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To those who knew him in varying degrees of intimacy, whether as friends, neighbors, or chance acquaintance, Prescott seemed the incarnation of urbanity, thoughtfulness, good humor. To us who know him only through the story of his life he seems notable for his heroic qualities.
He had enormous courage and force of will. That other men have performed great tasks under like difficulties cannot lessen the glory of his individual achievement. Handicapped by partial blindness, he wrote history, a type of literature which makes the most exacting demands on the physical powers.
Had Prescott's genius inclined him towards poetry or fiction, the heroic element in his literary life would have been less noteworthy. In general a novelist is not expected to read ; what is chiefly
; required of him in the way of preparation is, that
, he shall observe, feel, and occasionally think but not read; much reading makes a dull storyteller. The novelist gleans material as he walks the street. For his purpose an hour of talk with 'a set of wretched un-idea'd girls,' as Doctor Johnson half affectionately, half pettishly, called them, is worth ten hours over a book. History is an
other matter. The historian must often read a thousand pages in order to write one. And the work of preparation is indescribably exhausting; there is so much detail to set in order, so many documents to be consulted, such a wilderness of notes to be arranged, compared, and fitted into place. The task, difficult under the best conditions, must seem endless to any one with an imperfect sense.
A man with good eye-sight is like a man with the free use of his legs, he goes where he pleases. But a scholar with defective vision is an invalid in a wheeled chair. Prescott, being denied one of the greatest conveniences of study, was forced to try expedients. With most writers pen and ink are an indispensable aid to composition. Prescott used memory instead. Not only was the knowledge accumulated, arranged, and weighed, but it was put into literary form, the paragraphs measured and the sentences polished before the actual writing was begun. Prescott often carried in his head, for days at a time, the equivalent of sixty pages of printed text, and on occasion, seventy-five pages. Only by reflecting on the difficulties met and overcome can the amateur of literature arrive at a conception of Prescott's indomitable courage.
Add to force and persistency of purpose another notable trait, a passion for nobility of character. Prescott, unwearied in self-examination, studied his own moral nature as he studied the
his manuscript, that he might weed out the faults. The methods he employed to this end were often whimsical, and even childlike; but in their touching simplicity lies the best proof of the genuineness of the motive that prompted them.
Prescott gave unusual measure of time and thought to the problem of expression. With a view to grounding himself in the technical part of literature, he invoked the aid of those now forgotten worthies, Lindley Murray and Hugh Blair - how greatly to his advantage would be difficult to say. Books of this sort are so often disfigured by a vicious or, what is worse, a commonplace style that it is a question whether one does not lose by example all that he gains by precept.
Escaping these influences, Prescott took up the chief English authors, beginning with Ascham, Sidney, Bacon, Browne, Raleigh, and Milton. His mind was constantly on the alert to discover by what means these masters produced their effects. His journals show how painstaking he was in these studies, with what intense interest he turned the problem of the art of expression over and over in his mind.
When he came to print, it was observed first of all that he had a 'style.' The self-conscious literary workman was plainly visible. Prescott had evidently aimed to produce certain effects through the balance of his periods, the choice of his words, the length and structure of his sentences. Every one said: 'He is an artist.' Praise could not have been more aptly bestowed. Among many
eminent artists in words Prescott was one of the most conscientious.
But the literary style of the Ferdinand and Isabella had the defect of being too apparent. One often found himself taking note of the manner of expression before he took note of the thought. The panoply of words glittered from afar. It was brilliant but metallic, magnificent but artificial.
The criticism of his first book taught Prescott the futility of worrying about style — after one has worried sufficiently. He was no less anxious to improve; he noted the mannerisms into which he had fallen, resolved to correct them, and that was the conclusion of the whole matter. He stopped dwelling overmuch on the fashion of his writing, and at once gained in ease and naturalness. After ten years of labor he had mastered the materials of his art. His workmanship improved to the last. The volumes of the History of Philip the Second have literary characteristics so gracious as to add sharpness to the regret that this noble work had to be left unfinished.
THE Ferdinand and Isabella is not a formidable book for size. A timid reader, shrinking from fifteen hundred
literature but fiction, need not fear mortgaging too much of his time in the perusal. Compared with a reading of Freeman's Norman Conquest or Carlyle's Frederick, his task is light.
In an introductory section Prescott traces the growth of Castile and Aragon, with their dependencies, up to the time when Ferdinand and Isabella come on the stage of history. Perhaps there is a lack of detail here and there. One would like to know the steps of the process by which the Spaniards regained the territory from which they had been driven by the Saracenic invasion of the Eighth Century. Bitter as were the jealousies and quarrels of the various petty states, they made common cause against the Mohammedans. They hated the hereditary enemy both as infidels and usurpers. Hatred fostered the national spirit.
The history proper is divided into two parts. The first has chiefly to do with the internal policy of Ferdinand and Isabella. It was the period when law displaced anarchy. The law might be severe or even unjust, but it was at all events law. Here