The sensation of the summer season—at least among historians—has undoubtedly been the appearance of Simon Schama’s Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations).1 Readers had come to expect from this Mellon Professor in the Social Sciences at Harvard the writing of rather conventional, even massively detailed and documented histories like his Two Rothschilds and the Land of Israel (1977) and The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (1987). But in this current study Schama has given us a radically different kind of book—and has set the discipline of history abuzzing.
Dead Certainties brings together several historical episodes, having an ambiguous logical connection, in order to illustrate some generalizations about historiography as such. There are several accounts of the death in battle of General James Wolfe, who led the victorious British forces against Quebec in 1759 and so forced the French out of North America. (The story of his death —as well as that of his antagonist Montcalm, who also died in the battle—is responsibly told in Francis Parkman’s superb history Montcalm and Wolfe .) Schama goes on to provide an account of Benjamin West’s painting The Death of General Wolfe (1770), which idealized the heroic British commander, took London by storm, and assured West’s artistic fame. We are also presented a wholly invented diary entry of a British common soldier, who is imagined to have been present at the battle where Wolfe fell. And finally, among other things, Schama gives us a narrative of the murder in 1849 of George Parkman, the historian’s uncle, by a disgruntled Harvard professor who owed him money.
Each of these separate subjects might have been the centerpiece of its own historical study. But Schama has violently yoked them together—as he explains in his afterword— so as to dislocate “the conventions by which histories establish coherence and persuasiveness.” Coherence and persuasion are out. This is his way of urging upon us “the teasing gap separating a lived event and its subsequent narration.” In his insistence on this gap between the event and the narrated representation of it, Schama has apparently gone to school to the skeptics now permeating the profession of history, of whom Hayden White is exemplary. In Tropics of Discourse (1978), White tells the profession that
the historian serves no one well by constructing a specious continuity between the present world and that which preceded it. On the contrary, we require a history that will educate us to discontinuity more than ever before; for discontinuity, disruption, and chaos is our lot.
It is certainly our lot if we choose to make it so, but many will feel that “discontinuity, disruption, and chaos” are the usual Nietzschean buzzwords expressing the trendy nihilism of the moment. No one wants from the historian a “specious continuity.” Isn’t that why we invariably test narrative sequences according to historical evidence and what we know of the logic of cause and effect?
But a more decisive question is this: are all efforts at representing the continuity between the past and present specious? White appears to think so. Hence, he deplores the reluctance of historians
to consider historical narratives as what they most manifestly are: verbal factions, the contents of which are as much invented as found and the forms of which have more in common with their counterparts in literature than they have with those in the sciences.
White need worry no more about the historians’ reluctance, since he appears to have found in Schama a disciple willing to profess historical narration as always a constructive invention. (In fact, in Dead Certainties, it is a collage of merely juxtaposed elements.) For Schama, “even in the most austere scholarly report from the archives, the inventive faculty—selecting, pruning, editing, commenting, interpreting, delivering judgments—is in full play.”
Are these indeed modes of invention? Anyone less given to the view that history writing is an inventive freeplay might describe these very activities as signs of the rational intelligence at work in sifting evidence in search of the essence of meaning about men and events in their interaction. At least this is the view held by Francis Parkman (1823-1893), in opposition to whom, in Dead Certainties, Schama unwisely aligns himself.
To give Schama due credit, historians are “painfully aware of their inability ever to reconstruct a dead world in its completeness, however thorough or revealing their documentation.” But the lack of completeness —and even the absence of sameness between the historical event and its narrated form —hardly warrants the historian’s abandoning an empirical method, however imperfect of execution, for the imaginative liberties claimed by the novelist. Completeness is in any case impossible—since documents, objects, and other testimony of the past are lost or destroyed over time. More useful is a historiographical method based on what is available, a method sufficiently comprehensive to allow the historian to capture the substance—the pith, heart, and marrow—of the historical subject, a subject like Wolfe’s defeat of Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 and the consequent fall of the Empire of New France.
Like every great historian, Francis Parkman thought that a serious historical method required him to read every scrap of paper pertinent to his subject, even if it took him off to public and private collections in Montreal, Washington, Paris, or elsewhere. He had exact copies made of everything germane to his subject—the command rosters, lists of orders, diaries, ordnance requisitions, army field correspondence, battle memoirs, governors’ reports, missionary accounts, and the like. These he collated with all other documents about the same subject so as to determine whether witnesses were indeed at the scene and were reliable observers. Surviving physical objects, maps, and locations of historical importance were studied intently. It was Parkman’s custom to visit the site where an event of historical importance had occurred, like the Plains of Abraham, to walk over the terrain, to visualize the layout of the contending armies, so as to re-create the event as it must have occurred. He was striving, he said in The Jesuits in North America, “to secure the greatest possible accuracy of statement, and to reproduce an image of the past with photographic clearness and truth.” After minute inspection of all the documents pertinent to the history of La Salle, Parkman went to the Midwest, and, so precise was his geographical understanding, that, in tracing La Salle’s movements, he actually found the archeological remains of an important Indian village lost in oblivion, its exact whereabouts disputed for more than two hundred years.
