When Washington Irving decided to write the history of Christopher Columbus and the Spanish in the New World, he found the field already occupied by William Hickling Prescott, the son of an eminent lawyer and a graduate of Harvard University, class of 1814. After considerable travel in Europe, Prescott had abandoned the idea of following in his father’s footsteps and decided to become a writer specializing in historical narratives.
Despite an accident of his college days that had blinded him in one eye and left him only limited vision in the other, he did assiduous research in preparation for his chosen career. Foreign works were read to him, and he wrote on a frame for the blind, producing in 1838, after ten years of toil, his monumental The History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic. At regular intervals thereafter he issued multiple-volume works that described in colorful and dramatic detail, reminiscent of Sir Walter Scott, the Spanish struggle for the dominance of Latin America. Prescott considered his greatest accomplishment to be History of the Conquest of Mexico, to which he wrote a companion work, History of the Conquest of Peru. To Prescott, history was primarily the vivid account of such heroic figures as Hernán Cortés and Moctezuma (commonly known as Montezuma); in spite of his scholarly mastery of his sources he was not a writer of philosophic depth or scientific thoroughness. In 1858, while at work on the third volume of what should have been his History of Philip II, he suffered an apoplectic stroke, which led to his death on January 28, 1859.