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Worlds in Collision

HISTORY OF THE CONQUEST OF MEXICO.\o7 By William H. Prescott (Modern Library: 994 pp., $27.95)\f7

November 01, 1998|NEIL BALDWIN | Neil Baldwin is the author of "Legends of the Plumed Serpent: Biography of a Mexican God." He is executive director of the National Book Foundation

One spring afternoon in 1813, a 16-year-old Harvard junior named William Hickling Prescott left the college dining hall after lunch and began to stroll across the Yard when he was hit in the left eye "by a hard crust of bread" hurled during a food fight. He was permanently blinded in that eye. Two years later, William suffered a severe inflammation of his right eye brought on by an attack of rheumatism, a condition that would follow him for the rest of his life.

We might consider such quirky circumstances to be unfortunate were it not that in this astonishing case, the career of one of the most prolific and ambitious American historians was launched by an unexpected disability. Raised into a wealthy Brahmin family--his father, William Prescott Sr., was a sagacious attorney and investor, and his mother, Catherine, was the daughter of a Boston merchant and diplomat--young William did not have to be concerned about his lack of gainful employment.

He resolved to enter the field of intellectual labor. "By the time I am 30 (God willing)," Prescott wrote in his commonplace book, "I propose . . . to be a very well read English scholar, to be acquainted with the classical and useful authors (prose and poetry) in Latin, French, and Italian--especially History." In quick succession, he helped found a literary magazine, schooled himself in the aesthetics of epic poetry and mastered the Romance languages, with a special concentration in Spanish.

Prescott settled in with his wife, Susan, and (eventually) four children at his father's house on Bedford Street, where--warned by family doctors against travel and undue exertion--the wide-ranging historian who virtually never left Boston brought the world to his doorstep.

Prescott established a network of friends, scholars, antiquarian booksellers, Harvard graduates, members of the diplomatic corps, and collaborators in America and abroad to help him build an unparalleled personal archive, out of which he constructed four major works over two decades: histories of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, the conquest of Peru, Philip the Second and the magisterial "Conquest of Mexico."

From the newly opened manuscript holdings of the Royal Academy of History in Spain; from the letters of Frances Calderon de la Barca, wife of the Spanish ambassador to Mexico; from the personal libraries of colleagues Washington Irving, George Bancroft, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and George Ticknor; from the great "scientific traveller" Baron Alexander Von Humboldt in Germany; from the deepest recesses of the British Museum--from all these sources and many more, by the time he began work on his "History of the Conquest of Mexico" in October 1839, William Prescott owned a library of 4,000 to 5,000 volumes and a manuscript collection comprising copies of 8,000 previously unpublished pages.

Coupled with this pack-rat mania was a complex system for composing his original histories. Despite his severe handicap, Prescott invented a hands-on writing process. He awakened early for a daily horseback ride. Following family breakfast, he went into his study for three hours with his well-spoken (and well-paid) "reader," who sat behind and to the left of him by the carefully modulated light from the window. When the reader came across a passage in a primary text or manuscript that Prescott's attuned ear deemed noteworthy, he would say, "Mark that!" while at the same time writing on a noctograph. This was a frame holding carbon paper mounted beneath evenly spaced parallel wires, which allowed the nearly blind Prescott to move an inkless stylus from left to right along pre-set lines.

At the end of morning and afternoon sessions (and an additional period after dinner when Mrs. Prescott read to her husband), the "marked" passages from the day's historical readings, interspersed with noctograph impressions, were transcribed in very large script for Prescott's review and edit.

Prescott would then have these annotated versions read aloud to him again, "over & over--till ready to throw it on paper--an effort rather of memory than creation," until he was ready to return once more to his noctograph and set down the chapter entirely from recollection, speedily, often singing to himself.

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