Parkman’s historical method was purchased at considerable pain to himself. Afflicted by poor eyesight, migraine headaches, an inability to concentrate, and persistent insomnia, Parkman often found it impossible to work. Whenever “The Enemy,” as he called his ailment, overcame him, he had his assistants read to him and take his dictation. He even constructed a wooden frame the size of a sheet of paper, with wires to guide his fingers along the line. And, as he said in a letter of 1864, “The paper for writing was placed between the pasteboard and the wires, guided by which, and using a blacklead crayon, he could write not unlegibly with closed eyes.” In the introduction to Pioneers of France in the New World, he observes:
During the past eighteen years, the state of [the author’s] health has exacted throughout an extreme caution in regard to mental application, reducing it at best within narrow and precarious limits, and often precluding it. Indeed, for two periods, each of several years, any attempt at bookish occupation would have been merely suicidal. A condition of sight arising from kindred sources has also retarded the work, since it has never permitted reading or writing continuously for much more than five minutes, and often has not permitted them at all.
Physicians had no idea how to cure him and one even predicted an early death. Yet Parkman’s determination to finish France and England in North America drove him, over a period of several decades, to the completion of it.
Schama is of the opinion that Parkman heroized Wolfe, as he prepared the narrative of the Battle of Quebec, because he could identify with a general who suffered debilitating physical ailments during his campaign against the crafty Montcalm:
Past and present dissolved at this moment. [Parkman] became Wolfe and Wolfe lived again through him; the man’s perseverance and fortitude; the punishments of his body; the irritability of his mind; the crazy, agitated propulsion of his energies all flowed between subject and historian; overtook and consumed him, robbed him of sleep and colonized his days so that the writing of it all, the remembering, the recitation drove him on, relentlessly, became akin to and part of the hard, forced climb [of the British soldiers] upwards to the heights; the drum-measured advance across the field [of the Plains of Abraham], unstoppable till the very finish.
But in fact a perusal of Parkman’s multivolume history will disclose that Wolfe was only one of his favorites. He was drawn to any historical figure whose vision, energy, and will sufficiently distinguished him from the bit players of history. The redoubtable Champlain was “the Aeneas of a destined people”; the wily old courtier Count Frontenac, who took up the hatchet and danced the war dance before his Indians, was “the most remarkable man who ever represented the crown of France in the New World”; Father Brébeuf was the type of a pure saint and martyr; and La Salle
was the hero, not of a principle nor of a faith, but simply of a fixed idea and a determined purpose. As often happens with concentred and energetic natures, his purpose was to him a passion and an inspiration; and he clung to it with a certain fanaticism of devotion. It was the offspring of an ambition vast and comprehensive, yet acting in the interest both of France and of civilization.
Parkman tried to be a man like La Salle, who was “a tower of adamant, against whose impregnable front hardship and danger, the rage of man and of the elements, the southern sun, the northern blast, fatigue, famine, and disease, delay, disappointment, and deferred hope emptied their quivers in vain.” And, to a substantial degree, Parkman became that kind of passionate, dedicated, ambitious man. Even so, psychobiography has its limits. Although he was a romantic historian who appears to hold the Emersonian view that history is the “lengthened shadow” of the Great Man, Parkman actually seized upon these figures for their symbolic value. As he remarks in the preface to Montcalm and Wolfe, “the names on the titlepage stand as representative of the two nations whose final contest for the control of North America is the subject of the book.”
Parkman’s extensive research, voluminous reading, and personal travel, despite his ill health, were, he said in Pioneers,
essential to a plan whose aim it was, while scrupulously and rigorously adhering to the truth of facts, to animate them with the life of the past, and, so far as might be, clothe the skeleton with flesh. If, at times it may seem that range has been allowed to fancy, it is so in appearance only; since the minutest details of narrative or description rest on authentic documents or on personal observation.
But fidelity to the past involved far more, for Parkman, than patient and scrupulous research into the facts. He thought that the historian had to “imbue himself with the life and spirit of the time. He must study events in their bearings near and remote; in the character, habits, and manners of those who took part in them. He must himself be, as it were, a sharer or a spectator of the action he describes.” It is for this reason that he enters so fully into the story of his heroes and appears, in fact, to identify with them.
Further, if new information developed after he had completed a book, Parkman revised it immediately so as to bring his account into conformity with all the known facts. For years he tried to get access to the La Salle documents controlled by the French colonial archivist Pierre Margry, who refused to let them be seen until he could publish them. Parkman finished La Salle anyway, confident that his narrative was right in the main. But since no one in Paris would publish these sequestered documents, Parkman persuaded the Congress to fund the publication of Margry’s collection. Parkman’s only compensation was that he was then able to correct and enlarge La Salle. Finally, footnotes—which, as Gertrude Himmelfarb remarks, seem to have gone out of favor with many contemporary historians —were amply provided by Parkman; and, in case anybody wished to double check his conclusions against the evidence, he always left all copies of his research materials, clearly indexed, for later historical investigators.
What, then, is Schama’s method in this book without footnotes? Without forewarning us, Schama gives us in Dead Certainties concocted scenes, interior monologues, and fabricated diary entries. Thus, his narration of Wolfe and Montcalm at war blurs the boundary between history and fiction. The effect is of a book not differing in kind from, say, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. Schama’s approach thus very nearly aligns him with the intelligentsia who nowadays tell us that there is no such thing as an essence of an event, that there are really no genres like “history” or “fiction,” and that there is no line between expository and narrative prose: there is only discourse, verbal production, écriture. It seems probable that our grandchildren will one day regard as juvenile this postmodern penchant for intellectual indiscrimination.
