William Prescott Biography
PRESCOTT, William Hickling (1796–1859). An American historian. He was the son of a distinguished lawyer and statesman and grandson of Col. William Prescott, and was born at Boston, May 4, 1796. He entered Harvard College in 1811 as a sophomore, and graduated in 1814. While there he lost the sight of one eye by an accident, and the other was so affected that he had to pass several months in a darkened room. He partly recovered the sight of it, but he could use it only a little each day and never in any difficult work. He entered his father's law office, but in January, 1815, the injured eye became inflamed and refused to yield to remedies; so it was determined in the autumn that he should seek health by wintering at St. Michael's and get medical advice in the spring. At the Azores, where he often had to live in a darkened room, he acquired the accomplishment of learning almost by heart long passages which he had thought out and which he meant to have written. Physicians told him that the sight was hopelessly gone from one eye and that the preservation of the other depended on his health. Prescott now returned to Boston, after a sojourn in Europe, and on May 4, 1820, married Miss Susan Amory. A legal career was, of course, out of the question, but Prescott's family were well off; so his half blindness was not made still more cruel by the trammels of poverty. He determined, despite the special difficulties in his case, to devote himself to a literary career. His reading of Gibbon's autobiography increased his passion for historical writing. After studying extensively for years in English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish literature and history and after considering many plans for historical works, he finally, in 1826, chose the Spanish field for his labors.
Owing to his bad eyesight he was obliged to have the aid of readers and secretaries, and for his own writing had recourse to a writing frame designed especially for the blind. After eight years of hard labor he produced the first results of his research, the History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella the Catholic (3 vols., dated 1837, though published 1838). The work at once gained favor, and was soon translated into French, Spanish, and German. He then spent six years on what is probably his most brilliant work, a History of the Conquest of Mexico, with a Preliminary View of the Ancient Mexican Civilization, and the Life of the Conqueror, Hernando Cortés (3 vols., 1843). His third work in the series was the History of the Conquest of Peru, with a Preliminary View of the Civilization of the Incas (3 vols., 1847). These greatly added to his reputation. He was made corresponding member of the French Institute, and on his visit to Europe in 1850 was received with honor. In 1855 appeared two volumes of the History of the Reign of Philip the Second, King of Spain, and in 1858 the third volume, but the work was cut short by a stroke of apoplexy. He had, however, added to his series by editing Robertson's History of the Reign of Charles the Fifth (3 vols., 1857), adding thereto a supplement, the third volume, embracing the life of the Emperor after his abdication. On Jan. 27, 1859, he succumbed to a second stroke of apoplexy. Aside from his histories his literary work consists of a preface to Madame Calderon de la Barca's Life in Mexico (2 vols., 1843); Biographical and Critical Miscellanies (1845); "A Memoir of the Honorable John Pickering," in vol. x of Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 3d series; and a Memoir of the Honorable Abbott Lawrence (1856). An edition of his works (16 vols., ed. by J. F. Kirk, 1870) is very satisfactory. There is also a more recent 20-volume edition (Philadelphia, 1906).
Prescott is eminent in American letters as one of the first and most accomplished of the historians. Slightly younger than Irving and later in acquiring literary reputation, he excelled him in the extent and system with which he treated his work. To him, with Irving in history and romance, Ticknor in Spanish literary research, and Motley, a few years later, in history, belongs the honor of having introduced and made popular to the English-speaking and a good part of the foreign world the story of the Spanish nation. Technically, as an historian, Prescott has been justly criticized for a tendency to color his pictures too highly and to allow his admiration for his heroes to get the better of his judgment; nor is he altogether successful in dealing with political complications. His most serious defect is one for which he cannot fairly be held responsible. American archćology has been revolutionized since his day by the labors of Morgan, Bandelier, and others, and the more or less romantic and distorted pictures of Mexican and Peruvian development given by the Spanish chroniclers on whom Prescott relied have been corrected. Thus his work needs to be read in the light of modern research and to be corrected at various points, but with the proper allowance and viewed as literature its high rank seems assured. His style is dignified, refined, and always eminently readable, and his histories have truly become household classics.
The New International Encyclopaedia, Vol. XIX (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920) 184-185.