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Prescott's Conquest of Peru.
subjected have not, we are persuaded, conduced to their permanent welfare ; but must eventually lead to an increased estimation of those gifts and qualities, those faithful and enduring labors, which can be fully exhibited only in the course of a lengthened ministry, and by those who, like our departed friend, devote the freshness of their youth, the strength of their manhood, and the ripened experience of advancing years, to the service of one people.
Art. VIII. - PRESCOTT’S CONQUEST OF PERU.*
Ar the conclusion of the Preface to this work the author makes the following statement, which will be read with the liveliest emotions of interest by all who have been instructed and gratified by his writings, and be regarded as presenting one of the most remarkable and wonderful instances in the history of literature or the experience of life, of the triumphs of talent and resolution over apparently insurmountable obstacles.
“Before closing these remarks, I may be permitted to add a few of a personal nature. In several foreign notices of my writ. ings, the author has been said to be blind; and more than once I have had the credit of having lost my sight in the composition of my first history. When I have met with such erroneous ac. counts, I have hastened to correct them. But the present occasion affords me the best means of doing so ; and I am the more desirous of this, as I fear some of my own remarks, in the Pref. aces to my former histories, have led to the mistake.
“While at the University, I received an injury in one of my eyes, which deprived me of the sight of it. The other, soon after, was attacked by inflammation so severely, that, for some time, I lost the sight of that also; and though it was subsequently restored, the organ was so much disordered as to remain permanently debilitated, while twice in my life, since, I have been deprived of the use of it for all purposes of reading and writing, for
* History of the Conquest of Peru, with a Preliminary View of the Civilization of the Incas. By William H. Prescott, Corresponding Member of the French Institute; of the Royal Academy of History at Madrid, etc. New York: Harper & Brothers. '1847. 2 vols. 8vo. pp. 527, 547.
several years together. It was during one of these periods that I received from Madrid the materials for the History of Ferdinand and Isabella,' and in my disabled condition, with my Transatlantic treasures lying around me, I was like one pining from hunger in the midst of abundance. In this state, I resolved to make the ear, if possible, do the work of the
I procured the services of a secretary, who read to me the various authori. ties; and in time I became so far familiar with the sounds of the different foreign languages (to some of which, indeed, I had been previously accustomed by a residence abroad), that I could comprehend his reading without much difficulty. As the reader proceeded, I dictated copious notes; and, when these had swelled to a considerable amount, they were read to me repeatedly, till I had mastered their contents sufficiently for the purposes of composition. The same notes furnished an easy means of reference to sustain the text.
“Still another difficulty occurred, in the mechanical labor of writing, which I found a severe trial to the eye. This was remedied by means of a writing-case, such as is used by the blind, which enabled me to commit my thoughts to paper without the aid of sight, serving me equally well in the dark as in the light. The characters thus formed made a near approach to hieroglyphics ; but my secretary became expert in the art of deciphering, and a fair copy — with a liberal allowance for unavoidable blunders - was transcribed for the use of the printer. I have described the process with more minuteness, as some curiosity has been repeatedly expressed in reference to my modus operandi under my privations, and the knowledge of it may be of some assistance to others in similar circumstances.
“ Though I was encouraged by the sensible progress of my work, it was necessarily slow. But in time the tendency to inflammation diminished, and the strength of the eye was confirmed more and more. It was at length so far restored, that I could read for several hours of the day, though my labors in this way necessarily terminated with the daylight. Nor could I ever dispense with the services of a secretary, or with the writing.case; for, contrary to the usual experience, I have found writing a severer trial to the eye than reading, - a remark, however, which does not apply to the reading of manuscript; and to enable myself, therefore, to revise my composition more carefully, I caused a copy of the History of Ferdinand and Isabella' to be printed for my own inspection, before it was sent to the press for publication. Such as I have described was the improved state of my health during the preparation of the Conquest of Mexico'; and, satisfied with being raised so nearly to a level with the rest of my species, I scarcely envied the superior good 1847.]
Mr. Prescott's Example.
fortune of those who could prolong their studies into the evening, and the later hours of the night.
“But a change has again taken place during the last two years. The sight of my eye has become gradually dimmed, while the sensibility of the nerve has been so far increased, that for several weeks of the last year I have not opened a volume, and through the whole time I have not had the use of it, on an average, for more than an hour a day. Nor can I cheer myself with the delusive expectation, that, impaired as the organ has become, from having been tasked, probably, beyond its strength, it can ever renew its youth, or be of much service to me hereafter in my literary researches.”—pp. xv. - xix.