Schama insists in Dead Certainties that he does not really scorn “the boundary between fact and fiction”; but an interviewer for The Guardian reports him to be pleased with his current role in the profession—“the bad boy of the class enjoying the trouble he didn’t quite mean to cause.” But for all of this asserted respect for the differences between the two genres, I am inclined to say that Schama meant to stir up the ruckus: his treatment of this boundary is not merely playful but perverse. Thus, after giving us what has pretended to be solid history, Schama himself admits that Dead Certainties is less a work of historical scholarship than a collection of “historical novellas.” One appreciates the candor, but—coming as it does in an afterword—it can only irritate the reader that a deception has been practiced upon him and then—surprise!—the deceit has been revealed. The confession of his “committing a fiction” does not redeem the book: it fails as history. Further, as fiction, it is likewise a flop: Schama is no novelist.
For Schama, disrupting the conventions aiming at coherence and persuasion justifies itself because, he believes, “historical knowledge must always be fatally circumscribed by the character and prejudices of its narrator.” We all concede that a historian’s character and prejudices may, at times, distort his understanding. But are we not capable, as readers, of detecting most distortions that arise from prejudice, even as, in real life, we can detect biases in the attitude of friends and acquaintances? When we do recognize a bias, we engage in the rational act that weighs it and that discounts the distortion in its apparent degree; that is, we try to see through and beyond it to the form of truth that is warped by the writer’s bias. Of course, it may be harder to see through a lie, unless it is voluntarily confessed.
But one notes Schama’s term “fatally circumscribed.” That implies the epistemological skepticism about the truth, or truthtelling in narrative form, that has now permeated the profession of history. That a distinguished historian, at the top of his profession at Harvard, should dismiss as fatally false every historical account because of the personal perspective of the author is a scandal that the wise will ponder in dismay. It suggests that no historian can be self-conscious enough or objective enough to rise above his own horizon in contemplating the horizon of the past; and it implies that no reader is competent to judge whether or not the historian has sufficiently done so.
If the writing of history is not a branch of fiction, merely, let us say, one of the arts, narrative does offer a mode of myth-making and is thus adjunctive to the feigning of fiction. But storytelling is also a significant mode of thought—a linear, temporal mode central to the mind’s grasp of truth in the unfolding of events through time. Perhaps it is more central than logic, inference, deduction, and analogical reason. Surely it is much more common, and it is essential to the mental operations by which the truth about that which happened in the past is communicated to our contemporaries and, down the line, to future generations. Of course, any utterance about the past (or the present, for that matter) may express the truth, tell a lie, or misrepresent the truth through epistemological error. But telling the truth, as Heidegger reminds us in Being and Time, is not a matter of mere assertion about what happened but of uncovering and disclosing the past in its essential character. Whatever is asserted to be true, and is true, discloses the primordial character of Truth itself. The very existence of what we may—without irony —call Truth is “the ontological condition for the possibility that assertions can be either true or false—that they may uncover or cover things up.” Without confidence that a thing or a man or an event has an essence, without credence in an objective, anterior, primordial Truth and in the capacity of logos or discourse sufficiently to disclose it, everything quite naturally dissolves into epistemological skepticism, radical subjectivity, and methodological anarchy—which pretty much describes the sad state of the profession of history at the moment. For our trendy intellectuals, essentialism, like coherence and persuasion, is out.
It is a great pleasure, then, to turn away from contemporary skeptical play, as represented by Schama’s unwarranted speculations, to the work of Francis Parkman. This superb writer, the greatest historian America has ever produced, is now represented in three splendid volumes in the Library of America series. The first two of these volumes, ably edited by David Levin, present Parkman’s lifetime project—a series of seven full-length, independently written yet interconnected and sequential historical studies gathered under the title of France and England in North America.2
Levin’s edition comprises Pioneers of France in the New World (1865), The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century (1867), The Old Régime in Canada (1874), Count Frontenac and New France Under Louis (1877), La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West (1879), Montcalm and Wolfe (1884), and A Half-Century of Conßict (1892). The third and newly published volume, edited by William R. Taylor, brings together The Oregon Trail (1849) and The Conspiracy of Pontiac (1851).3
These last two titles, incidentally, although technically not a part of the magnum opus, are yet so germane to the issues raised in the larger work that they have a most pertinent bearing on Parkman’s magisterial accomplishment. And that accomplishment was to give us an American epic—the most detailed, comprehensive, and definitive account of the transformation of the North American continent from forest savagery to civilization and of the transition from an Anglo-French to a Canadian and an American culture.
The subject of France and England in North America is the epic of these two countries in the American wilderness from 1488 onward. Pioneers recounts the initial explorations and settlements in Florida in the sixteenth century (all destroyed) as well as the rise of Samuel de Champlain as the founder of modern Canada. The Jesuits narrates the history of the Indian missions, which came to ruin in the Iroquois slaughter of the Christianized tribes. The Old Régime has a medley of themes: French conflicts with the Spanish, Dutch, and English (who were simultaneously founding New World settlements); the gradual rise of the military outposts and settlements in Canada and Acadia; the stumbling development of a French colonial policy; and French failures with the Indian tribes. As these books somewhat overlap in chronology, Count Frontenac deals with the royal governor who supported La Salle’s explorations and the rising conflict between the civil and ecclesiastical authority in France and Canada. La Salle relates the tale of the great explorations of the Mississippi Valley region, culminating in La Salle’s objective of founding a colony on the Gulf of Mexico, the public and private jealousies he provoked, and his assassination in 1687 by his own mutinous crew. A Half-Century of Conflict, written out of sequence, covers the seventeenth-century French and Indian border wars against English settlers, and their mobilization, supported by the mother country, for self-defense. The final death-struggle between England and France for the control of North America is narrated in Montcalm and Wolfe, Parkman’s masterpiece. It recounts General Wolfe’s impossible assault on Quebec, in which the British troops, in a lunatic feat, scaled the perpendicular cliffs at the base of the city, surprised the French on the Plains of Abraham—a meadow or plateau at the top—and routed them, killing Montcalm. This victory in 1759 led to the expulsion of the French from North America and the loss of the Empire of New France. The Conspiracy of Pontiac, in Taylor’s volume, may be said to conclude Parkman’s vast historical overview by recounting the aftermath: the Indian uprising, under Pontiac, against the British in the 1760s and the defeat that doomed the Indians to near extinction.
