Tag Archives: Francis Parkman Vassall Morton: A Novel

Francis Parkman

Parkman excerpts

Excerpts from the works of the historian Francis Parkman are posted here (above) as a downloadable Word document.

In view of my mentions of the historians Carlyle and Macaulay in recent posts on rhetoric and style, I got to thinking this morning about the historian Francis Parkman, author of The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life and the monumental seven-volume France and England in North America; and of an early, forgotten work: Vassall Morton: A Novel (1856), which, I dare say, few have ever read. (I am proud to be able to say that I have.)

A student at Harvard College of the historian Jared Sparks, by whom he was greatly influenced, Parkman was fluent in French and was an admirer of Froissart, whose works included the Chroniques (Chronicles) a prose history of the Hundred Years’ War written in the fourteenth century. Parkman’s style of historical writing would probably be termed “romantic” and perhaps lyrical. His research in primary sources was prodigious, belying the impression (which would show ignorance of them) that his works are not scholarly or objective. His narrative is crystal clear.

He can — and has by his admirers — be read almost for his style alone.

What modern historian writes narrative history with metaphors and descriptive passages such as the following?

a rolling sea of dull green prairie

On the right hand and on the left stretched the boundless prairie, dotted with leafless groves and bordered by gray wintry forests, scorched by the fires kindled in the dried grass by Indian hunters, and strewn with the carcasses and the bleached skulls of innumerable buffalo.

Yet hardly anyone reads Parkman nowadays.

— Roger W. Smith

   September 2020