May 4, 2010

Birth of William Hickling Prescott

Born in Salem, Massachusetts on May 4, 1796, William Hickling Prescott was the grandson of a Revolutionary War colonel. While attending Harvard, legend has it, a crust of bread stuck in his eye resulted in permanent damage which would lead to near-blindness over time. Expected to follow in his father's footsteps as a lawyer, Prescott turned to literature after a tour of Europe.

His eye injury, it seems, had a major impact on the aspiring writer. An early biographer noted "it determined the whole course of his life." As the biographer noted, "he turned from a dim world without to a radiant world within, took himself in hand, and forged laboriously in the dark the tempered weapon of his mind and heart."

Prescott had a fairly prolific, though short, career as a writer of history. His first was The History of Ferdinand and Isabella (1837), followed by his influential The History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843) and several other books. For his style of describing history, some regarded Prescott as the first "scientific historian" in the United States. So impressive was his reputation as a historian that Washington Irving gave up a project on writing a history of Mexico when he heard Prescott was working on something similar. As Irving wrote, the historian's other writings "gave me at once an assurance that you were the man to undertake the subject." Irving's own historical work included a biography of his namesake George Washington.

Prescott inspired many biographies (I found eight on Google books) and his home on Beacon Hill in Boston is now open to the public — fairly impressive for a historian.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting that Irving abandoned his Mexico project because of Prescott's. My husband has a handsome, gorgeously-illustrated edition of Irving's "Discovery and Conquest of the New World," published in 1892--the 400th anniversary. It also contains an account of the "Conquest of Mexico and Peru" by "the eminent English historian" W.W. Robertson, "of the University of Edinburg." Prescott had also written a history of the conquest of Peru. Thanks for the tip about WHP's house in Boston; I didn't know about that one.