Although Pioneers traces the early Southern explorations, when the whole continent was an unknown world, Parkman’s real story begins with Verrazzano’s northern voyages, in the 1520s, in search of an alter- native route to Cathay. His expeditions opened the northern wilderness to exploration, and Jacques Cartier followed in 1535, coasting the Bay of Saint Lawrence, the site of what is now Quebec City, and “a place he called Mont Royal, now Montreal.” Isolated settlements were founded in Cartier’s time, but, a half-century later, when the French returned, they had all disappeared—along with all the tribes of the area.
For Parkman, it is with Samuel de Champlain (1567-1635) that we see “the true beginning” of Canada’s extraordinary history. “The Father of New France,” Champlain traversed the virgin wilderness of eastern Canada, discovered some of the great lakes, and mapped the territory afterward made accessible to settlement. The easy availability of beaver skins, codfish, train-oil, and marine ivory thus awoke in the French “the spirit of commercial enterprise.” Between about 1604 and 1635, the French set up principal outposts at Montreal, Three Rivers, and Quebec and opened avenues of trade with the Indians. Along with them, on an errand of Indian salvation, came, of course, the Jesuits.
What was Parkman’s view of these Europeans in Canada? As we approach 1992, the quincentenary of the discovery of America, revisionist historians are now trashing Columbus as another Hitler who invaded, brutalized, enslaved, and exterminated the red man. A Minneapolis group calling itself the Alliance for Cultural Democracy has denounced Columbus as the father of colonial imperialism and advised us to skip the celebration. Academic anthropologists are maligning whites for having decimated the Indian tribes, and environmentalists are vilifying the “ecocide” said to be inseparable from advancing westward civilization. The National Council of Churches—preserving its record for getting nearly everything wrong—has even characterized the arrival of the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria as “an invasion and colonization with legalized occupation, genocide, economic exploitation and a deep level of institutional racism and moral decadence.” The implication is that the white men who followed in Columbus’s wake inaugurated in North America a reign of racist violence over peaceful Indian tribes and all but wiped them out of existence.
As one descended, in part, on my mother’s side, from the Cherokee Nation in the Carolinas, I find fascinating this new attention to the Indian tribes. Certainly, in our family, in my childhood, our parents instilled in us great pride in our Cherokee ancestors, whose lives seemed much more adventurous, tragic, and romantic to us, as children, than that of our other forebears—the English, Scots-Irish, and German ancestors who filled out our “typically American” inheritance. (My father, in a tobacco trope, used to speak of all true Americans as a “Duke’s Mixture” of blended ethnic and national origins.) Off and on I count myself a full Cherokee, although I do not have the copper complexion, black hair, and high cheekbones of my uncles, and even today I have the illusion that I am a crack shot and have an unerring instinct in the woods.
However that may be, I must remark that I find the current eruption of white guilt over the fate of the primitive Native American tribes to be as spurious as it is ignorant of the historical reality of aboriginal existence. What, in fact, did Champlain and his followers discover about the character of Indian life in 1600?
I shall pass over the ethnographic charm of life in the long house, where up to ten families might live in filth, smoke, and vermin-infested proximity. Nor is there any point in discussing the malnutrition arising from a diet of whatever animals could be killed and of maize (if the tribes bothered to plant and remained to harvest). Periodic starvation was a given and dislocation in search of game a constant. Parkman’s account of various Indians and French explorers reduced to a diet of “moss, the bark of trees, or moccasins and old moose-skins cut into strips and boiled” accents the suffering of the native way of life. However, I was particularly taken with what the French called “tripe de roche, a species of lichen, which, being boiled, resolved itself into a black glue, nauseous, but not void of nourishment.” Life for Indian women was particularly brutal. While the braves lusted for war, conquest, and scalps, their squaws had to gather the firewood, sow, till, harvest, cook, smoke fish, dress skins, and make their rude garments. In the words of Champlain, “their women were their mules.” No wonder this life broke them down. Parkman concludes of this female brutalization: “In every Huron town were shrivelled hags, hideous and despised, who, in vindictiveness, ferocity, and cruelty, far exceeded the men.”
Champlain found—and generations of subsequent observers confirm—that Indian life was one of constant savage tribal warfare. (Columbus found the same thing among the Caribs, Arawaks, and other tribes of the Southern Sea.) Any Indian with sufficient personal credit, Parkman reminds us, could dance a wardance, sing a warsong, bury his hatchet in the warpost, and inflame his tribesmen to follow him on the warpath against some nearby (or even distant) tribe. A war party, seized with homicidal fury against another tribe, might paddle fifty or five hundred miles to butcher a rival.
