The OF Blog: Francis Parkman, France and England in North America

Monday, August 08, 2016

Francis Parkman, France and England in North America

The springs of American civilization, unlike those of the elder world, lie revealed in the clear light of History.  In appearance they are feeble; in reality, copious and full of force.  Acting at the sources of life, instruments otherwise weak become mighty for good and evil, and men, lost elsewhere in the crowd, stand forth as agents of Destiny.  In their toils, their sufferings, their conflicts, momentous questions were at stake, and issues vital to the future world, – the prevalence of races, the triumph of principles, health or disease, a blessing or a curse.  On the obscure strife where men died by tens or by scores hung questions of as deep import for posterity as on those mighty contests of national adolescence where carnage is reckoned by thousands.

The subject to which the proposed series will be devoted is that of "France in the New World," – the attempt of Feudalism, Monarchy, and Rome to master a continent where, at this hour, half a million of bayonets are vindicating the ascendency of a regulated freedom; – Feudalism still strong in life, though enveloped and overborne by new-born Centralization; Monarchy in the flush of triumphant power; Rome, nerved by disaster, springing with renewed vitality from ashes and corruption, and ranging the earth to reconquer abroad what she had lost at home.  These banded powers, pushing into the wilderness their indomitable soldiers and devoted priests, unveiled the secrets of the barbarous continent, pierced the forests, traced and mapped out the streams, planted their emblems, built their forts, and claimed all as their own.  New France was all head.  Under king, noble, and Jesuit, the lank, lean body would not thrive.  Even commerce wore the sword, decked itself with badges of nobility, aspired to forest seigniories and hordes of savage retainers. (Introduction, p. 13 Library of America edition, vol. I of France and England in North America)

When I was growing up in the 1980s, I frequently would check out old histories from the local library.  There was something exhilarating to read 50-100 year-old histories where there was a sense of momentousness to tales of daring and doing, of brave souls whose choices seemed to change the course of the world.  The prose might have been purple in places, but oh God was it glorious to read.  Years before I knew what "historiography" and "monograph" meant, long before I delved into primary source material, read pardon tales and experienced "fiction in the archives," I wanted to be a historian, just so I could read and re-read these fascinating tales of heroes and villains who actually lived, breathed, and died, with their actions affecting the lives of millions. 

Of course, the reality of studying history in the late 20th century at the University of Tennessee was far different from my youthful expectations.  There the focus was on trends and societal moldings of individuals and not the inverse.  I discovered a love for cultural and religious histories, seeing in preserved documents such as the trial of an Italian miller for heresy something more real and intriguing than tales of Frederick the Great's campaigns in Central Europe during the 1740s (that being said, Frederick did lead a fascinating life, full of conflicts both internal and external).  Histories that purportedly had a "theme" or moral to explore just seemed a bit too trite to me, too full of confidence in national and self-delusions to be worth anything more than a diverting look into the world-views of those who composed them in the years just prior and concurrent to Leopold von Ranke's famous maxim, "Wie es eigentlich gewesen" ("How it really was"), being composed to describe his focus on a more rational, fact-based approach to historiography.  Yet there is still something powerful to these older, more Romantic histories that still calls to me.

This certainly was the case when I recently read Francis Parkman's 1865-1893 seven volume history of France's involvement in North America, collected into two volumes by the Library of America and published as France and England in North America.  Parkman's introduction is a bracing read, especially if the reader, like myself, finds himself reacting to almost every line with questions of how something in a similar vein might never see the light of day in early 21st century "professional" journals.  One just does not talk about destinies and civilizations as being fonts of either good and/or evil without being ridiculed these days.  And yet, in re-reading just now Parkman's 1865 introduction (and realizing that he's thinking heavily upon the American Civil War and the fight to remove slavery from the land) there is a life to it that makes these 3000 pages seem fresh even 151 years later.

Parkman's prose certainly helps the curious reader settle quickly into the story he aims to tell.  Despite the lush, almost turgid quality of his introduction, much of the actual histories he tells are concise yet full of vivid descriptions, such as this observation on French resiliency after an English raid on the early settlement of Acadia (now parts of the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia) in 1613:

In spite of their reverses, the French kept hold on Acadia.  Biencourt, partially at least, rebuilt Port Royal; while winter after winter the smoke of fur-traders' huts curled into the still, sharp air of these frosty wilds, till at length, with happier auspices, plans of settlement were resumed. (p. 239, vol. I)
The subject matter, the invasion/settlement of North America, lends itself well to being viewed as an adventure of wills, of villains and heroes struggling for dominance.  Never mind that Parkman, even more so than many of his contemporaries, often portrays the local nations as being oft-perfidious "savages," whose lust for scalps and mutilations makes them frequent foils for these intrepid explorers.  While there are some exceptions to be found in these volumes, for the most part this is a history that downplays the intricacies of Franco-Native interactions.  This is most apparent in the final volume, Montcalm and Wolfe, as the nations are reduced to little more than waves of savages who aid the French (minus the notable exception of the Six Nations).

Yet despite this major flaw (at least for a one-time historian living in the early 21st century), this narrative approach does make the events of 1535-1763 a compelling read.  This is especially true in two volumes, La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West and Montcalm and Wolfe, where Parkman's penchant for describing key historical figures as though they were characters in a novel makes for an absorbing, quick read.  La Salle in particular is a quasi-saint among ruffians, as his single-minded vision for establishing a true French empire in the forests of North America makes him a truly tragic hero whose denouement, long-foreshadowed, is nonetheless more poignant for its seemingly inevitability. 

However, Parkman is more than a one-trick pony.  Vivid and as well-constructed as his tales of historical heroes and villains might be, his use of primary sources is also important.  For the most part, leaving aside his almost calumnious depictions of Native Americans, his histories contain a plethora of citations of letters, diaries, and official documents.  While it might be inconvenient for monolingual readers, Parkman frequently cites, untranslated, various observations by the historical figures and their contemporaries, in his footnotes and appendices.  These citations lend a gravity to the texts that might otherwise have been missing.  His research is extensive and while some of his conclusions can be debated (such as viewing New France versus the English colonies as an extension of feudal/clerical powers vs. incipient liberty-seeking yeomen), the documents themselves do provide a lot of support for other arguments of his, namely the inherent weaknesses in establishing a colony that was based more on the exploitation of natural resources (especially furs) than on the cultivation of these resources.

On the whole, France and England in North America is a well-written, relatively well-researched mid-to-late 19th century history that was written during a time when historiography was being to switch from a narrative-heavy, ideological view of the past toward a more document-based, "scientific" approach toward studying past events.  While some of Parkman's terminology and conclusions might be cringe-worthy today, his fast-paced, person-centered tales create a vivid, complex tapestry of events and people that makes for a gripping read.  It certainly is one of the better examples of 19th century American histories available today for readers curious about colonial settlements but who may not wish to be bogged down with thorough examinations of contemporary societal trends.

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