Saturday, November 8, 2008

Francis Parkman (RIP)

On this day in 1893, the great Historian Francis Parkman died at the age of 70. I think that one of the reasons that I am drawn to the Boston Unitarians is that they had a great love and respect for the value and and the art of history and historical writing. Parkman was the son of the Unitarian Minister Francis Parkman, a "model" of Boston Unitarianism. Of frail health as a boy, Parkman the son was sent to Medford to live with his maternal grandparents. Here, Parkman fell in love with forest land and this, along with his reading of Cooper and the Waverly Novels of Sir Walter Scott, and the influence of the Harvard Historian and Unitarian Jared Sparks, let him to conceive of his great masterwork, a history of the French and English struggle over the North American frontier.
Though plagued by headaches and poor health, Parkman would travel much and his work would reflect his knowledge and love of the land he chronicled.

Many of his historical judgements have stood well the tests of time though his reputation has suffered the ineveitable vicissitudes (especially around his treatment of Native Americans). The literary quality of his work, however, is unassailable. An exerpt (taken at random) from "Montcalm and Wolf," perhaps the greatest of his works, shows his love of the landscape, his romantic literary style, and the benefits that his travels had on his writing. He describes Louisbourg (Nova Scotia) shortly after vistiting the sight himself:

Stand on the mounds that were once the King's Bastion. The glistening sea spreads eastward three thousand miles, and its waves meet their first rebuff against this iron coast. Lighthouse Point is white with foam; jets of spray spout from the rocks of Goat Island ; mist curls in clouds from the seething surf that lashes the crags of Black Point, and the sea boils like a caldron among the reefs by the harbor's mouth; but on the calm water within, the small fishing vessels rest tranquil at their moorings. Beyond lies a hamlet of fishermen by the edge of the water, and a few scattered dwellings dot the rough hills, bristled with stunted firs, that gird the quiet basin; while close at hand, within the precinct of the vanished fortress, stand two small farmhouses. All else is a solitude of ocean, rock, marsh, and forest.


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