In 1600, to the east, in what is now New York and southern Canada, the Five Nations of the Iroquois (the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas—and later the Tuscaroras) were brutally ravaging the Algonquin tribes along the Great Lakes. War parties of one tribe or another were continually assaulting enemy villages, braining the inhabitants in their sleep, butchering those who could not escape, and taking many prisoners. Even an enemy tribe’s burial grounds were not sacrosanct. After a raid, victorious Indians often dug up the enemy dead, took scalps as trophies, stole the clothes, burned the bodies, and danced in celebration.
The modern anthropological view—that theirs was “a warrior culture,” with which they were of course in “natural harmony” —will not do. Women and children, and the old and the infirm, were choice victims —especially when the braves of an enemy village were away in the maize fields or, of- ten enough, on raiding parties of their own. In his Relation for 1642, Father Vimont reports on the fate of several captured Algonquins:
Among these were three women … who had each a child of a few weeks or months old. At the first halt, their [Iroquois] captors took the infants from them, tied them to wooden spits, placed them to die slowly before a fire, and feasted on them before the eyes of the agonized mothers, whose shrieks, supplications, and frantic efforts to break the cords that bound them were met with mockery and laughter.
What seems inescapably evident, from an overwhelming mountain of testimony, is this: that only butchery and torture could slake the bloodlust that afflicted every Indian tribe, in one degree or another, from the Canadian wilderness to Florida, and from the Eastern seaboard to the Pacific forests.
Indian torture was especially diabolical. If prisoners were taken, they were tied up and marched around, from village to village, and mounted on scaffolds as a public spectacle. Hair and beards were torn out, fingernails were gnawed, or fingers burned off. A favorite device was the sharpened splinter rammed up the penis. A fiendish effort was made to preserve the life and prolong the conscious agony of the victim. Any sign of pain produced paroxysms of public glee and was ridiculed as cowardice. “In the torture of prisoners,” Parkman remarks, “great deference was paid to the judgment of the women, who, says Champlain, were thought more skilful and subtle than the men.” Even the Indian children, spurred by the savagery of their parents, “amused themselves by placing live coals and red-hot ashes on the naked bodies of the prisoners, who, bound fast, and covered with wounds and bruises which made every movement a torture, were sometimes unable to shake them off.” Then prisoners were often burned alive. Equally as often the victim was slit open and his blood drunk by the savages. Thereupon the body was cut into quarters like butcher’s meat, cooked in kettles, and eaten with voracious satisfaction. As Parkman dryly remarks in A Half-Century, “the benevolent and philanthropic view of the American savage is for those who are beyond his reach. It has never yet been held by any whose wives and children have lived in danger of his scalping-knife.”
Parkman rightly gives full play to the frenzy of these Indian atrocities, which were stupefying to the French, but they are frankly so commonplace in the history of these tribes that some of the accounts he passes over as too repetitive or “too revolting to be dwelt upon.” Parkman remarks that there is reason to believe that the “process of extermination, absorption, or expatriation” had “for many generations formed the gloomy and meaningless history of the greater part of this continent.” Of this record of Indian-versus-Indian carnage, which “had existed time out of mind,” he concludes in A Half-Century:
There is a disposition to assume that [such] events … were a consequence of the contact of white men with red; but the primitive Indian was quite able to enact such tragedies without the help of Europeans. Before French or English influence had been felt in the interior of the continent, a great part of North America was the frequent witness of scenes still more lurid in coloring, and on a larger scale of horror. In the first half of the seventeenth century, the whole country, from Lake Superior to the Tennessee, and from the Alleghenies to the Mississippi, was ravaged by wars of extermination, in which tribes, large and powerful, by Indian standards, perished, dwindled into feeble remnants, or were absorbed by other tribes and vanished from sight. French pioneers were sometimes involved in the carnage, but neither they nor other Europeans were answerable for it.
Parkman’s analysis of the tribes’ relations with each other, over two centuries, ought to dispel forever the current myth of the natives’ congenial existence wiped out by the warmongering of genocidal whites. At most one can say that, later on, in giving the Indians guns, Europeans merely accelerated the pace of the slaughter and became even more complicit in it.
It is no wonder, therefore, that the Ottawas, the Mohicans, Wampanoags, Hurons, and other Algonquins—in awe of French cannon and musketry—petitioned Champlain to defend them from the savage fury of the Mohawks, the Senecas, and others of the Five Nations. Out of these early Indian appeals to Champlain for protection developed the French policy in dealing with the Indians:
It was the aim of Champlain, as of his successors, to persuade the threatened and endangered hordes to live at peace with each other, and to form against the common foe [the Iroquois and the English] a virtual league, of which the French colony would be the heart and the head, and which would continually widen with the widening area of discovery. With French soldiers to fight their battles, French priests to baptize them, and French traders to supply their increasing wants, their dependence would be complete. They would become assured tributaries to the growth of New France.
This policy, of course, brought down on Champlain the wrath of the Iroquois, who slaughtered or enslaved many of his soldiers and periodically destroyed the French settlements. (It is likely that the slaughter would have occurred whatever policy had been in effect.) In any case, the trading company in Paris, which had a royal monopoly on Canadian imports, virtually went bankrupt, and for a good many decades after the first French settlements “the wilderness of woods and savages had been ruinous to nearly all connected with it.”
The failure of the earliest outposts to gain a solid foothold in Canada between 1600 and 1650 had much to do with France’s failure to grasp the character of the native inhabitants. The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century, which tells the story of the missionaries who accompanied Champlain into the wilderness, throws a clearer light on how the early French and Indians dealt with each other. This book is substantially based on the massive collection of documents called the Jesuit Relations, a series of annual missionary reports, composed over nearly two centuries, sent back to the Provincial of the Order in Paris. Parkman, although rationalist and anticlerical, rightly trusts the essential accuracy of these reports, but he cannot conceal—and indeed makes no effort to conceal—his hostility to the Catholic Church and to the Society of Jesus.
