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Paul Horgan: The Historian as Artist and Philosopher

November 08, 1987|Henry Steele Commager

Paul Horgan's long and varied career marks him as a man of the Enlightenment in the Jeffersonian tradition. He is distinguished alike as scholar, teacher, and critic, historian, novelist, man of "letters," and artist. And yet it is not diversity but unity which characterizes him, for all of his careers and activities are illuminated by a consistent philosophy.

It is probably as historian that Horgan is most eminent, and this though some of his novels may well survive even his historical volumes. If there is one explanation of his eminence as an historian more persuasive than any other, it is that, as with most historians who have an impact on their own day and on posterity as well, he brings to the study and interpretation of history the same luminous imagination, the same curiosity about human nature, the same sympathy and compassion that suffuse his novels. History is, after all, the faithful reconstruction of the past. That re-creation of the past can be fully achieved only when devotion to the scholarly principle of knowing "what actually happened" is animated by a creative imagination--something that the Annales school of French historians is now busy teaching the rest of us.

For it is imagination that most distinguishes the historians who survive in the affections and the allegiance of later generations--a Froissart, a Gibbon, a Michelet, a Macaulay, a Francis Parkman; it is imagination, rooted in the soil of research, that assures to a Winston Churchill and a Samuel Eliot Morison generations of grateful readers. All these historians of the past knew that if history is to live, it must go beyond science to poetry. It is with this goodly company that Paul Horgan is associated.

Horgan's re-creation of life along the Great River (Editor's Note: Horgan won the Pulitzer Prize in 1955 for the two-volume history "Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History") combines History as fact, History as narrative, and History as a disciplined and inspired imagination. It is his imagination which enables him, and persuades his readers, to enter into the lives, the minds, perhaps the very souls, of the Indians of the American Southwest who first took over this land and adapted themselves to it; of the Spanish conquistadores who conquered it, and their incongruous associates the padres, who bore not the sword but the cross. And because he is a scholar of broad sympathies, and in a sense a participant in the drama which he recounts, he understands with equal insight, almost with clairvoyance, the American invaders, the successive waves of "Anglos"--those seeking land, those seeking copper and gold, those seeking health, or those seeking only an escape from the East--and describes how they invaded and conquered and ruled and ravaged the ancient land. In a long succession of novels and histories, he has conjured up for us with sympathy and deep insight the story of successive and conflicting rather than harmonious civilizations.

In his talent for portraying contrasting cultures, in the breadth of his literary embrace, and in the delicacy of his moral perceptions, Horgan is a kind of modern-day William Dean Howells. Both Howells and Horgan spent much of their boyhood and youth in what were, at the time, geographical and cultural frontiers--Howells in the Ohio of the 1840s which he has re-created in "A Boy's Town" and "The Leatherwood God"; Horgan in the New Mexico of the early years of this century, a frontier whose artistic aridity he has recalled in the touching "Preface to an Unwritten Book" and, more painfully, in a long series of novels including the almost Faulknerian "Far From Cibola." Both men headed East--interestingly enough, to Connecticut; both managed to play an important role in the literary and cultural life of both New England and New York--and, finally, of the nation; both were prodigiously productive--and in the most varied fields of letters; both ventured into biography, Howells in his affectionate portrait of Mark Twain and his perspicacious criticism of Henry James, Horgan with interpretations of frontier heroes like Bishop Lamy and Josiah Gregg. As critics both were rooted in the Victorian tradition and comfortable with it, but both proved able to surmount it and to welcome challenges to that tradition--Howells in his appreciation of Zola and Turgenev, Horgan in biographies of Peter Hurd and Stravinsky. Both embraced, in the end, the whole American scene, the American character, and with almost theological sanctions, American morality.

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