No comment is needed to render affecting and instructive the example here presented. Happy would it be for themselves and for the world, if all young men of intellect and education, of leisure and fortune, would seek for the highest satisfactions of which their natures are capable in that path where Mr. Prescott, struggling against so many difficulties and deprivations, has found them! The selection of some suitable field of investigation, the devotion of the faculties 10 some intellectual pursuit, and the literary composition and exhibition of the matured results of research and the successive developments of an opening and expanding subject, is in truth one of the choicest luxuries and noblest entertainments within the reach of humanity. While thus engaged, every clog and every care fall from the spirit, 66 time and the hours ” glide smoothly and joyously by, the soul feels its higher nature, breathes the pure air of truth, and experiences a divine energy as it disperses darkness and scatters light along its way.
The prosperity flowing over our country, and leading, in frequent instances, to the accumulation of great fortunes in the hands of individuals, is multiplying the number of those who come into life without feeling the spur of necessity to force them to industrious occupations, and whose days are passed in ease and independence. Pleasure, fashion, and sensual luxury seduce a large proportion of this class of persons into their deceptive and destructive snares. Much of the best and brightest intellect of the world is thus thrown away. May we not indulge the hope, that the brilliant success, which has crowned with the purest happiness and the brightest fame the devotion by Mr. Prescott of his leisure and fortune to intellectual pursuits and literary engagements,
will attract others, possessed of his privileges and without his disadvantages, like him to seek and to find their happiness in the walks of literature, taste, and knowledge ?
Mr. Prescott's world-wide reputation as an author suggests many gratifying and important reflections. It has a national bearing and value. By far the larger part of the literary productions and intellectual energies of our day are developed in forms which are lost to the view of a general observer. The vastly increased number of those who participate in the honors of authorship, and contribute their productions to the public through the press, renders it difficult for particular writers to acquire conspicuous distinction. When a multitude is before us, we cannot easily take note of individuals. He, whose form and mien would have commanded our admiration when passing before us over a solitary stage, fails to arrest our observation when mixed with thousands ; the tree whose stately dimensions and spreading branches would fill the vision, if towering with an unbroken outline above the surface of an open plain, is reduced to a common level, and entirely lost to sight, in the depths of a wide forest. As civilization advances, the intellectual resources of nations are drawn into immediate action and expression. In our own country especially is this the
The rapid movement of society, the constant excitement of outward life, the pressure of the times upon each individual, and the ever-changing, ever-recurring occasions that demand the interposition of personal agency to influence the condition of opinion and the current of affairs, tend to call out the talent and wisdom of men in immediate and continuous expression. Minds of lively apprehension and real power find it difficult to resist the inducements attracting them into the daily bustle and struggle of life, to turn away from the earnest and stirring multitude, to withdraw or withhold themselves from the engrossing excitements of the passing world, and, in solitary and self-imposed confinement, to persevere in long-protracted mental labors, or the patient preparation of profound and comprehensive works. The political and literary periodical press, - the demand for brief and special performances, in the shape of addresses and discourses at the innumerable meetings of institutions and associations, academical, historical, philanthropic, and miscellaneous,
debates in the State and national assemblies, — and all the efforts of intellect required in conducting the multiplex
and mighty machinery of popular government, and internal improvements of every kind, — these, in their aggregate action, we may well suppose, drain off and expend, from hour to huur, the intellectual resources of a people.
Taking this view of modern society, particularly in our own country, we had for some time been reconciling ourselves to the conclusion, that but few, if any, works of signal and classical preëminence were to be expected among us, and that foreign prejudice and ill-will would have to be indulged in uttering the sneering interrogations, - Wbo reads an American book? Where are your epic poets, your philosophers, your historians ? And we were getting to be quite satisfied with the answer we had prepared to the uncourteous reproach. In an improved social and political state, we were ready to say, a greater proportion of the intellect of a country will naturally be expended in action than in study, in the external relations and scenes of life than in the seclusion of libraries. The inspiring attractions of a scene of humanity, evoking, sustaining, and rewarding by visible results, the immediate efforts of talent and genius, is most favorable to the development of the mental energies of all the members of the community. If the intellectual resources of a country are thus drawn out and directed in bearing forward the whole moving fabric of society, it must be allowed that a great point is gained. We need not repine, complain, or be mortified, if the ability and brilliancy, which, if applied to the solitary labors of composition, would have been adequate to the production of the highest specimens of literature, have full scope, and exercise worthy of their strength and brightness, in the immediate and ever-arising occasions of a vigorous, enlightened, and elevated condition of life and society. In these favored times, all governments aspiring to be included within the sphere of civilization make it the cardinal point of their administration to develop, to as high a degree as possible, the physical, intellectual, and moral resources of their people. This is especially the case with us ; and in the grateful satisfaction with which we witness the success of this policy in applications of science to the increase of social privileges and personal happiness, - in the vigorous advancement of professional and popular education, — in the arena of political action, - in the incessant and all-reaching machinery of the press, eliciting thought and truth from every nook and corner, and diffusing light to the utmost borders of the land, and
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