For Parkman, the Jesuit was a “moral Proteus” in the service of a monolithic church bent on attaining, at any price, temporal power. Subservient to Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, the priests were contemptuous of the body and so ready to die “in unquestioning subjection to the authority of the Superiors, in whom they recognized the agents of Divine authority itself.” Their training, for Parkman, thus did “horrible violence to the noblest qualities of manhood”; it joined them “to that equivocal system of morality which eminent casuists of the Order have inculcated” and thus produced “deplorable effects upon the characters of those under its influence.” Nothing was more sinister to Parkman’s protestant imagination than the Jesuits’ being
everywhere,—in the school-room, in the library, in the cabinets of princes and ministers, in the huts of savages, in the tropics, in the frozen North, in India, in China, in Japan, in Africa, in America; now as a Christian priest, now as a soldier, a mathematician, an astrologer, a Brahmin, a mandarin, under countless disguises, by a thousand arts, luring, persuading, or compelling souls into the fold of Rome.
Though not a Catholic myself, I have no trouble in identifying Parkman’s bias and so weighing and discounting it, in the appropriate degree, as I proceed through the narration of these historical events. This is made all the easier to do because Parkman recognizes the bias in himself, warns us of it (he will occasionally announce, “This is the view of a heretic”), and tries to right the balance. In discussing François Xavier de Laval-Montmorency, the first bishop of Quebec, for example, Parkman realized that he would offend many pious Canadian Catholics for whom Laval was “an object of veneration.” But he nevertheless announces his intention to “regard him from the standpoint of secular history” and so recounts his political machinations as if he were any Machiavellian lay politician. Elsewhere he remarks that “those who wish to see the subject” of The Old Régime in Canada “from a point of view opposite to mine cannot do better than consult the work of the Jesuit Charlevoix, with the excellent annotation of Mr. Shea.” Despite Schama, then, not every historian’s work is fatally compromised by a personal perspective.
The salvation of pagan souls, for Parkman, was the Jesuits’ sole original motive. To this end, ad majorem Dei gloriam, they sought out the Indians, settled in their encampments, learned their languages, adopted many of their customs, “studied the nature of the savage, and conformed themselves to it with admirable tact.” Instead of treating the Indian as “an alien and barbarian,” Parkman observes, “they would fain have adopted him as a countryman.” These Jesuits taught the gospel, baptized converts, and inculcated a morality that condemned polygamy, frivolous divorce, licentiousness, murder, cannibalism, feasts, dances, and violent games. “Gentleness, kindness, and patience,” Parkman notes, “were the rule of their intercourse.” The Indians were skeptical, credulous, and capriciously compliant: the black-robed strangers had a “powerful medicine.” But, just as often, they suspected the Jesuits of causing all the ills that befell them. In the smallpox epidemic of 1636, the priests, desperate to save souls, forced their way into Indian huts to baptize the dying children. The savages of course thought the young died because of the baptism and so murdered many of the priests.
Often enough they were murdered simply because they were Frenchmen. As Parkman observes, “not the most hideous nightmare of a fevered brain could transcend in horror the real and waking perils with which [the Indians] beset the path of these intrepid priests.” In 1649, the Iroquois wiped out a whole band of Christian Hurons at Saint Ignace. Father Jean de Brébeuf, “the founder of the Huron mission, its truest hero, and its greatest martyr,” was put to the stake. They hung around Brébeuf’s neck “a collar made of hatchets heated red-hot.” They poured boiling water on his head in a mock baptism. They “cut strips of flesh from his limbs, and devoured them before his eyes.”
After a succession of other revolting tortures, they scalped him; when, seeing him nearly dead, they laid open his breast, and came in a crowd to drink the blood of so valiant an enemy, thinking to imbibe with it some portion of his courage. A chief then tore out his heart, and devoured it.
Work in the Jesuit missions in the seventeenth century was thus a “living martyrdom,” but these earnest Jesuits “burned to do, to suffer, and to die.” Even so, their efforts were doomed. The incessant Iroquois slaughter of the lake tribes, and the latter’s flight to the west—together with contagious disease and a French policy unequal to dealing with Indian violence—wiped out many of the Algonquins, and, by the end of the seventeenth century, most of the missions had failed.
Despite his anticlericalism, Parkman had the decency to concede that it was the Church’s
nobler and purer part that gave life to the early missions of New France. That gloomy wilderness, those hordes of savages, had nothing to tempt the ambitious, the proud, the grasping, or the indolent. Obscure toil, solitude, privation, hardship, and death were to be the missionary’s portion.
Parkman found, in the lives of Fathers Lejuene, Garnier, Jogues, and many others, “a solid nucleus of saint and hero,” even though their virtues shone “amidst the rubbish of error, like diamonds and gold in the gravel of the torrent.” He concludes that “the missionaries built laboriously, and well,” but they were doomed: “the cause of the failure of the Jesuits is obvious. The guns and tomahawks of the Iroquois were the ruin oftheir hopes.”
