Francis Parkman is one of the trio of great nineteenth century American historians, the other two being William Hickling Prescott and John Lothrop Motley. Of the three Parkman has stood best the test of time. His superiority lies in his approach. He is less rhetorical and florid in style, less likely to draw sweeping philosophical conclusions from his evidence, and more successful than his contemporaries in evoking history and making it live.
Born a sensitive, sickly son of a Boston Brahmin family, he nurtured extreme hatred for physical weakness. While still a student at Harvard he got “Injuns on the brain,” as he said and was never able to cure himself of the affliction. After graduating he went on a trip, along the Oregon Trail, which covered seventeen hundred miles. From this trip came material for his first work, THE CALIFORNIA AND OREGON TRAIL published in 1849, and he contracted the beginnings of the diseases that plagued him for the rest of his life, arthritis, near-blindness, and painful headaches, all complicated by neuroticism. Though unable to write more than a handful of pages a day, Parkman subsequently turned out volume after volume chronicling the great drama of the colonization and development of the North American Continent.
COUNT FRONTENAC AND NEW FRANCE UNDER LOUIS XIV is the fifth in the historical series known collectively as FRANCE AND ENGLAND IN NORTH AMERICA, published in eleven volumes from 1851 to 1892. This volume, like the others, reveals Parkman’s biases and prejudices. He disdained commerce, was not enthusiastic about democracy but hated tyranny, loved the past because he believed himself “a little medieval,” and was a political reactionary. As he said in THE OLD REGIME IN CANADA, “My political faith lies between two vicious extremes, democracy and absolute authority.” He did not “object to a good constitutional monarchy, but prefers a conservative republic.” Further, he obviously had greater respect for Englishmen than for Frenchmen, for Protestantism than for Catholicism.
COUNT FRONTENAC AND NEW FRANCE UNDER LOUIS XIV, which covers the years 1620 to 1701, focuses on the actions of its central title figure, who according to Parkman was “the most remarkable man who ever represented the crown of France in the New World. From strangely unpromising beginnings, he grew with every emergency, and rose equal to every crisis.” The volume dramatically attempts to show “how valiantly, and for a time how successfully, New France battled against a fate which her own organic fault made inevitable. Her history is a great and significant drama, enacted among untamed forests, with a distant gleam of courtly splendors and the regal pomp of Versailles.” He tries to tell the story “not in...
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