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A Note on Francis Parkman

The problem of 'history' is a peculiar one for the American, involving as it does, "where do we come from," or better, how shall we come from where we came. It is just that apparently nonsensical statement of the dilemma which may relieve it. And there are other clues, if you will, like: skyscrapers could not have been built if it weren't for the Indians, since they are the only men in America having the nerve-set for balance at such heights. Too, what would the United States be like, if it had a king? To relieve the President for actually administrative duties, as opposed to egg-rolling, etc.

It all relates, like it or not, to a backdoor which stays shut for us, faced as we are with no past which we will recognize but that of Europe. This we will not accept, and turn in upon ourselves, to be 'better'—which is a horror, in its effects, a kind of restless continual battle to override the English, or the French, or whoever it may be we choose for the moment as our predecessors.

Parkman, Edward Dahlberg has said, had the mind of a twelve-year-old child; and The Oregon Trail , for him, reads like any Rover Boys story. We are so grown-up, it seems, that stories have lost all point, and in our maturity, anecdote, that which stays in the mouth and heart—however 'romantically'—is a trivial way of passing time, of killing it. Dahlberg himself is by no means so quick about these things, and has used such material with sometimes admirable ingenuity. He is as concerned as anyone to find a place to live in. In any case, it comes to, where can we begin, and Parkman, I think, is our only 'historian' in the deep tradition of the spoken.

Black Mountain Review , Winter 1954.


But all that can stay beside the point for the moment. Francis Parkman's Works (in twelve volumes) are as follows: Pioneers of France in the New World, The Jesuits in North America, La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West, The Old Regime in Canada, Count Frontenac and New France under Louis XIV, A Half Century of Conflict, Montcalm and Wolfe, The Conspiracy of Pontiac and the Indian War after the Conquest of Canada , and The Oregon Trail . The first book in the series has this for a dedication:

To The Memory
Slain In Battle
This Volume Is Dedicated By Their Kinsman
The Author

You may take that as the tone , the ground-sense, of all Parkman's writings, not in point of the 'battle' so much as the 'kin.' Parkman was a New Englander, he wrote roughly between the dates 1847–1892, and in his Preface to A Half Century of Conflict he says:

This book . . . fills the gap between Part V., "Count Frontenac," and Part VII., "Montcalm and Wolfe": so that the series now forms a continuous history of the efforts of France to occupy and control this continent . . . The collection was begun forty-five years ago, and its formation has been exceedingly slow, having been retarded by difficulties which seemed insurmountable,[*] and for years were so in fact.

The last complete edition of the books was published in 1898–1899, by Macmillan & Company, and since that time The Oregon Trail has been the only one to remain in print.

Parkman's idea as to how to write 'history' is happily simple, and is most concerned, I think, with getting it straight. This comes itself, if you will, from a tradition wherein a man can simply look you


in the eye and say, I don't think so. People from Maine are apt to be good liars, but that is almost from an excess of virtue and a cold climate. But from the beginning Massachusetts and those outlying places of a like nature took such responsibilities as 'history' with a very great seriousness, and Parkman comes, very much, from there.

His materials were not to his liking in many instances. For example, only La Salle could have distrusted Jesuits more than he does. But he is honest with, at times, wit, and always with a determined patience. He is quick to judge how deeply the Jesuit character held to its own determination, and how much these men were not only prepared to suffer, but did. "France aimed to subdue, not by the sword, but by the cross; not to overwhelm and crush the nations she invaded, but to convert, civilize, and embrace them among her children."

. . . Who can define the Jesuits? The story of their missions is marvellous as a tale of chivalry, or legends of the lives of the saints. For many years, it was the history of New France and of the wild communities of her desert empire.

To the north, then, Jesuits, a rank breed of 'gentleman,' and a race of fur-traders, the coureurs de bois —of which last Parkman writes:

. . . At least, he is picturesque, and with his red-skin companion serves to animate forest scenery. Perhaps he could sometimes feel, without knowing that he felt them, the charms of the savage nature that had adopted him.

Then follows a description of these 'haunts'—"deep recesses where, veiled in foliage, some wild shy rivulet steals with timid music . . ." Typical of Parkman is the footnote he adds to this, in justifiable irritation:

An adverse French critic gives his opinion that the sketch of the primeval wilderness on the preceding page is drawn from fancy, and not from observation. It is, however, copied in every particular, without exception, from a virgin forest in a deep moist valley by the upper waters of the little river Pemigewasset in northern New Hampshire, where I spent a summer afternoon a few days before the passage was written.

It is, of course, impossible to outline all of the work in question, but think of it as, first, the place . Spanish to the South (Ponce de León, Pánphilo de Narváez, Hernando de Soto), to the North the French (Cartier, Pontgravé, Champlain)—and then, of course,


New England. There is nothing really more to it than that, except 'history,' what then followed. And like it or not, it was hardly a process of much clarity, certainly not to those whose fortunes (much more than their lives) were the issue. As far as I know, Parkman is the first American historian (and perhaps the last?) to pay such careful attention to the ground . For example:

It has been a matter of debate on which side of the Niagara the first vessel on the Upper Lakes was built [the Griffin , which La Salle and his followers built in the spring of 1679]. A close study of Hennepin and a careful examination of the localities, have convinced me that the spot was that indicated above [Cayuga Creek, which enters the Niagara "two leagues above the cataract"]. Hennepin repeatedly alludes to a large detached rock, rising out of the water at the foot of the rapids above Lewiston, on the west side of the river. This rock may be seen immediately under the western end of the Lewiston suspension-bridge, etc., etc.