Parkman’s friend the Abbé Henri-Raymond Casgrain, working in the same field of history at Laval University, carried on a lengthy correspondence with Parkman about this overt prejudice. Speaking of the Jesuit missionaries, Casgrain wondered—as Mason Wade reports in his excellent biography Francis Parkman (1972)—how Parkman could draw the line between their heroism and their faith:
Like me [Casgrain writes], you cannot withhold your admiration of these men who sacrificed themselves with so much constancy and heroism for the love of mankind… . What colossuses, you say, and justly. But are you indeed sure that they would have been such great men without their blind obedience, without their enthusiastic faith?
Parkman could only insist that he was a rationalist, not a supernaturalist.
Some pious Canadians attacked Parkman in bitter terms, especially when Laval University proposed to grant him an honorary degree. But many others judged him responsible and thorough in his assemblage of the facts about the Jesuit missions. As Casgrain put it, “your book is the work of a thinker and of a great painter; and Canada owes you an eternal debt for having made its history so much admired.”
To understand Parkman’s view of the Indian, whose soul was the principal concern of these missionaries and whose decline forms the romance of poetry, myth, and legend, there is perhaps no better starting place than the long expository chapter that introduces The Conspiracy of Pontiac— “Indian Tribes East of the Mississippi.” This ethnographic essay is much too long to summarize, but it knowledgeably recounts the tribal divisions, totem clans, modes of government, myths, arts, agriculture, and the customs and character of the Indian. It also strives for the kind of balance evident in his treatment of the Jesuits. But it must also be said at the outset that Parkman is a liberal anthropologist’s worst nightmare. That is, he believed that the Indians were indeed savages, that their “culture” was hardly worth the name, and that the advance of civilization at their expense was not only inevitable but a manifestation of their own social and psychological deficiencies.
Although Parkman’s grasp of Canadian affairs was based on voluminous reading, he was not without a first-hand understanding of Indian character and life. In fact, the 1846 journey recorded in his first book, The Oregon Trail, was specifically undertaken “with a view of studying the manners and character of Indians in their primitive state.”
Having from childhood felt a curiosity on this subject, and having failed completely to gratify it by reading, I resolved to have recourse to observation. I wished to satisfy myself with regard to the position of the Indians among the races of men; the vices and virtues that have sprung from their innate character and from their modes of life, their government, their superstitions, and their domestic situation. To accomplish my purpose it was necessary to live in the midst of them, and become, as it were, one of them. I proposed to join a village, and make myself an inmate of one of their lodges.
In the 1840s, in the Far West, the Sioux, Pawnees, Snakes, Arapahoes, Oglalas, and other tribes he visited had had virtually no contact with whites, and so “their religion, their superstitions, and their prejudices were the same that had been handed down to them from immemorial time. They fought with the same weapons that their fathers fought with, and wore the same rude garments of skins.”
In launching out from Saint Louis into the unknown world of these aborigines, in order to observe and record what could be known of “their vanishing existence,” this Boston Brahmin experienced a distinct “culture shock.” Despite a disabling illness that often made it impossible for him to walk or ride, he nevertheless explored the Fort Laramie and Platte River areas, the Black Hills, and the interior regions of the Arkansas River country. For several months he lived with Sioux. While the short time he spent among them and his lack of the requisite native languages limited his grasp of what he saw, his report has an authenticity lacking in Cooper’s account of the Pawnees in The Prairie. The adventure of the uncharted prairies and mountains, the buffalo hunts, the motley crew of hunters, trappers, migrants, half-breeds, soldiers, Mexicans, and Mormons is wonderfully detailed. His encounters with the Indians brought him close to death several times, and he came to value his weapons of self-defense—a good horse, a rifle, and a knife.
This Harvard man could not help comparing the Indians’ condition with the life he had known in Boston. In remarking on the differences, the young Parkman observes:
For the most part, a civilized white man can discover but very few points of sympathy between his own nature and that of an Indian. With every disposition to do justice to their good qualities, he must be conscious that an impassable gulf lies between him and his red brethren of the prairie. Nay, so alien to himself do they appear, that having breathed for a few months or a few weeks the air of this region, he begins to look upon them as a troublesome and dangerous species of wild beast, and if expedient, he could shoot them with as little compunction as they themselves would experience after performing the same office upon him.
If this seems callous, it may be simply common sense. Or we may take it as a reflection of the pull toward savagery, the regression to barbarism in whites, oft noted in the literature of the wilderness. La Salle had encountered it with his mutinous men, who stole his supplies, wrecked the ship he was building, and escaped into the forest, leaving a message scrawled on the bows of the hulk: “Nous sommes tous sauvages.” Even so, young Parkman made friends with many of the Sioux braves, admired their courage and physical skills, undertook to learn the Dahcotah language, observed them on the warpath, shared in some of their tribal diversions, and found “at least some points of sympathy” between their savage and his own civilized condition.
Nevertheless, the whole experience of living for a time beyond the pale of civilization, beyond the reach of law, in a state of pure anarchic violence, taught him that the “softhearted philanthropy” of the Rousseauist was a dangerous illusion. Given the readiness of Indians to go on the warpath, against one another or against whites, he formed, in advance of Darwin, what one might call his philosophy of history: “from minnows up to men, life is an incessant battle.” This philosophy, amply illustrated in the voluminous colonial records he assembled, informs his story of the Indian tribes in the contest between France and England for the control of North America. As he remarks in Pioneers, “The story of New France is from the first a story of war”—war between France and Spain, France and England, France and the Indians, the Indians and the English, and the Indians against one another. At any time in the first two centuries of European immigration, the Indians—if they had united, if they had not been continually at war among themselves—could have combined to drive out the whites. Yet, “in this crisis of their destiny, these doomed tribes were tearing each others throats in a wolfish fury, joined to an intelligence that served little purpose but mutual destruction.” Their incessant intertribal hostilities, poor planning for winter subsistence, unsanitary living conditions, and susceptibility to disease made them, for Parkman, unequal to the changing circumstances produced by European immigration. “The Indians melted away,” Parkman concluded in The Jesuits,
not because civilization destroyed them, but because their own ferocity and intractable indolence made it impossible that they should exist in its presence. Either the plastic energies of a higher race or the servile pliancy of a lower one would, each in its way, have preserved them; as it was, their extinction was a foregone conclusion.
