William Hickling Prescott, the renowned American historian who chronicled the rise and fall of the Spanish empire, was born in Salem, Massachusetts, on May 4, 1796. His grandfather had commanded colonial forces at the Battle of Bunker Hill during the American Revolution; his father was a highly respected judge and philanthropist. Prescott was tutored in Latin and Greek by the rector of Trinity Church in Boston and entered Harvard in 1811. In a bizarre accident, Prescott was blinded in the left...See more
William Hickling Prescott, the renowned American historian who chronicled the rise and fall of the Spanish empire, was born in Salem, Massachusetts, on May 4, 1796. His grandfather had commanded colonial forces at the Battle of Bunker Hill during the American Revolution; his father was a highly respected judge and philanthropist. Prescott was tutored in Latin and Greek by the rector of Trinity Church in Boston and entered Harvard in 1811. In a bizarre accident, Prescott was blinded in the left eye by a crust of bread thrown in a dining-hall fracas. He abandoned plans to study law but went on to graduate in 1814 having earned membership in Phi Beta Kappa. While traveling abroad the following year Prescott temporarily lost the sight in his right eye. With his vision permanently impaired, he aspired to the life of gentleman-scholar. Prescott launched a career as a man of letters in 1821 with an essay on Byron that appeared in the North American Review. Over the next two decades he contributed regularly to the prestigious Boston literary journal. His most important articles and reviews, including seminal pieces on the theory and practice of historical composition, were later collected in "Biographical and Critical Miscellanies (1845) and "Critical and Historical Essays (1850). Under the influence of George Ticknor, a friend and mentor who taught European literature at Harvard, Prescott began learning Spanish in 1824. Engrossed by the history of Spain, he committed himself to tracing its development into a world power. Employing secretaries to read him manuscripts sent from Spanish archives, Prescott set about writing a work of sound scholarship that would also interest a generalaudience. A phenomenal memory allowed him to compose whole chapters in his mind during morning horseback rides. Later he recorded them on paper using a noctograph, a special stylus for the blind. More than a decade later he finished "The History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella the Catholic (1837), which enjoyed tremendous critical and popular success on both sides of the Atlantic. Prescott's fame gained him entree into Spanish intellectual circles, greatly facilitating research on his next book, History of the "Conquest of Mexico (1843), a sweeping account of Cortes's subjugation of the Aztec people. "Regarded simply from the standpoint of literary criticism, the "Conquest of Mexico is Prescott's masterpiece," judged his biographer Harry Thurston Peck. "More than that, it is one of the most brilliant examples which the English language possesses of literary art applied to historical narration. . . . [Prescott] transmuted the acquisitions of laborious research into an enduring monument of pure literature." Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Daniel J. Boorstin agreed: "The enduring interest in Prescott's "Conquest of Mexico comes less from his engaging survey of Aztec civilization than from his genius for the epic. . . . Though Prescott has been called the nation's first 'scientific historian' for his use of manuscript sources, he would live on as a creator of literature." Prescott completed his pioneering study of Spanish exploits in the "New World with the History of the Conquest of Peru (1847), a vivid chronicle of Pizarro's tumultuous overthrow of the Inca empire. "The "Conquest of Peru represents an author's triumph over his materials," observed Donald G. Darnell, one ofthe historian's several biographers. "Prescott exploits to the fullest any opportunities for dramatic effects that history might provide him. . . . The description of the Inca civilization, particularly its wealth, the precise explanation of the cause of the conflict between the conquerors, and the depiction of the Spanish... See less
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Excellent book, in addition to all that. Prescott does an extraordinary job in detailing ... read more
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