However irrelevant this may seem, it is by a like care that all 'history' is written, and from a like 'place.' To analyze comes, finally, to a presumption that no man careful of his materials cares to show. It is simple to talk about something, as if it were a convenience for the mind—whereas the mind is 'history' long before it knows that this particular problem exists.

Be that as it may, Parkman is careful to leave 'history' in the two places where it can endure; and one is, I think, in its own 'present,' i.e., where the rock has since washed away, where the foundations of the fort still show, and the other, in the letters, sayings, stories, and so on, that maintain 'history' much more actually than the supposed 'records' and commentaries.

Though his most complete success is La Salle—by which I mean, the fact of this man, given plainly, and with care—for myself, it is also in the countless anecdotes and (finally) flavors of a place I of course am too 'old' to know as he must have, because The Oregon Trail was written from a journal no man can ever keep again. For me, he returns 'history' to the only place which it has, in an actual continuity—hardly ours because we are its issue, but because we can perhaps recognize that we are. (At this point, surely, all the worry about 'europeanism' and so forth must become beside the point.) He stays at that one sure root, anecdote. "So they say." Men, if you will, are raised from the dead by just this:

On board one of the transports was Seth Pomeroy, gunsmith at Northampton, and now major of Williard's Massachusetts regiment. He had


a turn for soldiering, and fought, ten years later, in the battle of Lake George. Again, twenty years later still, when Northampton was astir with rumors of war from Boston, he borrowed a neighbour's horse, rode a hundred miles, reached Cambridge on the morning of the battle of Bunker Hill, left his borrowed horse out of the way of harm, walked over Charlestown Neck, then swept by the fire of the ships-of-war, and reached the scene of action as the British were forming for the attack. When Israel Putnam, his comrade in the last war, saw from the rebel breastwork the old man striding, gun in hand, up the hill, he shouted, "By God, Pomeroy, you here! A cannon-shot would waken you out of you grave!"

Parkman continues:

But Pomeroy, with other landsmen, crowded in the small and malodorous fishing-vessels that were made to serve as transports, was now in the gripe of the most unheroic of maladies. "A terrible northeast storm" had fallen upon them, and, he says, "we lay rolling in the seas, with our sails furled, among prodigious waves." "Sick, day and night," writes the miserable gunsmith, "so bad that I have not words to set it forth."

It is never a question of 'making it real,' but rather of allowing it, whatever it is, to stay real. Perhaps this is simply a matter of wit, of necessity—but this character, of telling 'history,' has the proper quality of effacing even the man who records it, until it becomes all 'story,' and so, all true. It's hard to take any of it out of its place—because there are no morals to be conveyed, unless the whole substance which contains them is also to be recognized. When Parkman separates, becomes the nineteenth-century Democrat, then he is also 'history'—also a good story. But, at his best, he leaves it as it was, and so is:

Among the numerous war-parties which were now ravaging 'he borders, none was more destructive than a band, about sixty in number, which ascended the Kanawha, and pursued its desolating course among the settlements about the sources of that river. They passed valley after valley, sometimes attacking the inhabitants by surprise, and sometimes murdering them under the mask of friendship, until they came to the little settlement of Greenbriar, where nearly a hundred of the people were assembled at the fortified house of Archibald Glendenning. Seeing two or three of the Indians approach, whom they recognized as former acquaintances, they suffered them to enter without distrust; but the new-comers were soon joined by others, until the entire party were gathered in and around the buildings. Some suspicion was now awakened; and, in order to propitiate the dan-


gerous guests, they were presented with the carcass of an elk lately brought in by the hunters. They immediately cut it up, and began to feast upon it. The backwoodsmen, with their families, were assembled in one large room; and finding themselves mingled among the Indians, and embarrassed by the presence of the women and children, they remained indecisive and irresolute. Meanwhile, an old woman who sat in a corner of the room, and who had lately received some slight accidental injury, asked one of the warriors if he could cure the wound. He replied that he thought he could, and, to make good his words, killed her with his tomahawk. This was the signal for a scene of general butchery. A few persons made their escape; the rest were killed or captured.

Parkman believed himself to be engaged in something, perhaps, more notable; in one of his prefaces (Pioneers of France in the New World ), he says, "The springs of American civilization, unlike those of the older world, lie revealed in the clear light of History." That was a very hopeful surmise. But Archibald Glendenning's wife escaped—having first been captured "with her infant child" and forced to march, "guarded before and behind by the Indians."

As they defiled along a narrow path which led through a gap in the mountains, she handed the child to the woman behind her, and, leaving it to its fate, slipped into the bushes and escaped. Being well acquainted with the woods, she succeeded, before nightfall, in reaching the spot where the ruins of her dwelling had not ceased to burn. Here she sought out the body of her husband and covered it with fencerails, to protect it from the wolves. When her task was complete, and when night closed around her, the bold spirit which had hitherto borne her up suddenly gave way. The recollection of the horrors she had witnessed, the presence of the dead, the darkness, the solitude, and the gloom of the surrounding forest, wrought upon her till her terror rose to an ecstasy; and she remained until daybreak, crouched among the bushes, haunted by the threatening apparition of an armed man, who, to her heated imagination, seemed constantly approaching to murder her.


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