols. 14-15 of the Frontenac edition. On the conspiratorial fears of the 1850s, see David Brion Davis, ed., The Fear of Conspiracy: Images of Un-American Subversion from the Revolution to the Present (Ithaca, 1971). On the crisis among Boston’s elite during the 1850s, see Albert von Frank, The Trials of Anthony Burns: Freedom and Slavery in Emerson’s Boston (Cambridge, Mass., 1998). On the Boston Tea Party commemorations of the 1870s, see Alfred F. Young, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party (Boston, 2000).

 

This article initially appeared in issue 3.1 (October, 2002).


Mark Peterson teaches history at the University of Iowa, and is the author of The Price of Redemption: The Spiritual Economy of Puritan New England (Stanford, 1997) and “Puritanism and Refinement in Early New England: Reflections on Communion Silver,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 58 (April 2001): 307-46. He currently seems to be working backwards on a history of Boston in the Atlantic world.