We hear much nowadays, in this age of multicultural education, about the contribution of Native Americans to the general culture. And there is much that is positive to appreciate. But it is an extraordinary fatuity to claim that the pact uniting the Five Nations was in any sense a model for the political theory of the Founding Fathers or that it was instrumental in the development of the American Constitution. Parkman is right in saying that the Iroquois “organization and their intelligence were merely the instruments of a blind frenzy, which impelled them to destroy those whom they might have made their allies in a common cause.” In fact, the Iroquois had no ordinances or laws governing tribal relations, merely totem affiliations that bound them in warfare against others. Based on what he knew of the Indians of the West and what he discovered in the archives of Canada, Parkman concludes: “That the Iroquois, left under their institutions to work out their destiny undisturbed, would ever have developed a civilization of their own, I do not believe.” We may or may not agree with his conclusion, but the evidence about their violent way of life must be disturbing. In any case, it is impossible to disagree with his view that “the representations [of the Indian] given by poets and novelists” are “mere creations of fancy.” The Indians’ “good qualities,” for Parkman, “were not those of an Uncas.”
As for the French, their royalist authoritarianism and religious absolutism unfitted them to succeed in the New World, especially as the English colonies were extending past the Alleghenies the idea of decentralized liberty and religious pluralism. France’s “records shine with glorious deeds, the self-devotion of heroes and of martyrs,” but for Parkman “the result of all is disorder, imbecility, ruin.” At the time he wrote his history, he felt confident that the Canadian union represented the triumph of Anglo-American republican principles and that “the French dominion is a memory of the past.” But many of French descent in Quebec now wish to secede from Canada, and Indian tribes are newly asserting, in court, “aboriginal rights” to immense tracts of land already settled with Canadian towns, villages, and farms. One Mohawk tribe, denouncing both white governments for having “betrayed and killed our people for centuries,” has defended its aboriginal right to run a gambling casino in Saint Regis, on the Canada-New York border, by engaging in shoot-outs with the police. (In an apparent gesture of solidarity, Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya has given the Mohawks a quarter of a million dollars to carry on the struggle.) It is not a matter of “spurious continuity,” I believe, to observe that these recent events follow from the reverberating decisions of Louis XIV and XV, Champlain, Frontenac, La Salle, and Montcalm so many years ago.
If Parkman composed his history so as to condemn “Feudalism, Monarchy, and Rome,” and if he organized his narrative as an illustration of the antagonism between “Liberty and Absolutism,” we have at least the verdict of history—what actually happened in New England and New France —against which to test his conclusions. He underestimated the enduring power of the Catholic faith in Canada but he was right about the end of feudalism and royalism. His other faults have to be weighed in the balance—his overemphasis on his thesis, the continual Jesuit-baiting, a rhetorical straining after the purple passage, the exaltation of the great man, “insensitivity” to ethnic attitudes, a suspicion of the democratic mob, and so on. But his scope is vast, his subject compelling, his research more than merely responsible, and his writing moves: he handles masses of material with vivid power and intensity, maintains suspense with dramatic skill, and is a superb story- teller. And what a story he had to tell!— nothing less than the epic struggle of France and England for the control of North America. But of course that story, comprehensive as it is in Parkman’s masterly version of it, was merely the prologue to another story of even greater import.
Before the middle of the seventeenth century, the English, as Parkman observes, actually “had an interest in keeping France alive on the American continent”: the French and Indian threat kept the American colonies loyal to the English Crown. But after the defeat of Montcalm, a Boston minister, John Mayhew, said that, given the French expulsion from North America, “with the continued blessing of Heaven [the American colonies] will become, in another century or two, a mighty empire.” Then Mayhew added a “cautious parenthesis”— “I do not mean an independent one.” As Parkman observes, Mayhew “had read Wolfe’s victory aright, and divined its far-reaching consequences.” It would take another twenty years for the restive American colonists to break away from the mother country, but there can be no doubt that, in destroying New France, England inadvertently made possible the new nation of America, founded by her own colonial subjects.
Compared to other nineteenth-century historians like Prescott, Sparks, Bancroft, and Motley, Parkman stands out as the best—as Henry Adams conceded. And certainly there has been no one yet in the twentieth century to rival him. As for the future, if current historians follow the postmodern approach of Simon Schama—inventing scenarios for the sake of imagining “alternative narrations”—Parkman will be our most distinguished historian for some time to come.
1Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations), by Simon Schama; Knopf, 333 pages, $21.
2Francis Parkman: France and England in North America, edited by David Levin, was published by the Library of America in 1983 (Volume 1, 1,504 pages; Volume 11, 1,620 pages;$32.50 each).
3Francis Parkman: The Oregon Trail, The Conspiracy of Pontiac, edited by William R. Taylor; the Library of America, 951 pages, $35.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 10 Number 1, on page 39
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