America's Great Blind Historian

By Boyd, Andrew | Contemporary Review, May 1996 | Go to article overview

America's Great Blind Historian


Boyd, Andrew, Contemporary Review


W. H. Prescott's eyesight was so diminished that he was almost completely blind most of his life. As he himself often said the state of his eyes was so bad that he 'was obliged to use a writing case for the blind and that', he added, 'did not permit the writer to see his manuscript'. He apologised therefore for any mistakes he might have made and which might have been overlooked.

Yet it was in a state of virtual blindness that Prescott wrote The History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella; The History of the Conquest of Mexico; The History of the Conquest of Peru, and miscellaneous literary essays and criticisms, and almost completed The History of Philip the Second, King of Spain. Prescott's literary essays are today either forgotten or remembered only as the literary curiosities of a great historian. His histories of Spain and of Spain's conquests in America are still read, all over the world.

William Prescott was born, the son of a wealthy and successful lawyer at Salem, New England, on 4 May 1796. His mother, according to his friend and biographer, George Ticknor, was 'a woman of great energy who seemed born to do good'. As an infant Prescott attended the school run by Miss Higginson, 'a true gentlewoman', and from there he went to a private academy owned and directed by Jacob Newman Knapp, known as Master Knapp. Master Knapp remembered Prescott as a 'bright boy with an inquisitive mind, quick perceptions, and ready retentive memory'. When the family moved to Boston in 1808 Prescott, then a boy of twelve, was put under the tuition of Dr. Gardiner an English clergyman. In 1811 he entered Harvard. It was there, during his first term as law student, that he lost the sight of his left eye.

Some sort of a rumpus or riot had erupted in the students' common-room and as Prescott was hurrying to get away from the turmoil a crust of hard bread, thrown at random, struck him in the eye. That crust must have been thrown with considerable force. Prescott collapsed and had to be carried out suffering from what looked like concussion. He was confined to bed for several weeks afterwards. The family doctor thought the injury to the eye had caused 'an obscure, deep and seemingly permanent paralysis of the retina'. The sight of that eye had been almost totally destroyed, only the faintest glimmer of sight remained.

Prescott, nonetheless, returned to Harvard and completed his studies. But he had been installed not more than a few months in his father's office as a student barrister when he was brought down with a severe infection and fever that was to cost him the sight of his other eye. That eye, according to the doctor's report, was 'much swollen, the cornea had become opaque and the power of vision was completely lost'.

At the early age of nineteen Prescott was therefore blind, or almost totally so. He could see nothing but the faintest outline of objects and then only in subdued light. Bright lights and sunshine and bright colours were a torture to him. The doctors advised that he remain in rooms from which daylight had been excluded and in which there would be only the dimmest of artificial light. Prescott was to spend much of his adult life in such rooms. It was there in the perpetual gloom that he was to see in his mind the vivid scenes of the Spanish conquests of Mexico and of Peru and to picture the splendour of the Aztecs and the Incas.

Soon after the illness in which he lost the sight of his right eye Prescott's parents thought he might benefit by spending the winter on the island of St. Miguel, in the Azores, where his grandfather, Thomas Hickling, was American consul, and where other members of his family were living. Prescott's five months' stay on St. Miguel was more an imprisonment than a convalescence. He lived most of the time in a darkened room. On 15 March 1816 he emerged, as he put it himself in a letter home, from his dungeon, and prepared to leave for London where, it was hoped, he would have the care and advice of Sir William Adams and Sir Astley Cooper, the most eminent eye specialists of that time.

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