Article abstract: Prescott proved that historical writing could achieve the permanence of literature; he introduced into American historiography all the methods of modern scholarship, and he remains the most distinguished historian of sixteenth century Spain and Spanish America in the English language.
William Hickling Prescott was born in Salem, Massachusetts, on May 4, 1796. His father, William Prescott, a lawyer and judge who prospered in investments in industry, real estate, and the India trade, was the son of Colonel William Prescott, the hero of the Battle of Bunker Hill; Prescott’s mother, Catherine Greene Hickling, was the daughter of another wealthy New England family. Prescott attended private schools in Salem and another in Boston when the family moved there in 1808. At Harvard, he suffered an injury to his left eye during a boyish fracas in the dining hall, which led to a lifetime of trouble with his eyesight. This event is the basis of the myth that he achieved literary fame in spite of blindness. Actually, he was never totally blind, but his eyesight and his general health were poor throughout his life.
When he was graduated from Harvard in 1814, Prescott’s study of the law in preparation for joining his father’s firm was cut short by impaired vision and rheumatic pains, and his parents sent him abroad for his health, first to the Azores, where his maternal grandfather was the American consul. He returned to Boston in 1817, after two years in England, France, and Italy, convinced that he would never be able to practice law. During the winter of 1817-1818, he was confined to a darkened room, where his sister read to him while he wrestled with the question of what career to pursue.
Prescott’s first published work, an article on Lord Byron, appeared in the North American Review in 1821. By this time, he was determined to be a man of letters, a career made possible by the readers and secretaries whom he could afford to employ. In 1820, he married Susan Amory, the daughter of a wealthy Boston merchant, and he embarked on the systematic study of European literature. During the next nine years, he continued to publish essays on a variety of literary subjects while studying Italian and Spanish literature.
Prescott’s study of the literature of Spain led to his determination to write a history of the reign of the fifteenth century monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. Doubly isolated from documentary sources by his poor eyesight and his distance from Spanish libraries but blessed with sufficient wealth, Prescott employed full-time secretaries to read to him and to take dictation, and his many contacts in European libraries made possible a form of research that was remarkably complete, considering his difficulties. His friends in Europe found and made copies of often obscure documentary sources, and his remarkable memory gave him the ability to keep a large amount of historical information in mind as he organized his subject. History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella the Catholic (1838), the result of eight years of writing, was, for a historical work, a remarkable success, both in the United States and in England. Though later historians have charged that Prescott ignored the ordinary people of Spain in concentrating on the life of the Spanish court, it must be remembered that it was politics, diplomacy, and war, not “common life,” that furnished subjects for historians in Prescott’s time. This first work reveals high standards of objectivity, it is thoroughly documented, and Spanish historians have always considered it a basic contribution to fifteenth century historiography. All this is even more remarkable for being the achievement of a self-trained historian.
Prescott’s success with his first book encouraged him to embark on the writing of the two works for which he is most famous, his accounts of the destruction of the Aztec and Inca empires by the conquistadors of Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro. History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843) produced for Prescott a remarkable number of honors, including memberships in various historical societies in the United States and in Europe, honorary degrees, and, most significant, a membership in the Royal Academy of History in Madrid. This work, which has been issued in two hundred editions and has been his most translated book, is considered by most students of Prescott to be his masterpiece, admired particularly for its graceful style and overall design. It is a supreme...
(The entire section is 1882 words.)